Saturday, June 19, 2010

Conference notes: Disciplinary Measures?

Disciplinary Measures? Histories of Egyptology in Multi-Disciplinary Context

10th-11th June 2010
12th June 2010
Sponsored by The centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies of the School of Oriental and African Studies, UCL; The Egypt Exploration Society; The University College London Institute of Archaeology Heritage Studies Research Group.

I was rather surprised to find a conference organized within the field of Egyptology which explicity took a look at itself as a discipline. Egyptology seems to have evolved without visible concern from Egyptologists about how it is defined and how it is practised. The medium through which the conference explored the discipline was the history of the development of the Egyptology.

The conference was divided into two parts over three days. The first two days, with registration free of charge, was divided into a number of sessions each with three 15 minute papers, a discussant and an open discussion period following. The final day, for which a fee was charged, consisted of opening remarks, a summary of the previous two days and five 50 minute lectures, all followed by a discussion session, closing remarks and a reception.

The scope for the conference was quite broad and resulted in a mixture of papers on loosely related topics with a common theme of the history of the discipline. Here's the introductory blurb:

'Disciplinary Measures?' aims to provide a discussion forum for the increasing number of people working on the history (or histories) of the discipline of Egyptology. The conference is not limited to Egyptologists. Rather, it seeks to set the multiple histories of Egyptology in the broader, multi-disciplinary context of recent studies such as Whose Pharaohs? by Donald Reid, Conflicted Antiquities by Elliott Colla and Wondrous Curiosities by Stephanie Moser. The conference aims to stimulate critique and constructive dialogue between those from various disciplines.


I only found out about the conference a couple of days before it was due to run (thanks to William Carruthers for accepting my late registration) and as a result I was unable to attend all of the sessions. I missed the last session on the first day and the last two sessions on the second. and attended all on the final day. Apologies, therefore, that these notes are incomplete.

If anyone took notes on Keith Amery's "In the Shadow of War" paper in the last session of the first day I would be most grateful to receive them.

Inevitably my notes reflect my own personal interests rather than the full scope of each of the papers so apologies for not providing complete and detailed overviews of each paper - what follows is very much a set of edited highlights, skimming the surface of some really detailed presentations.

If anyone feels that I have misrepresented them or just noted things down incorrectly please let me know and I will post corrections immediately.

10th June

The first session was entitled "Nationalism" and looked at nationalist versions of Egyptology.

In the case of Jason Thompson's discussion of early 19th Century British contributions, the powerful role of individual people as innovators, facilitators, sponsors and communicators was highlighted. In the absence of academic institutions the role of individuals was important and Thompson provided details about some of these important characters. Thompson emphasised that it appears to be the lack of either institutional organization or continuing individual commitment that saw a hiatus in Egyptological studies in Britain after the first half of the 19th century. Egyptology in Britain had to re-invent itself following that hiatus.

Eric Gady highlighted how the work of Champollion has effectively overshadowed the work of all other French Egyptologists who contributed to the publication and communication of Egyptology, and he discussed some of these writers - many of whom I had not seen mentioned previously. Still, as Gady pointed out, it was a small list of publications from a country that sees itself as a birthplace of science. He also made the point that histories of Egyptology tend to be highly nationalistic and partisan, and that the history of Egyptology should be an international affair, making use of online resources to provide accessible data.

Lynnn Stagg looked at the role of nationalistic viewpoints in the early interpretation of the Palette of Narmer. The influences on Egyptology were many and varied, deriving from scholarship in multiple disciplines. Flinders Petrie supported an invasionist answer to the question of how Egyptian civilization developed and this was highly influential on the interpretation of artefacts and texts. Her presentation put the palette of Narmer into the context of how histories are written and how they can very much be the product of their time in which they were written.

In the second session the value of the individual was again emphasised and these individuals were set against a background of influences, limiting factors and opportunities. Again, insight was provided into how Egyptology was practised against particular mechanisms of social, political and academic contexts. All three presentations highlighted that Egyptologists were not working in isolation from others, in spite of the fact that there were no formal institutions to support them. Social and political connections were important. The presentations also demonstrated that work was carried out on an ad hoc basis rather than as a strategic and co-ordinated plan. In addition they all highlighted the importance of the role of philology in these early years.

John J. Johnston's presentation looked at the "very modern Victorian" Sir Alan Gardiner, and at Gardiner's relationship with the thinking and ideas of the Victorian era. Johnston made the interesting point that Gardiner and Arthur Weigall often discussed philology versus archaeology. Gardiner found it difficult to perceive monuments and tombs as archaeology, something which has survived into present times in a great many fields of research.

Hana Navratilova's discussion of the work of Norman and Nina de Garis Davies tracings looked not only at their marvellous output and at the reasons why the chose to produce the tracings under discussion but also considered the value of revisiting that archival material - a theme that reappeared throughout the conference. Over 1000 tracings from over 70 tombs have been digitized and will soon be available online at the Griffith Institute.

Amara Thornton's presentation about John Garstang looked in detail at how social and political networks opened up or restricted the opportunities available to early Egyptologists. Many of these connections were informal and unofficial but were of critical importance to individuals who wanted to make their way in Egypt and neighbouring areas. Social networks of all sorts were necessary devices for progress in developing scholarship.

The third session was perhaps the one that generated most vigorous response, partly due to the topic but also because of the excellent choice of discussant (prehistorian Sue Hamilton). Two of the three papers looked at how past Egyptology related to other fields and methodologies whilst another looked at how a single integrated work was produced.

The paper by Alice Stevenson discussed the early relationship between anthropology and Egyptology prior to 1930 and why the two disciplines separated. Apart from Lustig's Anthropology and Egyptology (1997) the idea that Egyptologists have any idea that anthropology and Egyptology might have something to do with each other had seemed more than somewhat improbable. Stevenson's paper revealed how the two disciplines were actually very closely associated until the 1930s, after which they diverged, and she explored the reasons for this. Her work was directly connected to her role at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford where some of these patterns in early Egyptology are clearly visible.

Andrew Bednarski looked at a rediscovered book by Caillioud with a view to examining how it was produced both technically and philosophically, and what could be learned from the production process about the use of both primary and secondary resources. Some of the illustrations in Caillioud's publications could be seen to be tidied up or heavily interpreted versions of the originals. I was intrigued by discussant Sue Hamilton's comment that the moment you excavate an artefact out of the ground it becomes secondary because it immediately becomes subject to interpretation.

Finally, Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia's presentation on the peculiarities of Egyptology at the turn of the century looked at Egyptology's isolation from other disciplines and some of the problems emerging from its general appeal to the public and media. Egyptology was put into the context of the social sciences. Moreno Garcia says that Egyptology has always looked at discoveries rather than interpretation and largely ignores social and economic history. Even today the discipline remains isolated which means that inter-disciplinary work is all too often lacking. The late 19th century view of ancient Egypt as a lost paradise was created partly because of the political context of increasing suffrage and socialism and increasing power of the masses in Europe. Elitism was also emerging from research into beautiful objects. These foundations of the discipline have influenced its development. Funding has been given mainly to projects which emphasise that image rather than a more realistic view of of the archaeology. Moreno Garcia emphasised that archaeological interpretation was lost in favour of collecting artefacts, and that the current state of Egyptology has been defined by this past obsession with collecting beautiful things rather than interpreting the arteracts as indicators of socioeconomic develoopment. (Moreno Garcia was not present in person - his paper was read to the audience by William Carruthers).

(I was absent for session 4).

11th June

The first session looked at Egyptian and Arab perceptions of Egypt in the past and present.

Okasha el Daly presented the work of Medieval Muslim scholars who had a considerable interest and made skilled insights about ancient Egypt long before Egyptology as we understand it today was born. Okasha commented that Medieval Arab scholarship much wider and broader scope than today and that there was much less specialization and narrowness of focus.

Donald Reid discussed the role of the Copts from colonial to postcolonial times, and found that their role in Egyptology has altered considerably over that period, with Copts being marginalized in Egyptology since Nasser's regime. He also pointed that while there are no anti-Pharaonic sections of the Coptic community, there are some amongst Islamic Egyptians who find the survival of Pharaonic emblems in modern times controversial - something of which I was previously unaware.

Caroline Simpson's denouncement of the responses (or lack of them) to the destruction of Qurna was a powerful comment about the inability of local people to influence their own future. She explained how Egyptologists, UNESCO and others turned a blind eye whilst the Egyptian authorities ignored strong local feeling and UNESCO reports alike - and destroyed the mudbrick village above the Qurna tombs. These were constructed after the example of the first western European dig houses. Some were around 100 years old and were perfect examples of vernacular architecture. A small number of salvaged houses set up to serve as a museum of Qurna life were later destroyed. The demolition of the village, using bulldozers, filled many of the open tomb entrances with debris and presumably the vibration cannot have done the tombs anything but harm. It is now unclear how the tombs will be protected. Simpson also pointed out that a similar fate has been inflicted upon Coptic remains, as Egyptologists headed for the Pharaonic levels beneath.

In the second session, "Representations," Jasmine Day discussed the character of the mummy in horror films, Steve Vinson discussed the relationship between the story captured on a papyrus of and the Victorian rendering of it which found expression in the the Romance of Setna Khaemwas.

John Tait looked at how language has been studied in the past to assess the character of ancient Egyptians. He says that considering the characteristics of the language as a reflection of the human mind is no longer tackled in modern linguistics.

(I was absent for sessions 3 and 4).

12th June

William Carruthers opened the presentations with a presentation about the contributions and discussions that had taken place over the previous two days. He highlighted how many of the presentations had focused on what had made and what makes a discipline what it actually is and how many discussions challenged the present isolation of Egyptology. He commented on the positive aspect to the discussions, which seemed to be very open and honest and used the example of the three organizers of the conference to suggests that organizations that are not obvious bed fellows are clearly willing to work with each other to produce improved conversations about their disciplines.

Jason Thompson talked about Edward William Lane the Orientalist whose early interest in ancient Egypt expanded into a broader interest in all things Egyptian and beyond. Lane's writings and illustrations provide a fascinating view of the state of ancient Egypt in the mid to late 1800s. Hieroglyphs, for examples, were still poorly understood at that time, and some of the buildings that he went to sketch were in the process of being dismantled for the use of the stone in other building projects and others that he visited had already gone. As with Amara Thornton's presentation it was clear that the value of fitting in with the local elite was of primary importance, leading to him and his friends adopting local Ottoman-Turkish names, clothing and manners.

David Jeffreys spoke about the Armenian-Turkish Joseph Hekekyan who trained as an engineer and worked for Muhammad Ali on a number of engineering projects in Egypt before he was corced to retire from ill health in the 1940s. He was then hired by geologist Leonard Horner to investigate the rise of the Nile floodplain. He made impressively detailed records of archaeological sections with the archaeology and geology clearly marked at Heliopolis and Mit Rahina. He had some wild views on some aspects of ancient Egypt, including the belief that the Giza pyramids were sand breaks. His work seems to have been forgotten by many Egyptologists and Jeffreys suggested that this might have been because his work looks as though it was partly rejection by European scholars because he was a bit of a social misfit, wasn't mainstream or part of the elite, and possibly because he was foreign.

Jaromir Malek presented a thought provoking paper on the possibility and difficulties of writing of a modern history of Egyptology itself. The writing of a history of Egyptology effectively has to address the nature of the discipline as a whole. He suggested that a history of Egyptology should be much more than a who's who of significant people and asked what Egyptology actually is and looks at how scholarship in Egyptology is defined. Egyptology was once limited almost exclusively to philology. He argues that the battle to get value of archaeology accepted is over but that now new methodologies, many of them science-based are under discussion. It is a fragmented subject and does not lend itself to being organized. He next tackled the issue of how to define an Egyptologist - is he or she defined by being salaried or having a university position, having a degree, or using a specialism to contribute to the bigger picture? He argued that it doesn't matter until it comes to deciding what and who to include in a history of Egyptology. He believes that a history of Egyptology should not just consist of developments but reasons and motives and connections - it requires historical context. He also suggested that such a publication should be available in electronic format so that it can be updated easily and accessibly. It was revealed that Jason Thompson has taken on the task of writing a history, so it will be very interesting to see what emerges.
Malek went on to raise the question of why there aren't agreed plans to manage sites under risk to monuments and to prioritise research and field projects. He finds it difficult to comprehend why Egyptologists cannot get together to agree a rational strategy. Full international cooperation should be possible. He gave two examples of work that needs to be completed. Over 400 large decorated tombs in Luxor more than half have not been properly studied, excavated and published. His second example is the tomb of Tutankhamun. Work in it finished 1932 but only around 30% of objects have been properly studied.
Finally Malek also discussed how Egyptology should defend its position in the face of cuts in funding where humanities can be expected to fare badly in comparison with science - and Egyptology will probably suffer against larger humanities subjects.

Stephen Quirke looked at photographic archives at the Petrie Museum and what value this type of archive can offer to research. He made a similar point to that of Andrew Bednarski when he pointed to the differences between an original image and the one tidied up or redrawn for publication. He also point out the value of the archive to an understanding of the contribution of Egyptian workers and specialists, many of whom are lost from sight in the final publications. He looked in some detail at the influences on what was published at the time, and how it appeared. Contemporary ways of presenting information, including the London Illustrated News, had a significant impact on how such publications were designed and what the public received.

Donald Reid's presentation on the waxing and waning of the relationship of the western public with Tutankhamun was illuminating. I had always seen the public fascination with Tutankhamun as a relatively stable and consistent phenomenon, but Reid's presentation showed that it fluctuated considerably since the tomb's discovery. The presentation was full of information that I simply hadn't heard before. For example the way in which Carter and Carnarvon controlled the news of the discovery and access to the tomb was mind-boggling. They ignored the Egyptian press scooped the world by announcing it in the UK and then gave exclusivity over the story to The Times in Britain. They then prevented access to the tomb to Egyptian officials. I also didn't know that in spite of Carter and Carnarvon arguing that part of the collection could go to Britain, Egypt's new independence prevented the export, which is why the collection remained in Egypt. Western enthusiasm for the Tutankhamun discovery helped to establish it as an icon for Egypt as well - internalising the world's regard for Tutankhamun and his treasures as an authentic symbol for Egypt, but effectively chosen by the West. Reid's use of keyword searches in The Times was a fascinating barometer of public interest in Tutankhamun, showing real peaks and troughs. Exhibitions and tourism have ensured that Tutankhamun is at a peak of popularity.

A few comments

It was interesting how quickly a discussion about histories should become a discussion about individual identities, and this emphasises how quickly Egyptology developed out of the work of particular individuals who were either instrumental in or directly involved with early discovery, exploration and, importantly, publication. Many of the presentations concerned the biographies of some of these individual Egyptologists. While the stories of these individuals are fascinating, I would have found it interesting to see more about how some of these individuals helped to shape the future of the discipline. Sadly there wasn't a presentation about any of the multiple Egyptian Egyptologists who have gone largely un-recognized, although Labib Habachi was mentioned several times.

Jaromir Malek's excellent paper about writing a history of Egyptology raised a number of very useful points. I thought that the question "what is an Egyptologist" was something of a red herring in the writing of a history of Egyptology. Those involved in the early exploration of Egypt did not have to have been Egyptologists to have contributed to the birth and development of the discipline. More importantly even though Malek asked the question "what is Egyptology?" there was remarkably little discussion on this subject on the day.

It was interesting that although there was much talk about the isolated nature of Egyptology and the importance of inter-disciplinary perspectives there was not much discussion on the subject (and I'm not sure that anyone actually stated what was meant by inter-disciplinary, but I could have missed it). A few presenters referred to reflexive approaches (an idea adopted and developed by post-processual archaeologists but rarely discussed in Egyptology) but there were few other discussions about the theoretical and methodological developments in related disciplines and how they might be relevant to future approaches in Egyptology. Alice Stevenson discussed the broken relationship between Egyptology and anthropology but the relationships between Egyptology, archaeology and history were not discussed. Speaker David Jeffreys commented that he saw himself as an archaeologist rather than an Egyptologist and added that Egyptology and Egyptian Archaeology were becoming two different fields. That remark should have been worthy of a much more animated discussion its own right.

It is a shame that Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia was not attending in person because his paper was hitting many of the above buttons and it would have been great to have his input in the discussions that followed that session.

The discussion of fiction derived from Egyptology was interesting and thorough, but it would be good to have had a brief insight into how such fictions were accepted by and influenced contemporary thinking about the Egyptian past.

Caroline Simpson's presentation about Qurna was an alarming insight into the conflict between the national machine and local interests. I covered the story over several posts on this blog but I never really got to grips with all the facets of the case, and assumed that everyone apart from the locals thought that removal of the village from the tombs was an imperative from a heritage conservation point of view - but according to the multiple UNESCO reports quoted by Caroline Simpson this was clearly not the case, and the benefits are very hard to assess. At the same time Donald Reid's look at the state of Coptic contributions to Egyptology also raised the point that politics and heritage are rarely independent of each other. The idea that states influence heritage management is not new but these two very different papers brought the issue very vividly to life. Balancing the needs of minorities, heritage and tourism in Egypt is always going to be difficult.

A small gap to my mind is that there was no discussion about the development of prehistoric and Predynastic research, much of it desert-based, within the framework of Pharaonic Egyptology in the Nile valley and the Delta. Although following Jaromir Malek's paper a couple of speakers said that they saw Predynastic archaeology as part of Egyptology, there is an obvious split between Egyptologies of text and Egyptologies which have no text from which to draw conclusions, an idea that would have been useful to investigate further.

Related to that comment is that the textual world of Pharaonic Egypt somewhat drowns out the people whose voices weren't represented by the written word.

I was very interested to see that Moreno Garcia had picked up on the lack of research into broad social and economic subjects. It would also be interesting to reach an understanding of how the economy of Egypt has been so thoroughly excluded from mainstream conversations about ancient Egypt. If you pick up a standard introductory book about ancient Egypt it will have chapters on everything from religion and mummification to hieroglyphs and warmongering - but nothing on how Egypt actually works. There are lots of assumptions and speculations dotted around, and some analyses of specific datasets like the Deir el Medineh ostraca, but most work bases itself on much earlier proposals (e.g. Keynes and Polanyi) and there seems to be no new original research on the subject of the economic foundations and operation of Egypt emerging from universities. Why is that the case?

I enjoyed the conference. The most valuable thing that I derived from it was the crystalization of a number of thoughts that have been brewing in my small head for the last couple of years about the nature of Egyptology and its relationship to archaeology.


The conference must have taken some considerable organization, and William Carruthers said that it had taken the best part of a year to pull together. They organizers are to be congratulated for having done such a good job of presenting such a varied and interesting number of topics from such a wide range of presenters. The discussions were excellent and often provided revealing insights not only into the current state of Egyptology but the gaps that often lead to it feeling so unformed as a formal discipline.

Criticisms aired by many of the members of the audience and one of the speakers were mainly focused on the fact that only 15 minutes was allowed per paper. Although at the beginning of the conference I too had my doubts about the wisdom of this I found that the long discussion periods allowed some of the speakers to elaborate some of the points that they did not have time to cover in the presentations and this seemed to compensate.

One lady asked why the final day was confined to an all male panel. One of the organizers, Will Carruthers, said that he would answer the question as he had spent the last 10 minutes pondering the same question - and it was quite clear from what he said that the all-male panel on the final day was an accident. In all honesty I hadn't noticed which, being female myself, I might have been expected to do. Whilst this could have been because I was near dead from insomnia it was more likely due to the excellent balance displayed on the previous two days. Not only had there been a good balance between male and female presenters and discussants, but there was also a mix of younger and older, experienced and relatively inexperienced, well-known names and relatively unknown names and, if you really want to push the boat out, both straight and gay presenters and discussants. There were also many nationalities represented amongst the speakers. It was not a British-only fest and the only regret, clearly expressed by the organizers, was that there were not enough Egyptian speakers - and this was due to funding problems, not selection biases. The discussants were not exclusive to Egyptology either and in fact, from my point of view, one of the most valuable discussion sessions was chaired by a prehistorian who has nothing to do with Egypt. In short, I saw no signs whatsoever of deliberate exclusion or bias in the choice of presenters throughout the conference.

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