Dr Leire Olabarria (lecturer in Egyptology at Birmingham University, UK) gives us a fascinating insight into the life of typical workers in Ancient Egypt, their methods for recording information, and similarities to today! Subscribe here.
If you had to pick one period of interest within all of ‘Ancient Egypt’, which would it be?
"First Intermediate Period, which is now seen as a period of creative innovation and regional change."
The history of Egypt is long and rich, and each period has its own interesting features.
If I had to pick just one it would be the First Intermediate Period (22nd to 21st century BCE), which was regarded for many years as a chaotic dark age of decentralisation between the time of the pyramids (the Old Kingdom) and the classical period of Egyptian civilisation (the Middle Kingdom).
Scholarship has completely changed the way we understand the First Intermediate Period, which is now seen as a period of creative innovation and regional change.
Could you give us some understanding of the ‘daily life’ of a ‘typical' Ancient Egyptian?
"...laundry lists, letters criticising lazy co-workers, documents disinheriting children who do not care for their parents, and even sketches for window frame replacements!"
The ancient Egyptians were not any different to us in that we are all human, with our insecurities, desires, ambitions, and dreams. There are a number of sources that provide windows into the daily lives of ancient Egyptians that show that they were very similar to us.
An excellent example is the site of Deir el-Medina, which was a purpose-built settlement for the workers who carved and decorated the royal tombs of the Valley of the Kings in the New Kingdom (16th to 11th century BCE).
Documents retrieved from the village comprise laundry lists, letters criticising lazy co-workers, documents disinheriting children who do not care for their parents, and even sketches for window frame replacements!
That does sound eerily familiar! How were the workers at the Deir el-Medina site treated by their ‘employers’? Did they have rights as we would recognise them?
"...workmen organised the first known strike in history..." (12th century BCE)
That is an excellent question. Workers at Deir el-Medina were employed by the state, who would pay them in rations. The pay was relatively generous, but when times of scarcity came about the rations were reduced by the government.
The situation became untenable and the workmen organised the first known strike in history, which is recorded in the Turin Strike Papyrus, dating to the time of Ramesses III (12th century BCE).
If your readers are interested in this topic, I highly recommend the book Village life in ancient Egypt by A. G. McDowell, as it is a compilation of texts from Deir el-Medina translated into English, including accounts of the strike I have just mentioned.
Moving on to mummification, was this a typical procedure for most Egyptians?
"It was the heart that was regarded as the seat of cognition and emotion."
There was not a single type of mummification in ancient Egypt.
First, there were coexisting methods that would cater for people’s varying resources or financial means. Second, the process itself changed over time.
We need to remember that Egyptian history covers many centuries. Even though sometimes we may get the impression that Egypt was an immutable civilisation, we shouldn’t let ourselves be fooled, as Egypt was in fact dynamic and diverse.
Regarding the process itself, many people are surprised to discover that the brain was ideally discarded. It was the heart that was regarded as the seat of cognition and emotion.
Did Ancient Egyptians use hieroglyphs to write down or record all their information?
"Several scripts were known in ancient Egypt, and the hieroglyphic writing system was just one of them."
It is important to make a distinction between script and language. Several scripts were known in ancient Egypt, and the hieroglyphic writing system was just one of them.
Hieroglyphs were often chosen for monumental inscriptions, while other more cursive scripts such as hieratic would have been preferred for day-to-day matters.
Scripts are used to render languages, and ancient Egyptian language goes through several phases, with Middle Egyptian being regarded as its classical stage.
Although ancient Egyptian language is well understood, our knowledge keeps improving constantly, for example with more nuanced interpretations of the verbal system or with new editions of texts that propose more accurate renderings of some terms.
Their language recording capabilities sound quite complex, in comparison with English, for example. Could the average Ancient Egyptian read and or write?
"...there may have been forms of partial literacy."
Great question. Based on what we know from ancient Egypt it seems that a very small percentage of the population may have been able to read and write. However, we need to bear in mind that there may have been forms of partial literacy.
Monumental inscriptions were often formulaic and perhaps some people may have been able to recognise some typical expressions.
Many monuments would include instructions to the literate elites who would pass by a monument to, for example, perform an invocation offering and recite the name of the deceased so that they would be remembered. Some of those expressions might have been be widely recognisable, as they played an important role in the cultural repertoire of the ancient Egyptians.
What led to you being an Egyptologist?
"...fascinated with history, archaeology, and ancient civilisations..."
I wish I could say that I always wanted to be an Egyptologist, but that is not the case for me.
When I was a child I was fascinated with history, archaeology, and ancient civilisations, but the drive to become an Egyptologist came about organically as I started reading more about the history of Egypt.
If it hadn’t been Ancient Egypt, what would have been #2 on your list?
"...I guess I fulfilled my childhood dream in some sense!"
When I was a child I wanted to be a writer. I loved to read and I dabbled at writing some short stories. I am still an avid reader and I now write about ancient Egypt, so I guess I fulfilled my childhood dream in some sense!
And as an academic, are your dreams disturbed by burning questions? Any advanced civilisations that disappeared without trace...
"...the past as we know it is already captivating, fun, and fascinating enough..."
Fortunately I am a heavy sleeper, so it takes more than a tricky question to keep me awake at night!
On conspiracy theories, I think the past as we know it is already captivating, fun, and fascinating enough. I honestly think it is sad that antiquity is simply not interesting enough for some people so that they need to come up with conspiracy theories about entirely new civilisations for which there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever.
Please can you give us a brief overview of your current work?
"If you are interested in uchronias, alternate history, and counterfactuals, keep your eyes peeled!"
I am a lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Birmingham, where I teach on the history, archaeology and language of ancient Egypt. My specific field of expertise is kinship and family, and my book on this topic came out only last month.
I also do fieldwork in Egypt, where I excavate the necropolis of a provincial town in Middle Egypt. Unfortunately this year we had to cancel our field season due to the Covid-19 outbreak, but I am hoping to be able to go to the field again in spring next year.
I am also about to start a new project for which I will be co-editing a book on the use of ancient civilisations in science fiction literature. If you are interested in uchronias, alternate history, and counterfactuals, keep your eyes peeled!
Congratulations on your book! Can you give us a little overview?
"I elucidate what it meant to be related in ancient Egypt, arguing that kinship went beyond the Euroamerican concept of blood."
Thank you! The book is entitled Kinship and family in ancient Egypt: archaeology and anthropology in dialogue and it has been published by Cambridge University Press in March 2020.
The concept of family is very often taken for granted, but it is a fluid category that needs to be defined within a specific context. In this book I elucidate what it meant to be related in ancient Egypt, arguing that kinship went beyond the Euroamerican concept of blood.
As I see it, kinship in ancient Egypt was based on practice, and that is why I refer to kinship as a performative concept. Kinship was not just given at birth, but it was probably made and remade by means of social practice.
A chat with an archaeologist: Dr Draycott talks about the Ancient Turkish city of Xanthos and other Mysteries of the Past!
I'm thrilled that Dr Catherine M. Draycott (lecturer in Classical Archaeology at Durham University) has allowed me some time to pick her brains about the mysteries of archaeology. Her impressive bio is at the end of the article! Please note, pictures are from pixabay.com and unsplash.com, and are purely for illustrative purposes. Subscribe here.
Let’s start big. Are there any myths or legends you think might be real?
"...it is therefore feasible that there was a war centring on a siege of a city (perhaps Wilusa) which gave rise to epic tales."
The obvious case for this is Troy. Bronze Age Hittite inscriptions from Turkey have some correspondences with the names in the Homeric saga of Troy, e.g. Wilusa (the Greek ‘Ilion’), which suggests a long transmission of stories concerning certain places and people.
Separate from the identification of the site of Troia as Troy, it is therefore feasible that there was a war centring on a siege of a city (perhaps Wilusa) which gave rise to epic tales. It must have been pretty spectacular. That is different from being ‘real’ though. Homer’s Iliad is not a documentary; you cannot ‘find’ Homer’s Troy because it is a fictional city.
Still, there is a tension in archaeology between rejecting that kind of historicist fallacy and at the same time acknowledging that historicity of myths and legends is very compelling to the human imagination and is responsible for a lot of interest in archaeology.
The same can be said of stories in the bible and even other texts such as the Historia of the Greek writer Herodotus. Well-known tales can give one a sense of connection to past sites, places and people. They need to matter; they need to have a narrative hook. Part of an archaeologist’s job is to try to give meaningful narratives without being simplistic about it.
Do you think we’ve “missed” any huge civilisations?
"...certainly major cities and kingdoms."
Yes. I am not sure ‘civilisations’ is the right word, but certainly major cities and kingdoms.
My main research has focussed on looking at art and architecture as a conduit to highlighting the people of ancient Turkey who are not represented in ancient Greek historical sources, but who were important historical actors.
If you could visit any period in history, which would you pick?
"I would like to visit the year 565 BC..."
I have always responded to this question with: I would not, I would visit the future, because I want to know what happens. I think I am revisiting that response now!
I think today (because this will change) I would like to visit the year 565 BC, and I would like to visit all the cities in the western part of ancient Turkey that I do research on, especially Sardis and Xanthos. It is so hard to understand what these cities looked like archaeologically as there are so few – but very tantalising – remains.
Part of my work involves looking at how various cities like Xanthos became wealthy and what that means for history. That means considering the kinds of resources that various places had access to, what connections they had etc. There is very little hard evidence for that, so one has to walk a tightrope of speculation.
Can you tell us a little about the ancient city of Xanthos?
"...a new kind of building in a totally unique architectural style was invented at Xanthos."
Xanthos was a city in an area of ancient Turkey called Lycia, which is in the southwest corner and is now very touristic. It is a place where people spoke a non-Greek, Anatolian language related to Hittite.
A lot of people know the story of the Persian Wars, if nothing else through the films of Frank Miller’s 300 and its sequel 300: Rise of an Empire. Often scholars and artists focus on the Athenians and the Spartans. But there were lots of important places in Turkey, which were on the Persian side (having been conquered by them) and are only described a little bit by Greek writers like Herodotus. Xanthos is one of them.
At the time of the Greek-Persian Wars, in about 480 BC, a leader called Koprlle came to power at Xanthos, which we know because his name appears on lots of coins.
He goes on to lead Xanthos and Lycia through a period in which, as indicated by the incredible number of Lycian silver coins produced, it becomes wealthy and it eventually forms an alliance with the Athenians against the Persians – ostensibly at least. The evidence for that is that the name of Xanthos and the Lycians appears on inscribed lists of tribute payers to that alliance.
What I find most fascinating is that in this period a new kind of building in a totally unique architectural style was invented at Xanthos. They look like wooden buildings rendered in stone and it is not quite clear what they were for, but it seems likely they were supposed to look like shrines but function as cenotaphs, which suggests in turn that they were for heroic figures whom the city needed to exalt for some reason at the time.
If you could know any one historical certainty, what would that be?
This changes depending on what I am looking at at any given time, but since I am answering these questions, I want to know for whom those buildings were set up.
Do you think any conspiracy theories from the past hold truth?
"...no not really, although I enjoy the ideas about aliens and pyramids..." (bonus points!)
Well there are lots of conspiracies from the past that are historical ‘fact’ (bearing in mind the problems of reported speech). If you mean conspiracy theories about the past, no not really, although I enjoy the ideas about aliens and pyramids: much more compelling than having to attribute things to the not-terribly-grand narrative that is humanity.
As well as ancient cities like Xanthos and Sardis, what else are you currently working on?
"...images that people decorated their tombs with can tell you a lot about how they wanted to be remembered..."
I am also working on a book on the art used on tombs in Western Turkey from the time it was conquered by the Persians, when tombs and art on and in them become ‘a thing’, up to the mid-fifth century BC – that is, the time that Xanthos was constructing those buildings I talked of before.
The images that people decorated their tombs with can tell you a lot about how they wanted to be remembered and the things that were important to them, but ‘reading’ these is not a straightforward process.
I am also doing separate work on attitudes to archaeology on the part of the public and how this intersects with the racial demography of archaeologists, who are by and large (in the UK and USA) white.
How on Earth did you find yourself within such an interesting career?
"...knowing that I did not want to do a degree in business or commerce..."
I started off not knowing what to do in high school, but knowing that I did not want to do a degree in business or commerce, which seemed to me to be traditional in my hometown (I am from Bermuda – not technically a town).
I drifted from a vague notion of being a hairdresser into art, starting in a degree in ceramic design at what was then Bristol Poly and finishing up with a Bachelor of Fine Art from the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. That degree entailed doing academic courses during which I found I was pretty adept at academic work, and what’s more I liked it, which was not my school experience.
I worked as an artist and journalist in Bermuda for a few years and then went back to higher education to get into research. I first did a diploma in art history and focussed on early art, which led me to Roman art and a masters and doctorate researching ancient art at Oxford.
So, I didn’t grow up with a compulsion to do archaeology and only got involved later on. Although I still work on art, I am now interested in lots of other aspects of archaeology, especially landscapes and economies.
In a different vein, what questions “keep you awake at night”?
Whether the Covid virus is an episode or a permanent state of affairs and whether the internet will last.
And finally, as an author, I am duty-bound to ask about your favourite book!
For fiction I would have to say Gabriel García Márquez, Of Love and other Demons.
For things archaeology related, one is the journalist Gregory Curtis’ Disarmed: The Story of the Venus di Milo. The other is Jeffrey Hurwit’s The Athenian Acropolis: History, Mythology and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the Present, because it sets out the available evidence and the different theories about the form of various buildings very clearly.
Those are different from books that I think are world-changing, but they are a joy to read.