Grafton Elliot Smith, Egyptology & the Diffusion of Culture

I’ve just finished reading ‘Grafton Elliot Smith, Egyptology & the Diffusion of Culture:  A Biographical Perspective’ by Professor Emeritus Paul Crook. It was a gift from my father, the author 😉

Paul Crook describes Sir Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937) as a ‘great forgotten Australian’. He was an Australian medical doctor who rose to the top of the British scientific establishment in the early decades of the twentieth century.  He became ‘one of the world’s pioneering anatomists, an authority on human evolution, and a renowned, if controversial amateur archaeologist/ anthropologist’.

He was most famous for his controversial theory on cultural diffusion. This theory stemmed from his expert knowledge of evolution which was based on his ‘ground-breaking dissection of thousands of mummies in Egypt during the great excavations of the 1900’s. His speculations, made in association with thinkers such as W.H.R Rivers and W.J. Perry, bore fruit in a spate of publications that sparked global debate, arousing particular anger from American ethnologists opposed to ideas of foreign influence upon Mesoamerican cultures.’

Elliot Smith was as famous in his time as the modern day Richard Dawkins – ‘if he lived today he would be a regular on television’. Yet today he is practically unheard of in Australia. Paul Crooks ‘biographical perspective’ of the man has been written to remedy this unfortunate situation (there are no other full scale biographies of Elliot Smith or detailed analyses of his work).

Rather than a biography this book is ‘a history of the man and his ideas put in the context of his life and times, with the major focus on his much contested theory of the diffusion of culture, which put Egypt as the fountain-head of civilisation, the centre from which major elements of civilisation were spread by the migration of peoples and ideas.’

The theory of cultural diffusion was both fashionable and controversial during Elliot Smith’s heyday. However, near the end of his life and after his death the anthropological and archaeological disciplines shifted paradigms and his work was forgotten and sometimes ridiculed. Paul Crook believes Elliot Smith’s work and ‘reputation deserves rehabilitation’ and this book certainly achieves that outcome.

Note: The cover art on the book is based on a concept by Melbourne based artist and designer Willem Lawrie and includes a picture of Grafton Elliot Smith aged 50 and a painting on the wall of the burial chamber of Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Grafton Elliot Smith, Egyptology & the Diffusion of Culture: A Biographical Perspective’ by Paul Crook is published by Sussex Academic Press, 2011 ISBN: 9781845194819 and is available from International Specialised Book Services.

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Note: this is not a review, rather a synopsis of the book for the public record.

20 thoughts on “Grafton Elliot Smith, Egyptology & the Diffusion of Culture

  1. WOW. What a talented family. It sounds like a really interesting book and the theory of cultural diffusion holds a lot of water. Congratulations to your Dad. It is a great achievement!

    • Thanks Selma 🙂 . There are some elements to the theory that definitely still hold up – it was never an either or situation and both camps had some truth to them (which is often the case with this sort of theory).

  2. ;-), indeed! Nice reveal there, Gabe. I’ll have to read it now!

    Does your Dad still teach? Do you have heated debates? I can see a ‘conversations with my father’ series coming on 🙂

    • You don’t have to read it bluebee – haha (it’s pretty heavy going that’s for sure) but I did find it fascinating from the perspective of how a career develops in those type of fields and how very complicated the issues of history are (when non-historians like me read history books, it seems cut and dried but in reality the truth is much harder to find, if there is any truth at all). Dad is retired from lecturing but still writes books and papers, so nothing has changed much. I don’t have heated debates with Dad (he is way to smart) but he can answer any question I come up with on history 🙂 and politics. I think that ‘conversations with Dad’ is not a bad idea – I have some questions brewing on eugenics and the anti-nazi movement which I find fascinating.

  3. Very interesting, Gabrielle, thank you. So nice for your father to have written and published the book, particularly as it is something he really believes in! I’m sure his beliefs will be vindicated.

    • Thanks adeeyoyo. It is not really about my Dad’s beliefs – as a historian he is documenting the beliefs of others (Elliot Smith and his colleagues) in the context of the period of history. Many of Elliot Smith’s ideas were wrong, but a large part of his work, particularly the evolution of the brain, were accurate and the starting point of the science in that area.

  4. Congratulations to your Dad on his book – it sounds great.
    The apple does not fall far from the tree as they say….a talented family for sure.

  5. Congratulations to your dad! A dad who writes books, how neat is that! And reading this post reminds me that I haven’t read a book in what seems like ages. Gotta read a book soon!

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