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