PAUL CROOK. Grafton Elliot Smith, Egyptology and the diffusion of culture: a biographical perspective. viii+160 pages, 3 illustrations. 2012. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press; 978-1-84519-481-9 paperback £19.95
Review by Robin Derricourt
School of History & Philosophy, University of New South Wales, Australia
This curious book brings together two distinguished men. Emeritus Professor Crook is an historian of ideas (Social Darwinism, American politics). Grafton Elliot Smith (1871–1937) was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at 36 as "the world's leading comparative neurologist", and knighted in 1934 for his role in guiding British anatomy teaching and research. He also pioneered studies of Egyptian mummification and contributed to discussions on human origins. However to archaeologists he is best known for passionately "preaching his gospel" of a grand theory in opposition to the scholarship of his day: what Timothy Champion has called "an embarrassing episode" and former Antiquity editor Glyn Daniel, naming it hyperdiffusionism, described as "academic rubbish".
His basic model was that innovations occurred once only in human history, whether in economic practice, material culture, cultural practice or belief. Therefore if the same phenomenon was found in two parts of the world, however distant in space and time, they had a single origin. To Elliot Smith that origin was usually ancient Egypt: the invention of agriculture, of metalworking, of civilisation; the source of a 'heliolithic' cult of the sun/serpent marked by megalithic construction. From the Nile Valley multiple associated cultural elements spread eastwards to Asia, to Australia, Pacific Islands, North and South America, taken by travellers searching for what Elliot Smith described as the "elixir of life", by Phoenicians travelling from East Africa, and other ancient mariners. Unsurprisingly, archaeologists and anthropologists immediately criticised these views as contradicted by the expanding evidence from world cultures.
A new biographical study and appraisal is certainly due. Smith's widow inspired a tribute volume in 1938. Books appeared from two 1972 conferences held in Sydney and London to mark his centenary. So Crook's initiative should be welcomed.
This short volume presents a useful summary of Smith's career with more detail of his writing on cultural diffusion; Smith's other work is considered only summarily or ignored. The book is somewhat mistitled. After his important studies of mummification and Egyptian crania, Smith devoted little time to Egyptology; his interests were in Egypt's wider influence. The volume is thus a convenient reference on what Elliot Smith (and his protégé W.J. Perry, whose writings now seem even weirder) wrote and said in this area, and when. Quotes and sympathetic paraphrases on his publication appear alongside citation of the (nearly universal) criticisms of his work by other contemporary scholars.
Missing is the 'why', an explanation of what led a distinguished biomedical scientist to try and rewrite world history, and maintain his arguments for a quarter century in the face of almost total opposition by specialists. Crook does not tackle this, though he does advance a view that Smith had some characteristics of autism.
Crook suggests his aim is not just to describe but to rehabilitate Elliot Smith's reputation. Here lies the problem. Others might do this by emphasising Smith's work on brain and mummification, evolutionary research and teaching reforms, or praise his personality, or argue that he was over-influenced by Perry and the enthusiasm of popular readers, or that somehow he missed out on information coming from current archaeological research.
The author states that Smith's writings "were always scientific in their methodology" (p. vi). Few readers of his diffusionist work would agree. In contrast to his anatomical research papers, these books read more like pioneers of the model that would later be described as pseudo-archaeology. Announce a grand and unconventional world view, trawl the vast corpus of available data to select items which seem to fit this view, describe them in detail with scholarly references, denounce traditional scholarship as blind or ignorant or narrow, then leave very vague details of how, when and why the new model happened. If his medical students had studied their anatomy with as little attention to detail as Smith's diffusionist tracts a lot of patients would surely have died.
The book suggests that Smith's diffusionist model has not been conclusively refuted. Crook, in respecting Smith's passion and commitment, does seem to ignore the gap that existed at the time of Smith's writing between his arguments and the evidence from archaeological work; a gap that has continued to grow decade by decade. If—as Crook suggests—there has been little active criticism of Smith since the 1970s, that is more probably because most people consider there is no case to answer. Crook says "the diffusion controversy has never really ceased" (p. 114), but what has continued is argument about any specific cultural sequence of the relative contributions of local innovation and development, population movement and diffusion of ideas; not a total 'diffusionist' paradigm.
A minor comment concerns Smith's references to race. Crook notes that in 1934 he wrote two important denunciations of the 'Aryan' concept. The rise of Nazism had a dramatic impact on a range of ideas, including eugenics (fashionable with left as much as right) and enthusiasm in physical anthropology for racial classification. Smith would not be unique in his earlier racial descriptions, crediting European civilisation to the virility "especially of those belonging to the blond Nordic race" and writing that "the Negro is a very primitive member of the human family". His 1934 presentation now seems more of a mea culpa for the discipline.
For those wishing to track the detail of Smith's hyperdiffusionist theory, with some impression of the man behind it, this will prove a useful summary book. It is unlikely to achieve its goal and attract modern scholars back to those ideas.