James Bruce, discoverer of the 'Harpers' Tomb'

by Hazel Gray


In 2019, Keith Walker very kindly donated to the Society a large number of Egyptology books from the library of his late father, Geoffrey Vincent Walker, who had been an EES member for 46 years.

The books are, by and large, in excellent condition, and work is underway to assess which may be used to replace worn library copies, which would be new additions to stock, and which fall outside the remit of the Society's collection. Over the next few months, we will introduce you to some of the highlights of the donation, including some early travellers' accounts.

One of the more recent volumes in the new bequest is The pale Abyssinian by Miles Bredin (published in 2000), a biography of James Bruce (1730-1794), a man who travelled through Egypt and beyond in search of the source of the Nile. He is known to many as the first modern explorer of the tomb of Ramesses III in the Valley of the Kings (KV11), which is sometimes referred to as ‘Bruce's tomb’ or ‘The harpers' tomb’. The Caminos Library is fortunate to possess illustrated first editions of several volumes of Bruce's Travels to discover the source of the Nile published in 1790, and this recent biography by Bredin sheds light on the man himself.


Portrait of James Bruce in 1762, by Pompeo Batoni (National Galleries Scotland)

Born the son of a laird in Scotland in 1730, Bruce studied law before becoming a wine merchant, which allowed him to indulge his passion for travel and develop a knowledge of several languages. The death of his father and the discovery of coal on the family's estate made him wealthy, and he became a full-time traveller and adventurer. His ultimate desire was to track the Blue Nile back to its source, and in 1769 he set out to achieve this goal, continuing his travels until 1773. 

27BA-GetImage.jpg CA7D-GetImage.jpg

Bruce's depictions of the harpists in KV11 as shown in his Travels

His travel through Egypt was rapid, and he did not claim to be an expert on its ancient history, but in Thebes he made an important discovery – ‘important not only because he was the first person to describe an intriguing facet of Egyptian life, but also because it led to his being disbelieved when he returned to London’ (Bredin 2000). This was his discovery of paintings of men playing harps, in the aforementioned tomb of Ramesses III, which apparently suggested a new date for the known origins of music. He accurately described the painting in some detail and drew romanticised depictions of them, and on his return to London was asked to write an article about the newly discovered harp for a history of music compiled by musicologist Dr Burney. This publication prompted huge criticism directed at Bruce – indeed his description of the ‘Theban lyre’ led to his being termed the ‘Theban liar’. The illustrations above, taken from our copy of his Travels show his discovery, though the paintings are now sadly much damaged.

7B51-GetImage.jpg One of the badly damaged harpists in KV11 (courtesy of the Theban Mapping Project)


On his retirement, he wrote an account of his adventures, which was published in 1790. He sadly died at home three years after the publication, having fallen downstairs and never regained consciousness. Though his account was not given great credence at the time, reports by later travellers bore out many of his observations, and it seems he did manage to trace the Blue Nile back to its source in Lake Tana.

Read more Collection Highlights on the Walker Bequest here:

Charles Dudley Warner’s Winter on the Nile (coming soon)

Henry Villiers Stuart's Nile Gleanings

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