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).

18 thoughts on “How should we define ‘Egyptologist’?

  1. Speaking as an amateur with an interest in Egyptology, and therefore no axe to grind, it seems to me that you and your colleagues have the balance about right. The outsider needs to have some confidence in the authority and probity of the representatives of the profession – and members of the profession need to know they have each other’s backs!

  2. Wicked Blogger

    Surely anyone who studies Egyptology is an Egyptologist. Those that get paid are professional. Those with qualifications are qualified and add those after their names. Simple.

    Members of your association therefore have 3 categories student, professional, qualified. At various points in time they may be one or all three.

    Associate membership for students
    Full membership for qualified or professional

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Jane! I’m not sure being paid is the right criterion for determining whether anyone is professional or not as the nature of employment in our field – not enough jobs of any kind to go round, many of them short-term contracts – means that many will not be earning at any given moment. Great to have your thoughts though!

  3. David Rohl

    I think it is dangerous to define an ‘Egyptologist’ solely by his professional or academic status … in other words the requirement of holding an academic post and a PhD. Many great professors of Egyptology and famous excavators did not have PhDs. Not all Egyptology researchers are academics … but there are Egyptologist who make a living out of publishing their research or contributing to excavation projects or promoting Egyptology through their books and/or TV documentaries. On the other hand, I think training in Egyptology and ancient world studies at university level (i.e. an undergraduate degree) is a minimum requirement for someone to call themselves an Egyptologist – especially if they continue to do research and contribute to the subject after leaving academia.

  4. Hi Chris, I cannot post the ECHO Code of Ethics here, but a few years ago we recognised the need for one directed at people working in Egypt of with Egyptian material. It is in the back of the ECHO books on Managing Egypt’s Cultural Heritage and also on the website. I would also look at other code of ethics from the AIA, the AAA and many others.This is what we did, as there was no point in starting from scratch and re-inventing the wheel. I can send it to you if you like?

  5. Sarah

    Hello Sir, I really like this post. I wasn’t aware that other people had qualms about calling themselves an Egyptologist, I thought it was just myself. I guess it does point to an underlying snobbery/exclusivity in the field. It also shows how a bit of introspection will serve us well. So thank you for writing this, its making me think.
    The point I wanted to add was about the limiting potential of relying on titles (i.e. Phd or Masters). I am very aware of their importance and how they do prove a commitment to the field, but they also disregard some amazing people. I am talking from a perspective I got from working in Egypt and in the government, so it is quite specific. There are plenty of people I met who are more devoted and serious about Egyptology than those with titles, and who are unable to obtain higher degrees (for financial reasons or time constraints). In fact, there’s a whole group of people (and a sizeable one at that) I observed that had all the necessary titles and from some great universities from all around the world who then stopped at that. They didn’t have much interest in furthering the field, didn’t want to invest much effort and snubbed everyone based on their title. They acted as if the goal was obtaining the title and preferably from a famous reputable university. While those who were honestly in pursuit of knowledge did all the work and were often sidelined. The problem is that when organisations seek members or recognise people within the ministry, it was those with the hollow titles that most often receive it. So I would add to this that experience in the field and the quality of work previously done be given weight in assessing an Egyptologist. And that sometimes, it can even trump the need for titles.

    1. I agree that an academic title such as a PhD – or the absence of one – is often taken to mean something that it does not. I did not suddenly acquire more knowledge or expertise the day my PhD certificate was handed to me. And you are quite right that there are a lot of people out there who are universally regarded as some of the finest in the field who contrary, I expect, to what many would believe, do not have the usual academic qualifications. Thanks for your contribution to the debate – much appreciated!

  6. Hi Chris, As you can imagine, this is a topic of relevance to me owing to my lack of any formal qualification in the field. I feel fortunate that this has not (often) been used to try and dismiss my observations and conclusions; and academics in particular, have been most positive and helpful in my researches. I take your point regarding administrative duties and associated activities also. Are you an egyptologist if you raise funds, or if you arrange the logistics of expeditions? Does digging qualify you? Do you have to have dug on Egyptian sites, and do they have to have been pre-Roman, pre-Coptic, pre-Islamic, pre-modern era? Now we excavate old dig houses. And if we dig in archives are we not as valuable as anyone else?

    1. Thanks Dylan, really appreciate your thoughts! Actually, if I may say so, I think you are one of the best examples of someone who has made an enormous contribution to the field without doing it in the what some might see as the conventional way. I’m all for a nuanced and inclusive approach as I hope will be obvious to anyone reading my post. Thanks again!

  7. Gemma

    Hey Chris,

    An interesting read and indeed something that I can relate to! From a young age I knew I was interested in pursuing this sort of career. I also studied Egyptology at Swansea University (BA, MA) but as I didn’t have the means to support a PhD I stopped there. I thought that maybe there is a way to go forward without having one.

    I feel I can now say that it is not impossible to do so, but it is very difficult. I should note here that I am not an archaeologist, I have never been on a dig in Egypt, and I do think that having field experience goes some way towards filling any gap in qualifications.

    I agree with what Sarah, above, says about recognition/titles vs experience. I have worked for some large UK museums and heritage organisations (so again this is a very specific point of view) and they very much seem to have the same sort of outlook. To cite one example, a museum was given funding to offer curatorial traineeships to help people who had not taken the traditional academic routes to enter the museum field. They actively encouraged people of other departments inside the institution to apply for them.

    They then gave every opening to someone who either had a PhD already, or was studying for one (and the majority of these people were also Oxbridge candidates/alumni). Whilst I don’t wish to say these people were not deserving of the opportunity, the museum was not really fulfilling their brief to help different types of people enter the profession, but supporting the notion that you must have such qualifications to do so.

    I think this same problem exists in Egyptology as much as the museum and archaeological sector because they are so closely related and historically come from a background of wealth. If we look at the way museums and collections developed then it is clear that the entire industry has always suffered from varying degrees of exclusivity/snobbery.

    I don’t know how to challenge this or encourage a more inclusive approach when actually, I think I myself could be considered part of the problem. I have given countless hours to cataloguing and caring for Egyptian material, yet I wouldn’t consider myself an Egyptologist. I never felt able to.

    Sorry for the long reply! If this was any other blog I might include a ‘tl;dr,’ but I don’t think that’s necessary here! 😀

  8. Peter Sullivan

    Hi Chris – I do have the dreaded PhD in Egyptology but it has not affected me mentally in any way I feel apart from relief when the long trek was over! There was no blinding moment of utter clarity and in fact very much the reverse as I often said in desperation ‘wonder what the heck the experts say on this – OMG that’s supposedly me now, errr, ummmm Heeelp!’ The process was a heck of a lot of fun though, mixed with the odd moment of sheer panic and utter frustration so if anybody out there is tempted I’d say do go for it. Now as to define Egyptologists, I feel that anyone sufficiently motivated should count either by quals or experience/enthusiasm. The problem is really to stop the extreme type of any sort taking over and representing themselves as the orthodox. I mean I love Stargate as much as the next man BUT there is not a skerrick of evidence to support that, the pyramids of mars, aliens or any of the more outrageous ideas fascinating though they may be, This is the nub of the problem to me – how does one have a cannon (=body of knowledge) accepted by all but not too restrictive?? Look at the academic hoohaa over ‘Centuries of darkness’ for example!! Perhaps, like the Bodlean Library in Oxford, we should have an oath one swears to uphold the cannon and abjure certain specified acts/beliefs lest we kindle a fire that will burn the metaphorical Egyptology Library down. Once you have sworn this oath, then you should be deemed an honest and upright Egyptologist, taught the secret handshake and all the mysteries of the craft including ‘how to take it with you when you go’. After all the oath method seems to have worked well for the Bodlean for the past 500 years or so.

    No doubt some would say this is ‘not enough’ but the very interesting thing I found out about the little teaching and work I’ve done in the area is that it is often the students or the outsiders who ask the most interesting questions from sheer enthusiasm and keep you learning. So let’s welcome them as fellows on the same path.

  9. Hi Chris,
    Just read your article with interest, I have been a member of the IAE since 1986, I think, some years I wonder why I pay every year, reading our recent newsletter about the work the IAE does has been most interesting and explains in more detail what the IAE does. I would like more of this sort of news please..
    As too what is an Egyptologist, I for one do not have a Doctorate just a lowly arts BA but I have considered myself an Egyptologist for the past 28 years. I run, as you know a specialist Egyptology bookshop, I have been first the representative in Australia of the Egypt Exploration Society and for the past five years the “Authorized Bookseller”. I occasionally lecture on Egyptology and collecting Rare books on Egyptology and I write articles here and there, and I have written a book but alas unpublished. I was involved with other Australian Egyptologists in a bid to host a “congress”, in Australia but unfortunately we lost to Florence.
    I am the current Vice-President of the new Australia Egypt Fund which is concerned with supporting Egyptology digs in Egypt either Australian or Egyptian digs. I feel I understand Egyptology and can talk about it (as I have on numerous occasions) to the media and the general public. So other than the degree I feel I am a card carrying Egyptologist. I would be most disappointed if the IAE downgraded my membership of over 25 years because I don’t have a Doctorate or degree in Egyptology. There are I am sure many people who would fall through the cracks and we want to encourage people to join the IAE and stay members for a long time.
    Overseas members really miss out on alot of the benefits of belonging to associations, going to congresses lets face it from Australia is alot of money and if you are disabled its pretty hard too; but we want to support Egyptology in any way possible and being a member of the IAE seems to me to be a very good way of being involved in the regulation is you will and lobbying of governments such as your current work on the banning of the US govt of people from some (but not all) muslim countries.
    Keep up the good work and I’m sorry to leave such a long reply.

  10. Steven Frisby

    A friend of mine, having slipped and emerged completely soaked from the nilometer at Edfu, immediately claimed that only someone thus “baptized” by the Nile could claim to be a true Egyptologist. Of course, her friends countered that she was just a true klutz.

      1. Steven Frisby

        Thanks for the great article, and to all your colleagues for the thought-provoking discussion. I think Isaac Asimov would have agreed with your flexible definition of Egyptologist, since he once made the following argument for the value of self education:

        “… when there’s a subject I’m ferociously interested in, then it’s easy for me to learn about it. I read it. I absorb it. I take it in gladly and cheerfully. I’ve written more books on Astronomy than any other science, and no one has ever complained that my astronomical books are wrong, silly, or anything like that. I’ve never taken a course in Astronomy. I’m completely self trained in it. On the other hand, I’ve written relatively few books on chemistry, which is my training. I’ve got a Ph.D. in chemistry, but I know too much chemistry to get excited over it, whereas astronomy is different.” — Bill Moyers interview, Cooper Union, NYC, 1988

        Certainly a degree makes it more likely that a holder has a solid grasp of the basics, but I think most graduates will recall standing at the graduation ceremony, capped and gowned, and perhaps a bit nervous, thinking “You mean that’s it … I know it all?” And there are fields so vast that a lifetime is too short to learn it all.

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