Archaeology: A Secret History Reviewed

As vigilant readers will note, I have of late become interested in the presentation of Egyptology on Television, the variety of program produced and the aim of such public interaction. Currently every fact junkies favourite station- BBC 4- is indulging us in an Archaeology season, the flagship program of which is “Archaeology: A Secret History”, hosted by Dr Richard Miles ( At the time of writing the second episode of three has just been shown.

The second program “The Search for Civilisation” details the developments in the study of the ancient and creation of the science of archaeology in the 18th and 19th centuries. The program covered a lot of ground, from the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, via Egypt, Napoleon,  Giovanni Belzoni, into a number of academic institutions, then on to Palanque and back to Schliemann and ending up back in the UK with the work of Pitt-Rivers.  Dr Miles specializes in Roman north Africa, given the breadth of the programs, it must be said that he speaks eloquently and in a balanced manner about all the topics covered. (He did his BA in Liverpool- perhaps that is the reason for such quality, but then i am biased).

I may seem extremely positive so far, though I must say in the balance this show was an excellent example of what can be done with television archaeology!  So if indeed I am so positive, what were the decisive elements to this ?

1) The presenter was enthusiastic though not hyperactive nor melodramatic. Instead, the enthusiasm was well placed and genuine.

2) There were shades of grey (not the E.L. James type). By this I mean, the rhetoric of the program did not just laud our archaeological predecessors but appraised them in terms of motivation. For example: “people no longer wanted to own, but now understand the past”. Though some characters such as Heinrich Schliemann may have drawn more criticism for his occasionally callous methodology.

3) Real artefacts and real engagement. Objects bring archaeology to life, in this case this includes objects such as Description de l’Egypte early photographs and the records of Pitt-Rivers among other things.  It is not often we see television documentaries looking at less monumental objects.

4) Facts and stories. Documentary programs require both of these elements, too often we see an imbalance in this. However, in this episode, whilst there were vivid stories about Catherwood and Stephens and Belzoni etc to show the history of the subject, we were not withheld f`acts and academic rigour.

5) The overall narrative of the episode was clear. It did not dumb elements down, rather it was expressive and assured. (With Egyptology on the rise “Greece and Rome seemed such old hat” being a highlight of plain speaking)

I look forward to the next installment, discussing the application of science of archaeology in the 20th century. I feel that this series is showing how such documentaries may be done. Following on from my thoughts the other week, I was pleased to see such a program and even more so when I read a piece by Dr Miles where he lucidly  sums up my thoughts, if you will excuse me too large of a quote than usual;

My own view is that this could be a very good thing not just for Australia’s media but also its universities. Public intellectuals can greatly enrich the national conversation. University academics can bring clarity, independent thinking and most importantly, expertise to important debates.

For academics, who have often traditionally looked upon the media with grave suspicion as the agent of heinous “dumbing down”, the chance to communicate their ideas to a wider audience, particularly one that pays for their research and salaries, is a wonderful opportunity.

Working with the media can be an extremely rewarding experience for university academics. For those in the humanities who research on their own, it can offer a welcome opportunity to work in collaboration with others who can often bring a broader perspective.

The media demands clarity of thought and economy of expression – two skills which academics are not always known for. Rather than the oft-repeated charge of dumbing down, the Holy Grail for editors is complex ideas being explained in the simplest way possible. That is surely an aspiration that we can all agree upon.” (



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Television Egyptology: the state of things and the future.

Despite being quite quiet on the blog for a while (probably too long) I have recently been mulling a few things over about the future of, purpose and direction of television Egyptology. Television documentaries have been without doubt the impetus for many young students in their pursuit of academic study; however, there are still some members of the academy which see this variety of public engagement beneath them. Why is this so? Also what can we learn from other disciplines in respect to this field?

Intellectual Fears

Fronted by the imperious Dr Zahi Hawass, the Docu-drama series “Chasing Mummies” (2010) shown on the History Channel perhaps characterises the fears of many academics. Despite being placed upon the shoulders of the then Head of the SCA, the show came across as a pastiche, with Hawass appearing as the Egyptological equivalent of pantomime character- spontaneously losing his temper when the moment required.  Whilst this show enabled many to view parts of sites which are strictly out of bounds, the performative aspects of this show undermined this greatly. Dr Hawass has appeared on many documentaries, clearly grasping an opportunity to raise the profile of Egypt and Egyptology. Despite any personal opinions or judgements on his discernment, it would be puerile to suggest that his appearances on such shows did not at least raise some awareness.

Despite the desire for elements of drama within shows, the sense of foreboding held by a number of academics when asked to contribute to documentaries is that their input will be edited and misused. We are all aware of the pseudoscientific and downright outlandish theories proposed by a number of sensationalist researchers and programs out there. For example; “Ancient Aliens” which has recently been approved for another series, has now clocked 51 episodes -Erich Von Däniken must be ecstatic! There will always be the programs such as the 2007 “Paranormal Egypt” with Derek Acorah (and his spirit guide Sam) who theatrically worked out that Khufu built the Great Pyramid via apparently manifest spiritual powers- mysterious! However, the real problem here is clear. These programs which show little positive interaction with evidence and research or indeed an active rejection of logic, are held in the same esteem by the production companies and thus by the audience themselves.

Recent Developments in Documentaries

In the recent years, we have seen an increase in the breadth and quality of scientific programs on the BBC, not only in long standing formats such as Horizon but also in the three “Wonders of…” series presented by Prof Brian Cox, the recent “Genius of Invention” group of episodes and also in shorter shows such as “BANG goes the theory” and the inventive “Stargazing Live”. These programs are helping to explain big theories and research and are managing to maintain viewership and levels of entertainment. Whilst Brian Cox is utilising impressive vistas and a gift of enthusiastic explanation where does Ancient History and Egyptology stand in this shift in documentary style?

Let’s take “Meet the Romans with Mary Beard” (2012) as a good example of how an evidence based documentary of the Ancient world can work. This three part series attracted on average around 2,000,000 viewers per episode, with episodes 1 and 3 charting at 9 and 6 in the most watched programs on BBC 2 during those weeks. Fundamentally this was a series focussed on Roman epigraphy- not everyone’s favourite topic, and in the wrong hands very dry. Despite the venomous reaction of A A Gill who chose to avoid any academic rigour and instead focussed on being childishly misogynistic, the knowledgeable enthusiasm of Prof. Beard was infectious, there was no talking down to the audience and the episodes showed an active commitment  to the evidence and scholarly engagement. Similarly, in the past few weeks (coinciding with the British Museum exhibition) there have been a number of programs on Pompeii and Herculanaeum addressing specific, evidence-based issues with these sites.

On to Egyptology

I will give three examples here and then try to delineate the differing styles of Egyptology documentaries in relation to the output of other disciplines (this is by no means extensive). Channel 4’s “Mummifying Alan: Egypt’s Last Secret” attracted 1,915,000 viewers in 2011, it was entertaining whilst also seeking an appropriate answer to a research question (a positive method noted in relation to the recent Pompeii themed programs).  “The Man who Discovered Egypt” (BBC 4 2012) focussed its attention on the life of Flinders Petrie. It was well received and in one review the presenter Dr Chris Naunton (of the EES) was said to be “… the ideal presenter: enthusiastic but not hyper, knowledgeable, prepared to listen to other experts and, above all, happy to let Petrie take centre stage.” ( In this quote we see the key features of a successful and though-provoking documentary;

1)      A presenter who has enthusiasm but who is not hyperactive in this enthusiasm.

2)      Knowledge, and an individual who is happy to recognise their limits

3)      A program where the subject is the focus

These three points are fulfilled by many of the Science programs mentioned previously, as well as “Meet the Romans” and “Pompeii: The Mystery of the people frozen in time”

The most recent Egyptological program on our screens was the two-part “Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings” presented by Dr Joann Fletcher. When looking at viewing figures the first episode “Life” attracted 2,296,000 viewers- the highest of any Ancient History programs discussed here. The shows looked at the rather brilliant corpus of the funerary material of Kha and Meryt (Kept in the Museo Eigizio Torino). The episodes had moments of insight- the section showing how tombs were measure and marked up, and the creation of colours from ocre being particularly memorable. However, this also had parts where it fell behind some of the other documentaries academically. For example: “This is my favourite pharaoh”.  It covered much ground seen before in Dr Fletcher and Terry Jones’ “The Hidden History of Egypt” (2002) minus the set pieces following Jones in Egyptian dress. The aim of the show is to tell everyone more about “everyday Egyptian people”– Academic arguments over what “normal” and “everyday” mean in the contsxt od Deir el-Medina aside,  I could not agree more with this motive, Egyptians were real people with real lives, not cardboard cut-outs. However, the narration of the documentary seemed far more concerned with Dr Fletcher’s personal feelings towards tombs etc and visually with establishing shots of her replete with umbrella. (See: If this had been more focussed, would more have been achieved?

Here lies the cusp of what has been bothering me. Where should we draw the line between a documentary introducing entry level concepts, evidence and when should we draw focus to the presenter? BBC Commissioning Editor Charlotte Moore states that the idea is the most important factor, the “credible author” (presenter) comes second. Furthermore, she questions each idea of whether it could have been done at any time in the last 10 years as the BBC would like to reflect contemporary insights and to challenge preconceptions about the subjects dealt with.  (See: BBC Commissioning Editor for History and Business, Martin Davids describes their documentaries as “first drafts of history” and focusses his attention on a balance of “emotional intelligence, passion and scholarship”.

So what have we been getting when it comes to Television Egyptology and what should we expect? Egyptology has been hit and miss, whilst one program will follow an evidence based approach and assess a research question in a new and innovative manner, others have clearly missed the balance between presenter narrative and evidence in context. Egyptology does not appear to be moving with the rest of academia in the level of public engagement by television insofar as the programs produced are often focussed on base level narrative and false drama with artefacts and text thrown in as bonuses. Following the line suggested for science reporting by Dr Ben Goldacre ( perhaps we need to focus on the evidence more a lá “Meet the Romans”.

Television is a massive way of educating people and teaching them about our discipline, which is not being utilised by the powerful members of the Academy in this country. As times become financially more demanding, developing a public profile for Egyptology is more important than ever before. Classics, Ancient History and Science appear to have gotten to grips with this factor, however, from speaking to a number of Egyptologists in the past, TV work is seen as poison chalice, whereby you may be made to look silly or your reputation damaged. Have Prof Brian Cox or Prof Mary Beard suffered from their excursions into television? No. There will always be academic argument and there will always be proponents of wild and unfounded views, these are to be expected. If we can allow ourselves to be clear and not talk down to people, whilst maintaining viewership (By ratings alone, it is clear that Egyptology is a big draw) then how many new Egyptologists could we attract? Egyptology could be pitching plentiful programs, based on our research and development of the discipline as a whole, rather than more introductory programs. The BBC among other stations could be doing more for the discipline as indicated by the work of BBC4. I for one would be more than happy to be the inspiration for someone to study Egyptology and if my method of doing so was presenting a TV documentary dealing with evidence and not narrative than I would be happier still.

I look forward to seeing what everyone else thinks about the future of Egyptological TV engagement.


(All Viewing figures from the official source of UK television viewing figures)


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Liverpool Egyptology Seminars

Myself and a few other Post-graduate researchers are currently restarting and organising the Liverpool Egyptology Seminar Series. At the minute we are beginning to invite speakers and sort out the more practical side of it all, however, until then please have a look at :

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Weird places for Egyptology Number 4: A Music Poster

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Ancient Egyptian Language and Text Workshop 4, Cambridge (AELT)

Last Friday, I spent the day in Cambridge at AELT 4 a.ka. the more luxuriously titled Ancient Egyptian Language and Text Workshop ( The Workshop was set up as a forum for collecting and discussing all the interesting work in progress going on in the world of Egyptology, specifically that of language and text research.  From what I saw of Cambridge, it was a green and pleasant town/city/University, though I did not get time to properly look around. Nor did I get time to fulfil my ambition- if that is the word I am looking for- to have a pint in The Eagle (the pub where Crick went to announce his and Watson’s discovery of the Double Helix. Anyway, that aside, what were the topics up for discussion this time? Here is a quick summary of each talk:

The first session consisted of Luigi Prada (Oxford) discussing his work on Roman Demotic Literary Papyri, following on from his work collecting the many manuscripts he is now engaged in the task of translating them, in his paper he focussed on the addition of diacritic marks in certain verbal constructions particularly the third future.
He was followed by the first Liverpool graduate of the day Jenny Cromwell (Macquarie, Syndey) discussing her work on Coptic texts from the early Islamic period, and the Bigraphism therein. Bigraphism is the use of two languages, Coptic and Greek in this case, in the same document interchangeably.  Bigraphism is (more accurately) the use of two scripts, within the same document, this is done with clear intention and in this case with Greek and Coptic.

Followed by a coffee break, the next session was to be started by Rune Nyord (Cambridge). His paper was an interesting take on the concept of Ka within Ancient Egyptian thought. His analysis was informed by philosophy and linguistics as well as a study of Egyptian Religion- leading to a Hypothesis that a number of concepts may exist until one is selected for the situation and actualised. A neat thought experiment I think you’ll agree.

Alys Cox (UCL) who is also speaking at ICYE, Sofia in a few weeks.  She spoke eloquently on the concept of narratology in Middle and Late Egyptian tales, choosing to focus on the differing styles of narration within these texts.

The final speaker of the morning was the Edwards Professor of Egyptology John Tait (UCL) who spoke about the written structure of Demotic literature and the implications for Oral performance of these texts.

After a lunch brilliantly organised by Amy and Sian we were ready for the afternoon sessions.

The afternoon was opened by Kathryn Piquette of Freie Universitat Berlin. Her paper focussed on an Early dynastic inscribed vessel kept in the Worlds Museum Liverpool (NML 1977-112-29), it came from the collection of Col. Danson. The inscription was enhanced by the RTI- Reflectance Transformation Imaging, taken by Dr Piquette. This method showed the intense detail and working put into creating such a text in such material, also highlighting the information that may be gathered using such a methodology.

Richard Parkinson (British Museum) discussed two issues. Firstly, the challenges of publishing Papyri kept in the British Museum and in Berlin. He spoke about the importance of proper publication of Hieratic documents so that they may be directly accessed by the student and the researcher. The second issue was the method of textual commentary currently employed by Egyptologists. He argued, and I am inclined to agree given my experience reading Egyptian texts, that we have separated the text from its reality in Ancient Egypt. Suggesting that the commentary should follow small sections and that pictures are not only reserved for children’s books. The understanding of these texts would then be immensely improved. ( “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant: A Reader’s Commentary”, Lingua Aegyptia Studia Monographica 10, is out now).

Before the last coffee break, Angela McDonald (Glasgow) spoke about the so-called “Letters to the dead”. After a wider study of texts which may be called “letters”/appeals to the dead. In this detailed study, a few eccentricities of the writing on these artefacts. For example the unusual spiral of writing, the flipping of signs and flattery through choice of signs. Through a close examination of these long known texts thus carry clever implications of the ritual practices associated with these artefacts.

My doctoral supervisor Roland Enmarch (Liverpool) spoke about his field work with Ian Shaw. His fieldwork is focussed on the inscriptions and graffiti in the travertine (Egyptian Alabaster) quarry at Hatnub. This paper discussed the preliminary findings of their survey, including the current destruction of these monuments.

The final talk of the day was given by John Ray (Cambridge). His polemical piece discussed the current state of linguistics and philology in Egyptology, as well as his desires for future development of the study of Egyptian texts. My abiding memory of his talk was his advice to read George Orwell’s essays if we are to gain a more readable type of language discussion. So from Books vs Cigarettes to AELT…

Overall, the  5 is to be held in Oxford in May next year.

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Weird Places for Egyptology Number 3: The Netflix Sphinx

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Theisms, Deisms and Egyptology.

Throughout my studies in Egyptology, I have always been fascinated with the beliefs and religion of those whose lives are preserved in the artefacts I was focussed on. It is clear that though there was no Dogma or Pharaonic Papacy stating the “official/state” line in Religion, the religious understandings of the society may be inferred from the evidence available. However, as we may only gain an understanding of small groups of people or of the ideology of a specific location/time period, then the larger questions are often left unanswered.

The language of the study of religion is complex and nuanced, this post aims to explain a few of these points so that the conclusions and discussions about the wider view of Ancient Egyptian Religion is more accessible.

Theism and Deism
– The first point to be made is the difference between Theistic and Deistic religions. Theism is  based upon the premise that the world has a creator (a god/gods) who interacts with the world in the present. Deism on the other hand presumes that though the world has a creator, that creator does not intervene. Deism is a relatively modern concept (at least when called Deism anyway) first discussed in the 1600s by such writers as David Hume and Thomas Paine.

Within Ancient Egypt, we are focussed on a Theistic religion. Both necessities for this are fulfilled, 1) there is a creator (there are a number of creation myths) and 2) those creators interact with the world, this includes control of nature based on human action as well as direct interaction.
Religions differ a lot, you can have many gods, less gods, more important ones etc etc. Each variant has its own label, here’s my simple explanations of them:-

Polytheism- More than one god (The predominant ancient system and the one functioning in Ancient Egypt)

Monotheism- A single god (Whether or not Akhenaten’s religious reforms constitute monotheism has been a popular question, though not to be concluded here)

Henotheism- The worship of a specific god, whilst accepting the existence of others (this is option two for explaining Akhenaten’s religion)

Pantheism- Everything is God/Divine.

Atheism-There is no god.

Syncretism- The mixing of a number of ideas or systems to create a single one.

The possibility of defining the Ancient Egyptian Belief system is a complicated one. As I have said previously, one may only infer the true bigger picture as in no text do the Ancient Egyptians spell it out for us.


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Petrie’s Sardines

I have decided to have a redesign, reshuffle and rebrand of my blog. Essentially because I have been quite busy and have let it become a bit neglected. So a spring clean was in order- as such I will be aiming to post at least once a week on something, be it Egyptology, research, reading, museum work or any of my other diverse interests. I hope you enjoy it!

And why Petrie’s Sardines? This comes from the story which has been related to a number of Egyptologists (I read about this story in the first year of my UG degree) about the frugal habits of Sir Flinders Petrie, who, it appears was in the habit of burying the tinned supplies from one dig season and returning to them in the next. He would then throw the tins against a wall or rock, if they did not break open, then they were good to eat.

For more on Petrie:

about his digs-

The museum bearing his name-

Also have a look at-

Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology by Margaret Drower


Egypt: How a Lost Civilisation was Rediscovered by Joyce Tyldesley

(I have an inkling that it was in this book that I heard the story of Petrie’s tinned food)

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Where did we get our Museum collections from?

Recently, I have started volunteering at the Worlds Museum Liverpool, working closely with Dr Ashley Cooke (the Curator of the Egyptian Antiquities) helping to catalogue and repackage some of the artefacts keptt here so that a searchable online catalogue may be produced. It is fascinating work and as an Egyptologist it is a great experience to see such a wide variety of objects close-up and to have some input into such a piece of work/research. Anyway, one topic that has come up in discussion with Dr Cooke is the amount of forgeries/fakes kept within museum collections. Another related topic is that of the Antiquities market as it is only through the completed sales of Auction houses that curators can get an idea of worth of an object for insurance purposes. I am fascinated by the side of Antiquities which we all like to put out of our mind, the bits we would like to forget about, so this is what I want to discuss briefly in this post; where did we get our collections from?

First, we must take ourselves back to the time when individuals would collect anything and everything from everywhere, and it was still legal to take things out of Egypt. Due to this, many … in fact scratch that, ALL museum collections were built up by private collectors; these collections were supplemented by sales and the sponsorship of archaeological digs.

Private collections

People always collect objects, things which fascinate us we horde. Hence, looking at most museums the collections were built up by a single collector or numerous smaller collectors which have then been donated or bought by the museum organisation. For example: The Worlds Museum is founded on the Collection of gold and silversmith Joseph Mayer,  other collector’s items which have made their way into this collection include items from the writer  Sir H. Rider Haggard, Florence Nightingale and a number of other locals. Though we now see this sort of private collection as taboo, at the time this was not an issue, also, collecting was not nearly as destructive as Mummy parties in which a mummy was unwrapped in the parlour and then broken up as mementos for the guests.


Sales and the Antiquities Market

To add to collections museums have been known to acquire artefacts from other museums as well as private individuals, we would love to think that the antiquities market is dead; however, there is STILL a big market for all things ancient. This is legal; as if the objects left Egypt legally they may still be sold, much like the way fur is treated by the law. If we also add eBay to the list of Christies, Sotherby’s and other auction houses then it is not exactly taboo. There is also no doubt some black market work going on as well. All varieties of object are bought and sold for high amounts; the one thing you see only very rarely is mummies. By being on an open market there is potential for artefact destruction and misuse as well as a high possibility for fakes and forgeries to be present.

The buying, selling, collecting and trade of antiquities is still a live market , despite the increasing pressure against the practice and increasing taboo of the past practices. My abiding thought is that we need to think carefully about the objects we look at in our museums, as not only are they snapshots of an ancient civilisation but they have also gained their own history within modern times.

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My Liverpool Half Marathon

So this is my first non-egyptology post on the blog. However, running a half marathon for the first time, I think is worth shouting about.

I have been training for a while now but was very anxious before the race as my last training run showed up a some tightness and pain in my right knee. As such, I had not been running for a week. Onto the raceday then! I met up with some colleagues from university and headed down to the dockside in Liverpool. It was busier than I had expected. We lined up at the start line and then after about ten minutes of waiting the front of the group were off. As I crossed the line I managed to high-five the celebrity starter: the runner and “Record Breakers” presenter Kriss Akabusi. What a start!!

The route went from the dockside up towards princes road via parliament street. It then went around Princes park- bigger than I thought and then onto Sefton Park. Before the run I had the idea that this section would be the hardest and dullest part of the whole run, as during training I have always found that Sefton Park is a boring circuit. However, this was not so! a quarter of the way around I also managed to chat to another person running for Macmillan, called Jim. This gave me a small boost (I bumped into him later in the run also). The route then left sefton park and went towards Otterspool park and onto the promenade. Now it was time for the final long stretch…

Along the final long, long straight I could see the Wheel near the Echo Arena and could feel myself getting closer. It was at this time that my legs (specifically my knees) began to hurt a lot. I looked down at my watch excessively during the 11th mile, trying to work out how quick I needed to be going to get to the finish line in 2hrs.  As I passed the 12 mile marker I knew that under 2hrs was possible so tried to dig in and push myself.  Towards the finish, I took out my headphones so I could hear the crowd, I had my name printed on my shirt and everyone was cheering me on. This helped no end and made me feel fantastic. I took one more look at my watch 1:58.30……… and RAN! Crossing the line in 1:59.37

The day was topped off by some nice sunshine, a meal at the Clove Hitch and a great match at Anfield with Alex! Even though the distance was a push and did hurt! it was also brilliant and feels amazing to have completed.

In the long run I will be doing much more running, so PLEASE have a look at:

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