Looting/treasure hunting during Napoleon's Egypt expedition?

Dec 2014
1,082
Europe
Was wondering if someone could give me a bit of info on this. How much was looting/treasure-hunting regulated by Napoleon during his expedition to Egypt and Syria?

When reading on Wikipedia about the later French Morea expedition, it claims that Guillaume-Abel Blouet (an architect accompanying the army) "refused to perform excavations that risked damaging the monuments, and banned the mutilation of statues with the intent of taking a piece separated from the rest of the statue without regard."

This got me wondering did Napoleon's command put any similar limits on random vandalism/looting by his troops in Egypt and Syria? Are there any cases of military trials for soldiers accused of this? And were there any accusations of desertion for soldiers going off looking for valuables?
 
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Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,832
It was a rather militarily well organised scientific expedition. The 167 member strong team of the Comission des sciences et des arts were even assigned military officers grades, and while looting soldiers can't be ruled out, they at least had the authority to use the military structures to put a stop to such things.

I can't find it was any considerable problem. Finding ancient treasure in 1790's Egypt was not THAT simple. AND the local Egyptians had a couple of millennium of a head start in that department anyway. The scientific expedition doesn't seem to have done much about that endemic looting of ancient sites, which continued unchecked to the 1850's and the creation of the Egyptian Service d'antiquités under Auguste Mariette's direction (being 2m tall and a talented scrapper seems to have been part of the selection criteria).

It's also a matter of occupied Egypt being bleedin' dangerous to the French troops. Most of the un-/less-touched ancient sites where useful plunder might have been gotten was out in the country, and there Mameluk troops were still confronting the French, and locals were prone to attack lone soldiers or even small detachements. The French army burned a lot of Egyptian villages in the process of trying to pacify local resistance — think Vietnam war-style.

Vivant Denon (the pornographer-painter-egyptologist and oldest member of the expediton) once came back from an afternoon sketching an landscape in southern Egypt. When he came back an officer friend pointed out he had drawn the horison crooked. To which Denon replied, that yes, it was the damndest thing, just as he was in the process of sketching some armed local drew a bead on him from a distance. That's why the line got crooked. But, well, Denon dropped his drawing gear, picked up his own rifle, shot the feller dead, and finished his drawing.

In the end the French scientists seem to have had decent control on things. The huge collection of antiquities they assembled however was taken by the British. Oddly the natural history collection was not, but arrived complete in Paris. It seems it was largely the personal intervention of the zoologist Etienne Geoffroy-de Saint Hillaire. He personally confronted Nelson, and told him bluntly that the British wouldn't get a feather off it, since him and his assistants would rather chuck the lot in the Nile.

Clearly Geoffroy meant it too. He was only 26 or so at the time, but he had been appointed professor of zoology at 21, in recognition of the deed of breaking his professors out of revolutionary jail during the Terror, saving their lives (not for anything actually scientific he had done). It seems he was a pretty intimidating fellow. ;)
 

pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
9,684
i doubt the there was a common belief in the French soldiers that ancient artefacts were valuable. TheFrench were certainly used to looting, and would have plundered any ready precious metals lying around.

there was a fair bit on contempt for the scientific personnel by the a lot of the military.

As for Etienne Geoffroy-de Saint Hillaire confronting Nelson, i think the story is almost certainly wrong , Nelson wasn't there at the time, he didn't stay in Egypt after the battle of the nile.
 
Apr 2015
627
Paris
Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire dealt with General John Hely-Hutchinson, not Admiral Nelson. He was not also elevated to professorship for having saved his professors during the Terror. He did help the physicist Haüys, arrested in 1792, before the Terror, but he was more like a lobbyist than a commando : he managed to get all the important scientists of Paris petition the ministry for Haüys' release. This put him under favorable light in the French scientific community, but his professorship came from his links with the Jacobins : it was created in july 1793 as a new chair in the National Museum of Natural Sciences. Unlike some other scientists, such as Lacépède, Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire was not politically linked to the Ancien Régime.
 

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,832
Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire dealt with General John Hely-Hutchinson, not Admiral Nelson. He was not also elevated to professorship for having saved his professors during the Terror. He did help the physicist Haüys, arrested in 1792, before the Terror, but he was more like a lobbyist than a commando : he managed to get all the important scientists of Paris petition the ministry for Haüys' release. This put him under favorable light in the French scientific community, but his professorship came from his links with the Jacobins : it was created in july 1793 as a new chair in the National Museum of Natural Sciences. Unlike some other scientists, such as Lacépède, Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire was not politically linked to the Ancien Régime.
His promition prompted the 23 year old newly appointed professor of geology at the same institution, Alexander Brongniart, to write a letter to the newly appointed 27 year old professor George Cuvier, asking who the devil this Geoffroy fellow was, and what he had done scientifically?;)
 
Apr 2015
627
Paris
His promition prompted the 23 year old newly appointed professor of geology at the same institution, Alexander Brongniart, to write a letter to the newly appointed 27 year old professor George Cuvier, asking who the devil this Geoffroy fellow was, and what he had done scientifically?
Hum, neither Cuvier nor Brongniart were appointed professors in the Museum at the same time Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire was (1802 for Cuvier and 1822 for Brongniart). At the time of Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire's appointment, Cuvier was an unknown teacher in Normandy and Brongniart was engineer in the Pyrénées-Orientales Army. Nonetheless, Brongniart probably received news from his uncle Antoine-Louis Brongniart, newly appointed Professor of Chemistry at the Museum, but who already held teaching positions in Paris since the 1770'.
 
Dec 2014
1,082
Europe
Interesting answers. Thanks lads! Sounds like there were definitely some colourful characters floating around on those expeditions.