Performing artist and Egyptologist Giovanni Battista Belzoni was born on 5 November 1778 in Padua. On Easter Monday 1803 a Sadler’s Wells playbill announced the first appearance in England of the ‘Patagonian Sampson’. For the next nine years he performed in Britain and Ireland at fairs and theatres, often as strongman, but also as actor, conjuror, or designer of dramatic effects produced by hydraulics.
When the Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig [John Lewis] Burckhardt wished to present to the British Museum the colossal granite head of Ramses II, which lay broken from its body at Thebes (Luxor), he employed Benzoni’s engineering abilities. In his excavation work he showed great mechanical ingenuity and uncovered four new tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the most important being that of Seti I, now in John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Belzoni quitted Egypt in September 1819. He returned to England in March 1820 and wrote his Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia (1820). He rented the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly for a year and staged an exhibition of the tomb of Seti I. In 1823, he set out on a new adventure to find the source of the Niger, but fell ill and died in December. Belzoni’s efforts supplied the British Museum with many of its finest Egyptian antiquities. The methods he applied show that there was no marked distinction between early archaeology and vandalism.