James Henry Breasted (1865–1935) -- By: Milton C. Fisher
BSP 4:4 (Autumn 1991) p. 98
James Henry Breasted (1865–1935)
What do you mean, “armchair archaeologist”?! A seasoned digger may want to reject the notion as self-contradictory. But if anyone has earned the right to be so named, James Henry Breasted, with his many books and honors in the field of ancient history, is he. The title “archaeologist” accompanies his name in the biography by (his son) Charles Breasted (1943), and in W.F. Albright’s “James Henry Breasted: In Memoriam” in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 61 (February 1936).
Though not himself an excavator, Breasted explored ancient ruins, especially in Egypt, and was responsible for a notable series of archaeological expeditions. For as founder of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago in 1919, with money from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., he was at least indirectly involved in 20-some digs in the Near East and issuance of more than 125 scholarly publications over the succeeding 40 years.
Familiarity with the name of this consummate historian may go back, as it does for me, to reference use of his high school/college textbook, Ancient Times, first published in 1916 and revised and enlarged just a year prior to his death. Earlier, in 1906, Breasted had published a five-volume work, Ancient Records of Egypt. Even that has been preceded by his definitive History of Egypt.
James Breasted was not without recognition from his peers. He was elected president of such learned societies as the American Oriental Society (1918), the History of Science Society (1926) and the American Historical Association (1928). Not only as a translator and historian in his own right, but as a major promoter of ancient oriental research by others, he did more than any scholar of his time to inform Americans and the English-speaking world in general of a valuable cultural heritage from those “ancient times” of which he wrote. It was he, for example, who coined and popularized the term “Fertile Crescent” for the arable belt which arches from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea — and even on down the Egyptian Nile valley.
Born of Anglo-Dutch stock in northern Illinois, Breasted, destined to become “America’s greatest Orientalist and the
BSP 4:4 (Autumn 1991) p. 99
greatest organizer of archaeological research whom the world has yet known” (says Albright, in the BASOR tribute mentioned above), studied for the ministry at Chicago Theological Seminary. A special interest in Hebrew and Semitics developed there, w...
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