Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge (July 27, 1857 – November 23, 1934) was an English Egyptologist, Orientalist, and philologist who worked for the British Museum and published numerous works on the ancient Near East.
Budge became interested in languages before he was ten years old, but given that he left school at the age of twelve in 1869 to work as a clerk at the firm of W.H. Smith, it was only in his spare time that he studied Hebrew and Syriac, with the aid of a volunteer tutor named Charles Seeger. Budge became interested in learning the ancient Assyrian language in 1872, when he also began to spend time in the British Museum. Budge's tutor introduced him to the Keeper of Oriental Antiquities, the pioneer Egyptologist Samuel Birch, and Birch's assistant, the Assyriologist George Smith. Smith helped Budge occasionally with his Assyrian, whereas Birch allowed the young man to study cuneiform tablets in his office and obtained books of Middle Eastern travel and adventure such as Sir Austen Henry Layard's Nineveh and Its Remains for him to read from the British Library.
From 1869 to 1878 Budge spent whatever free time he had from his job at W.H. Smith studying Assyrian, and he often walked down to St. Paul's Cathedral over his lunch break to study during these years. When the organist of St. Paul's, John Stainer, noticed Budge's hard work, he decided to help the boy to realize his dream of working in a profession that would allow him to study Assyrian. Stainer contacted Budge's employer, the Conservative Member of Parliament W.H. Smith, as well as the former Liberal Prime Minister W.E. Gladstone, and asked them to help his young friend. Both Smith and Gladstone agreed to help Stainer to raise money for Budge to attend Cambridge University, where Budge later studied Semitic languages, including Hebrew, Syriac, Ethiopic and Arabic from 1878 to 1883, continuing to study Assyrian on his own. Budge worked closely during these years with the famous scholar of Semitic languages William Wright, among others.
Between 1886 and 1891, Budge was deputed by the British Museum to investigate why it was that cuneiform tablets from British Museum sites in Iraq, which were supposedly being guarded by local agents of the Museum, were showing up in the collections of London antiquities dealers. The British Museum was purchasing these collections of their own tablets at inflated London market rates, and the Principal Librarian of the Museum, Edward Bond, wished Budge to find the source of the leaks and to seal it. Bond also wanted Budge to establish ties to Iraqi antiquities dealers to buy whatever was available in the local market at much reduced prices. Budge also travelled to Istanbul during these years to obtain from the Ottoman government a permit to reopen the Museum's excavations at these Iraqi sites in order to obtain whatever tablets remained in them.
During his years in the British Museum, Budge also sought to establish ties with local antiquities dealers in Egypt and Iraq so that the Museum would be able to obtain antiquities from them without the uncertainty and cost of excavating -- a decidedly 19th century approach to building a museum collection. Budge returned from his many missions to Egypt and Iraq with enormous collections of cuneiform tablets, Syriac, Coptic and Greek manuscripts, as well as significant collections of hieroglyphic papyri. Perhaps his most famous acquisitions from this time were the beautiful Papyrus of Ani, a copy of Aristotle's lost Constitution of Athens, and the Tell al-Amarna tablets. Budge's prolific and well-planned acquisitions gave the British Museum arguably the best Ancient Near East collections in the world, and the Assyriologist Archibald Sayce remarked to Budge in 1900, ". . . What a revolution you have effected in the Oriental Department of the Museum! It is now a veritable history of civilization in a series of object lessons . . ."
Budge became Assistant Keeper in his department after Renouf retired in 1891, and was confirmed as Keeper in 1894, a position in which he remained until 1924, specializing in Egyptology. Budge and the other collectors for the museums of Europe regarded having the best collection of Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities in the world as a matter of national pride, and there was tremendous competition for Egyptian and Iraqi antiquities among them. These museum officials and their local agents smuggled antiquities in diplomatic pouches, bribed customs officials, or simply went to friends or countrymen in the Egyptian Service of Antiquities to ask them to pass their cases of antiquities unopened.
Budge's contention that the religion of the Egyptians was essentially identical to the religions of the people of northeastern and central Africa was regarded by his colleagues as impossible, since all but a few followed Flinders Petrie in his contention that the culture of Ancient Egypt was derived from an invading Caucasian "Dynastic Race" which had conquered Egypt in late prehistory and introduced the Pharaonic culture (Trigger, 1994). Petrie was a dedicated follower of the pseudo-science of Eugenics, believing that there was no such thing as cultural or social innovation in human society, but rather that all social change is the result of biological change, such as migration and foreign conquest resulting in interbreeding. Petrie claimed that his "Dynastic Race," in which he never ceased to believe, was a "fine" Caucasian race which entered Egypt from the south in late predynastic times, conquered the "inferior" and "exhausted" "mulatto" race which then inhabited Egypt, and slowly introduced the finer Dynastic civilization as they interbred with the inferior indigenous people (Silberman, 1999). Petrie, who was also affiliated with a variety of far right-wing groups and anti-democratic thought in England and was a dedicated believer in the superiority of the Northern peoples over the Latinate and Southern peoples (Silberman, 1999), derided Budge's belief that the ancient Egyptians were an African people with roots in eastern Africa as impossible and "unscientific," as did his followers.
Budge's works were widely read by the educated public and among those seeking comparative ethnological data, including James Frazer, who incorporated some of Budge's ideas on Osiris into his ever-growing work The Golden Bough. Budge was interested in the paranormal and believed in the reality of spirits and hauntings. Budge had a number of friends in the Ghost Club (British Library, Manuscript Collections, Ghost Club Archives), a group in London committed to the study of alternative religions and the spirit world, and told his many friends stories of hauntings and other uncanny experiences. Many people in his day who were involved with the occult and spiritualism after losing their faith in Christianity were dedicated to Budge's works, particularly his translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which was very important to such writers as the poet William Butler Yeats and James Joyce. Budge's works on Egyptian religion have remained consistently in print since they entered the public domain; this is most likely because Budge was, himself, a proponent of liberal Christianity and devoted to comparative religions, and his works often appeal to those who are similarly interested.
Budge was a member of the literary and open-minded Savile Club in London, proposed by his friend H. Rider Haggard in 1889, and accepted in 1891. He was a much sought-after dinner guest in London, his humorous stories and anecdotes being famous in his circle, and it is hardly surprising that the low-born Budge was fascinated not only by the company of literary men, but also by that of the aristocracy. He sedulously sought the company of the well-born, many of whom he seems to have met when they brought to the British Museum the scarabs and statuettes they had purchased while on holiday in Egypt. Budge never lacked for an invitation to a country house in the summer or to a fashionable townhouse during the London season.
Though his books remain widely available, translation accuracy has improved in detail, along with significant revisions in dating, since Budge's day. The common writing style of his era -- a lack of clear distinction between opinion and incontrovertible fact -- is no longer fashionable in scholarly works.
Budge was knighted in the 1920 New Year Honours for his distinguished contributions to Egyptology and the British Museum. In the same year he published his sprawling autobiography, By Nile and Tigris. He retired from the British Museum in 1924, and lived on until 1934, continuing to publish book after book up until the completion of his last work, From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt (1934). In his will, Budge established the Lady Wallis Budge Junior Research Fellowships and graduate scholarships at Cambridge and Oxford Universities that continue to this day to support young Egyptologists at the beginning of their research careers.