One of the pioneers in recording Egyptian monuments and inscriptions, his Denkmaler is one of the most important of 19th century Egyptological reference books. Born in Namburg-am-Sale in 1810, the son of Carl Peter Lepsius and Friedericke Gläser. Following university studies in archaeology, Greek, and Sanskrit at Leipzig, Göttingen, and Berlin, where he received a doctoral degree in 1833, Lepsius continued with Egyptology in Paris. During this time he visited Egyptian collections in Italy, Holland, and England and learned lithography and engraving, skills that were to prove useful in his future career.
In 1842, the Prussian Expedition to Egypt and Nubia, under his leadership, began a four year project to clear, study and record monuments throughout the Nile Valley. Perhaps inspired by the Napoleonic Expedition's efforts nearly a half century earlier, as well as the Franco-Tuscan Expedition led by Champollion and Rosellini in 1828-1829, and by the work of Wilkinson, this expedition, sponsored by King Wilhelm IV of Prussia worked as far south in the Sudan as Khartoum and Sennar, and visited the Fayyum and the Sinai. Collecting was also a mandate of the Expedition, and with the enthusiastic approval of Muhammad Ali, some 15,000 objects were shipped back to augment the growing Egyptian collection in Berlin. In the winter months of 1844-1845, Lepsius and his team of architects and draughtsmen recorded scenes and inscriptions in the numerous tombs and temples at Thebes. Nearly every tomb then known in the Valley of the Kings was explored and selected scenes copied. In some cases clearance was carried out, as in the tombs of Rameses II (KV 7), Merenptah (KV 8) and Hatshepsut (KV 20). Astronomical ceilings in many of the tombs caught their attention, and they made accurate copies of star clocks and the famous astronomical ceiling in the burial chamber of Sety I. A subsequent visit to Egypt in 1866 resulted in the discovery of the bilingual Canopus Decree at Tanis, which served as a check on the previous work achieved from the Rosetta Stone by Champollion and others.
Lepsius received a professorial appointment in Berlin in 1846 and married that same year. Following appointment to the Egyptian Museum in Berlin in 1855, he rose to the position of keeper of the Egyptian Collection. The results of the Prussian Expedition's epigraphic work were published between 1849 and 1859 in twelve huge volumes of plates. Five volumes of accompanying text appeared posthumously. Lepsius's prodigious capacity for work resulted in 142 works to his credit before his death in 1884.