Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Birch, Samuel (1813-1885)
BIRCH, SAMUEL (1813–1885), egyptologist, keeper of the department of oriental antiquities in the British Museum, descended from an old Lancashire family, was grandson of Samuel Birch [q. v.], lord mayor of London, pastrycook, politician, and dramatist, by his wife Margaret, daughter of Dr. Fordyce. The egyptologist's father, also Samuel Birch (1780?-1848), matriculated from St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1798. He graduated B.A. as tenth senior optime in the mathematical tripos in 1802, gained the second member's prize for a Latin essay, and was elected a fellow of his college. He proceeded M.A. in 1800, and D.D. in 1828. He was for a time professor of geometry in Gresham College, London. He became rector of St. Mary Woolnoth and St. Mary Woolchurch-Haw in 1808, a prebendary of St. Paul's Cathedral (occupying the Twyford stall) in 1819, and in 1834 vicar of Little Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where he died on 24 June 1848. He published many sermons preached before distinguished people.
Samuel, the eldest son, was born in London on 3 Nov. 1813. He was sent to preparatory schools at Greenwich and Blackheath, and he entered on 3 July 1826 the Merchant Taylors' School, where he studied for five years, leaving in 1831. For one year he and (Sir) Edward Augustus Bond [q. v. Suppl.], afterwards principal librarian of the British Museum, were fellow-pupils. Before Birch left school he had, at the suggestion of an acquaintance of his grandfather who was in the British diplomatic service in China, begun the study of Chinese under a capable teacher. He made good progress in the difficult language. In 1833 he was promised an appointment in China, and, although the promise was not fulfilled, he continued his study of Chinese. In 1834 he entered the service of the commissioners of public records, and, on the recommendation of William Henry Black [q. v.], assistant-keeper of the public record office, aided the keeper, (Sir) Thomas Duffus Hardy [q. v.] For seventeen months he worked side by side with Bond. His salary was then 40l. a year (Report from Select Committee on Record Commission. London, 1836, p. 340, No. 3848). On 18 Jan. 1836 he became assistant in the department of antiquities at the British Museum, where his first duty was to arrange and catalogue Chinese coins. Soon after his appointment there (he used to tell the story with great glee) his grandfather called to see him, and, in answer to a question as to what he was about, on being told that he was cataloguing coins, exclaimed, 'Good God, Sammy! has the family come to that?' At an early period in his Chinese studies he began to examine carefully the writings of Champollion on the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphics, but it was not until he entered the British Museum that he threw himself heart and soul into the study of egyptology. For a short time, in 1832 and 1833, he had hesitated about accepting Champollion's system of the decipherment of Egyptian in its entirety ; but when he had read and considered the mixture of learning and nonsense which Champollion's critics, Klaproth and Seyftarth, had written on the subject, he rejected once and for all the views which they and the other enemies of Champollion enunciated with such boldness. To Lepsius in Germany and to Birch in England belongs the credit of having first recognised the true value of Champollion's system [cf. arts, Wilkinson, Sir John Gardner; Young, Thomas, 1773-1829]. They were so firmly persuaded of its importance that Lepsius abandoned the brilliant career of a classical scholar to follow the new science, and Birch finally relinquished the idea of a career in China, to the great regret of his grandfather, to be able better to pursue his Egyptian studies in the service of the trustees of the British Museum. Birch's earliest known paper ('On the Taou, or Knife Coin of the Chinese') appeared in 1837, and it was a year later that his first writing on Egyptian matters saw the light. From this time onwards he continued to write short papers on numismatics, to translate Chinese texts, and to edit papyri for the trustees of the British Museum. Besides this work he found time to write lengthy explanatory notes for works like Perring's 'Pyramids of Gizeh' (3 pts. 1839-42), and frequently to supply whole chapters of descriptive text to books of travellers and others. In 1844, the year which saw the publication of the third part of his 'Select Papyri in the Hieratic Character,' he was made assistant keeper in the department of antiquities at the British Museum, which appointment beheld until 1861. In 1846 he was sent by the trustees to Italy to report on the famous Anastasi collection of Egyptian antiquities, which was subsequently purchased by them ; and ten years later he was again sent to Italy to report, in connection with Sir Charles T. Newton [q. v. Suppl.], on the Campana collection of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman vases, coins, &c. In 1861 the trustees of the British Museum divided the department of antiquitieii into three sections ; William Sidney Vaux [q. v.] became keeper of the coins and medals, Newton keeper of the Greek and Roman antiquities, and Birch keeper of the oriental, British, and mediaeval antiquities. In 1866 a further subdivision was made, and the British and mediaeval antiquities were placed under the keepership of (Sir) Arthur Wollaston Franks [q. v. Suppl.] ; Birch was thus enabled to devote his whole official time to the study of the Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities, which remained under his care until his death in 1885.
One of Birch's most important achievements in his unofficial life was the founding of the Society of Biblical Archæology, which was resolved upon at a private conference held in the rooms of William Simpson [q. v. Suppl.], the artist, in Lincoln's Inn Fields, on 18 Nov. 1870. On 9 Dec. a public meeting was held in the rooms of the Royal Society of Literature, and the Society of Biblical Archæology came into being. During Birch's lifetime, and under the influence of his great name and learning, this society did splendid work in the cause of egyptology and assyriology, and the study of Semitic epigraphy in general was greatly advanced. In connection with this society gratuitous lectures were given by Birch and other scholars from 1871 to 1875, and elementary works for the use of students were published on his initiative. Birch stood almost alone in attempting to provide at once both for the beginner and for the advanced student of egyptology. He edited the most difficult texts, and submitted them to French and German experts, by whom they were highly prized. But it must never be forgotten that the first elementary grammar of Egyptian, the first hieroglyphic dictionary, the first treatise on Egyptian archæology, the first popular history of Egypt, and the first set of popular translations from the Egyptian into English, were written by him. It was he who first discovered the true use of the phonetic complement in Egyptian words, and it was he who, before 1840, identified the principles on which depended the use of hieroglyphic characters as ideographs and determinatives. His skill in finding out the meaning of a text was remarkable, and any one who compares the results of his labours with those of recent investigators will be surprised at the substantial correctness of his work. He was at times a little negligent of the literary form of his translations, but this was primarily due to his anxiety to place before his readers the exact meaning of the text. His wide reading in the Greek and Roman classics enabled him to illustrate the history and religion of Eygpt; and, on the other hand, his knowledge of the Egyptian inscriptions supplied him frequently with clues to the meaning of obscure references in the classics. The Marquis Tseng, the Chinese ambassador in London, frequently consulted Birch about passages in the old Chinese classics.
Birch's attainments were varied. His duties as assistant, assistant keeper, and keeper in the British Museum made it necessary for him to study the different classes of antiquities in the department to which he was attached, and in the course of his life he wrote papers on British and Roman coins, Greek vases and inscriptions, Chinese seals, Celtic antiquities, Cypriote inscriptions, the Moabite stone, and other topics, with equal skill and facility. Though George Smith (1840-1876) [q.v.] discovered that the Cypriote language was Greek, it was Birch who first read the inscriptions written in it. His merits as an archæologist were even greater than those as an egyptologist. His power to detect imitations and 'forgeries' of ancient objects seemed at times to border on the supernatural. It is to this ability that the immunity of the Egyptian collections in the British Museum from 'forgeries' is due, though it must be admitted that in his later years the national collection lost some precious objects owing to his excessive caution and scepticism. On one occasion Birch was able to prove that two large metal jars, which were declared to be some 1,200 years old by their owner, were modern work, and that the texts upon them were extracts from books that had been written at a comparatively late date; the would-be vendor afterwards admitted that they were 'new.' The little glazed, painted faience bottles which were sometimes found in Egyptian tombs were commonly declared to date from ancient Egyptian times before Birch read the inscriptions upon them, and identified their authors, who had lived several hundreds of years after Christ. Subsequently Sir Augustus Franks proved from Chinese sources that these little bottles were not older than the thirteenth century of our era.
Birch was a man of enormous energy. In his leisure hours he studied mathematics, the theory of fortification, politics, and social questions; in 1854 he produced a play entitled 'Imperial Rome,' the scene of which was laid in the reign of Nero, and a little later he attempted original English verse.
Birch died at his house, 64 Caversham Road, Camden Town, on 27 Dec. 1885, aged 72 years; he was buried in Highgate cemetery. He was married and left issue: Mr. Walter de Gray Birch is his son. A bas-relief profile medallion of Birch was made by Mr. W. Smith in 1846, and a photograph from it appears in Mr. W. de Gray Birch's biographical notices of his father.
Birch had many honours bestowed upon him. He became corresponding member of the Archaeological Institute at Rome in 1839, of the Academy of Berlin in 1851, of the Academy of Herculaneum in 1852, of the French Institute in 1861; the degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him by the university of Aberdeen in 1862, and by Cambridge University in 1875; and that of D.C.L. by Oxford University in 1876. He was honorary fellow of Queen's College, Oxford; president of the oriental congress which met in London in 1874; officier de l'instruction publique de l'université de Paris; Rede lecturer at Cambridge in 1875; and president of the Society of Biblical Archæology from 1870 to 1885. The emperor of Germany conferred upon him in 1874 the order of the Crown, and the emperor of Brazil the order of the Knight of the Rose in 1875. Birch was kind-hearted and genial, shy among strangers, and so modest that he was content to allow much of his best work to appear only in the volumes of others.
The following are Birch's principal independent works:
- 'Analecta Sinensia,' 1841.
- 'Select Papvri in the Hieratic Character,' 3 pts. fol. 1841-4.
- 'Tablets from the Collection of the Earl of Belmore,' 1843.
- 'Friends till Death' (from Chinese), 1845.
- 'An Introduction to the Study of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics,' 1857.
- 'History of Ancient Pottery,' 2 vols. 1858.
- 'Memoire sur une Patere,' 1858.
- 'Select Papyri,' pt. ii. 1860.
- 'Description of Ancient Marbles in the British Museum,' pt. ii. 1861.
- 'Chinese Widow' (from Chinese), 1862.
- 'Elfin Foxes' (from Chinese), 1863.
- 'Papyrus of Nas-Khem,' 1863.
- 'Facsimiles of Egyptian Relics,' 1863.
- 'Facsimiles of two Papyri,' 1863.
- 'Inscriptions in the Himyaritic Character,' 1863.
- 'The Casket of Gems' (from Chinese), 1872.
- 'History of Egypt,' 1875.
- 'Facsimile of Papyrus of Rameses III,' fol. 1876.
- 'The Monumental History of Egypt, 1876.
- 'Egyptian Texts,' 1877.
- 'Catalogue of Egyptian Antiquities at Alnwick Castle,' 1880.
- 'The Coffin of Amamu' (unfinished).
Birch made the following important contributions to the publications of others: 'Egyptian Antiquities' (in the 'Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum'), 1838; 'Remarks on Egyptian Hieroglyphics' (in 'Pyramids of Gizeh,' by J. S. Perring), 1839; 'Remarks' (in Cory's 'Horapollo JSinus '), 1841; 'Descriptions' in Arundale and Bonomi's 'Gallery of Antiquities,' 1842, 1843; 'List of Hieroglyphics' in Bunsen's ' Egypt's Place,' 1847; 'Egyptian Grammar,' 'Egyptian Dictionary,' 'The Book of the Dead ' (in Bunsen's 'Egypt's Place,' vol. v.), 1867. With Sir Henry Rawlinson [q.v.] he prepared ' Inscriptions in the Cuneiform Character,' 1851; and with (Sir) Charles Thomas Newton [q. v. Suppl.] 'Catalogue of Greek and Etruscan Vases in the British Museum,' 2 vols. 1851. He revised in 1878 Sir J. G. Wilkinson's 'Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians.' Birch was also author of numerous papers in the 'Numismatic Chronicle,' 'Gentleman's Magazine,' 'Proceedings' and 'Transactions' of the Royal Society of Literature, 'Archæologia,' 'Revue Archéologique' (Paris), 'Journal of the Royal Archæological Institute,' 'Journal of the British Archæological Association,' 'Classical Museum,' 'Mémoires des Antiquités de France' (Paris), 'Aegyptische Zeitschrift,' Chabas's 'Melanges,' 'Month,' 'Nature and Art,' 'Phoenix,' 'Proceedings' and 'Transactions' of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, 'Records of the Past,' 'English Cyclopædia,' 'Transactions of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society,' 'Encyclopædia Britannica,' and many periodicals.
[Times, 29 Dec. 1885; Athenæum, 2 Jan. 1886; Journ. Brit. Arch. Assoc. January 1886; Saturday Review, 2 Jan. 1886; Brighton Daily News, 5 Jan. 1886; Manchester Guardian, 6 Jan. 1886; Academy, 2 Jan. 1886; Le XIX Siècle, 11 Jan. 1886; Illustrated London News (with portrait), 2 Jan. 1886; and in Revue Egyptologique, iv. 187-92. All these were reprinted by W. de Gray Birch, his son, in 1886. The fullest account of Birch's life and work will be found (with portrait) in Trans. Soc. Bibl. Arch. ix. 1-41, by E. A. Wallis Budge; a good account of his work up to 1877 will be found (with portrait) in the Dublin University Magazine, 1877.]