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Invisible Archaeologies
Invisible archaeologies conference
Invisible Archaeologies: Hidden Aspects of Daily Life in Ancient Egypt and Sudan

Opening remarks by the Professor of Egyptology, Richard Bruce Parkinson 

'It’s a great pleasure to welcome you to Queen’s, which has a long tradition of Egyptology, and I hope you have a chance to see the display of some of the College’s collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts in the New Library. I’m very aware that Oxford has been associated in many people’s minds quite exclusively with Egyptian philology through its traditions of teaching, and through notable figures such as Sir Alan Gardiner (1879 –1963) and the first professor of Egyptology, Francis Llewellyn Griffith (1862–1934). Yet, as any visit to the Griffith Institute archives shows, Griffith was active as both an archaeologist and a philologist, and Jaroslav Černý (1904–1984), one of his successors, worked on texts very much in the context of a community. The distinction between philology and archaeology is perhaps the gremlin in the Egyptological machine. Our socially constructed and highly gendered institutional frames inevitably shape and constrain our data and our approaches, and we need to be self-reflexive and to try to see beyond these frames: which is why one standard exam essay topic for Finals here is now ‘Should Egyptology be part of the Faculty of Oriental Studies or of Archaeology?’.

European views of Ancient Egypt have frequently imagined an (over-)sensuous and sensory ‘oriental’ culture, a ‘realm of unrestrained voluptuous excess’ in Joseph Boone’s words. Perhaps partly in reaction to this, academics have often adopted a more restrained, logocentric style of analysis; theories of phenomenology with their ‘interrogation of lived experience’ have had as yet relatively little impact on Egyptological writing as a whole. The self-created tensions between the philological and archaeological camps are still very much with us, but any exclusivity of approach seems to me to be entirely misguided, inappropriate for the data, and unnecessary.

I work on Middle Kingdom poetry, but how can anyone regard a text as anything other than a cultural, social and material artefact? Poetry and pottery are not so distinct, when one remembers how many poems survive as excerpts copied out on pot-sherds. The rise of ‘Material Philology’ in the Humanities has weakened the distinction between text and artefact, and Queen’s hosts a Workshop for Manuscript and Text Cultures. For Egypt where texts were so much part of elite display, the distinction seems particularly inappropriate, but it is deeply embedded in our subject: I remember how the old Hieroglyphic Texts in The British Museum published an inscription without any photo showing that it was part of a colossal statue.

Reading a text directly from a manuscript helps exorcizes the gremlin, and wherever possible at Oxford we now try to read from photographs or the originals. The University is exploring ways of integrating digital resources into teaching practice (Cabinet project). Having worked for many years in a museum, I feel that artefacts can provide us with the touch of the real — reminders of ancient agency, that help us to avoid over-abstract treatments of human culture, and help us to embed our readings into specific localities. Philology too should be ‘engaged, empathetic, [and] emotive’ (to evoke Matthew Johnson’s description of phenomenological fieldwork).

Even with texts, even with the old supposed black and white certainties of philology, so much remains invisible and unspoken. Irony and humour are hard to detect in ancient poems, and traditional approaches have certainly often been blind to much emotion in these texts. To move beyond these old institutionalised views of our limited data can reveals a great deal, and I think here of the breadth of my immediate predecessor, John Baines, whose broad methodologically sophisticated outlook contrasted so much with that of his predecessor, John Barns (1912 –1974)—there is a world of difference between the narrowly philological Barns and the broadly anthropological Baines.

The range of surviving data from Ancient Egypt has huge potential, even though visual and textual aspects have often been over-privileged in the modern reception at the expense of more artefactual and sensory approaches. An inclusive integrated approach can tell us much more: together, the architecture of surviving palaces and texts referring to palace etiquette reveal that throne rooms could be intimate places of deep anxiety and terror. I think here of Barry Kemp’s poetic evocation of the lost ancient experiences that for him lie slightly ‘beyond the limits of academic research’:

 …the smokiness of house interiors in the winter, mingling with the smell of incense and, at different times in the year, of lily blossoms, in turn competing with the pungent smells of human waste. The experience of night when the city was hardly ever fully dark but lay faintly visible in shades of silver-grey from the light of stars in a clear sky, but never silent, for night was the time of barking dogs, sometimes those on the city fringes developing an unearthly dialogue with the jackals and hyenas of the desert. Firelight visible through cracks in house doors; the arousal of a young man on seeing a neighbour’s daughter; the grief of constant bereavements.    

Attempts like this to recapture a full sensory world, and one that includes all levels of society, allow a subaltern approach to an apparently monolithic culture and they help to release us from the colonialist heritage of our discipline.

But even with well-documented elite works, there are huge challenges in accessing the invisible. As one example of this I take the famous colossus of Memnon at Luxor, a single statue that offers multitudinous worlds of experience of its weathered quartzite: from the quarrying of the stone at Gebel-Ahmar around 1350 BC to its installation at the entrance to a royal mortuary temple. Then, following the abandonment of the temple and earthquake damage, the statue became sonorous at dawn, which attracted Roman visitors who commemorated their visits in graffiti, some of them giving voice to the statue’s own mournful perceptions:

   Today the sounds that I emit in my laments are inarticulate
   And unintelligible, remnants of my former fortune.

This phase of its story was subsequently the site of a vivid queer re-imagining by Marguerite Yourcenar of the emperor Hadrian’s visit in AD 130—a narrative that was shaped by the personal concerns of the modern French author, and as such differs from the equally fictionalised reimagining of the same ancient visit by the Egyptologist Philippe Derchain (1926–2012). But both authors bring to light the ‘inner world’ of the actors, in a way that is often lacking in academic presentations which confine themselves to directly observable black and white facts. They try to articulate what Derchain called ‘une Egypte qui n’est pas dans les livres savants’.

Today, the quartzite colossus and its environment are exceptionally well-documented, and as institutionally privileged now as when they were first erected. The surviving texts include named individuals who are known to have faced it at the dawns of earlier days, but if we stand in front of it, knowing all this data, and try to engage with their experiences, we find that much remains unavoidably invisible and unimaginable. I’ll end by remarking that this lack of visible certainty is not so much a regrettable barrier to understanding, but rather it is instead an opportunity for us to assess empathetically the difference and diversity of ancient possibilities.' 

Professor Richard Bruce Parkinson