Decolonising, Egyptology & the dirty little secret

“The dirty little secret is that some disciplines don’t need to be decolonized, they just need to be shut down entirely”

“Here’s looking at you, Egyptology…”

Screenshot 2020-07-09 at 18.16.06

I saw these lines posted to Twitter recently.

I describe myself as an ‘Egyptologist’ – see the banner of my website and the short description at the top of all my social media accounts etc. I make a living from the subject, and have been doing so for the best part of twenty years. So, I have a vested interest in the discipline not being shut down entirely. Still, I recognise that these tweets are a response to the ways in which Egyptology is, undeniably, problematic. Shutting it down entirely might seem dramatic, but this is perhaps exactly the kind of message that is needed if we are all to wake up to the ways in which it is problematic and to try to change things for the better.

It’s worth saying that in addition to what I do now – writing, lecturing, media work – from 2001 to 2016 I was employed by The Egypt Exploration Society,1 a British organisation founded in 1882, the year Britain bombarded Egypt in order to put down a revolt and protect its own economic and other interests, taking effective control of the country in the process. The organisation is responsible for the excavation of thousands of ancient artefacts, many of which were subsequently removed from Egypt and distributed to museums around the world in exchange for financial support for the continuation of its work.2 It is very much a part of the establishment of Egyptology internationally. So for this reason in particular, you might think that, as regards the debate about decolonising Egyptology, I would be something of a dinosaur, with views that are the very opposite of progressive. I hope this isn’t the case however – even if it’s what the hardliners think, and even if what’s below makes it seem as though I still don’t get it. Even though I do have a vested interest in Egyptology, it’s clear that there is a problem to be faced – in Egyptology as with cricket, something else I’m rather partial to, but can see is problematic for similar reasons, and in which I don’t have any vested interest (“You can’t understand the history of cricket without understanding the history of empire. You can’t appreciate the rivalries between these, and other, teams, without appreciating the relationship between our countries, what’s been given, and what’s been taken.” as I read here recently).

When I saw the tweets above I wondered if there was an accessible and concise explanation as to why (some might say) Egyptology should be shut down. And I started scribbling some notes on why this might be the case. I have subsequently seen it suggested that Dr William Carruthers (author of the second of the tweets and with whom, by the way, I’ve been on friendly terms for years now)’ introduction to the Histories of Egyptology volume which he also edited, provides such an explanation. And since I first drafted this piece Will has very helpfully posted further concise thoughts in this thread.

What follows are my own thoughts. I hope those closer to the cutting edge of the debate will forgive me; I’m posting this in the hope of bringing the debate to a wider audience, and of learning more myself, and absolutely welcome comments, criticisms, additions etc. in the comments below. Thanks!

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” (James Baldwin)

How is the study of the ancient past in Egypt to continue in the future?

1. Should the name (‘Egyptology’) be changed?
2. Should Egyptology be practiced in different way(s)?
3. Should it be shut down entirely?

I imagine that for those writing the tweets at the top of this post, #1 would not be enough and in any case it would be quite difficult to think of another label that would provide an effective substitute, at least one that would supplant the existing term quickly enough. Much as #3 might be a nice idea for some it would be too much for many others – would anyone really wish for the study of a few millennia of years of history to be completely closed down? I hope that would seem unnecessarily counter-productive even to the hard-liners. Which leaves option #2.

I think #1 and #2 probably both merit a bit more explanation but before we get to that, it’s probably more important to try to explain…

Why is Egyptology problematic?

Here’s a starter for ten…

Egyptology is a product of colonialism, the process by which certain countries, mostly European / ‘western’, including Britain, exploited certain other countries for political, territorial and economic gain. These countries, including Egypt, are generally located in Africa and Asia, and many of them happen to have long and rich histories, and are often very rich in archaeological remains.

Colonialism created and compounded inequalities, to the benefit of the colonialists, and the detriment of the colonised. Colonial countries got richer from the resources of the colonised countries, and maintained control of these resources – material and intellectual – ensuring that that situation continued.

Even after the colonised countries gained political independence to some degree the advantages the colonisers had gained, allowed them to maintain their advantages.

The end result is the creation and exacerbation of political, social and economic inequalities and injustices across the world, which continue to exist to this day in various forms. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, is a response to problems that have their roots in colonialism. As Egyptology does.

Knowledge. Egyptology, the acquisition of knowledge about Egypt’s ancient past (see below for more on the definition), was formalised by the colonialist nations. It has spread and promoted knowledge of ancient Egypt to western audiences but was developed in ways that ensured it would always be largely inaccessible to the people of Egypt and other countries outside the west.

Academic exclusivity. Egyptology is an academic pursuit which finds its principal expression in written form, mainly, to this day, in three European languages: English, French and German. The necessary literacy in these languages is more easily accessible outside Egypt. Egyptian scholars wishing to succeed in the study of their own country’s ancient past have to learn the Europeans’ language(s), not the other way around. Even for those students who are competent with the languages, access to the necessary literature is not easy: libraries in Egypt are not necessarily accessible to all and often not very well-stocked, and books are more expensive and harder to come by for Egyptians. Some scholarship is published in other languages including in Arabic, but realistically, any scholar wishing for their work to gain acceptance in international circles must publish in one of the three dominant languages, and ideally through an established journal or publishing house, almost all of which are also based in colonial countries.

Looted material remains. The excavation of the physical remains of Egypt’s past – the sites and monuments – particularly in the nineteenth century, was undertaken by colonialists eager to remove what they could for display in their own countries. Even though this process gradually slowed over time with the creation of a national antiquities service and institution of laws governing the removal of objects (it was halted completely in 1983), thousands of objects left the country and would never return. More importantly, perhaps, even those which remained in Egypt were kept in institutions controlled by colonialists, i.e. by the Antiquities Service, in the national museum collection. And even after the Service passed out of the hands of Europeans into the hands of Egyptians (1950s) it was still run according to the rules of a discipline – Egyptology – which continued to be practiced and led primarily outside Egypt.

Operating comfortably and securely in someone else’s country. Egyptology has, for more than a century, given many in colonialist nations a reason to be interested in, and to travel to, Egypt. Egyptologists, in sharing what they have learned about Egypt – through an ever-growing body of literature – have provided others in their countries with the skills to navigate the foreign country and culture of Egypt that has allowed thousands to contribute – however unwittingly – to the process of maintaining an undue influence there. In other words, the colonialist nations were able to take control of countries like Egypt initially perhaps by military force, but that control was subsequently strengthened in much subtler ways. By the late 19th century, British people, collectively, were generally richer than their Egyptian counterparts, more knowledgeable of other countries, languages and cultures, and able to enjoy the benefits of their countrymen having established institutions around the world that would provide them with the support and protection that would allow them to travel and experience others’ countries safely, comfortably and with confidence – providing further opportunities for their exploitation.

Egyptologists’ experiences and the accounts they shared – some of which might, if only in the incidental details, have prepared others to study or visit Egypt, while others were much more explicit in assisting potential visitors (see e.g. the guidebooks published by John Murray or Baedecker in the later nineteenth century, or those of John Gardner Wilkinson a few decades earlier) – did nothing to redress the injustices of colonialism, and everything to allow the injustices it created to be extended.

A familiarity with foreign countries and culture, acquired through an interest in archaeology etc, has often been used for advantage in other ways. For example, in the Second World War, many archaeologists and ancient historians were recruited by military intelligence because of their knowledge of the language, customs and geography of particular regions. On occasion, archaeological work has sometimes provided the cover for military reconnaissance work. And even today, archaeological expeditions remain a part of the ‘soft power’ efforts of former colonial countries wishing to retain influence even long after political control has long been formally relinquished. Was the British Academy’s sponsorship of foreign archaeological missions in the decades following the second world war a matter purely of interest in archaeology, or were their other purposes? These are important issues that we, as archaeologists and historians, should give more time to investigating critically.

So, back to my original question: How is the study of the ancient past in Egypt to continue in the future?

1. Should the name (Egyptology) be changed?

The word ‘Egyptology’ or at least ‘Egyptologist’ (‘Égyptologue’ in French) was coined in the nineteenth century to mean someone pursuing the study of Egypt, but specifically ancient Egypt. ‘Egyptologist’ is a somewhat nebulous term which can be applied to specialists with a variety of different skills; what they have in common is the application of their skills to the study of ancient Egypt, usually defined as the people and cultures of the territory of Egypt from the very earliest times to the Arab conquest, but usually no later. The discipline is therefore an ‘area specialism’ in keeping with other disciplines focussing on other ancient cultures from specific parts of the world, and is also limited by chronology. I’m struggling to think of any other discipline whose name implies no chronological boundaries when the reality is different. ‘Assyriology’ is the study of people and culture from a particular region, at a particular time in history, but the name derives from the ancient culture and bears no direct relation to any modern culture. Similarly, specialists in the ancient past of other places or cultures are referred to by descriptors which make it clear that it’s the ancient culture that’s under study. ‘Nubiology’ – the study of ancient Nubia – could perhaps be criticised on the same grounds as Egyptology (and perhaps therefore also falls into the category of disciplines that some argue need to be shut down entirely), but it is a much smaller and less-well known or celebrated field and its influence has been much less widespread. Egyptology, by contrast, as I wrote here recently, “has succeeded in spreading and promoting knowledge of this one aspect of Egypt’s past around the world, to the exclusion of the others. This has been highly successful, to the extent that there is now very widespread interest in pharaonic Egypt, to the detriment of the other parts of the country’s heritage.”

What alternative names might there be for the study specifically of Egypt’s ancient past? ‘Egyptian archaeology’ perhaps? It would perhaps be easier if we did not use the same names for the place and its people (Egypt / Egyptians) at all points in history, by contrast with other ancient cultures whose names are not those used in modern times (Assyria, Babylon, Inca). Perhaps this in itself is problematic. The word ‘Egypt’ come from the Greek ‘Aigyptos’ and was passed down to us through ancient Greek texts. It probably derives from the ancient Egyptian ‘hut-ka-Ptah’ – the name for the temple of Ptah, the major religious institution within the capital city of Memphis, a name which came to be used for the entire country. In any case it is not the name used by the people of the modern country. The name the modern Egyptian people use is ‘Misr’ which is the classical Arabic form of the older ‘Mizraim’, the name used in Hebrew, and Aramaic, a version of which was also used in earlier times in Neo-Babylonian, Assyrian and Ugaritic. There isn’t really an ancient name for the country and its people which could be used to distinguish those studying ancient Egypt from those studying any other aspect of the country.

But we’re digressing here, none of this is going to solve the problem here.

2. Should Egyptology be practiced in different way(s)?

I’m sure many Egyptologists would agree that study of the past in Egypt should be approached differently. But in what ways might any changes help address the challenge of decolonisation?

A different name? See above.

Do away with unhelpful chronological divisions (i.e. ‘pharaonic’, ‘Coptic’, ‘Islamic’)?

As I wrote in my earlier post on ‘Questions of National Identity’ “It is true that there has been an inappropriate / awkward / unhealthy divide between various different parts of Egyptian history, the divisions being chronological but also relating to a certain dynamic between indigenous Egyptian people and influence from outside: ‘pharaonic’ (pagan) = ‘Egyptian’; Ptolemaic (Graeco) -Roman, Coptic (Christian), Islamic = something different.”

The difficulty here is that there is simply too much to learn so it makes sense for the study of Egypt’s past to be divided into specialisms, and, interestingly, if you ignored the current divisions and started again I suspect you might end up splitting the subject along the same lines, as the divisions are not only chronological; they also involve religious beliefs, language, script, iconography, art and architecture – the study of each of which requires specific expertise / skills.

Nonetheless, providing more modern context for the study of ancient Egypt would probably be very helpful. It’s always seemed to me that historical topics are best explained and understood against the backdrop of the relevant chronology and geography (and associated terminology); perhaps the study of Egypt’s past should always at least begin with an overview of Egyptian history from the Predynastic to the modern day. Of course the later history of Egypt would inevitably allow for the teaching of the colonialism of Britain and other countries, and for the history of the discipline, and why it is problematic in its current form.

Return ancient Egyptian objects currently in museums and other collections outside Egypt?

Monuments remain in museums, the vast majority having left during the colonial era or decades following it.

Is this OK or not? The apologist’s thoughts on such things might include the following:

• They were bought out of Egypt a long time ago and there is no point in trying to reverse what is now history
• The biggest and best collections of Egyptian objects remain in Egypt, those outside act as ‘ambassadors’ advertising the glories of ancient Egypt
• Museums outside Egypt are better equipped to look after ancient objects than those in Egypt.

The last of these is particularly offensive – it’s plain incorrect, aside from being a massive generalisation – I only include it here in order to dismiss it, as this is a view one still occasionally hears.

Those who think it’s problematic that there are so many Egyptian objects in museums outside Egypt might argue the following:

• The objects were removed at a time when Egypt and the Egyptian people had no agency in the process; they were taken for the benefit of those taking them and their countries, to the detriment of Egypt, whose people had no recourse to prevent it from happening.

• The objects symbolise the domination of the countries in which they are displayed over Egypt;3 that they continue to be displayed suggests the domination continues (especially when there are accompanied by no information explaining the circumstances of their departure from Egypt4).

• The return of such objects to Egypt, even if only of a representative sample, would be a powerful symbol of the colonialist nations’ acceptance of the ills of colonialism, and that the problems it has caused continue to be very relevant today, and that positive action is required if the problems are going to be solved.

Stop doing archaeology

Those who have worked in the field in Egypt (myself included) will know that it is a curiously nationalistic pursuit even to this day. There are many archaeological projects run entirely by Egyptian archaeologists, most under the auspices of the government Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MoTA), but some by universities. Other projects are referred to as ‘foreign missions’. Most are ‘international’ and involve the participation of, at the very least, the mandatory MoTA inspector, and very often Egyptian excavators, facilitators and others as well. In many cases though, teams are predominantly composed, at least in terms of the specialist, academically qualified members – archaeologists etc. – of participants from one particular country, leading to the team being described with reference to that particular country – ‘the British’, ‘the French’, ‘the German’, ‘the American’ and so on. Many such projects are sponsored by and/or operate under branches of the government of those countries, some of which have substantial permanent bases in Egypt, whose work in large part is to support such projects. The ‘foreign institutes’ include the French (IFAO), Germans (DAIK), Americans (ARCE), and so on. Some of these have their roots in the colonial era. Funding for these projects often comes directly from the governments concerned, and they are no doubt seen as symbols of national prestige and pride, and thus play an important part in the ‘soft power’ efforts of the foreign countries concerned, efforts designed to ensure the maintenance of the influence that, though diminished since the colonial era, remains in existence, and therefore, arguably, remains a part of the problematic legacy that needs to be addressed.

Return control of Egyptology to Egypt

The antiquities service – now the MoA – has been in the hands of Egyptian officials since the revolution of the 1950s finally ended British control of the country. As mentioned above, antiquities law has prevented any objects from leaving the country since 1983. The ministry has for many years now required foreign expeditions to include increasing numbers of Egyptian specialists as trainees and, increasingly, fully-fledged team members. Many expeditions and institutions have also provided training opportunities in Egypt, and opportunities to travel to Europe and elsewhere for study and research. I was grateful to have been able to a play a small part in this kind of thing while I was at the EES and subsequently, with The Robert Anderson Trust. The long term aim of all of this is to bring about a situation in which the greater part of the work in Egyptology is undertaken and led by Egyptian specialists.

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No doubt there are other aspects of Egyptology and practices employed by Egyptologists past or present, which could be considered problematic. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. This is a very complex debate, but it’s one we’ve got to have and I hope there are at least a few ideas here that might get people thinking. Do let me know via the comments below.

*Many thanks to Dr Will Carruthers (@w_carruthers) for inspiring this piece, and to Dr Kate Sheppard (@k8shep) for reading a draft and providing many useful comments and criticisms.

UPDATE 24 July:

I have now removed the word ‘Maya’ from the above list of “ancient cultures whose names are not those used in modern times” as the Maya language and other aspects of Maya culture continue to be practiced today.

I’d also like to add that a number of comments on the above have been posted to Twitter – to follow the discussion please see here.

NOTES:

1. The Society has recently taken very laudable steps to begin confronting its problematic past – see here.

2. This has recently been the subject of an important study, ‘Artefacts of Excavation’ led by Dr Alice Stevenson.

3. See Moser, S, Wondrous Curiosities. Ancient Egypt at the British Museum (London and Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2006)

4. See Colla, E, Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2008), especially his chapter on ‘Artefaction’.