How should we define ‘Egyptologist’?

My colleagues and I at the International Association of Egyptologists (IAE) have recently been looking at the eligibility criteria for membership of the Association, and a working party composed of members of the IAE Council has been established to discuss the issue. This is a question which has interested me for some years but my election as President of the IAE and the debate around membership have given this train of thought a practical application, and caused me to refine my ideas a little.

When I was studying Egyptology at university there came a point around the end of my second undergraduate year when I decided I wanted to have a go at making a career in the subject. I wanted to be an Egyptologist. What does this mean? At the time I must have had a pretty limited idea of what it meant. I knew some of the things my lecturers did like teaching and writing articles and books – that all seemed pretty good. There were other people who led excavations in Egypt, although I knew they were often also university lecturers, or museum curators, I knew you could earn a living doing that too. I hadn’t initially considered jobs like the one I took shortly afterwards at the EES, where I was mainly responsible for processing membership applications and looking after the library. Could I describe myself as ‘an Egyptologist’, I wondered at that point? I distinctly remember wondering about it – and hoping, I suppose! – but being too embarrassed to ask in case I was laughed at. At the time I had just completed a research degree (an MPhil) in Egyptology, I had written a ‘thesis’ – an original piece of research – I had been to Egypt, I could read hieroglyphs, I was about to join an archaeological project at Abydos… But did I qualify? As far as my non-Egyptologist friends were concerned I knew loads about ancient Egypt, I had two degrees in it and was now working for the Egypt Exploration Society – so they would probably have said yes! But as far as the Society’s CEO at the time or my old supervisor (both Drs with far more experience than me) were concerned, I had only been studying for a couple years and barely knew anything perhaps. What were the rules on becoming an Egyptologist and who made the judgment? There were – and are – no rules, and no-one in any position to make such judgments, of course.

After a few years, I relaxed a bit and became confident that I met most if not all the criteria I imagined might exist, and comfortable I couldn’t be told off for claiming ‘Egyptologist’ as my profession. At the same time, I stopped worrying about the criteria, and starting thinking that the very idea represented some kind of snobbery. It seemed to me that some believed the term brought with it a certain glamour, or glory(?), which they wanted to keep for themselves and deny to ‘outsiders’. I didn’t like this and started thinking that, in the absence of any recognised approval process or similar, anyone who wanted to call themselves an ‘Egyptologist’ was welcome to do so.

There are many ways in which one could make a contribution to Egyptology, and could therefore be regarded as a practicing Egyptologist. Many of the Association’s members will satisfy most if not all the criteria one might use to define what it means to be an Egyptologist, by having certain academic qualifications in Egyptology, usually including a PhD; by holding a ‘position’ within the field, that is to say they are employed by an academic institution, usually a university or museum; and they are actively engaged in fieldwork and/or research. But what of those to whom only one or two of these criteria apply? What of those who gained qualifications in other subjects but whose specialist expertise has nonetheless been applied to research on ancient Egypt? What of those in permanent positions whose work does not allow them any active involvement in research? What of those whose Egyptological work has continued even though they are employed in unrelated roles, as jobs in the field are so difficult to come by?

Egyptology ought, in my view, to be flexible enough to embrace anyone making a contribution to the field, regardless of their circumstances or background etc. I myself do not have a ‘position’ in the field as such at present, having left my post as Director of the Egypt Exploration Society to pursue a freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and public speaker (work which is all connected to Egyptology in some regard) and the same could be said for many of our colleagues – unsurprisingly, given that the number of jobs available is vastly outweighed by the number of qualified candidates. We should be careful to support all such people rather than to exclude them on the basis of the dogma that only those who are employed should count.

For a long time I couldn’t see any practical benefit in cultivating a kind of exclusivity for Egyptologists of a particular kind, and liked the idea of dismantling the snobbery. I still don’t like the snobbery, of course. However, since thinking about the Association, I’ve begun to refine my ideas a little.

We ‘Egyptologists’ are often called on to provide authoritative judgments or comments, for example, for television programmes, the news media etc. On a few occasions recently, these have involved some very important issues for our subject, such as the threat posed to ancient sites and monuments by looters, vandals or even terrorists, or the trafficking of antiquities. In such situations the representatives of our subject must, of course, be able to demonstrate academic authority – in other words they must show that they have the necessary expertise in Egyptology (being able to call oneself ‘Dr’ is the most convenient way as it indicates a certain level of study, but should not be taken as a universal standard, or even a guarantee of the right kind of authority). But we must also hope that they are able to articulate and promote certain professional and ethical standards. This is where my previous, inclusive stance might potentially let our subject down. Professional Egyptologists should be aware of, actively promote, and uphold in their own practice, these standards. Those without the relevant depth of experience and knowledge could not be relied upon to act accordingly.

I now believe, therefore, that there is good reason to try to define what it means to be a professional Egyptologist and to do so on the basis of an agreed set of guidelines defining professional and ethical standards, best practice etc. Professional Egyptologists should be required to sign up to these standards, and any breach should result in the withdrawal of ‘professional’ status within the Association.

The IAE has for many years provided a definition, albeit one that is broad and inclusive, and open to varying interpretations:

“Professional Membership, open to all scholars having an advanced degree in Egyptology, or in another scientific field but making significant contributions to Egyptology.”

Taken from the Statues of the IAE, 3.1.1. (see here).

It is this that we are now seeking to refine, and in relation to this two issues which must address:

  • There is not sufficient awareness of the IAE’s role in this and the importance of the definitions
  • Such definitions would be much more meaningful when combined with a code of professional and ethical standards.

Two issues which might form part of such a code have been raised more than once, specifically:

  • Respect for intellectual property and the right of individual scholars to publish primary material;
  • The antiquities trade and specifically the argument that the sale of ancient artefacts – legal or otherwise – creates a market which encourages the disappearance of ancient material into private collections, and, potentially, theft from archaeological sites and museums, illicit excavations etc.

My colleagues and I are now looking at these issues with a view to:

  • raising awareness of the International Association
  • encouraging a much larger proportion of professional Egyptologists to become members
  • Establishing code of professional and ethical standards
  • Making use of the Association’s membership to maintain, promote and most importantly uphold the code.

I’d be interested to hear what others think!

(Written on a train in Japan September 2015, at home in London January 2017, and on a plane to Luxor, March 2017).

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