“The Cursed Discipline”



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Lately I’ve been preoccupied with events that happened more than 5 thousand years ago, in a region far, far away. Following a workshop that we ran on coding Egypt for Seshat last September in Oxford (I wrote about these workshops in this blog) I have been reading up on Egyptian prehistory. Among other things, I just finished reading David Wengrow’s book, The Archaeology of Early Egypt. I found it a very interesting book, both in what it says and in what it doesn’t say.

Wengrow’s book is interesting because he has a lot to say about the critical period in the Egyptian prehistory, the fourth millennium BC, when Egypt went from an area occupied by many small scale societies (‘villages’)) to a state. The importance of this transition cannot be overstated. Egypt was probably the first territorial state put together by humans; certainly, Egypt was one of the two world regions that first developed states (the other being Mesopotamia, of course).

One might think that, given the importance of Egypt to the development of world civilizations, historians and archaeologists of Egypt would be busy using their knowledge to inform our understanding of how the early state evolved. One would be wrong. Instead, Egyptology, so far, has seemingly been mesmerized by the study of ‘beautiful objects.’


Ancient Egyptians produced many beautiful objects.

One of the participants in the Egypt workshop, Juan Carlos Moreno García, recently wrote an article, entitled The Cursed Discipline? The Peculiarities of Egyptology at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. Juan Carlos starts his article as follows:

When Steven Spielberg released his acclaimed movie Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, it was hardly a surprise that an archaeological adventure aiming to reach vast audiences was set in Egypt. Later on, in 1996, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient again captured the imagination of a worldwide public with a romantic story where love, spying, archaeology, and adventure evolved together in the Egyptian deserts. All the necessary ingredients were thus ready to strike a chord once more in people’s love for exotica and romanticism. As an Egyptologist trained and working in France, I have had many occasions to meet colleagues from other disciplines amazed at the apparently inexhaustible appeal of ancient Egypt to contemporary audiences. Occasionally, ancient Rome or biblical stories gain a similar media presence. Yet, it is surprising to realize how ancient Mesopotamia, in contrast, has failed to become equally popular in spite of its immense archaeological wealth and similar environmental setting. Even in slightly more extravagant situations—like meeting people proclaiming themselves to be the reincarnation of some celebrity of the past—the supremacy of ancient Egypt is simply overwhelming; which Egyptologist has never met an enthusiast amateur claiming to be Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, or Cleopatra’s reincarnation? On the contrary, poor Assyriologist colleagues find it really hard to meet actual re-embodiments of, say, Marduk-nadin-ahhe or Nabu-apla-iddina.


… However, the discipline has paid a very high price for this popularity. A vicious circle has established the image of Egyptology and Egyptologists as inseparable from show and mystery, as most of the discipline’s archaeological work is devoted to the discovery of new tombs and temples, thus entertaining the popular image of Egyptologists as true embodiments of Indiana Jones (cf. Tejerizo 2011). As a consequence, future discoveries will fuel the excitement of the public and of sponsors, attract the attention of the media, and promote emulation among archaeologists, thus paving the way for further research on tombs, temples, and prestigious residential areas. In sharp contrast, other aspects of Egyptian civilization still remain underrepresented in contemporary research, like social and economic history or urban and landscape archaeology. As a result, disciplinary reputations continue to be built up more on spectacular findings than on historical or sociological thought, to the point that Donald Redford’s (1979, 7) statement continues to be valid: “the idea of advancement in the discipline centres more on the discovery of a new stela than on a new interpretation.

… I am consistently astonished when many colleagues from France, Italy, Germany, and Spain continue to declare, in private, that the only and true object of Egyptology should be the study of “beautiful objects.”

The back cover of The Archaeology of Early Egypt says, “Wengrow’s work challenges the current theoretical isolation of Egyptian prehistory.” And, indeed, in a number of places Wengrow compares contrasts Egypt to Mesopotamia. Another such effort at comparative history was an article co-authored by Egyptologist John Baines (who was also a participant of the Oxford workshop) and Assyriologist Norman Yoffee on Order, Legitimacy, and Wealth in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. (Who, somewhat sheepishly, wrote in the article “We therefore present this essay with some diffidence, not because we suspect the astonishment by some ancient Near Eastern colleagues; we take that for granted.”)

Yet such forays into comparative history of Egypt are quite rare. A comparison between Egypt and Mesopotamia is a very interesting exercise. But how about comparing and contrasting Egypt and China? Or, to go further afield, Egypt and Hawaii or even Egypt and Cahokia? This is where our database project, Seshat, holds a great promise. Working with specialists we aim to add to the database structured data on a variety of social, political, and economic aspects of life in ancient societies. Building Seshat, thus, is like doing comparative history on steroids. And I think Seshat will help us shatter the theoretical isolation of Egyptian history and archaeology.

The unbroken seal on King Tut's tomb big

The unbroken seal on King Tutankhamun’s tomb, 1922. Source

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I am quickly finding out that a very similar situation exists in the study of the Ancient Maya

Joe Manning

It’s quite fair to say that Egyptology has in the main been a museum discipline and not an historical, and barely an academic, one. This has many implications, far too much to detail here, but just to say that I fully agree with you Peter.

Peter Turchin

Well, Joe, thanks to you and several others, I think, we have a good chance of breaking through the ‘splendid isolation’ of Egyptology!

Joe Manning

I hope so; here’s where the Seshat project is truly revolutionary. I think it will force change, and put Egypt, and historical data generally, in a new light. Very very exciting!

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