The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1992, Volume 38, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

by Bruce Kamerling

Images from the Article

On October 18, 1965, the House of Representatives of the United States of America honored c on the occasion of what would have been her 129th birthday. California Representative James B. Utt stated, “I know of no other woman in history who has contributed so much of themselves or of their substance to the betterment of mankind.”1 Widely known for philanthropies in the fields of science, medicine and education, her name is associated with many of San Diego’s most notable institutions.2

Perhaps least known among Ellen Scripps’ many benefactions is the fact that for a dozen years she provided funding for important archaeological excavations in Egypt. Although not her primary goal, these excavations had the added benefit of bringing to San Diego a core collection of Egyptian antiquities that remains one of the most important such collections in the western states.

Ellen Browning Scripps entered this world on October 18, 1836, in London, England.3 In 1844, she accompanied her widowed father to Rushville, Illinois, where her grandfather had settled and founded the Prairie Telegraph. After graduation from Knox College in 1859, she taught school for several years. Education remained a primary interest throughout her life. Joining her brother James on the Detroit Tribune in 1866, Ellen became a writer and proof-reader. When James established the Detroit News, she wrote a column called “Miss Ellen’s Miscellany” which was popular and widely circulated. The family’s newspaper enterprises thrived and expanded into the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, one of the nation’s largest and most influential. Ellen Scripps eventually became a major stockholder in nineteen American newspapers, making her a very wealthy woman.

Edward W. Scripps, one of Ellen’s brothers, traveled to California in December of 1890 and built a home at Miramar north of San Diego. Ellen joined him the following year. In 1896, she bought property in La Jolla where she built a large house overlooking the ocean. Although she was sixty years old, this was the first home she had ever owned. It was here that she received visits from some of the most eminent figures in education, science, and the arts, and received and read over fifty periodicals on similar subjects.

Miss Scripps’ interest in Egypt probably began during her student years, but certainly increased after her first visit to that ancient land. In November of 1881, she traveled to England where she began an extended tour of Europe, the Mediterranean, and North Africa which lasted nearly two years. She described her adventures in an entertaining series of travel letters published in the Detroit News, from December 16, 1881, to August 7, 1883.4 Her first article about Egypt, published on May 11, 1883, starts in Port Said and includes her impressions of modern Cairo with its colorful markets, snake charmers, jugglers, and picturesque mosques. A spry forty-six, Scripps thought that the three guides customary for the climb to the top of the great pyramid (two to pull and one to push) were unnecessary, but admitted that ” . . .penetrating to the sepulchral chambers of the interior was a far more unpleasant and more arduous task.”5

Considering the difficulties of travel and lack of tourist amenities at that time, Scripps did her best to maintain an objective and non-judgmental attitude about all she encountered. She wrote, “Independent of its archaeological purposes, and despite its personal annoyances, a trip up the Nile is a very enjoyable one; and the mind must be a very ill trained one that cannot rise superior to such vulgar trifles as individual rights in napkins, uninhabited beds, and occasionally clean towels.”6 Always willing to try some new adventure, she did, however, confess that her “courage failed” when confronted with an offer of buffalo cheese. Later in the trip, her Victorian upbringing prevented her from writing anything but a disapproving description of a performance by a belly dancer at the residence of the American consul.

Scripps vividly recorded the character of Egypt as she found it over one hundred years ago, before the inundation of modern tourists and before many of the monuments had even been excavated or restored. “What glorious mornings those were, when, awakened by the song of birds and the wild chant of the Arab boys that came from far off through the clear resonant air and mounted up with the fresh perfumes of opening flowers through the open casement window, one could lie and look out on the strange silent beauty of the outer world.”7

Her sense of wonder when confronted with the ancient monuments of Thebes was deeply felt.


To attempt to convey to the uninitiated an idea of the impressions made on the mind at the first sight of this grandest, if not the oldest, ruin in the world, would be a futile task to describe. There is constantly recurring and increasing astonishment, not unmixed with admiration, at the majestic conceptions of the ancient people, the skill which enabled them to carry them out, and the art displayed in painting, sculpture and architecture, which has defied time and outlived ages.8

The memories of this and at least one subsequent trip to Egypt created an indelible impression, which later manifested itself in a characteristic act of generosity.9

In 1911, Scripps became a life member of the London-based Egypt Exploration Fund through its American office in Boston.10 Founded in 1882, just about the time of her first visit to Egypt, this organization was established specifically to fund surveys, explorations and excavations at Egypt’s ancient sites and publish the results of that work. The group’s commitment to scientific investigation and publication appealed to Miss Scripps’ interest in research and education. She had been appalled at the desecration of ancient monuments by the “antiquity mongers” and alarmed at the conditions she encountered at some of the ancient sites.

Poking about in the rubbish that has been carted from the tombs and emptied into hallowed pits, or thrown among the rocks, one may find not only ‘mummy cloth’ in abundance and beads and broken porcelain images, but hands and feet and heads and dismembered trunks, still swathed in their cerements and giving forth, one can’t help fancying a noisome exaltation.11

In 1916, Marie Buckman at the American office of the Egypt Exploration Fund contacted Scripps with the prospect of funding excavations so that some of the recovered objects could be placed in a museum of her choice. These “shares” were available at five hundred dollars each. Scripps admitted that she found the offer tempting, but could not see her way clear to do so at that time. She had recently funded the construction of the La Jolla Woman’s Club, La Jolla Community Center and Playground, and had to rebuild her home after a deranged former employee burned it to the ground in 1915. She asked Mrs. Buckman to keep her informed and wrote “An association for a comprehensive art museum in San Diego is now in its formative stage; and I shall be interested in obtaining such collections as may be of real value toward it.”12

During San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition of 1915, a group of citizens, concerned with the future disposition of the various collections that had been gathered for the fair, decided to establish an organization that would develop a permanent museum in San Diego. Incorporated on November 3, 1915, the San Diego Museum was given all funds remaining from the fair as well as the use of the buildings that had comprised the California Quadrangle.13 In these buildings they exhibited anthropological and archaeological specimens, historical artifacts, and works of art. After the founding of the Fine Arts Society in 1925 and the San Diego History Center in 1928, the San Diego Museum began to concentrate on ethnographic collections and was eventually renamed the Museum of Man in 1942. Before the San Diego Museum really had a chance to begin its development, however, all of the park buildings were taken over by the Navy during World War I. After the war, plans for the San Diego Museum began in earnest and Ellen Scripps helped provide financial support.

In 1917, Scripps had been named Honorary Secretary for California for the Egypt Exploration Fund which changed its name to the Egypt Exploration Society (E.E.S.) in 1919. She made her first gift of a single share toward excavations in March of 1919.14 With the sole exception of 1922, she continued supporting the excavations annually until her death. In her correspondence with the E.E.S., Scripps made a point of stating “I am neither a curio, nor a scientific ‘collector;’ and that my interest in archaeology and kindred subjects is chiefly for its educational value for the people.”15

During her travels in Egypt, Scripps had noted “There is scarcely a man, woman or child in these regions that is not, to a greater or less extent, a dealer in so-called antiquities, which, for the most part, are turned out by the thousand in manufactories of antiquities at Luxor.”16 She recognized the need for controlled excavations to record the provenance and context of artifacts both to guarantee authenticity and to increase their value for interpretation. She designated the San Diego Museum to receive her share of the finds, but reinforced her belief that the objects were of slight importance compared to the “greater work of continued excavations.”17 Certainly this was an enlightened attitude for that time.

The initial Scripps gift came at the time when the E.E.S. was about to begin excavations at the site known as Tel el Amarna. Founded in the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1370 B.C.) by the Pharaoh Akhenaten, Amarna existed as the capitol of Egypt for less than twenty years. Akhenaten, known as the “Heretic Pharaoh,” broke with Egypt’s polytheistic traditions and declared the solar god Aten to be the one true god. Aten was depicted as the disk of the sun with radiating rays ending in human hands holding the ankh, symbol of life. Closing down the other temples, Akhenaten decided to build a new city which he named Akhetaten, “Horizon of the Aten.” It was here that he lived with his queen, Nefertiti, and their six daughters.

In addition to the new city, a new style of art was developed which initially showed highly mannered exaggerations but later became extremely naturalistic. After Akhenaten’s death, the city was abandoned during the reign of his son-in-law, Tutankhaten, who reverted to the old religious beliefs and even changed his name to Tutankhamen. Later, in an attempt to erase all memory of the heresy, Akhenaten’s temples were demolished, his sculptures smashed, his name removed from all monuments, and his city quarried for building materials. The “Amarna Period” remains one of the most fascinating and controversial in ancient history.18

As sands covered the ruins, all knowledge of the site was lost until a woman digging for compost turned up some inscribed clay tablets in 1887. She had accidently located a repository for the official foreign correspondence to Akhenaten’s court. This discovery led to the first systematic excavations of the site in 1891, conducted by the famous English Egyptologist, W. M. Flinders Petrie. The next archaeologists to work the site were Germans under the direction of Ludwig Borchardt from 1911 to 1914. It was during their 1912 season that the magnificent bust of Nefertiti, now in Berlin, was recovered from the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose. After World War I, the concession to dig at Amarna was awarded to the Egypt Exploration Society which excavated the main city from 1921 to 1936.19

The San Diego Museum received its first shipment of artifacts from the 1921 excavation season. This included pottery, a fine basket, a stone seat, some amulets, and jewelry including a copper ring containing the name of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten’s father. Miss Scripps broke her hip in 1922 which, at the age of eighty-five, certainly disrupted her life and is probably the reason she gave no gift that year. Even so, the museum received a large shipment of artifacts from the 1922 season. These included some important architectural fragments such as sculptured relief panels, blocks inscribed with hieroglyphics, and fresco pavement panels. In November of 1922, the world was electrified by news of the discovery of the nearly intact royal tomb of Tutankhamen. No doubt inspired by this spectacular find, and perhaps to make up for her lack of a contribution in 1922, Scripps presented the E.E.S. with a triple share in 1923.

These gifts from a far distant corner of the globe did not go unappreciated. From Egypt, Thomas Whittemore, one of the E.E.S. archaeologists, wrote to Scripps on New Year’s Day, 1924:


My dear Miss Scripps,I want you to hear from me from Egypt and to know before it is published that we have found an unknown Royal Palace. The inscriptions thus far are of the King’s eldest daughter Meritaten, but it is too early yet to say that the Palace was built exclusively for the Crown Princess. We shall not be able to excavate more than half of the Palace this year, but it is already plain that Mr. Newton the architect will be able to restore the entire building. The enclosure walls measure roughly 144 x 115 meters. It will not only be the only palace completely recoverable in Akhenaten’s City, but one of the very few in ancient Egypt. I hope soon to send you some photographs. This important discovery, while not attended by the great treasure found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, will yet add a fine chapter to the history of the city which Tutankhamen left when he returned to Thebes, and it is because you have so generously contributed to make this work possible that we all send you this news and greetings for the New Year.

Very gratefully yours,

Thomas Whittemore20

After every season’s work, antiquities not retained by the Cairo Museum were sent to London where they were displayed at E.E.S. headquarters before being distributed to the subscribers. As shipments began to arrive in San Diego, the San Diego Museum established a permanent display on the east balcony off the main rotunda which was augmented by each season’s finds. As the excavations continued through the 1920s, the displays on the Egyptian Balcony became extensive.

From the 1923-24 excavations at the North Palace, the museum received a large section from one of several fragmentary stone mangers that had been carved in relief with naturalistic images of animals. Nothing like them had ever been seen before. Also from that season came a small, beautifully painted stela discovered during excavations near of the house of the Chief Servitor of the Aten, Panehsy. Depicting two young couples, this piece had been carefully wrapped in cloth and, unlike most of the finds at Amarna, was beautifully preserved.

The 1929 season brought several artifacts that showed the diversity of the site. One piece, a Pre-Dynastic porphyry bowl, was already two thousand years old when in use at Amarna. From a much later Roman camp on the site came a bronze extending ladle and a large bronze candleholder. One of the most debated artistic conventions of the Amarna period is the depiction of the royal princesses with elongated skulls.21 From the 1931 season the museum received a fragmentary head of one of the princesses carved in quartzite that shows this peculiar deformity. In addition to the material from Amarna, a group of interesting funerary artifacts from the holy city of Abydos was received from the 1925 season.

In 1928, Scripps wrote to the American office of the E.E.S., “I am enclosing a check for $1,000 which I hope will serve to relieve present anxieties. I am writing hastily, much before me needing attention. Thank you for all the kindly information forwarded. I wish I could assure you perennial assistance; but my time is getting short and you should be looking out for my successor. I am in my 92nd year; and the machinery of life cannot go on forever.”22

As Scripps’ health deteriorated, she was no longer able to visit the museum to view the finds. Museum director Clinton G. Abbott kept her informed and wrote of a recent shipment, “I indeed wish that you might see them as displayed upon a table in my office before going into the cases on the Egyptian Balcony. However as I know that this is impossible, I can simply tell you of the enthusiasm of the whole Museum Staff and thank you most warmly for this very important donation.”23

By the late 1920s, the troubled international economic situation was beginning to have an adverse effect on E.E.S. activities, and no excavations were conducted in the 1929-30 season. In the early years of the Depression, memberships began to drop off.24 To help insure that the excavations would continue, Ellen Browning Scripps decided to make a bequest to the E.E.S. of the annual interest from a $10,000 endowment to be accrued at 6% until the principal amount had been paid.25 This bequest was activated by her death at the age of ninety-five on August 3, 1932, the same year that E.E.S. celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.

Because of continued support through the Scripps bequest, the San Diego Museum received shipments of artifacts from Amarna until the final season of excavation in 1936. Unfortunately, Miss Scripps never lived to see some of the finest pieces added to the Egyptian Balcony exhibits including several important pieces of Amarna sculpture. From the 1934 season came a fragment of a polished granite stela depicting Akhenaten making an offering to the Aten. The 1935 season brought a section of a limestone column carved in relief with Nefertiti holding an ankh, and identified as “Lady of the Two Lands” (meaning Upper and Lower Egypt). From that same season came a quartzite torso of the eldest royal daughter Meritaten with her name inscribed in hieroglyphics down the back, one of the only statues of an Amarna princess that survives with name intact.26

By the late 1930s, the San Diego Museum’s Egyptian collection had clearly outgrown the exhibit cases on the Egyptian Balcony. To remedy the situation, the Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Room opened in a ground floor gallery near the southeast corner of the California Quadrangle in May of 1940.27 Unfortunately, the exhibit was not to be long-lived. In 1943, the Navy once again took over the buildings in Balboa Park for war use and all of the museum’s collections went into storage. After the war, the board of Directors met in April of 1946 to discuss modernizing the museum exhibits as the Navy prepared to relinquish the buildings.28 Because of necessary renovations, the Museum of Man did not reopen until the summer of 1948. The collections from the E.E.S., however, remained in storage for four more years. On June 11, 1952, the museum opened an exhibit called The Egyptian Tomb using the Scripps collection along with a mummy borrowed from the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Occupying the gallery formerly identified as the Ellen Scripps Memorial Room, the new exhibit was funded by the Ellen B. Scripps Foundation, Miss Mary Marston and her sister, Mrs. William F. Bade.29

The trials of the Egyptian collection were not over yet. On Saturday, February 13, 1954, Clark C. Evernham, managing director of the museum, discovered that a case displaying Egyptian jewelry had been broken into and over twenty-five pieces stolen.30 Although most of the objects taken were not of major significance, the museum did lose a bronze signet ring bearing the name of Tutankhamen. After the theft, the Egyptian exhibit was closed for security reasons and remained closed for two years. When it reopened in February of 1956, the Egyptian Tomb was available to visitors only on Saturday and Sunday afternoons because of a lack of guards.31 This popular exhibit was finally dismantled in the mid-1960s at which time the Egyptian collection was placed in storage where most of it has remained until recently.32

Before Ellen Scripps’ association with the E.E.S., the Egyptian collection at the San Diego Museum consisted of a few pieces of pottery that had been obtained through an exchange with the Royal Ontario Museum in 1918.33 With the establishment of a significant collection of Egyptian artifacts through the generosity of Miss Scripps, other donors were inspired to make contributions. In 1935, the prominent local art collector Mrs. Irving T. Snyder presented over twenty-five Egyptian antiquities to the museum. Concert singer Hortense Coulter gave several pieces along with a collection of mounted 19th century views of Egypt. In 1936, Miss Gertrude H. Schurtleff of Boston donated a fine pre-dynastic pottery jar. Ellen Scripps’ example was followed by a man identified only as “Mr. Sargent” who provided funding for E.E.S. excavations at Amara West in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan from which the museum received a collection of small artifacts and a sandstone stela of Rameses II in 1939. Additional objects came from other prominent San Diegans including Mrs. Leon D. Bonnet, Mrs. Clark Cavanee, Malcolm F. Farmer and Hewstone K. Raymenton, among others.34

Ellen Scripps was one of the most generous benefactors to the Egypt Exploration Society in the early part of this century. She contributed over $9,000 to their activities during her lifetime and continued her support through the $10,000 bequest.35 Although this may not seem like much money when compared to today’s excavating costs, her gifts need to be placed in perspective. The entire 1931-32 excavating season at Amarna cost only _2,169 (about $7,600).36

According to Marie Buckman, Miss Scripps had planned to develop a collection that was representative of one site, thus providing enough material to interpret that site in depth.37 Because of her insight and generosity, the over four hundred objects from Tel el Amarna in the collection of the San Diego Museum of Man constitute one of the most comprehensive Amarna collections in America and certainly the finest in the western states.38



1. Quoted in San Diego Union, 19 October 1965, p. A17.

2. In 1903, Scripps provided money for the original biological laboratory that evolved into the now world-famous Scripps Institution of Oceanography and continued to support its work throughout her life. She paid for the first structure at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla and later added a dormitory, gymnasium, and swimming pool. The La Jolla Woman’s Club and La Jolla Community Center and Playground, the first public playground in the U.S., were also her gifts. After breaking a hip in 1922, she became interested in medicine which resulted in Scripps Memorial Hospital and the Scripps Metabolic Clinic. To preserve the rare Torrey pine trees, she purchased much of the land now forming Torrey Pines State Park and built the Torrey Pines Lodge. In Balboa Park she also made significant contributions including a large flight cage and animal hospital for the San Diego Zoo and a permanent building for the Museum of Natural History. The list could go on and on.

3. For a general biography of Scripps see Edward D. Clarkson, Ellen Browning Scripps, A Biography (La Jolla, 1958)

4. Transcript copies of these letters were generously made available to the author by Clara Breed and Dorothy Drake.

5. Detroit News, 4 June 1883.

6. Ibid., 11 July 1883.

7. Ibid., 19 July 1883.

8. Ibid., 19 July 1883.

9. That Scripps made two trips to Egypt is revealed by her letter to Marie Buckman at the American Office of the Egypt Exploration Society dated October 27, 1919, in which she states that she was “in Egypt about 30 and 40 years ago.” Ellen Browning Scripps Archives, Scripps College, Claremont (hereafter referred to as Scripps Archives).

10. Marie Buckman to Jacob C. Harper [Scripps’ attorney], 19 November 1928, Scripps Archives.

11. Detroit News, 31 July 1883.

12. Scripps to Marie Buckman, 25 November 1916, Scripps Archives.

13. Florence Christman The Romance of Balboa Park (San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, 1985), 60.

14. Marie Buckman to Jacob Harper, 19 November 1928, Scripps Archives.

15. Scripps to Marie Buckman, 27 October 1919, Scripps Archives.

16. Detroit News, 7 August 1883.

17. Scripps to Marie Buckman, 3 June 1921, Scripps Archives.

18. For a general history of the Amarna Period see Cyril Aldred, Akhenaten Pharaoh of Egypt: A New Study (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1968) and Donald B. Redford, Akhenaten The Heretic King (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

19. For a general history of the excavations at Amarna see Lyla P. Brock, “100 Years of Digging at ‘Horizon of the Aten'” KMT, A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, 2 (Summer, 1991): 49-53. The E.E.S. resumed digging at Tel el Amarna in 1979.

20. Handwritten letter from Deir Mawâs, Upper Egypt, Scripps Archives.

21. For a discussion of the artistic innovations of the Amarna Period see Cyril Aldred, Akhenaten and Nefertiti (New York: The Brooklyn Museum, 1973).

22. Marie Buckman to Jacob Harper, 19 November 1928, Scripps Archives.

23. Clinton G. Abbott to Scripps, 30 January 1931, San Diego Historical Society document file.

24. Report of the Forty-Sixth Ordinary General Meeting of the Egypt Exploration Society, 1932, p. 10.

25. Will of Ellen Browning Scripps, Superior Court, San Diego County; Probate Orders, Decrees, Wills, 113: 132-170, Research Archives, San Diego Historical Society; also Wesley C. Crandall, President of the City Park Commission, to Clinton G. Abbott, 25 August 1932, San Diego History Center document file.

26. A quartzite torso of Meketaten, the second eldest daughter, is in the Brooklyn Museum. Although many sculptures of the Amarna princesses exist, few of these can be identified as a specific individual.

27. San Diego Union, 17 May 1940, p. A3:1-5.

28. Ibid., 24 April 1946, p. A6:6.

29. An invitation to the opening of The Egyptian Tomb exhibit is in the Museum of Man Scrapbook, Vol. VII, pg. 10. See also clipping from the San Diego Union, 15 June 1952, in the same source.

30. San Diego Union, 15 February 1954, p. A1:4-6.

31. Ibid., 5 February 1956, p. A25:1-4.

32. The painted stela found near the house of Panehsy was loaned to the exhibition “Akhenaten and Nefertiti” at the Brooklyn Museum in 1973. In the summer of 1992, some of the more important E.E.S. pieces along with Egyptian antiquities from other donors were returned to public display.

33. The curatorial files of the San Diego Museum of Man indicate that director, Edgar L. Hewett, exchanged these pieces for examples of Rio Puerco pottery that had been purchased with leftover exposition funds. The San Diego Museum also received over fifty examples of paleolithic and neolithic stone tools from Egypt in this trade.

34. Unlike the Scripps collection, most of these pieces did not come from controlled excavations and a few of them have since turned out to be fakes.

35. Patricia Spencer, Secretary of the E.E.S., to the author, 10 June 1991.

36. 1932, E.E.S. Report, p. 27. The average exchange rate in 1932 was $3.51 to 1.

37. Marie Buckman to Clinton G. Abbott, 12 February 1931, Scripps Archives.

38. One of the largest collections of Amarna material in the United States can be found at the Brooklyn Museum. Other notable collections include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.



The author would like to thank the following people for their research assistance: Pat Schaelchlin, La Jolla Historical Society; Judy Harvey Sahak, Scripps College, Claremont; Patricia Spencer, Secretary of the Egypt Exploration Society, London; Jane Bentley, Linda Fisk, Ken Hedges, Stefani Salkeld, and Rose Tyson at the San Diego Museum of Man; and Clara Breed and Dorothy Drake who provided transcripts of the Scripps travel letters.

Bruce Kamerling is Curator of Collections for the San Diego Historical Society. He has written several published articles on local art and architecture as well as 100 Years of Art in San Diego, published by the San Diego History Center (1991). Mr. Kamerling is past president of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, a former member of the San Diego Historical Site Board, and a current trustee of the Balboa Art Conservation Center. With a longstanding interest in ancient Egypt, he worked with the Egyptian collection of the San Diego Museum of Man as a Research Associate in 1973-74, and he is currently acting as guest curator for an Egyptian exhibit opening at the Museum of Man in June, 1992.