6. Giovanni Battista Belzoni
Giovanni Battista Belzoni was literally a giant of his age. Standing somewhere around 201 centimeters (6’7″), the Italian-born Belzoni first made a name for himself as a circus strongman in England. Belzoni, almost certainly a polymath, was an accomplished hydraulic engineer who built engines for exhibitions. It was this skill which brought Belzoni to the attention of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the ethnically Albanian former commander in the Ottoman Army who helped to establish modern Egypt. In 1815, Belzoni journeyed to Egypt in order to show the Egyptian ruler his hydraulic irrigation machines, but the Italian strongman and engineer wound up becoming one of Egypt’s great plunderers, ransacking many ancient tombs and temples.
What Belzoni managed to accomplish in Egypt is astounding. In 1816, Belzoni, using his great strength and skills as an engineer, retrieved a 7-ton bust of Ramesses II from his mortuary temple at Thebes and sold it to the British Museum, where it still stands today. Next, Belzoni and a team of workers cleared the entrance leading to the great temple at Abu Simbel and entered the site. Belzoni would continue to explore the insides of Egyptian tombs, such as the burial chamber of Seti I, which is still occasionally called “Belzoni’s Tomb.” Belzoni also became the first modern man to set foot inside of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
For many archaeologists, Belzoni, who helped to popularize Ancient Egyptian artifacts in Great Britain before dying of dysentery in West Africa, is more of a grave robber than a scientist or academic. Funnily enough, the same charge has been lobbed at Indiana Jones.
5. John Pendlebury
Although an archaeologist by trade and education, John Pendlebury was more of a swashbuckler than anything else. With his distinctive look, which included a glass eye that he received after an early childhood accident, Pendlebury typified the daring British gentleman-adventurer of the early 20th century.
Even before entering Pembroke College, Cambridge, Pendlebury was a dedicated classics scholar with an interest in Egyptology. Not long after graduating, Pendlebury became involved in excavations at Akhenaten’s capital of Amarna in Egypt and at Knossos in Crete, which was being overseen at the time by famous British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. By age 25, Pendlebury was already the curator at Knossos and the director of excavations at Tell el-Amarna.
Though Ancient Egypt was his first love, Pendlebury made his working home in Crete, where he studied Minoan culture and its ties to the greater Mediterranean world. For years, Pendlebury worked as something of a freelance archaeologist on the island and grew to know every inch of Crete, from the mountains to the coastline. This knowledge would serve him well during World War II, when as a commissioned officer in the British Intelligence Corps, Pendlebury helped to lead local resistance against the German invasion in 1941. Based in the city of Heraklion, Pendlebury and Cretan guerrillas bravely fought against German paratroopers until Pendlebury was wounded by Luftwaffe machine guns. Pendlebury was captured by the Germans, had his wounds dressed, and was then executed and buried outside the Canea Gate. Like the later Indiana Jones, Pendlebury became a hero of anti-Nazi resistance to both local Cretans and Allied intelligence service.