Originally posted at ouhos.org, the now-discontinued blog of the OU History of Science Collections. Neither this post nor any of its content should be taken as an official communication of the University of Oklahoma.
This is a story at the intersection of intrigue, thievery, French nationalism, Egyptian archaeology, politics, science and religion:
“On October 1, 1820, an engineer named Jean Lelorrain left Marseilles for Alexandria on a ship under heavy sail, laden with saws, chisels, jacks, and a sledge with wooden rollers made especially for transporting a large object over rough terrain. Lelorrain had been commissioned to remove an immense circular zodiac from the ceiling of an ancient temple near the village of Dendera on the west bank of the Nile. The zodiac, one of only four still extant, had excited tremendous interest and controversy when it had been discovered during Napoleon’s Egypt expedition two decades before.”
So begins chapter 1 of the riveting account by Jed Z. Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz, The Zodiac of Paris: How an Improbable Controversy over an Ancient Egyptian Artifact Provoked a Modern Debate between Religion and Science (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).
In 1820, Sébastien-Louis Saulnier (1790-1835) commissioned the master mason Jean-Baptiste Lelorrain to travel to Alexandria, detach the large stone zodiac from its place within the ceiling of the Temple of Dendera, and smuggle the artifact back to France. Lelorrain set out to purloin the stone-carved, bas-relief ceiling of the Temple of Dendera, almost out from under the very noses of Egyptian officials and their favored English antiquities collectors. Against long odds, Lelorrain returned in triumph. Saulnier was an antiquities entrepreneur and past editor of Bibliothèque historique (14 vols) and the journal Minerve française. To promote the arrival of this astonishing artifact to Paris, Saulnier published a book hailing the ceiling as equal in importance to the Rosetta Stone (proudly possessed by the British Museum), and therefore as a fitting symbol of the glory of France. Until it was bested by Heinrich Schliemannʼs excavation and ransacking of Troy in the 1870s, the snatching of the ceiling, or Dendera Affair, was Europeʼs most glamorous and notorious archaeological event.
The Collections’ copy of Saulnier (1822), inscribed by the author, includes a large folding plate of the zodiac ceiling. This is the only North American copy we know of that is bound with an engraved plate of the artifact — which, as stated by a notice on the verso of the half-title page, could be separately purchased for 5 francs. The plate offers a detailed rendering of the zodiac, including the carved statues that encircled it, its band of hieroglyphics, and the dozens of astronomical and astrological symbols carved into its face. The plate was drawn by Vivant Denon, one of the artists on Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition.
A cartouche at the base of the illustration names the first observer of the zodiac as General Louis Desaix (1768-1800), the Napoleonic general who first expressed an interest in removing the ceiling to France. Perhaps resentful of the British capture of the Rosetta Stone in 1801, Saulnier, a police commissioner and prefect during Napoleonʼs regime, became an energetic amateur student of Egyptian antiquity. Although his expertise was middling and his methods of acquisition were frowned upon by professional savants, his activities were encouraged by the government. And Saulnier was successful: not only did Lelorrain deliver the coveted zodiac to Paris, but Louis XVIII paid 150,000 francs for it.
As the Notice was an attempt to persuade the government of Louis XVIII to purchase the zodiac, Saulnier concerned himself primarily with geopolitical intrigue: its first chapter, which comprises over half the volume, chronicles Lelorrainʼs voyage to Egypt and the numerous obstacles Lelorrain had to overcome in order to return to France with his quarry. The report begins with a decidedly unflattering portrait of Mehmed Ali, Egyptʼs viceroy, and climaxes in a sensationalistic account of how Lelorrain dislodged the zodiac from the temple ceiling using explosives, among other tools, in order to place it “under the protection of European civilization.”
Saulnier also provides a detailed description of the zodiac itself. His attempt to identify its date, and the astronomical and mythological significance of its figures, is couched in a discussion of works by Charles Dupuis and the Italian antiquarian Ennio Visconti, among others who wrote specifically on the zodiac, as well as scholars such as the astronomer Jerome Lalande. The exact date and astronomical importance of the zodiac were hotly debated by French scholars for many years.
The Zodiac was exhibited at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris until it was moved to the Louvre in 1964, where it remains on display.