Pleading to the slain head of a sperm whale, as if speaking to the stoic face of the Great Sphinx of Giza, Ahab begs to know its secrets: "It was a black and hooded head; and hanging there in the midst of so intense a calm, it seemed the Sphynx's in the desert. "Speak, thou vast and venerable head," muttered Ahab, "which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest."
Moby-Dick, Chapter 70, “The Sphynx”
Ancient Egypt and Egyptian artifacts held a special place of fascination in the eyes of 19th century Europeans and Americans. They embodied both discovery and mystery. As with the archaeological uncovering of prehistoric fossils that occured during this same time period, such arti-facts open humanity’s mind to the idea that, be they objects in the earth under our feet or indecipherable markings on a wall, we are surrounded by signifiers of the past. The Great Sphinx of Giza and Egyptian hieroglyphics were a particular point of interest. They were, and in the case of the Sphinx still are, texts just beyond our comprehension.
Image: Early 20th century Egypt postcard, Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection