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On Studying Egyptologists

I work in a spot where I occasionally meet very smart people. I mangle and twist this pure intelligence into a garbled pidgin language resembling interpretation of exhibitions. It has happened before, and very likely will happen again. 

One subject that I knew next to nothing about six months ago was the subject of Ancient Egypt. Who were those crazy mavericks living in the desert 5,000 years ago? Why did they learn how to write? Where did they go to have fun? How did they survive in an area sandwiched by other groups that would adoringly smear their innards across the cindering desert floor, cooking briefly until the vultures swoop in for a proper burial by air? And what about the sand?

 ROM Egyptologist  Gayle Gibson  is smart. She's also open-minded and gentle and pretty much a superhero.

ROM Egyptologist Gayle Gibson is smart. She's also open-minded and gentle and pretty much a superhero.

People study these questions. They're called Egyptologists. I learned that Egyptologists don't truly know the answers to these questions, but then again, these are very silly questions that don't really beget truthful answers of any kind. But what is truth? 

Truth in Egyptology is written between the lines of hieroglyphs - cheeky reminders from artists on artifact placement were a recent discovery that I personally found fascinating. To divine these mischievous flourishes of intellect, one needs to be creative, analytic, and open to reasoned queries. I would typically reserve these qualities to scientists, but I am very quickly realizing this earlier judgement was erroneous.

  Dr. Shiela Ager  is not an Egyptologist. She's a Classicist, though Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt and nearly pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the ancient world, commanding the ancient world by conquering the Roman Empire from within. Roman historians didn't like this, and figuring the truth out from propaganda seems smart.

Dr. Shiela Ager is not an Egyptologist. She's a Classicist, though Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt and nearly pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the ancient world, commanding the ancient world by conquering the Roman Empire from within. Roman historians didn't like this, and figuring the truth out from propaganda seems smart.

There are millions of stories to uncover in the ancient world - broadly speaking, everyone's got one. This, however, is a lie, and it's something that I believe Egyptologists know better than most. Let's conduct a simple thought experiment. Consider me (or you, if that is more helpful.) I share different aspects of myself to different audiences. There isn't an essential me that is the mere culmination of these narrative parts. I am a bit more than that in some cases, a bit less in others. Each Ancient Egyptian life foregone must have been the same, and it's a statement that Egyptologists grasp with on a daily basis. 

  Thomas H. Greiner  gives a pictorial tour of the Nile in modern times. He cautioned against the overzealousness of tourists to simply stamp their feet around and leave imprints where secrets might lie. This seems smart.

Thomas H. Greiner gives a pictorial tour of the Nile in modern times. He cautioned against the overzealousness of tourists to simply stamp their feet around and leave imprints where secrets might lie. This seems smart.

There are some pretty cool tools that Egyptologists use to attempt to figure out these faceted lives from the past. One modern trick is to check out the genetic code of those long deceased. What might have ailed the monarchs of the 18th dynasty? From that, why did they keep on marrying within the family when the ramifications were clearly seen? How devout would a family need to be to contain their power within so closely? Or how fearful would they be of shadows lurking in the dark?

Another cool trick is being able to read ancient Egyptian language. Who could imagine that a pictoral language that has almost been swallowed up by the sands would be understood by a group of people whose natural language usage comes from roots barely 400 years old. We're looking at a difference in origin at around a factor of 10. Not only that, but people are cheeky. They use puns, figures of speech, and other forms of wordplay irrespective of the language being used. An Egpytologist needs to learn how to think like an ancient Egyptian along with playing along with the probable sounds of the language.

 University of Toronto professor  Ronald J. Leprohon  looks at the suite of stories that has established a glimpse of how Ancient Egyptians viewed their surroundings. We call that mythology. He calls it someone much more than that. Smart.

University of Toronto professor Ronald J. Leprohon looks at the suite of stories that has established a glimpse of how Ancient Egyptians viewed their surroundings. We call that mythology. He calls it someone much more than that. Smart.

I find all of this utterly incredible. Utterly impossible for my mind to decipher, to be certain. But we can all at least walk in the shoes of an Egyptologist from time to time - we don't need to worry about the sand, at any rate.