Artist David Roberts and Near Eastern Archaeology

Artist David Roberts and Near Eastern Archaeology

Scottish artist David Roberts (1796-1864) was instrumental in helping to stimulate a growing fascination with the Near East by Europeans, especially within British society where biblical accounts of the rise and fall of empires were familiar, as much intellectual fare as anything else and staple bread and butter for religious imagination. The Romantic Movement’s eschewing of Enlightenment ideals turned instead to exotic themes and ruins, also replacing Neoclassicism with Orientalism. Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign of 1798 where artists were part of the entourage had paved the way for a few to gain and share a glimpse of a world that had seemingly changed little for a millennium or more. French Romantic painters like Delacroix traveled to Morocco in 1832 and his sketches and paintings from this period captured and spread the lure of Orientalism. Roberts would be one of the pioneers from the Anglophone world to satisfy the curiosity of a considerably literate society.


Views of Al-Khazneh-Petra and St Catherine’s Sinai - circa 1842-9 David Roberts
Views of Al-Khazneh, Petra and St. Catherine’s, Sinai
, circa 1842-9, David Roberts


After establishing himself first in Scotland and then London where he had excelled in stage work design and theater set painting including at Drury Lane Theatre and for opera at Covent Garden, Roberts served as president of the Society of British Artists in 1831. Such eminent artists as J. M. W. Turner, John Constable and Edwin Landseer respected him. Roberts was influenced by the counsel of Turner to only concentrate on fine art thereafter, and Orientalism was one of the avenues open to Roberts after he had already sketched and painted many European ruins prior to 1838, especially since almost no one else had set a precedent for exploring and rendering the remains of the Near East.


Roberts traveled to Egypt and the Ottoman Near East on an extended tour beginning in 1838. Because, like Rembrandt, he understood that he could only sell single pieces of art in the medium of painting, Roberts took sketchbooks and watercolors in order to later create lithographs that could have almost an unlimited distribution. Roberts would be one of the first artists to render landscapes and peoples that his contemporaries would have imagined stepping out of biblical narratives, filling a void with a savvy combination of theatrical realism and Romantic ambience that imagination could previously only conjure in fantasy. But unlike Rembrandt who hardly traveled at all, Roberts would model the real places for his biblical topographies.


Roberts’ travels from 1838-39 – often in Ottoman garb – took him deep into Egypt and Nubia, then back up to Sinai and the Levant and what was traditionally the Holy Land and Jordan and Lebanon. In Egypt he was received in 1839 by Egypt’s ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha (1769-1849) the Ottoman representative in Alexandria and whose control over much of the region of Egypt and the Levant stabilized it for new travel by Westerners. Roberts visited Nubia and Abu Simbel in November and was one of the first Westerners to sketch portions of Abu Simbel and Petra, including the Al Khazneh, both sites largely unknown to Europeans until made known by Swiss explorer-adventurer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784-1817) from his travels between 1812-17.[1] It is probably not coincidental that Burckhardt’s Lausanne family had antiquarian acquaintances with both Edward Gibbon and Johann von Goethe. John Lloyd Stephens – a pioneer explorer who later studied Maya sites in Central America – was another who traveled through Palestine in 1836, also sketching many ruins although not as assiduously or with such a trained eye as Roberts, not that even Roberts was attempting archaeological rendering since there was no precedent for Roberts.[2]


View of Hathor Temple at Denderah circa 1842-9 David Roberts
View of Hathor Temple at Denderah
, circa 1842-9, David Roberts


When Roberts returned to Britain and eventually to Edinburgh, he set about transforming his sketches and watercolors into lithographs, working with engraver Louis Haghe from 1842-49 to produce 248 splendid plates that he sold in subscription series. Because he was already known as an artist, his first subscriber appears to have been Queen Victoria herself, whose patronage as the royal arbiter of taste was a ready aid to making Roberts’ Near Eastern images highly popular.


The appearance of Roberts’ lithographic scenes of the Near East anticipates the establishment of formal archaeology as an academic discipline. Roberts’ scenes of the Holy Land, replete with accurate and painstaking detail, fed the public appetite for ancient history and biblical narrative found together that scholarship needed to understand. One of the first “archaeological” treatises of the Near East was from Austen Henry Layard’s seminal Nineveh and its Remains, published by John Murray in London, 1849, whose timing immediately followed Roberts’ immensely popular lithograph subscription series (1842-49).[3] While Roberts didn’t necessarily drive the burgeoning interest in Near Eastern antiquity, it was certainly stimulated thereby.


The influence of Roberts on Near Eastern archaeology and his relationship to historical archaeology has been discussed for some time, especially in regards to early travel and accounts. Notable books about Egypt and the “Holy Land” often continue to incorporate Roberts’ paintings or lithographs, frequently even as cover images or in prominent illustrations.[4] On the one hand, Roberts’ works record the state of many ancient monuments prior to archaeological study. This can be a form of valuable documentation before the advent of photography where Roberts’ accuracy or fidelity to artistic detail can be later established. On the other hand, some have even called Roberts’ paintings and lithographs “artifacts themselves of 1830’s Palestine”[5] where Ottoman and related empires had preserved to some degree a mindset that although these were not necessarily part of strict Islamic history since they predated the Prophet himself, patriarchs like Abraham and prophets like Jonah were deeply incorporated into Islamic culture and Islam had layered its own history on top of biblical history.[6]  But Roberts’ draftsmanship replaced oral and textual tradition in the Near East with greater artistic acumen than artistic license.


Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem ca 1850 David Roberts
Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem
, ca. 1850, David Roberts


Here follow some encomia of Roberts’ renderings, influence and accuracy. “The colossal statues of Rameses II outside a temple at Abu Simbel caught the imagination of artists like David Roberts, who was enchanted by Egypt as Western archaeologists uncovered its treasures in the nineteenth century.”[7]  So different than his predecessors and even some who came later, Roberts relied on his own powers of observation rather than slavish copying of others: “…many European painters of the nineteenth century did not travel to the East – neither to Iraq or to Palestine – to see Eastern art in its context. Rather they relied for inspiration on the work of those who did. This is perhaps one reason that the work of British artist David Roberts is so important. Roberts is the rare exception – an artist who did travel to Egypt and Palestine.”[8]  Whether or not Roberts himself began to train the observant eyes of archaeologists is moot, but what had been controversially termed “Biblical Archaeology” is nonetheless often associated with his era in an era when many religious enthusiasts were looking for material evidence of biblical accounts, “before archaeology became a scholarly endeavor…David Roberts was no archaeologist. But thanks to his scores of lithographs of the Holy Land, he may have done more to popularize ancient sites in the Near East than anyone else in the 19th century.”[9] Edward Robinson (1794-1863), the American “Father of Biblical Geography” and “founder of modern Palestinology”[10] traveled to Palestine only a few months before Roberts and published his Biblical Researches in Palestine in 1841 where he “identifies the sites of the Biblical narrative, creating Biblical Archaeology”.[11] Robinson may have been the first to relocate Hezekiah’s Tunnel in Jerusalem as well as formally study what is still called “Robinson’s Arch” in that city, teaching in New York at Union Theological Seminary from 1837-63.


One of the more interesting early comments of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) from its more or less “Biblical Archaeology” inception in 1869 [12] is from the pen of the Archbishop of York, William Thompson, who wrote the prospectus of the preliminary meeting of the PEF in Westminster Abbey. He promoted inductive inquiry along the rules of science without a religious agenda. In these clauses he called for the highest caliber of study, exhorting others to follow Roberts’ pioneering art before photography, describing the Holy Land as still too much ignored: “No country should be of so much interest to us…”, while adding that “…no country more urgently requires illustration.” [13] We can only wonder how much of the precedent envisioned by the Palestine Exploration Fund was set in motion by David Roberts and how much he whetted the British appetite for more visual narrative. Without doubt, even modern lectures by eminent archaeologists and historians of the Near East continue to reflect on David Roberts’ legacy in depiction. [14]


Dayr el Medeeneh, Thebes 1846-50 David Roberts
Dayr el Medeeneh, Thebes, 1846-50
, David Roberts



  1. Nelson Glueck. Rivers In The Desert. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1959, 194-197; Iain Browning. Petra. London: Chatto and Windus, 1973.
  2. Rachel Hallote. “Photography and the American Contribution to Early ‘Biblical’ Archaeology, 1870-1920.” Near Eastern Archaeology 70.1 (2007) 26-41, esp. 27. David Roberts is mentioned in note 4, “…David Roberts included, who had drawn and painted some of the same ruins from an artistic standpoint, not from the standpoint of precise recording of information,” which is to be expected since there was not yet any archaeological tradition.
  3. Patrick Hunt. “Nineveh’s Assyrian Library” in Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History, Penguin/Plume, 2007, esp. 49 and 55.
  4. David Roberts. The Holy Land: Yesterday and Today. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1998; Debra Mancoff. David Roberts: Travels in Egypt and The Holy Land. Portland, OR: Pomegranate Communications, 1999; David Roberts. Holy Land, Egypt and Nubia, vols. 1-2. New York: Rizzoli, 2000; Fabio Bourbon. Egypt: Yesterday and Today (Explorers & Artists). New York: White Star/Sterling, 2004.
  5. Uzi Baram. “Images of the Holy Land: The David Roberts Paintings as Artifacts of 1830’s Palestine.” Historical Archaeology 41.1 (2007) 106-17.
  6. Baram, ibid., 108-9
  7. Fergus Fleming and Alain Lothian. Ancient Egypt’s Myths and Beliefs. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2011, 135.
  8. Rachel Hallote. Bible, Map and Spade: The American Palestine Exploration Exploration Society, Frederick Jones Bliss and The Forgotten Story. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2006, 34.
  9. Katharine Eugenia Jones. “Backward Glance: Painting the Past, the Lithographs of David Roberts” Biblical Archaeology Review 24.4 (1998) 1.
  10. James B. Pritchard. Archaeology and the Old Testament. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958, 57.
  11. Baram, 109
  12. Dr. Jonathan Tubb, Keeper of the Department of the Middle East, British Museum, pers. comm., November, 2013.
  13. Kathleen Stewart Howe. Revealing the Holy Land: the Photographic Exploration of Palestine. Berkeley: University of California, 1997, 37.
  14. Prof. Eric Meyers, Duke University, “Images of Jerusalem in 19th Century Art and David Roberts.”  Gallery of the American Bible Society, New York, December 9, 1999; Dr. Robert Grant Irving, “David Roberts: A Victorian Artist Footloose in Egypt and the Holy Land,” Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Echoes of Egypt Lecture Series, forthcoming April 24, 2014.


COPYRIGHT 2014 Dr. Patrick Hunt, All rights reserved.
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Dr. Patrick Hunt
Patrick Hunt (Ph.D., University College London, University of London, 1991) has been teaching humanities, archaeology, mythology and the arts at Stanford University since 1993. Hunt is a regular featured scholar in documentaries (National Geographic, PBS, NOVA, among others). His Hannibal research has been published in Archaeology. He is Editor of Electrum Magazine: Why the Past Matters. Hunt has published 50+ peer-reviewed journal and encyclopedia articles. Hunt was awarded a Persian Golden Lioness – Medal of Excellence (2008) from the World Academy of Arts, Literature and Media in London. His 12 published books include CARAVAGGIO (Haus, London, 2004); REMBRANDT (Ariel, New York, 2006, 2nd ed. 2007); RENAISSANCE VISIONS: MYTH AND ART (University Readers, San Diego, 2008); MYTH AND ART IN EKPHRASIS (Cognella, San Diego, 2010); DANTE: CRITICAL INSIGHTS (Salem, Ipswich MA, 2011). He has a chapter on Caravaggio in a forthcoming monograph (E.J. Brill, Leiden, 2012). He is also an Associate at UCLA’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.


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