4 Leading Egyptologists Share the Secrets of Their Field

Louise Bertini, Yasmin ElShazly, Monica Hanna, and Alex Woods on the little known facts about Egyptology

By Google Arts & Culture

Egyptology is the study of Ancient Egyptian culture, language, art, architecture, religion, history, and more. It's a field of research and activity that stands on a precipice between the present day and some of humanity's earliest systems of creation and collective endeavour.

Egyptology preserves and pioneers, and is a vital area of study in understanding human history. Here, four leading women Egyptologists answer questions and share their thoughts on the disciplines values, aims, meanings, and little-known facts. 

Relief of Akhenaten as a sphinx by UnknownMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston

What inspires your work in the field of Egyptology?

Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of NakhtBritish Museum

Louise Bertini

Executive Director at American Research Center in Egypt

I think what inspires me the most about ancient Egyptian’s way of life is how symbiotically they lived with the environment. It was the environment that influenced every aspect of their culture, religion, and society. 

Louise Bertini

Yasmin ElShazly

Deputy Director for Research and Programs at  American Research Center in Egypt  

What inspires me in ancient Egypt is how much the ancient Egyptians valued writing. They believed writing was magic. They could write something or someone into being and erase them out of existence. 

 To me, one of the most inspiring texts from ancient Egypt is known as “The Immortality of Writers.” Part of it says:“Man decays, his corpse is dust, / All his kin have perished; / But a book makes him remembered / Through the mouth of its reciter. / Better is a book than a well-built house”. We are lucky they valued writing so much and left behind a wealth of textual material for us to read.

Yasmin El Shazly by Photographed by James VanRenssellaer

Monica Hanna

Founding Dean of the Cultural Heritage and Archaeology Unit at The Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport

What inspires me in Ancient Egypt is how it has not died is still pretty much alive in many aspects of modern Egypt.

Monica Hanna

Alex Woods

Senior Lecturer at the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University

Inspired by leading academics in the field like Gay Robins, Christina Riggs, Heba Abd el-Gawad, and Zainab Bahrani, my love of the material and visual culture of ancient Egypt drives me to develop a more nuanced understanding of the social complexity of artistic variability in ancient Egyptian contexts and spaces and, by extension, perform a critical evaluation of the development of art history in Egyptology.

Alex Woods by Photographed by Mike Catabay

What dangers threaten ancient Egyptian heritage today?

Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of NakhtBritish Museum

Louise Bertini

The two biggest threats are environmental changes as well as population growth. The environment is rapidly changing with increasing sea levels and many sites- particularly in the delta region are rapidly deteriorating. Population growth- either through cities or cemeteries expanding have already tremendously affected numerous sits all over Egypt.

Statue of the falcon god Horus, Edfu by Alexandra WoodsMacquarie University

Yasmin ElShazly

Climate change and looting. I believe the potential effects of climate change on Egyptian tangible cultural heritage should not be underestimated and need to be studied so that effective mitigation measures can be taken. A more immediate threat is looting, resulting from illicit excavations. This is a huge problem. The land of Egypt is still full of antiquities awaiting discovery, and many financially challenged families dream of finding the treasure that would reverse their fortunes. 

Coffin of Sha-amun-en-suMuseu Nacional

In what ways might Egyptology develop in contemporary times and in the future?

Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of NakhtBritish Museum

Monica Hanna

I think technology provides an excellent way to connect people to the Egyptian Heritage. It can revitalize our relationship with the past through interactivity using artificial intelligence and machine learning. Through that, the past can talk back to us, and give us a means for creating a new future, with a present past.

Alex Woods

The expansion of archaeological recording and/or reconstruction into virtual spaces has made it possible for anyone with an internet connection to be in an imagined past, and, by extension, offers unprecedented opportunity to infuse cutting edge technology into research and learning environments.

In my view, Egyptology can illustrate deeper learning and an understanding of how archaeological knowledge has been (and can) be formed to allow the identification of hidden or alternate archaeological narratives, but additionally to ensure that future practitioners are informed of the complexities that underlie the formation of material Egypt.

Screenshot of Fabricius Workbench by Google Arts and CultureMacquarie University

What are some of the greatest challenges facing Egyptologists in their academic and professional careers?

Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of NakhtBritish Museum

Louise Bertini

As a zooarchaeologist, one of the biggest challenges is being able to run scientific tests on material. It is challenging to run tests like DNA sequencing given the lack of labs in Egypt as well as the challenges with getting permission to do such tests.

Monica Hanna

The main challenge is the amount of data we are faced with that is many times disconnected. Objects that are split, part is in the Metropolitan and part in Cairo Museum while the context is in Luxor. Objects are separated from archives of data of their excavation, separated from their historical context. All this makes it very difficult to juxtapose the information to create meaning and engagement to modern Egyptians.

Canopic jars of NeskhonsBritish Museum

Yasmin ElShazly

As an Egyptian female Egyptologist, I believe one challenge has been having to prove myself in a field that was, traditionally, dominated by Western males. It is very frustrating for me to feel that Egyptians need to work extra hard for their contributions in the study of their own history and culture to be regarded as valuable.

I am also fortunate for having been taught by brilliant female professors, both Egyptian and non-Egyptian, like Dr. Fayza Haikal, Dr. Salima Ikram and Dr. Betsy Bryan, all of whom inspired me.

Faience pectoralBritish Museum

What are some little-known facts about working in Egyptology that many people don’t realise?

Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of NakhtBritish Museum

Yasmin ElShazly

Egyptology is a very small, but very international field. Most of us know each other, and many of us end up becoming life-long friends!

Monica Hanna

People think of our job as the sensationalist news tries to portray it with the Indiana Jones hat. Our real work is hours in the library, in the magazine or in the archive.

Alex Woods

'X' never marks the spot and we spend much more time working in the library and teaching in a classroom than we ever do in the field! Whenever I say this to students in our first year unit, they always seem so surprised!

Louise Bertini

There are so many! One of the most common questions I get is who built the pyramids- it was the Egyptians themselves who built it through a form of civil service. Also, as a zooarchaeologists, there is a big misconception about pork consumption. Pork was one of it not the most common meat consumed by the ancient Egyptians. I could go on for a long time about this…

View of the Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre and the Sphinx by Alexandra WoodsMacquarie University

Great Sights By Moonlight by James BurkeLIFE Photo Collection

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