Antiquity of Writing – Frederic George Kenyon


Sir Frederic George Kenyon (1863-1952) GBE KCB TD FBA FSA was a Greek and biblical scholar and museum director. He was the Commission’s honorary artistic advisor from 1917 until 1948; a role he fulfilled alongside his position as Director of the British Museum.

Frederic George Kenyon was born on 15 January 1863. He was educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford. In 1903, he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy and was later their President from 1917 to 1921. He was appointed the Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum in 1909 and President of the Classical Association in 1913. He held the office of Gentleman Usher of the Purple Rod of the British Empire from 1918 to 1952. Kenyon was a Fellow of Winchester College and an Hon. Fellow of Magdalen and New Colleges, Oxford.

Dynasty, is said to have been a patron of literature, and por­traits and tombs of persons described as “scribes” exist from the Fourth Dynasty. Certain chapters of the Book of the Dead are said to have been composed in the reign of Men­kau-ra (Mycerinus ), the fifth king of that· Dynasty; and the medical prescriptions preserved in British Museum Papy­rus 10059 are assigned to the Fifth Dynasty.

There is, therefore, a considerable body of testimony pointing to the free use of writing in Egypt in the earliest dynastic period, well before 3000 B.C., while actual manu­scripts exist which there is good reason to place before 2000 B.C. From Babylonia evidence of an equally early date is even more conclusive, since actual specimens of this remote antiquity are plentiful. For these we were first indebted to the discoveries of de Sarzec at Telloh and the American excavators working at Nippur under the auspices of the University Museum of Philadelphia. The excavations of Layard and Rassam in 1852-53 had given us a whole library of Assyrian texts in cuneiform writing of the latter part of the eighth and the beginning of the seventh century B -C. In 1877 the discovery of a collection of cuneiform tablets at Tell-el-Amarna, in Egypt, not only carried back our evi­dences of cuneiform writing to about 1400 B.C., but proved that this writing was in common use in Syria for official correspondence between the governors of provinces and their overlord in Egypt. But the Nippur discoveries (in 1888-1900) pushed back the boundaries of our knowledge by at least another 1,000 years. In the archives of this town were found thousands of clay tablets dating back to about



During the First World War, Frederic Kenyon was a Major (temporary Lt. Col.) in the Territorial Force (Inns of Courts). He served with the British Expeditionary Force in France from August to September 1914 and with his regiment until 1919.

In November 1917, Kenyon was appointed as the Imperial War Graves Commission’s Artistic Adviser. He visited the battlefields of France and Belgium and compiled a report in which he submitted the chief governing principles for the architectural treatment and laying out of war cemeteries. The Commission adopted his recommendations in the practise of its constructional work. Kenyon was a strong supporter of the principle of equality of treatment and made constant visits to the Commission’s cemeteries as they were developed.

After 1928, Sir Frederic Kenyon remained Honorary Artistic Adviser until his retirement from the Commission in 1948, when was succeeded by Sir Edward Maufe.

He died on 23 August 1952, aged 89.