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…”

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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 – its 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 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.


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.


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’.

Questions of National Identity. In response to, and support of, a recent EES seminar

Yesterday (12 June) I listened to a very interesting discussion hosted by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) on the subject of “Good Archaeology, Bad Archaeologists?” (for discussion online see #EESUnpackingColonialism).

The talk began with a very frank and honest re-assessment, by the Society’s Director, Dr Carl Graves, of the EES’ work and place in history, focussing on the colonial context in which it began and has been operating, arguably, ever since. The EES is part of the wider problems that are part of the legacy of colonialism. So how should this be addressed?


An image of Swiss Egyptologist, Edouard Naville, excavating the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri in in 1890s. Dr Carl Graves used the image in the webinar to illustrate the colonialist aspects of the EES’ work. Image ©EES and available via Flickr here.

Carl emphasised that in attempting to redress the situation the lead should be taken not by the anyone from the colonialist nations – to avoid compounding the problem of European / western domination and control – but by those from the colonised nations, in this case Egypt. And so, the audience was then treated to an excellent and very thought-provoking discussion led by Heba Abd el Gawad, an Egyptian Egyptologist (follow Heba and the discussion on Twitter, here).

Heba posed some very interesting questions about what should constitute Egyptian heritage. Carl had noted the view that ancient Egypt was seen by the west as part of its own heritage, whereas more modern (Arab, Muslim) Egypt was seen as being something different, ‘eastern’ and therefore ‘the other’.

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.

Egyptology – a discipline spawned, practiced and mastered by the west (a situation that largely obtains to this day) – focusses mainly (albeit not exclusively) on the first of these, and 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.

As an example, as noted in the discussion, the ‘Egyptian collection’ in most archeological museums focusses only on pharaonic objects, and few contain much if anything from later periods. Similarly, organised tours to Egypt focus on ancient monuments but pay little attention to other aspects of the country’s heritage or more modern identity.

(Incidentally, as someone who has often worked in the tourist industry in Egypt, it seems to me that Egypt may be inadvertently complicit in this. Most tourism is industrial in scale with large numbers accommodated in large, luxurious hotels, conveyed around the country in big air-conditioned buses, and shepherded around the sites in large groups. Tourists are otherwise encouraged to stay in their hotels including in the evenings when they might otherwise take the opportunity to explore the streets and find a local restaurant or shops, and not to explore the cities and towns they might be staying in. Some attending the webinar commented that when they had had the opportunity to explore the streets in Egypt they had enjoyed it very much. The authorities may feel that large groups provide the best return financially, and/or are easier to control when they can be kept within hotels and buses in their groups. But this encourages a separation from the real, modern day Egypt – which has very much to offer of course – and the fantasy that the country is all about ancient sites with perhaps a waiter in a tarbush to reinforce a few colonial ideals.)

Heba set out to confront this issue, showing a series of images of Egypt which challenge the stereotypes. Are images of sparkling white laundry, shop-window displays of lingerie, or an ancient figure carrying a gas cylinder, representative of Egypt? Yes.

The question here seems to be one of national identity. How should Egypt present itself? This is not a question for me to answer, except to say that history and heritage, of course, have a significant role to play.

(On the identity that Egypt may wish to construct, however, I note that several large sculptures (an obelisk from Tanis and series of sphinxes from Karnak) have recently been erected in Tahrir Square, the location of the current national collection of antiquities (until the Grand Egyptian Museum takes its place when it opens next year), but also the focus of the protests that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and numerous expressions of protest in the years that followed.)

Meanwhile, in the UK…

Questions of national identity are also relevant to my own country of course. The news here is currently dominated by stories of the protests connected to the #blacklivesmatter movement, and the demand for a fairer and more tolerant society in which everyone is treated equally, regardless of their ethnicity or any other aspect of their personal history and heritage. As part of the protest, a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston, which had stood in the centre of Bristol since 1895 was pulled down by activists and thrown in the river Avon. Sadly, the suggestion of local artist, Banksy, that the statue be re-erected but only as part of a lasting image of its toppling, is not to be taken up, I gather.

There has been a backlash against this, most notably from the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who argues that removing statues is tantamount to trying to alter or censor history (see his tweets, here). His argument is crashingly naïve. The existence of statues, and their erection, placement and maintenance, is not an unbiased record of historical events. They reflect a story which someone has chosen to tell. Someone chose to celebrate these individuals and their actions (and not those of others). The choice to create, erect and find a place (usually somewhere suitably prominent of course) was made in the past, but keeping them there is a choice also. It says, ‘this was the story we wanted to tell then, and it remains the story we want to tell now.’

The question for us, then, as it is in Egypt, is, ‘what are the stories we want to tell?’. The story of someone like Edward Colston is very important in 2020 but not because he is someone we should celebrate, but someone whose activities we now consider despicable and a lesson for all humankind in how not to do things. That story is not best told by exhibiting a statue of him in a prominent public position – such images are intended, and understood, to depict people whose achievements should be celebrated, or events that have changed history in a positive way.

Knowledge and understanding of the past could not be more important in this, and it is incumbent on those of us who have some expertise in the field to try to ensure that we take the opportunity to help move society forwards. Subject specialisms might not necessarily be directly relevant to the issues of the day, but Egyptology is, as noted above, essentially a colonialist pursuit in its origins at least, and I was pleased to see that John P Cooper (someone who may be familiar to anyone reading this page from his work on the Nile and navigation in the medieval period, and the recipient of an EES Centenary Award a few years ago), had contributed powerfully to the debate on the urgent need for colonialism and empire – warts and all – to be taught to all children in British schools, in a letter to The Guardian recently (here).

What aspects of our history might inform our national identity now? One that is more inclusive, fair, tolerant, aware of the failures of the past, of our part in some of the ills of the world, and how we have profited from the kind of actions what we could never now, in good conscience, repeat?

A big thank you to the EES, Carl Graves, Stephanie Boonstra and Heba Abd el Gawad for such a thought-provoking discussion and for bravely tackling such difficult and sometimes divisive issues. There’s a lot for us all to learn and this fascinating and important conversation will no doubt continue for a long time. Be sure to be a part of it via #EESUnpackingColonialism, @GawadHeba, @excavatedegypt and
Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage – آثارنا المتغربة.

Online Lectures – Beyond the Lockdown…

I began giving lectures online shortly after the current lockdown began, initially as part of the wonderful EES series, and have been doing so independently since.

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Title slide for the second of my online talks, on the period ‘After Akhenaten’. almost 700 people registered for the three performances of this one.

I had initially thought they would provide a welcome distraction for me, and perhaps a few others if anyone was interested in listening in, but they’ve proven to be much more successful than I could have imagined. Lots of people have been in touch to say how much they have enjoyed them, and to ask if they will continue after the lockdown. I hadn’t thought that far ahead… One benefit of doing things online is that they’re accessible to anyone with an internet connection, regardless of where in the world they are, which is far more people than could ordinarily travel to lectures on ancient Egypt. So I can reach more people online than I could via traditional lectures. I can also direct people straight to other resources online – things they can read if they want to take their interest further etc. (see, for example, the page of links relating to my talk on ‘People at Amarna’) Ironically, despite the fact that participants in an online lecture are separated from one another, sometimes by thousands of miles – I have been amazed at the number of countries and cities represented by people joining in! – there is a strong sense of togetherness and even community beginning to form, now that attending such talks has become regular event for many. It had never occurred to me how enjoyable it would be to be in touch with some many people in so many places, some near to me in London, some very far away, some familiar to me, others not. To be able to chat to people all of whom share a passion for Egyptology, before and after the lectures, whether it’s about the weather where they are are or where I am, or on the true identity of pharaoh Neferneferuaten, it’s been a joy, and I see no reason why it would not continue to be as enjoyable even after we are all allowed out again.

So, I’m now hoping to be able to carry on with the lectures, and a few other activities online, whether we’re in lockdown or not. In order to ensure I can cover the costs of my Zoom subscription (and my time!) there will be a small charge to attend some of the lectures in future. I’m not doing this to make a fortune, I just want to be able to carry on doing what I’m doing. I hope charging won’t put too many people off and that some of you at least will still want to join me for the next few talks. The details are here; I’ll be updating the page regularly as I’m ready to add new topics and dates.

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Next online lecture: SEARCHING FOR IMHOTEP (3 and 8 June)

Thanks for reading this, thanks to all of you who have joined the talks so far, and an especially big thank you to those who have made contributions via the ‘Support my work’ page – I’ve been really touched and encouraged by the response to this, and determined to find a way of carrying on my online activities. I hope to see you at another talk soon, or elsewhere online!

Very best wishes, stay safe and well,

Ethiopia 2021

I’m absolutely delighted to announce that I’ll be visiting the ancient sites of Ethiopia with Ancient World Tours (AWT) in 2021. Further information including the itinerary are available here.

Screenshot 2019-12-09 at 12.21.24

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Egypt’s relationship to other cultures and it was my interest in Egypt’s 25th Dynasty – the period when Egypt was ruled by the kings of Kush and on which my PhD was based – that led me to their visit the remains of their great kingdom in Sudan with AWT in 2018 and again in 2019.

The pyramids of the Northern Cemetery, Meroë, Sudan.

Discover Ethiopia‘ is intended as a continuation of AWT’s exploration of the lands to the south of Egypt. Ethiopia takes its name from the Greek ‘Aethiopia’ meaning ‘burnt face’ and was the name given in ancient times to various groups living in the territories to the south of Egypt, including the Kushites.

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Kushite kings. The cache of statues discovered at Kerma in 2003.

Over the course of more than a thousand years, while Egypt suffered repeated invasions and was taken over not only by the Kushites but groups of Libyans, Assyrians, Persians and ultimately Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies and the Romans, Kush remained independent. It was eventually supplanted by another great African power, Axum, whose capital lies in modern Ethiopia.

The throne hall of the Kings of Makuria at the site of their capital, Old Dongola, Sudan.

The Kushite kingdom came to be divided between three successor states, Nobadia, Makuria and Alodia, all of which eventually converted to Christianity, as did Axum. Having seen a little of the ancient Christian kingdoms of Sudan, I’m curious to know more about Axum and also how it and the land we now call Ethiopia, the mark Christianity left in the archaeological record at sites like Lalibela and in the place reputed to be the location of the Ark of the Covenant…

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If you think you might be interested in coming along please read on here!

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Searching for Smenkhkare

My book, Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt came out in paperback yesterday, and I’m just beginning to think about going back to Egypt looking for ‘missing tombs’ with a fourth group this October. One of the individuals I talk about in Chapter 3 is a little-known pharaoh called Smenkhkare. He (or perhaps she…?) was a pharaoh of the Amarna Period and probably ruled either towards the end of Akhenaten’s reign as a co-regent, or after Akhenaten’s death as his successor (whether immediate or not).


Looking out across the desert plain where once Akhenaten’s capital city stood, taken from the area of the North Tombs

This pharaoh’s name is absent from all the kinglists however, and only came to light for the first time in the early nineteenth century in tomb no. 2 at Amarna, which belonged to a high official, Meryre (ii), the ‘Overseer of the Royal Harem of the Great Royal Wife, Nefertiti’.

The tomb is to be found among the northern group at the site (more info via The Amarna Project here), and preserves a number of important scenes showing Akhenaten ‘at home’, the tomb owner being rewarded by Akhenaten, Akhenaten receiving tribute from representatives of a number of foreign groups, and, most importantly for us here, the tomb owner being rewarded by Smenkhkare.

Egyptologists today still rely on the six volume series The Rock Tombs of El-Amarna by Norman de Garis Davies, the definitive publication of the decoration in the tombs. By the time de Garis Davies visited tomb no. 2 in the early twentieth century the scene had been badly damaged by robbers and the cartouches identifying the royal figures in the scene in question had been lost.

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de Garis Davies’ image the scene of Meryre being rewarded by Smenkhkare and Meritaten. The cartouches (oval shapes enclosing royal names) of the king were originally present at the top right of the scene where de Garis Davies shows a large damaged area. Davies, N de Garis, The Rock Tombs of El-Amarna Part II. The Tombs of Panehesy and Meryra ii (Archaeological Survey of Egypt 14; London, The Egypt Exploration Fund, 1905) 

Fortunately, however, the great expedition of Karl Richard Lepsius had visited the tomb in the summer of 1845 and copied the decoration before this vandalism had occurred.

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The cartouches as they appeared in Lepsius’ monumental publication: Lepsius, C R Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien III, pl. 99a (Berlin, 1849-59)

The two largest cartouches, at the left hand end, are those of Akhenaten’s god, the Aten. They are read from top to bottom, right to left as follows: ‘Re, ruler of the two horizons, who rejoices in the Horizon, in his name of light, which is the Aten’ which is the later of two versions of the Aten’s full name. Of the other three smaller cartouches, that at the left, and the one in the centre are the names of Smenkhkare, the larger of the two figures in the centre of the scene. They are read from top to bottom, left to right: ‘The King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Ankhkheperure, the son of Re, Smenkhkare Djeserkheperu’. The cartouche at the far right relates to the smaller of the two figures and reads ‘the Great Royal Wife, Meritaten.’

Although it’s possible that the figures had originally been carved as representations of Akhenaten and Nefertiti the cartouches make it clear that they were eventually intended to represent two different individuals.

Smenkhkare: male or female?

Since the tomb was recorded a number of further inscriptions with Smenkhkare’s name have come to light but it all amounts to relatively little, which seems strange given the Meryra scene makes it clear that this individual was Pharaoh of Egypt. We don’t know whether he reigned alongside or after Akhenaten, and the picture has been confused by the presence of the throne-name ‘Ankhkheperure’ in a number of inscriptions but as part of a longer, different royal name from that in the tomb of Meryra, which seems to have belonged to a female pharaoh. This other name included the element ‘Neferneferuaten’ which is known to have been a name held by Akhenaten’s famous queen, Nefertiti. For many, this makes for a straightforward conclusion: Smenkhkare was simply another name used by Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten/Nefertiti, and Smenkhkare was therefore a woman.

More recently however, as the evidence has been further scrutinised, many have come to conclude that there were in fact two individuals who both used the throne name ‘Ankhkheperure’, one called Smenkhkare who was male, and another called Neferneferuaten who was female.

Of course in this case the scene in the tomb of Meryra ii makes much more sense: the image gives no indication that Smenkhkare was not male and the presence of pharaoh’s wife at his side otherwise takes a bit of explaining.

Visiting the tomb

I have been lucky enough to visit the North tombs at Amarna on several occasions in the last few years. The tombs are by no means all open to visitors; no. 2 is not among those that are regularly visited by tourists but on a recent trip I decided I had to do everything possible to see it and with the help of some friends and a very helpful guardian, I did. I thought we’d be able to walk there but that’s not how it’s done. Here’s what happened…

Once I realised what it was going to take to get there I understood why he was initially so reluctant. As you’ll see from the video the tomb lies a short motorbike ride away from the main group of tombs in the north, and at the top of a steep pathway which has been made a little easier in modern times by the installation of some steps, but is still a bit of an effort in the heat. The guardian started coughing at one point as we hiked upwards, getting slower with every step. “Enta kwayis?” (“Are you alright?”) I asked him. “Tammam” (“OK”) he said, and then “Cigaretta” – blaming his cough on the smoking not the climbing – which made me laugh.

I knew the scene had been badly damaged more than a century ago and didn’t expect to see very much but I hoped I might be able to make out the odd trace of what Lepsius, de Garis Davies and others had seen. There is almost nothing however. The rays of the Aten above the two figures were visible (see – if you squint perhaps – below), and perhaps with better lighting and more time it might have been possible to make more out, but in the circumstances it looked to me as though almost everything else had gone.

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The pillared hall in the tomb of Meryre ii. The wall which once bore images of Smenkhkare and Meritaten lies beyond and inbetween the two pillars in the image on the left; the wall itself is on the right. Can you see the Aten’s rays at the top?

What a shame. Without the scene having been seen and recorded in the mid-1800s our knowledge of Smenkhkare would be so much poorer. And had de Garis Davies been the first to see it, the cartouches having been removed, he would probably have concluded that the figures were those of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, no different from the vast majority of the others at Amarna. It has come to be one of the most iconic scenes for the study of the period, and now it’s gone. A useful reminder perhaps that our knowledge of the ancient past can be transformed by a single piece of evidence. We must be thankful for what we’ve got, but how much more might there once have been?

Another copyist, and a new book…

Incidentally, since I first drafted this piece a few months ago I’ve been working on a new book which tells the story of the history of archaeology and discovery in Egypt through a series of ‘Egyptologists’ Notebooks’. While looking at the glorious, unpublished drawings of the Scottish explorer Robert Hay I decided to see if he had copied the cartouches of Smenkhkare and Meritaten in tomb no. 2 when he visited in 1827, almost two decades before Lepsius. The tombs at Amarna had only recently come to the attention of western explorers in 1824 when they had been ‘discovered’ by the pioneering English Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson. In fact Hay, who had arrived in Egypt the same year and was a close friend of Gardner Wilkinson’s, was very annoyed that the existence of the tombs was only revealed to him three years later when their mutual friend, James Burton took him there: “this piece of knowledge has been kept a secret, and has been guarded with as much care as ever miser watched and fondled the largest treasure ever told!”

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A page of copies and notes made by Robert Hay during his visit to Amarna in 1827 and now in the British Library (Add MS 29847 f63). His copy of the cartouches of Smenkhkare and Meritaten from the tomb of Meryra ii are in the bottom right hand corner (see also below).

Although Hay and the artists he worked with were excellent copyists it seems they couldn’t see the signs as well as Lepsius’ team could – the coronation name Ankhkheperure is clear but the birth name, Smenkhkare and Meritaten’s name are not. Lepsius was one of the great pioneers of the study of the ancient Egyptian language and had the advantage of a much better understanding of Hieroglyphs than Hay could have had at a time when Champollion’s system of decipherment had only just been announced and was still only at a fairly rudimentary stage.

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Detail of the cartouches from the Hay manuscript. The cartouches of the Aten, and name Ankhkheperure are clear, but those of Smenkhkare Djeserkheperu and Meritaten were clearly already damaged by this time. There was obviously enough remaining for Lepsius’ team to have read the names in full however. Interestingly, this was one of few pages in the massive Hay archive that had already been photographed digitally when I looked at them in June 2019 so I obviously wasn’t the first to take in interest in Hay’s record of this inscription – no surprises there!

Read more

You can be read more about Smenkhkare, Akhenaten, Neferneferuaten and Nefertiti and where they might have been buried in Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt – order your copy via Amazon or (in the UK) from your local bookshop via

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Searching for the tomb of Imhotep

In April 2015, when I was in the early stages of writing Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt, I took a little field trip to Saqqara to look for the tomb of a man who, legend has it, was the architect of the first pyramid, a man who became a god and gave his name to a Hollywood bad guy. I was going to look for the tomb of Imhotep.

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Imhotep in deified form, temple of Hathor, Deir el-Medina

I had no expectation of finding it of course – a lot of better qualified people have spent much longer than a day trip would allow trying and failing to do so, but I wanted at least to go and have a look at the northern part of the site where, for various reasons, his tomb is thought to have been. The trouble is much of the evidence is completely invisible on the surface, buried under the sand.

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Wandering across the North Saqqara plateau

I was looking for several very large Third Dynasty mastabas in and around the area of the Sacred Animal Necropolis (SAN) which was discovered by Bryan Emery on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) in the 1960s and, though little known despite its importance, is visible.

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Image of the EES excavations at North Saqqara in the 1960s, looking north west towards the pyramids of Abusir. Courtesy of The Egypt Exploration Society

‘Mastaba’ is the Arabic word for the kind of platform or bench commonly found to this day outside Egyptian houses, where members of the household sit to while away the day or to chat. It’s also the name given by Egyptologists to a particular kind of tomb with a superstructure of roughly the same cuboid shape but on a much larger scale. These evolved out of the simple mounds overlying shallow tombs that constituted the earliest monumental burials in Egypt. By the time of Imhotep and his king, Djoser, in the early Third Dynasty, the grandest were giant, rectangular mudbrick buildings rising to ten metres in height and over fifty metres in length, and incorporating numerous chambers and little niches where offerings could be placed and rituals performed. The bigger the mastaba, the wealthier or more important the individual buried there, we assume.

The largest of a group of five such monuments at Beit Khallaf in Middle Egypt gives you a good idea of the size and shape. There are dozens and dozens like this at Saqqara, some completely unexcavated. There’s an awful lot you can see when you go to the site, but there’s an awful lot more that you can’t.

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Mastaba K1 at Beit Khallaf

I wanted to go and get closer to some of the things you can’t see, which I also suspected wouldn’t be well-known even to the local inspectorate, so it was obvious that I was going to have to give some thought to how I was going to find what I was looking for. In the event the trip led my was very good fun even it led my two companions to think I was crazy; more importantly it enabled me to take several photos that eventually made their way into the book, and so I thought it might be worth explaining what I did.

Technical preparations (WARNING: the next part’s a bit geeky)

My idea was this: if I could take a smart phone or other GPS-enabled device I thought I ought be able to walk out into a featureless desert and still have some idea of where I was. Furthermore, if that device had a data connection and was able to display my location on a satellite image or map, and if that map could be annotated with the position of the monuments I was looking for, I would be able to say when I’m standing on the spot (as in ‘X marks…’) even if nothing was visible on the surface.

So, first of all, I spent a day or so in the library at the EES poring over the published archaeological maps, then staring with equal intensity at Google Earth to see which, if any, of the main archaeological features at Saqqara I could see on the satellite images. I also did the same thing in reverse, looking for archaeological features in the satellite images and trying to identify them on the maps. To my delight the main temple area of the Sacred Animal Necropolis showed up very well, which was exciting in itself: the SAN is one of the most important sites in the EES’ history – I was Director of the Society at the time – and yet it’s well away from the parts of the site that are frequented by visitors and I had never been. I knew that two of the most important mastabas for my search, numbers 3510 and 3518, lay in the same area. One, 3518, was very visible in the satellite images so I was able to drop a virtual pin onto that location; 3510 was totally invisible however.

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Satellite image annotated with the approximate locations of various archaeological features (as far as I could identify them…). Explore the map here

The structures that weren’t visible, at least not clearly, were more of a challenge. In those cases I had to improvise. It wasn’t the most scientific of methods but I came up with the idea of re-sizing the satellite image to the same scale as that of the published maps, and then, using the scale given on the latter, measuring the distance from something visible on both, e.g. SAN, to the mastaba I wanted to locate, and transposing the invisible line between the two from the printed map to the satellite image. I then dropped another virtual pin onto the satellite image at the appropriate spot, having again squinted even harder at it this time looking for suspiciously rectangular shadows. Not the most accurate way of doing things perhaps but I thought it would give me a decent chance of identifying any vaguely visible mudbrick on the ground that might have been part of what I was after. I also knew that in case where there really wasn’t anything visible at all, precise accuracy wouldn’t be that helpful anyway, as there still wouldn’t be anything to see, but knowing I was in the right area, close perhaps, would be enough.

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My somewhat unsophisticated(…) way of transposing now disappeared monuments marked on paper maps onto a satellite map on my laptop screen

The result of all of this was the map you’ll find here, and this is what I took with me to Saqqara. Once I arrived in Egypt, however, I realised there would be a few further technical obstacles to overcome. Firstly, for some reason, maps like this one, although created in Google Maps via a web browser, could not at the time be viewed in the Google Maps app for iOS, meaning I would not, as I had hoped, be able to open the map on my iPhone / iPad and simply watch myself as a blue dot wandering towards the virtual pins on the map. In order to track my movements I would instead need to open the map in a web browser, which would allow me to see where I was in relation to any landmarks visible in the standard version of Google Maps, but not my custom map with the important locations marked. I decided the best I could do would be to take screen grabs of the annotated map while online, and then flick between the two – Google Maps to see where I was, and the screen grabs for comparison with the location of the archaeological features once I knew I was in the right area. Then of course I could start to look for evidence of the features on the ground – any mud brick peeping through to the surface etc.

As a backup, I also bought a GPS unit for my camera which I had hoped would allow me to pinpoint my exact location of each photo I had taken once I was back at my desk. On-site I would use my iPad (bigger screen than an iPhone, easier to see though not that easy in very bright, direct sunlight…) to get me as close as possible, and the location of the photos to check once I was back at home and online.

To the site

And so, in April 2015 I set off for Saqqara with Essam Nagy of the EES’ Cairo Office. On arrival we were warmly welcomed by colleagues from the local Ministry of Antiquities inspectorate. Mohamed Youssef Morsy showed us an Archaic Period mastaba close to the southern end of the North Saqqara plateau which he had recently excavated. Following this another member of the inspectorate, Tamer Radwan, accompanied us on our mission to try to find the locations I was looking for.

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Mohamed Youssef Morsy who showed me the site of his recent excavations

A number of the archaic mastabas are still very visible along the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Nile Valley, which was very encouraging.

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One of the Archaic mastabas still visible along the escarpment edge, overlooking the Nile Valley

Wandering northwards across the desert, the Main Temple Complex of the Sacred Animal Necropolis was easy enough to find which was quite a thrill.

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The main temple complex of the Sacred Animal Necropolis

This would have been a very sizeable and busy area devoted to the maintenance of the cults of various gods in the form of sacred animals – ibises, baboons, falcons, cows and others – mummified examples of which were buried in huge numbers by visitors hoping to gain the favour of these deities, in the vast network of catacombs the ancients cut out of the bedrock underneath the plateau. Emery’s excavations revealed not only the catacombs, mummies, and temple area but a vast quantity of material shedding light on all aspects of life from the Late and Ptolemaic Periods during which the site was in use. Despite the importance of the site it is little known and hardly receives any visitors now, which added to the thrill of course.

Mastaba 3518 is quite close to the Main Temple Complex and was also quite easy to see, a huge mass of mudbrick emerging from the sands.

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The remains of Emery’s mastaba 3518, emerging from the sands

I was much more reliant on the satellite maps to locate 3510 but I was satisfied that I had come close enough to this one and two further mastabas which it has been claimed may be potential candidates for Imhotep’s tomb but are totally invisible having only ever been spotted in an image of subsurface remains produced by a geophysical survey carried out in the early 2000s.

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Attempting to locate mastaba 3508 of which nothing appeared to be visible on the surface. Bright sunshine made viewing the satellite maps a little difficult…

The brief survey complete, Essam and I took the opportunity to visit ‘beit Emery’ the house built by the great excavator and continued to be used by EES teams until it was passed over the Ministry of Antiquities for use as a storage facility a few years ago.

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Essam outside ‘beit Emery’ the house built by the great archaeologist in which he lived during his ‘quest for Imhotep’

Along the way we found some of the light-gauge railway cars he and other archaeologists used to carry vast quantities of debris away from their excavations. They were just dumped near the house he and later EES teams lived in, and had started to disappear beneath the drift sand, rapidly becoming yet another layer of the history of the site.

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The full story of Emery’s ‘quest for Imhotep’ forms the first chapter of Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt which will be published by Thames and Hudson on 11 October 2018 (pre-order here). The photos I took during the trip are here (Facebook), and displayed with their precise positions on the map, here (Google Maps).

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More on that black sarcophagus and the GOLD inside…

Just a quick update following my previous post on the black sarcophagus discovered in Alexandria in July (2018). The results of the first investigations into the three skeletons discovered when the sarcophagus was opened on 19 July* have now been made available. They represent the bodies of a young woman of perhaps 20 to 25 years, and two men, one who died in his 30s, and the other in his 40s (as reported e.g. in ahramonline and The Indepenedent). The elder man’s skull exhibits a round cavity which seemed to have healed over prior to death, and may be evidence of trepanation.

Perhaps more interestingly (I’m not a specialist in human remains) the sarcophagus did, it turns out, contain a little ‘treasure’ after all, in the form of a gold object of uncertain type, and three gold plaques, roughly square in shape measuring 3 to 5 cm across.

The four gold objects discovered inside the sarcophagus. Copyright Ministry of Antiquities, taken from ahramonline.

Each of the plaques is decorated with a simple motif in low relief, apparently applied using the repoussé technique (hammering the design from the reverse side). One appears to show the pod of an opium poppy, the second something like a palm frond or perhaps an ear of corn (as suggested via LiveScience), while the third shows a coiled snake. It has been proposed (here) that the designs relate to military rank, but the snake immediately put me in mind of the agathodaimons – beneficent snake demons – flanking the entranceway to the main tomb at Kom es-Shoqafa. The iconography isn’t quite the same but it’s an interesting connection with perhaps the best known tomb in Alexandria.

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Entranceway to the burial chamber in the main tomb at Kom es-Shoqafa, flanked by coiled agathodaimons

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Detail of the agathodaimon to the right of the entrance to the burial chamber of the main tomb at Kom es-Shoqafa

*Mea culpa: I should have mentioned that that brilliant source of information on new discoveries made in Egypt, Luxor Times, posted a wonderful series of photographs showing all the stages in the opening of the sarcophagus here. The insertion of wooden wedges in between the sarcophagus basin and lid to prize it open put me in mind of a favourite object of mine: the mallet left behind by robbers in Mastaba 17 (Fourth Dynasty, reign of Sneferu) at Meydum. No improvement in technique required in over four thousand years…

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The black sarcophagus lid being wedged open. Copyright Ministry of Antiquities, taken from Luxor Times.

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Sarcophagus in mastaba 17 at Meydum with its lid partially displaced by robbers, one end raised on top of a mallet which was inserted to help roll the lid back

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The robber’s mallet still trapped in between the sarcophagus basin and lid. #redhanded

You’ll find more on the opening of tombs, robberies etc in my book, Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt, which will be out in October. For more info or to pre-order please go here.

That black sarcophagus in Alexandria

On 1 July 2018 the Egyptian ministry of Antiquities announced that it had found “an ancient tomb dating back to the Ptolemaic period (containing) a black granite sarcophagus considered to be the largest to be discovered in Alexandria. … the tomb was found at a depth of 5 m beneath the surface … An alabaster head of a man was also found and most probably belongs to the owner of the tomb.” This is the full announcement:

The discovery of a previously unknown ancient tomb in Egypt is not that uncommon. Scroll back through the Ministry of Antiquities’ Facebook page (here) which it uses to circulate regular reports about its activities and you will see brief reports on numerous such discoveries made in recent weeks and months. Highlights include the revelation of the tomb of Ramesses II’s army general, another belonging to a Goldsmith, the pyramid of a Thirteenth Dynasty princess, and even a workshop where the bodies of the recently deceased were mummified. Just this week it was announced that the burial chambers of two high officials of the Middle Kingdom had been found at Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt. Egyptian archaeology can sometimes seem relentlessly thrilling.

The fact that the discovery of the black sarcophagus was made in Alexandria piqued my curiosity more than most such stories however, as I have recently been writing about the possibility that the tombs of two of the most famous figures in the ancient world might yet be awaiting us in this part of the world: Alexander the Great and Cleopatra.


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The main harbour in Alexandria. The remains of some of the most important monuments of the era of the Ptolemies and Cleopatra have been found beneath the ocean here

When the archaeology of this great ancient city has been the focus of media interest in recent years it is usually because of discoveries made underwater. Many of the most important monuments of ancient times were built along the Mediterranean shoreline, and then destroyed when, in 365 CE, an Earthquake lowered the level of the sea floor by several metres, inviting the ocean to flood anything that had been built too close to the water’s edge. This new discovery was made on dry land however. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the find was described by the Ministry as follows:

“It is noted that there is a layer of mortar between the lid and the body of the sarcophagus indicating that it had not been opened since it was closed in antiquity.”

Whoever had been buried in this sarcophagus was, it seemed, still in there, undisturbed.

Archetypal Archaeology

It seems to me that intact ancient Egyptian tombs are the archetypal archaeological discovery, at least as far as the popular imagination is concerned. Howard Carter’s excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun represents the ultimate, real life example (although pedants will note that in fact that tomb wasn’t quite intact, having been entered shortly after the burial and the contents slightly disturbed), and the inspiration for countless fictional discoveries since, from the setting for the start of various The Mummy movies, and (how could I fail to mention) the opening to the classic Dr Who story, The Pyramids of Mars, among many other films etc.

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Professor Marcus Scarman enters an ancient Egyptian tomb at the beginning of the Dr Who serial Pyramids of Mars © BBC 1975.

This new tomb in Alexandria was never going to be quite like that however. In this case, it was not the tomb – which seems to have been composed of a shaft of 5m depth, and not much more – but the sarcophagus, that was intact.

More clues?

I’m often asked to provide comment on news stories like this for television and radio. To be honest it can be quite difficult to add anything very insightful because we specialists usually have little more to go on than the very sketchy information provided in the press. We are accustomed in our own research to referring to far more detailed reports and it often feels a little unnerving being asked to comment publicly without knowing more. But that’s how it works, and we do our best.

Based on the information provided, directly or indirectly by the Ministry’s statement and the photos and press reports that followed, my assessment was as follows:

The tomb seemed to consist of a simple, if quite large shaft, rectangular in plan and of 5m in depth, but not much more. This was undecorated (as shafts usually are).

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Image of the shaft (at bottom right) taken from a video posted to The Guardian online via YouTube (here). This photo does a better job than most in circulation of showing why it is so difficult to recover much of the archaeological evidence of ancient Alexandria: the ancient city now lies underneath the very densely populated modern city. This shaft came to light when one of the local inhabitants was excavating the foundations of a modern building. It’s very likely that there is still much more underneath other buildings like the ones shown here.

The shaft was found in Al Karmeli Street in the Sidi Gaber district to the north east of the main harbour, a little way outside the area we believe the major royal buildings of the Ptolemaic Period to have been located.

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Satellite image of Alexandria showing the location of the black sarcophagus (the green pin). To explore this Google Map of the location of key ancient sites go here.

We were told that the burial was thought to date from the Ptolemaic Period (323 – 30 BCE). This seemed reasonable to me. The burial couldn’t have been made much earlier than this: Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE on an earlier, much smaller settlement called Rhakotis, but didn’t really take shape until building got underway during the reigns of Ptolemy I Soter (reigned 323–283 BCE) and his son and successor Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283-246 BCE). This shaft burial was very unlikely to have been older than the Ptolemaic therefore.

The sarcophagus itself may have been a little older however. It was made of a black granite, a hard and expensive stone, and was very large indeed (265 cm in length). Its lid is of a common Late Period (26th – 30th Dynasty) type. While the underside is flat so as to sit flush on top of the sarcophagus basin beneath, its upper surface reaches a greater height at the head end so that in profile it slopes upwards. Looking down onto the lid one sees a central column which from left to right is horizontal to the ground, but either side of this the surfaces slope downwards, so that on end the lid takes on a trapezoid shape, like a pitched roof with a flat central section. The head end of the lid is curved.


Image of the sarcophagus lid still in place in the shaft. Copyright Ministry of Antiquities, taken from the announcement here.

These features correspond to other well-known sarcophagus lids. A quick (if unscientific) search of museum collections online and my own photo collection provided a few comparable examples, including these ones:


Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the sarcophagus of Wereshnefer, Dynasty 30–early Ptolemaic Period, from the tomb of Wereshnefer, Saqqara. Further info and more images here.


Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the sarcophagus of Wennefer, Dynasty 30–2nd Persian Period, from the tomb of Wennefer, Saqqara. Further info and more images here.

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Sarcophagus of an Apis bull bearing an inscription of year 2 of pharaoh Khabash, a rebel who led a revolt against the second wave of Persian oppressors in approximately 338 to 335 BCE. In situ in the Serapeum at Saqqara.

All of these are dated approximately to the Late Period i.e. the period around or immediately before Alexandria was created.

So how could a Late Period sarcophagus end up being used for a Ptolemaic-era burial? There is a simple explanation: sarcophagi such as this would have been extremely expensive, and only the very wealthiest would have been able to afford to commission a new one of their own. There are, unsurprisingly therefore, lots of examples of sarcophagi such as this having been re-used. In this case it’s not difficult to imagine that the sarcophagus was made during the Late Period but was perhaps abandoned and then re-appropriated at a later date, perhaps bought for a knock-down price from the quarry or workshop where it was cut, and transferred to Alexandria after it had come into being as Egypt’s capital. The abandonment might also explain another of the features of this particular sarcophagus: it was undecorated. This is a great shame as any inscriptions would probably have provided the name of the owner and perhaps a little information about him or her. Even better, a name might have allowed us to connect the deceased with sources elsewhere, allowing us to flesh out their story.

So who was buried inside this sarcophagus?

It seemed that only by opening it would we be able to find out. What was revealed turned out not to be quite what everyone was hoping for. The Ministry of Antiquities’ announcement was as follows:

While the sarcophagus may have been intact insofar as it hadn’t been violated by robbers it seems the mortar seal had not been sufficient to prevent the ingress of dirty water from a nearby leaky sewage pipe. All that was left inside apart from a pool of stinking red-brown water, were the skeletal remains of three separate individuals who, it has been suggested may have been soldiers, owing to one of them exhibiting signs of having suffered an arrow wound to the head.

Whether there will be more to learn about who these people were, beyond their gender, age, cause of death and perhaps their relationship to one another, remains to be seen.

Not the tomb of Alexander the Great … So where was he buried?

One thing we can be fairly clear about now is that this was not, contrary to suggestions made by some observers, the tomb of Alexander the Great. It seems likely there was some great monument built to house the body of this great figure, it was probably in Alexandria, and it’s never been found so it’s perhaps not surprising that any discovery of a monumental tomb in the city would prompt such speculation.

Writing a book called Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt as I have been for the last couple of years has turned out not to be great for my nerves, given the frequency with which new tombs are found. Every time a new discovery is announced I get a sinking feeling: what if they find one of the tombs that my book says are currently missing but might soon be discovered?

In this case, fortunately, I knew I had no need to worry. A number of classical texts tell us that Alexander was, ultimately, laid to rest in a mausoleum in Alexandria known as the ‘Sema’ or ‘Soma’ a very grand monument built to house not only his burial but also those of his successors, the Ptolemies. This great edifice was built during the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-204 BCE) and was still standing at least a few centuries later when, we are told, it was visited by the Roman Emperor Caracalla (198-217 CE). The sources are frustratingly vague about its location however, and no trace of it has ever been found in the archaeological record, leading some to speculate that it may yet await discovery.

Alexander’s body must also have lain somewhere else in the decades prior to the construction of the Sema, presumably in an earlier tomb perhaps dedicated to him alone. Various anonymous tombs of approximately the right date, and of Macedonian, rather than Egyptian, style have been suggested to have been the first Alexandrian tomb – the grandest monuments at Shatby, and the ‘Alabaster tomb’ are of Macedonian style and the right approximate date – but again the clinching evidence has been lacking, and for most scholars there is no surviving trace of this earlier tomb either.

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Some of the grander tombs at Shatby, a district of Alexandria just north east of the palaces district, exhibit features which correspond to what we might expect of the first tomb of Alexander – they are very grand, and Macedonian in style but there is nothing explicitly to connect them with Alexander

The recently discovered shaft and sarcophagus certainly did not fit the descriptions we have of the Sema. Some might have thought it another candidate for the earlier tomb but if this one ever is found it will surely not be sealed as we know Alexander’s body was moved from it to the Sema.

Still, I wasn’t surprised that Alexander’s name was mentioned in all the speculation prior to the sarcophagus being opened, and I wasn’t unhappy about that either. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Egyptology thrives on sensational stories, particularly the possibility that something thrilling like an ancient celebrity’s tomb might be discovered, and I don’t see any great harm in this kind of speculation provided such claims can be effectively rebuffed by those with specialist knowledge (as was the case in the film here, a representative of the Ministry of Antiquities quickly quashing the idea).

The sarcophagus also reminded me of a favourite object of mine, which is perhaps the closest thing we have to the evidence of Alexander’s tomb.

The ‘tomb of Alexander’ in the British Museum*

In 1798 the British defeated Napoleon’s army in the ‘Battle of the Nile’ in Aboukir Bay, around 30km north east of Alexandria. Having seen off the enemy the British set about taking charge in Egypt. One aspect of their business was the seizure of the choicest antiquities which the French had been collecting. The most famous of these was a lump of granodiorite, the remains of a stela of the reign of Ptolemy V bearing a text written in three scripts: the cursive, handwritten form we call Demotic, and the more formal hieroglyphic script (both used to write the ancient Egyptian language), and ancient Greek. It was found to have been re-used as part of masonry of a fort near the town of Rashid or ‘Rosetta’ and is now known as the ‘Rosetta Stone’. At the time, another potentially important object had come to the attention of the British authorities. They had heard that the French were in possession of ‘the tomb of Alexander the Great’.

This turned out to be the basin of a very large sarcophagus of the pharaonic period. It was found within the courtyard of a mosque, el-Attarin, in the centre of Alexandria, and had been known as Alexander’s tomb thanks to a local legend that was at least a few centuries old by that time. At this point, at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the decipherment of the Egyptian language was still a couple of decades away. The Rosetta Stone is now world famous because its inscriptions allowed Jean-Francois Champollion to decipher the ancient Egyptian language and, from then on, for the vast quantity of ancient texts that were already known by that point to be read for the first time in the modern era. When this knowledge was applied to the sarcophagus from el-Attarin mosque, which had by that time made its way to the British Museum, it became clear that it was in fact made for the last pharaoh of the 30th Dynasty, Nectanebo II. So not Alexander’s sarcophagus after all. Or could it have been? As mentioned above, there is plenty of evidence for sarcophagi having been re-used….

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The sarcophagus of Nectanebo II now on display in the Egyptian sculpture gallery in the British Museum

Nectanebo II was the last ruler of pharaonic Egypt. His reign came to an end when he was ousted by Artaxerxes III, the first ruler of a second wave of Persians to take control of the country. He was said to have fled to Nubia and never returned to Egypt. The Persian Empire was Alexander’s great enemy, and it was Alexander who, in defeating them, liberated a very grateful Egypt from their rule. The three Persian emperors who ruled the country during that brief period, Artaxerxes III, Artaxerxes IV and Darius III, were hated in Egypt.

In the period immediately following Alexander’s death in 323 BCE in Babylon there was considerable uncertainty about how and where Alexander should be buried and who should succeed him as ruler of his vast empire. It seemed that responsibility for burying Alexander would rest with whoever was to be his successor. Ptolemy, an army general who had been one of Alexander’s closest confidants, wanted to take charge of Egypt, and made a decisive move in autumn 321 by stealing the body before any of his rivals could do anything about it.

Having brought the body to the Egyptian capital at Memphis Ptolemy sought to capitalize on Alexander’s popularity with the Egyptians by drawing a direct connection between the great man and Nectanebo. In one legend, perhaps created or at least encouraged by Ptolemy himself, Nectanebo visited Macedon after the Persian invasion in the guise of the Egyptian god Amun, and seduced the Macedonian king Philip’s wife who subsequently gave birth to a child: Alexander. How very convenient for Ptolemy in his attempts to become the legitimate ruler of Egypt, that Alexander’s father should have been at once both the last native pharaoh, and also Egypt’s premier god.

In order to seal the deal for himself Ptolemy needed to give Alexander a full and proper burial in Egypt, and having been pursued there by his rivals he must have known he had little time. But where to find what he needed to create a suitable monument to receive the body of his master? In the normal course of events when a new pharaoh came to the throne one of his first acts would have been to commission a grand tomb for himself, and everything to go in it, including a monumental sarcophagus. Nectanebo would have been no different – his sarcophagus was probably made relatively early on his reign. But of course it never served its intended purpose, because Nectanebo was chased out of the country never to return. Could it simply have been lying around unused? If so, what better receptacle could there have been for Alexander’s body than a sarcophagus created for his mythical father? And when the newly built city of Alexandria was finally ready to receive the body of its founder a few years later, could it have been transported in that very same sarcophagus? Is that how this object came to be in the courtyard of el-Attarin mosque. And could the legend that this was ‘Alexander’s tomb’ in fact have been based in truth?

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When you’re next in London I recommend you go and take a look…

Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt will be published in the UK on 11 October 2018 and in North America on 28 November. Pre-order from Amazon here.

*My writing on Alexander’s tomb, here and in the book, draws extensively on the work of Andrew Chugg (here) and Nicholas J Saunders’ Alexander’s Tomb in particular.

A new website for the Robert Anderson Trust

The Robert Anderson Trust has a new website, its very first:

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The homepage of the Trust’s new website,

The Trust has been around since 1988, quietly going about its wonderful work – providing students and scholars with accommodation in London. Until 2015 it had been run by its charismatic Founder, the musician and Egyptologist Dr Robert Anderson. But Robert died in November that year, prompting an outpouring of tributes from his many friends, colleagues and students around the world. Robert was a great man, admired by many, and he left many legacies – his writings, the students he taught, the friends to whom he passed on his enthusiasms, the organizations he founded, and the ones he led including the Egypt Exploration Society. But the Trust might just be the most enduring and important of all the gifts he left behind.

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Robert rehearsing Elgar’s The Kingdom in Westminster Cathedral, 1975

Since Robert’s death the Trust’s work has continued, largely thanks to the dedication and hard work of the Coordinator, Howard Davies. I was taken on as Director in November 2016 and at around the same time, Stephen Stuart-Smith was appointed Chair of Trustees. Having had to re-group following the loss of the Founder, and with a new team in place, we are now ready to embark on what feels like a new era in the life of the Trust.

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Recent Trust visitors include the Egyptologists Fatma Hassan (L) of Cairo University and Mohamed Galal of Misr University of Science and Technology, Cairo

Earlier this week we held a small celebration at the Kensington house to gather friends of Robert’s and of the Trust, old and new. One of Robert’s many talents was his ability to bring people together, and he did this to the benefit of his own work, and that of the organisations with which he was involved, and also as a means of helping others. We wanted those who knew Robert, and his house with all his books, musical instruments, and its atmosphere of great learning and culture, to remember him, and to share memories with one another, and particularly with those who did not know him so well or even at all. We wanted to refresh and extend Robert’s own network, and to inspire new friends to continue to remember his work, and to know, support and spread the word about his Trust.

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Dr Anderson’s music room in which the recent celebration was held

The evening also marked the launch of the new website, which represents our first step towards extending that network online. We are ready to tell the world what the organization is and what it does. We want you to know the Trust and its work, to know Robert and his story, and to ask yourselves if you know of any worthy students or scholars who might benefit from a visit to London with the Trust’s support. Perhaps you are just such a person yourself…

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Dr Anderson with new friends at the White Monastery, Sohag, Egypt

This autumn we will be inviting applications for visits to London in 2018. Please take a look at the website, get to know the Trust’s story and its current work, and to imagine how we might develop what we offer in future. Please follow us via the website, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, or by dropping us a line here to add your name to our electronic mailing list. Let us know what you think or if you have any questions. We’re looking forward to making your acquaintance.

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).