I bet many of you haven’t heard of Egyptology, never mind that it’s possible to study it as its own subject at university – after all, how much can there really be to study about something that’s all odd languages and dusty tombs?
Initiation into Egyptology involves many things, some more painful than others. There were history and civilisation lectures on Egypt and the ancient Near East, all of which were amazing and on almost any topic you can think of. We also had language classes which, I will admit, while interesting, hurt.
It also involves an introduction to the less wonderful side – the many misconceptions and misrepresentations of our discipline, which make us wish that Egyptology really was just as simple as being about funny languages and dusty tombs. And, I can promise that they do not get any less annoying as time goes on.
So, here’s a run-down of some of the least wonderful things that we seem to be cursed with.
One of the first things that a lot of people mention when they find out that you’re an Egyptologist is the mummy’s curse, specifically the one that supposedly killed Lord Carnarvon, who funded the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The fact that the person who actually found the tomb, Howard Carter, didn’t die for another seventeen years seems to be irrelevant.
It’s unlikely that there is such a thing as mummies having curses, given how many of them we have in collections around the world and the fact that about half of all Egyptologists cram themselves onto a single plan every time a conference rolls around. If the ancient Egyptians wanted to get rid of us, they’re certainly making hard work of it considering how easy we’re making it for them.
One thing never to say to an Egyptologist is anything along the lines of ‘it’s just pictures, isn’t it’ – this was said to me, and was followed by a lengthy lecture on linguistics even though I was at the time studying archaeology.
Hieroglyphs are actually just one of multiple scripts used to write Egyptian, although certainly one of the longest-lived (short of the cursive version, hieratic, because the ancient Egyptians had better things to do than spend all day writing their laundry list in actual hieroglyphs). And those scripts record grammatical and phonetic information, the same as many do for other languages.
We aren’t the only discipline with hoards of amateurs around, people who haven’t actually got any Egyptological training and yet think they’re experts – which they’re not, given the number of embarrassingly inaccurate tattoos out there. But the term ‘Egyptomania’ was coined for a reason. Even almost a century after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, there are a lot of people out there who think that reading a couple of books is an acceptable substitute for years of training, or who feel the need to prove that aliens did indeed build the pyramids and that The Book of Exodus is word-for-word accurate.
#4 Popular culture
Staying on the subject of Egyptomania – and embarrassingly inaccurate tattoos – probably one of the most galling things about working in a field so heavily admired by the public is that the popular culture is dire to say the least. There are so many inaccurate ideas out there, from people who have no idea how Egyptian languages work, people who seem to think that civilisations three thousand years ago were so incompetent that aliens are a more likely explanation for everything (as though we’re any more competent today), to whatever Gods of Egypt (2016) is supposed to be. It certainly says something when Seth (god of the desert and chaos) having a Scottish accent is one of the least cringeworthy things in a film.
This part’s probably not going where you think it is, but bear with me. It might shock you to know that ancient texts can be impressively filthy – and, if you think that the Greek gods were messed up, I challenge you to become acquainted with the Egyptian Gods.
The problem with all of these ancient texts isn’t that they’re positively pornographic in places, but that a lot of them were translated early last century or earlier and haven’t been updated. That means that the juicy stuff in these texts, which I’m sure would really help in the outreach effort, was translated into Latin for the sake of decency.
Or rather, the lack thereof. I mean this in the sense of belonging. Unlike a lot of disciplines, we don’t have a standard department, which means that the kinds of academics and structure of courses across universities varies hugely. For example, at Oxford we’re part of Oriental Studies, but at Liverpool we’re grouped with Archaeology and Classics. This disparity generates big differences in perspective.
Even within Egyptology, using different perspectives for the benefit of the discipline isn’t guaranteed. Our predecessors one or two hundred years ago were often polymaths, who studied philology and archaeology in equal measure. The same can’t be said of Egyptologists today, which has led the study of language and the study of material culture to be separate, competing camps, with results that are anything but conducive to the furthering of our discipline as a whole. That’s probably the most frustrating, thing about being an Egyptologist.
Some of these things are certainly more annoying than problematic, but others really are a serious problem. It would be nice if we could get rid of at least the most serious ones and make Egyptology more about the wonderful things that we actually research, for both ourselves and the general public. I’m sure that Egyptology is not the only discipline plagued by misconceptions and misrepresentations – but I like to think that ours include things that are more bizarre than most.