One of the greatest powerhouses of Egyptology–the study of the history, language, and culture of ancient Egypt–and other ancient Near Eastern studies is the Oriental Institute, established in 1919 as an arm of the University of Chicago. It’s been a leader in archaeology and epigraphy, the study of inscriptions, and its museum, which is now being expanded and improved, is a major resource for anyone with an interest in the field.
Dr. Emily Teeter, author of numerous scholarly papers on ancient Egypt, has been assistant curator at the museum for the last five years. A Seattle native, she was one of the Egyptologists for the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” show that toured American cities, including Chicago, in the late 70s, and has been a curator and consultant for many other exhibits and programs.
She became interested in Egyptology when she was studying languages as an undergrad. She speaks and reads French, German, and some Turkish, and she reads several ancient Egyptian dialects. “I first studied Akkadian, which was the language of Babylonia and Assyria, and decided I didn’t like what they were saying–the texts I was given to read were repetitious and all very martial. I switched to Egypt. With the Egyptian material there’s such a wide variety of types of texts, everything from letters from sons to their mothers asking for money to religious texts to hymns. That’s the wonderful thing about Egypt: the documentation is so well preserved it gives you this comprehensive view of an ancient society–so much so that you can imagine what it was like.”
Her office is filled with cabinets of original drawings of wall paintings, reliefs, and inscriptions. She pulls down a box full of old-fashioned notebooks labeled “Medinet Habu.” These long-lost notebooks from a U. of C. dig at Luxor, which were recently found in an attic in Germany, contain detailed accounts and drawings of the discoveries field-workers made. “This is my work for years and years to come, because these are the records for the objects which the Oriental Institute excavated between 1926 and 1933. These are the documents we didn’t have. And it’s absolutely fantastic–this sense of immediacy. Here’s the handwriting of Uvo Holscher and the handwriting of Rudolf Anthes. And now we have the locations, the dates, these wonderful drawings and commentaries–so this is a major step forward for our own collection.”
Teeter also has a collection of “Egypto-trash,” kitschy items that demonstrate Egypt’s hold on popular culture: greeting cards, a poster of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra (with some decidedly anachronistic hieroglyphs, including one shaped like a television), “Tuts” chocolate pyramid candies, gummy mummies, and a lurid paperback, The Loins of Amon, that she calls “Egypto-porn.”
As she gives a tour of the museum, where only 8 percent of the collection is currently on view, pointing out ancient hair curlers and the stele of Khabauptah, “overseer of royal manicurists and hairdressers,” her affection for her subject is obvious. “They had a good sense of humor,” she says. “They made puns with hieroglyphs.” She also points out that even though rich people had fancy ushebtis, magical servant figures that went into graves to serve in the hereafter, while poor folks had to make do with “nasty little clay guys,” all ushebtis worked the same way. “Everyone was the same after death. There’s a sense of optimism and equality that makes Egypt very, very appealing. They didn’t have the feeling the gods were going to dump on them. The gods were generally benevolent and helpful. You don’t have the cringing of mankind before the gods. I find that attractive.”
Sarah Bryan Miller: What has changed in Egyptology in recent years?
Emily Teeter: Technology has changed a lot of things. Publishing is now so much faster and so much less expensive, and that’s important for the field. Before we used to have to wait years for publications to come out, or it would be so expensive that things couldn’t be published. Now we use a lot of desktop publishing. We have Macintosh fonts for hieroglyphs instead of steel type. Expense and speed are important, because information’s getting passed more rapidly from one center to another. We’re very, very active in the Web and Internet. Again, it speeds up communications, ideas pass more quickly. Instead of sitting down and writing a letter to somebody in Oxford, you just zap them on E-mail.
In the field there are certain parts of Egyptology which have been aided by new advances–and some which at this point we can’t figure out ways to speed up. For example, mapping techniques for archaeologists have changed in the last few years, and that’s important–more accurate mapping of archaeological sites using global-positioning techniques, ground-penetrating radar and things of that sort for locating potential sites. But there are a lot of things that haven’t been aided by technology, including what the University of Chicago is so famous for, epigraphy, which is the copying of the reliefs and inscriptions on temple walls. Our epigraphic survey has tried to use laser imaging and all sorts of hotshot new things, but some things you simply can’t do better than by having an Egyptologist go to the wall. There’s no substitute for the human eye, for a person who’s trained in the language and the art.
SBM: How much more are we finding out about the lives of the ancient Egyptians, and how have our perceptions of them changed?
ET: A lot has changed, but that’s not necessarily because of the new technology. Some of it is, and some of it’s not. Things like the big new tomb that Kent Weeks discovered in Luxor, the Valley of the Kings–actually that was relocated with ground-penetrating radar several years ago. But that’s an example of something where we’re going to find out a lot more about the reign of Ramses II and also about his sons. This was a very remarkable family. Some of them were soldiers, some of them were scribes. One of them was known as the first museum curator in history; he went around and restored archaeological sites. So that sort of find, as Weeks clears that tomb and we find out more about these people, is going to say a lot about the lives and careers of known people in ancient Egypt.
There’s been a move toward excavating things like town sites and nonroyal sites. That’s where we’re finding out more about daily life, which is basic to an understanding of a society. It’s one thing if we know all the kings, but if you don’t understand how people lived and how they thought the discipline is hollow in many ways, it’s so one-sided.
SBM: The King Tut exhibit brought in throngs, but how much did they come out knowing about Egypt?
ET: Not much. They learned quite a bit about a minuscule part of society, about this superelite in a very particular time. People are now trying to fill in the gaps. There are whole groups of people who are working on early settlement patterns–the questions of why towns were built where they were, how the patterns changed, and why those first cities began in Egypt, which are fundamental questions having to do with society.
The work that I’m doing has to do with religion of common people. This is important, because the Egyptians were among the most pious people in the world. There was no separation of religion and the rest of their lives. But the question is, what did these people believe? You’ve got the big temples, which says something about the elite religion. But what were the regular guys doing? And so I’m doing studies of what the common people believed, of how religion fit into their lives, of what their beliefs were. Were these big temples that you see in the pictures relevant at all to the little guy in the village?
The findings are not so surprising. Religion was used by common people as a way of resolving community differences. For example, oracles were used a lot. If somebody complained that something had been stolen they’d use a religious oracle to find the person: they’d present a list of people who were accused of stealing the thing, and the oracle would say, yes, no, no. It would pick out the person who supposedly stole it. So it’s a very practical use of religion on a day-to-day basis. You find things like old women in the village, called the “Knowing Ones,” who were oracles. They could see the form of the god around people, if they were good people or bad people.
SBM: How does the common religion compare with the Egyptian religion we’re familiar with–Isis and Osiris worshiped in grand temples?
ET: It has points of intersection, but in many cases common religion doesn’t even deal with the temples. And although Osiris is an important character, everything is scaled down to a community level. We’ve got community gods, and a very simple version of what you see at temples. But you also have private practices which don’t even take account of the gods–they use, for example, deceased ancestors as oracles, or deceased kings. Some of these people may never even have gone into the big temples.
SBM: Was there an element of animism?
ET: No, not really. Although you see some representations of animals or gods in the form of animals, there’s really no totemism or animism in Egyptian religion. Those symbols are more characteristics of that god, which are inherent in the power of that animal. The Egyptians were very practical people, and they revered what was familiar to them. And although we tend to have the sense that Egyptian religion was very mysterious and mystical, a lot of that comes from the later Greek tradition. Because the Greeks didn’t understand the Egyptians at all.
One of the real challenges is that you’ll find something unusual–a statue, for example. And sometimes you go on this quest to find out what this thing is and how it was used, if there’s an inscription on it, if it was dedicated by somebody to a god or to a temple. It’s a very interesting task to try to integrate the material remains into what we know about the religious system and what we know from religious texts and from personal letters–people talking to other people about what they’re doing or dedications to the god. The documentation is rich, but sometimes it’s tough to get it to fit together in cohesive ways.
SBM: I’m reminded of David Macauley’s satire on Egyptology, Motel of the Mysteries, in which every single item in a late-20th-century motel is misinterpreted by future archaeologists–the TV as the “great altar,” the toilet as the “sacred urn.”
ET: That’s a wonderful book, absolutely fantastic! And we joke amongst ourselves about that very often. For example, when somebody brings an object in and we’ve no idea what it is–“Cult object!” It’s like the toothbrushes used as earrings. Macauley really hit it right on the head. There are famous boo-boos in Egyptology, where things have been completely misinterpreted. I recently learned about these little knives, which people used to say were ritual circumcision knives with all this wonderful mystique about them. It turns out they’re just plain old razors for scraping faces. When you’re not quite sure, the cult significance can get built up tremendously to make it fit into this magical, mysterious sense of ancient Egypt.
SBM: How can you tell whether a given clay animal is a worship object or a child’s toy?
ET: That’s a real problem, especially when you’re working with the common people’s religion.
SBM: How did you find out what things like the knives were for?
ET: Sometimes it’s pretty simple. Sometimes it just takes somebody taking it as a project and looking at pictorial information, because from ancient Egypt there are zillions of paintings or carved reliefs showing people doing things. If you spend enough time going through the publications or going to Egypt and going through the tombs, it’s very likely you’ll find a picture of somebody holding one of these things up. And very likely the pictures are accompanied by a hieroglyphic caption, just like in comic books. So if you’re not quite sure you read the caption, and it says “razor for cutting hair.”
It’s a constant beef between Egyptologists and art historians, because art historians can’t read the inscriptions. So they get these wonderful stories about the reliefs, and we come along and say, “No, no, it says right here–” [She laughs.]
SBM: Is there a certain amount of professional jealousy among members of different specialties?
ET: Yes, there’s a certain amount of turf. Art history and Egyptology work well together, but they can’t work separately. You can’t take the material out of the context of the accompanying inscriptions, because the inscriptions are closely tied to the reliefs. And often the last hieroglyphic sign in certain words is actually supplied by a larger-scale representation that the inscription narrates. So you can’t divorce the written from the pictorial. This is something that’s been important for our work at the University of Chicago–copying and publishing reliefs and inscriptions. And it’s reliefs and inscriptions–it’s always together. We don’t just publish the inscriptions.
SBM: How much art history do you have to study to become an Egyptologist?
ET: None at all. There’s just no time. Many people as undergraduates will do some, and it’s very important background. But for the degree program here, as for other schools that do advanced training for Egyptology–no art history. The closest to that would be courses on architecture or architecture and material remains, but it’s not formal art history. And it’s a shame. There are very few people who are Egyptologists who are also art historians. It’s a very important crossover, of Egyptologists who have a connoisseur’s eye, that know art history and look at the aesthetic value of objects. Because as Egyptologists we tend to look at something and say, “Is it inscribed?” [She laughs.] As with most disciplines, the growing specialization in Egyptology is good, but it’s also dangerous for the field.
SBM: You get too narrow a vision?
ET: It gets to be very, very narrow. After one finishes training it’s very important to try to regain some scope, because the process of becoming an Egyptologist, the actual training for it, is so intensive that people who’ve had some vision and scope before usually have to restrain that to get through the training. It’s very important to be able to reopen vision and have some flexibility.
SBM: How does one become an Egyptologist?
ET: Study! Too many years of graduate school. It’s about another four years after a BA–three years of classes and an additional year. Most of that is language training, because at the University of Chicago we’re known for languages. A lot of the materials are written in German–the dictionary of hieroglyphs is German-to-hieroglyphics–so you have to learn German. And you have to learn French. You study a full series of Egyptian languages–all the different stages of hieroglyphic languages, and Coptic, demotic, and the cursive hieroglyphic script called hieratic. You know that if you’ve got an Egyptologist from the University of Chicago they’ll be able to read rings around anybody else.
SBM: How much ancient Egyptian material is there compared to other ancient civilizations?
ET: The sheer bulk I don’t know, but it is astounding. That’s the thing that amazes me about the ancient Egyptians, when I think of how much stuff these guys made. You think of the big museum collections throughout the world–Berlin, Paris, London, New York, Boston, our collection. And then the minor collections–and so many little towns have a mummy or a couple of Egyptian objects. And you think of all the things still in Egypt. It is just astounding how much came out of this culture, spread throughout the entire world. I think virtually every country in the world has an Egyptian collection of some size.
SBM: And there’s still plenty to fill up museums in Cairo.
ET: There’s plenty in Cairo. It’s a very nice thing about it, that the Egyptian objects are ambassadors for Egypt. It’s a reason why people know so much about Egypt, in contrast, for example, to Mesopotamia or ancient Turkey, which had fabulous, interesting ancient civilizations. But Turkey had one of the earliest strict antiquities laws, and not much came out of Turkey. As a result people don’t know much about ancient Turkish history.
SBM: Why do we have so many artifacts?
ET: It’s a combination. The climate is an important feature. And a lot of the objects are made out of stone, which gives them a leg up on preservation. The Egyptians also had this idea of life after death, and objects were placed in tombs–tombs are usually fairly secure places for preservation of objects. And the Egyptians seem to have been always busy making things. We have pictures of the workshops. It was an affluent society, so you have a lot of patrons of the arts. And you have the feeling that even simple households had a lot of goods, albeit in pottery rather than stone.
Something that will eventually be looked at is the economic implications for the quality of life in Egypt. Just the number of physical remains is astounding, absolutely astounding. For example, look at a stone bowl. There are tons of stone bowls from ancient Egypt. When you consider the man-hours it took to make one stone bowl–or look at a stone statue and realize they’re carving these with copper chisels, which takes a very long time–it seems amazing. But it was a society which was healthy for artisans, because it was a redistributive society, where you’ve got the object and the man-hours going in a circle to feed different parts of the society.
SBM: Did the common people you’re studying have the same emphasis on the afterlife?
ET: Yes. That is one thing that was held common through all of the society. Now, how it was prepared for varies from class to class, but there was an overall idea that if you’re a good person, if you’ve lived your life according to the moral precepts of the society–which are amazingly similar to ours: be good to your parents, don’t rob, don’t cheat, be clean, don’t commit adultery, all these basic human truths–then you’ll be rewarded in the afterlife.
This has something to do with the great number of material remains, because the idea was that you could take it with you. So they would stock their tombs with these things for the afterlife, because all classes believed they would be reborn. And everybody of course believed they’d make it through the judgment, in spite of this injunction that if you were a horrible person you’d die a second death and be condemned to hell.
SBM: The Egyptians are a separate ethnic group, aren’t they? They’re not Arabs–
ET: That’s correct. It’s a difficult question. Because Egypt is in northeastern Africa on the big migration routes, we’re not exactly sure what group the Egyptians are. We can trace the language, but it’s dangerous to say what ethnic group people are from a language, because you can change languages. Languages are not affixed to gene types.
Our assumption is that the Egyptians are essentially a mongrel people–in a nice sense–a mixed group of people because of the location. You’ve got indigenous African stock. You’ve got a lot of peoples from Palestine. The precursors of the Arabs are mixed in there. There are blond, light-skinned people from North Africa, like the Libyans. You’ve got all of these people mixed together to make what were called the Egyptians.
You can even see from the painted reliefs in Egyptian tombs that Egyptians came in a wide spectrum of skin colors, everything from very light to very black. But they considered themselves to be Egyptians. They did not, particularly, have a sense of race. They had a sense of national identity.
People are studying the remains–because Egypt has so many mummies to study–but the question of where these people came from has not been resolved. We’ve been able to completely discard this colonial idea that came at the turn of the century, where people said, “It couldn’t have been Africans who made this fabulous civilization. It must have been Anglo-Saxon types or Indo-Europeans.” This has now been rejected for 40 or 50 years, but occasionally comes up from people who are not aware that this is nonsense–and nastiness.
SBM: What about the opposite view, the Afrocentric view, that it’s all black civilization and they taught the Greeks everything they knew?
ET: There are problems with that also. First of all there are problems with the use of the term black. What does black mean? It’s so imprecise. And when you look at the reliefs, what does black have to do with these?
The impact of Egypt on Greece is being reevaluated. Certainly there is not as much transfer of information as had been thought, because in the Greek period in Egypt there were two parallel societies. There was a Greek society, the overlords of Egypt, and then there were the Egyptians.
SBM: Are you talking about Ptolemaic Egypt?
ET: Ptolemaic, after the time of Alexander.
SBM: And the people who say that Cleopatra was black, when in fact she was a Greek?
ET: Yes, she’s Macedonian. That’s just bad scholarship when people bring that up.
SBM: I was actually thinking more of earlier exchanges. You can see it in the kouroi, the very early Greek statues that are obviously influenced by Egyptian statues. From that some people have claimed that black Africans invented civilization and the Greeks just borrowed from them.
ET: Certainly the Greeks did borrow from the Egyptians. The problem I have is when you say black Africans. Certainly they’re Africans. Some of them you might say were black. The Afrocentric view is an important one to consider, and it is something that we deal with quite a bit. But there’s not that much that the Greeks got from Egypt. There are significant amounts, but it’s not as though Egypt inspired Greek civilization–not at all. Martin Bernal’s Black Athena and all of that are just based on loose scholarship. It seems to be a sort of academic exercise of taking information and molding it to a certain preset conclusion–obviously not well received by Egyptologists or linguists.
SBM: But it’s being taught in universities all over the country.
ET: That’s right, and it’s a shame, because there is a lot of good in the Afrocentrist approach. Certainly Africa has been given short shrift. There are now more publications coming out about ancient African civilizations, of which Egypt of course is one. It’s something we’ve tried to do here, emphasizing Nubia, because Nubia–which is in today’s southern Egypt and northern Sudan–has much less Middle Eastern influence. It’s much more African–whatever African is. Africa is this incredible mosaic of hundreds of different cultures.
We’ve been emphasizing Nubia, because first of all it’s a culture that people have no idea about. Because it is less Middle Eastern-influenced, people who are looking for African roots and the glories of Africa can look at that. And it was an absolutely incredible civilization. At one point, in fact, the Nubians conquered Egypt and unified most of the Nile Valley, about the eighth century BC. They built pyramids, they trained elephants for the Roman army, they were in a lot of contact with Rome and with Greece–a very rich civilization. We feel that part of our mission here is to educate people about cultures like that, which fall within our sphere because it is in the Nile Valley.
Some of the more popular publishing houses have now started bringing out good books on Nubia, because it’s a fascinating subject, and it is of tremendous interest to Afrocentrists as well. It’s just a shame that so little has been written about it, partly because so little was known about Nubia until the UNESCO expeditions went in in the 60s, when they were building the high dam at Aswan, which was going to flood all of Nubia. It’s taken quite a few years for that material to be processed and come down into secondary sources.
SBM: Are these engineering projects threatening our potential knowledge?
ET: In the case of Nubia, the information we have is what we have now. We’re never going to get more out of the area between the first and second cataract, because it’s underwater. So it’s limiting. You have certain numbers of documents you can deal with, and you’ll never have more supporting documents than that. You have to interpret and reinterpret the existing material.
In Egypt they’re now also doing hydraulic works in the Sinai, and there are a great number of expeditions from different countries working there, because that has endangered a lot of sites. The Sinai’s had almost no archaeological work done, and obviously there’s going to be a lot of important material there because it’s the transit route between Palestine and Egypt. People who want to look for biblical parallels–this is where you’re going to find them. There are a whole series of forts out there, there are settlement sites, habitation sites. And now it’s back to salvage archaeology–people out there digging as fast as they can before parts of it are destroyed by the development of Sinai.
That’s also a big problem in northeastern Syria and in southeastern Turkey, where they’re building dams. They’ve got to build the dams–they have to feed the people, they have to have electricity for the modernization. But it drowns parts of history, it inundates important archaeological sites.
SBM: You mentioned the biblical parallels. There was speculation when the discovery of the tomb of the sons of Ramses II was announced: “This could be the pharaoh of Exodus, but there’s no sign that his eldest son died suddenly.”
ET: It’s so difficult, and I don’t know if this problem will ever be resolved. Of course it goes back to the very roots of Egyptology. People first got interested in Egypt as a way of trying to verify the Bible and to look for the historical accuracy of the Bible. The problem is that there simply are no records of the Exodus in the Egyptian documents which refer to that time. That means one of several things. Some people argue, pretty much rightly, that the Egyptians didn’t record huge defeats. But on the other hand, because it’s not recorded at all and so many other things are, including some defeats, we can conclude that there simply was no recognizable exodus from the Egyptian perspective. This is a view that many Egyptologists take: that indeed what is mentioned in the Bible was a very important emigration, which may in fact have been a gradual emigration, which was then canonized as “the Exodus.” If it was a gradual emigration, the Egyptians probably wouldn’t have taken notice of it. Hence it would not be in Egyptian sources. The earliest reference we have to the Israelites in Egyptian records is after Ramses II, and it refers to the Israelites being back in Israel. So at that point if there was an exodus it had already occurred.
SBM: So scholars went to Egypt to prove the Bible and were disappointed.
ET: Most of them have been disappointed. Those who come in with their own agendas come up with some fantastic stories, but they’re not well received by the Egyptological community, because they’re not based on good scholarship. People have looked on mummies from an earlier period, about the year 1350 BC, as being Joseph–but there’s no way you can prove it, and the burden of proof really is on the people who are making these claims. Egyptologists are very willing to rewrite history if in fact the proof can be brought forward.
SBM: What about Mormon claims that Joseph Smith was translating hieroglyphs in the “Book of Abraham,” which turned out to be the Book of the Dead?
ET: Egyptologists certainly read the documents differently than Mr. Smith did. Being a major research center, we get all sorts of questions. A couple of times a year we’ll get a xerox of the publication by Joseph Smith asking us what did this mean. At this point most of us even have the reply on our computers so we can just send it off.
We get a lot of letters from people who have an Egyptian artifact that their grandmother left them, or whatever. Nine out of ten times it’s supposedly either from the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut or from the tomb of Tutankhamun, and it’s sad having to write some of these people back and say, “It’s very nice, it’s old, but not an antiquity–and it looks like it was made at the turn of the century.” I even had somebody send me photographs of this great little silver filigree bracelet which is not Egyptian at all–it looked like the pharaoh was carrying golf clubs.
We get a fair number of letters from people in jail who are studying Egypt or just want to communicate with somebody. We get a lot of requests for information from schools–and that’s part of the fun of this job. It’s like trying to be an encyclopedia. You never know what it’s going to be when you answer the phone or open the mail.
What’s interesting is the curiosity that people have. Egypt is something that fascinates people. Everybody knows about mummies and the pyramids. I really think if you’re in a roomful of people and you ask how many people wanted to be an archaeologist or an Egyptologist when they were young, I’m sure half the people will say, “I did!” It’s a wonderful field to be in.
SBM: Do you still find yourselves pestered by New Agers?
ET: New Agers not so much–that was more popular a few years ago, with meditating in the pyramids and crystals and that sort of thing. That’s pretty much past now. Afrocentrism was very hot for a while, but that’s died down a bit. We’re pretty much back to garden-variety requests for information about mummies or the tomb of Ramses II.
SBM: Do people still have this Indiana Jones idea of what you do?
ET: Yeah, they do. And it’s kind of funny and ironic, because Professor Ravenswood in the movie was based on one of our professors here at the Oriental Institute, Robert Braidwood, which we’re very proud of of course–although they transferred him to Penn. And we have a couple of dead ringers for Indiana Jones on our faculty.
SBM: Indiana Jones was more of a looter than an archaeologist.
ET: Yes. Snatching the head off the altar–not a good ad for archaeology!
SBM: And today particularly the emphasis is on studying things in context.
ET: Very much so. And with the antiquities legislation we don’t go looking for stuff with the hope of keeping it, because it’s not possible. The material remains belong to the host government. The context is extremely important. You don’t just snatch things away without proper photography and mapping and documentation. It is unfortunate that as soon as you open an archaeological site it starts to decay, because you’re disturbing it–you’re destroying the site as you document it. It’s essentially a destructive process, but you try to retain as much information as possible.
SBM: Do you go on archaeological digs yourself, or do you sit here and analyze?
ET: I either sit here and analyze or I go into the field and copy inscriptions. I’m not an archaeologist. Again, it’s the field’s specialization. Most commonly Egyptologists–those of us trained in the language–will do epigraphy. My experience has been to go to tombs and copy the inscriptions. Some Egyptologists do cross over and do some archaeology, but generally we are along to copy inscriptions and publish inscriptions and to analyze inscribed objects which are dug up.
SBM: Are you allowed to bring any of the materials back?
ET: It depends on the contract. Each expedition, whether it be epigraphic or archaeological, has its specific contract with the Egyptian government, which specifies exactly what may be removed and what may not. Recently it’s been quite restricted, even to the point where soil samples and pottery samples often may not come back. In some cases, governments will arrange for a loan of the material to be studied and then returned, but it depends on the government, on the circumstances, on the relationship of the expedition leader with the authorities.
But it’s a very reasonable thing. In Egypt at least the move has been for Western scientists, archaeologists, paleobotanists, Egyptologists to assist the Egyptians in setting up laboratories there. For example, there’s been an attempt to set up a human-remains laboratory in the Giza area, and that would be wonderful, because it would be a testing station for a lot of things. It would have the necessary facilities so that people could do the tests in the way they want them to be done, and they wouldn’t have to remove the materials. It’s also a great residual for the Egyptian government, and for the antiquities organization, and young Egyptians who are studying conservation, scientific method, and Egyptology. There’s been a lot of emphasis on helping train the next generation of Egyptian Egyptologists.
SBM: Have you had problems with governments and bureaucrats?
ET: Everybody has the occasional problem now and then, due perhaps to misunderstanding. But the University of Chicago in particular has generally had very, very good relations with all the countries in the Middle East. At one time or another we’ve had expeditions in every country in the Middle East. So we have very few problems.
Part of the reason for that is that we do not buy or sell any antiquities of any sort in this museum, so there are no misunderstandings about acquisitions. The majority of things in our museum we excavated in the 20s, 30s, 40s, with the contracts with the host governments and the very clear understanding of what we would be given and what we would retain.
SBM: How long has the Oriental Institute been doing this?
ET: The institute was founded in 1919, but actually the University of Chicago’s Department of Semitic Languages, from which the Oriental Institute was founded as a sort of think tank, was started with the university in 1893. Our first expedition went out to Iraq in 1903. By 1919 the university realized there was so much going on here that they spun off a separate research institute that was funded by the Rockefellers, the Oriental Institute.
SBM: Has your work ever been interrupted by local politics?
ET: There have been temporary suspensions because of political situations. World War II was tough, and most of the expeditions were suspended. After the Iranian revolution, there went our fieldwork in Iran. And the war in Iraq, Desert Storm, suspended our work there. And we’ve had a lot of work in Iraq–we had a permanent mission for many years. We assume we’ll be going back, but when? It’s awfully frustrating for our faculty and staff and researchers when some sort of political situation like that comes between them and their work. Since about 1975, with the closing of Iran and now Iraq, it’s been traumatic for these people that were trained to be Iranian archaeologists. Syria is most hospitable these days. A lot of people are doing very interesting work in Syria. Political situations get in the way of a lot of benign and important research.
We do try to help. During some disturbances in Iraq some of the regional museums were robbed, and the University of Chicago assisted in setting up a master list and catalog of those stolen objects in the effort to get them back. It’s a fundamental ethical thing, but it also points out our good intentions and our desire to maintain good relations with these governments–because we’ve had good relationships since before the turn of the century. Times have changed. Remember, at the time the University of Chicago was established the Middle East was a completely different configuration. There was no Iraq, there was no Syria, there was no Jordan, there was no Israel.
SBM: It was almost all part of the Ottoman Empire before World War I, wasn’t it?
ET: That’s right. And it was partitioned into Transjordan and Mesopotamia, and then split up into Syria, Iraq, and other countries. That alone is an interesting lesson–it’s in one person’s lifetime that that part of the world has changed so dramatically. It’s also an interesting lesson of history that we try to teach, that you can see so many parallels in the modern political situation and the ancient situation–about buffer countries, and Syria, Palestine, Israel, and the effect of geography on politics. There are certain areas that cannot be split from others or you start having political problems. It’s why history should be studied, because of the relevance it has for today–and also for a sense of humility. You realize that we’ve got more gizmos and better tools and higher-speed everything–but there are certain things that don’t change and certain things that repeat over and over and over again.
SBM: Are there any other academic controversies in Egyptology at the moment?
ET: One hot topic right now is the connection between the Minoan civilizations and Egypt. There were a whole series of Minoan-like frescoes discovered in the eastern delta, and this has been an interesting problem because it’s brought the classicists together with the Egyptologists and the art historians. And people are going around in circles trying to figure out what this means–were there actually Minoans living in Egypt, or were the Egyptians painting Minoan style?
There are also some basic and exciting things, like who built the pyramids and how. Some of our faculty here have been working on excavations around the great pyramids, trying to find out more about how the workers lived. They’ve been trying to find the bakeries, because if you can find the bakeries you get an idea of how many people were working, because you’ve got to feed the people. So again, turning away from the structure itself to who built them–how did they live, how many people there were, what the camp followers were like, what sort of houses they lived in, how they were buried. And this is being worked on a lot, by both the University of Chicago and the Egyptians. It fleshes it out, it gives us the basic understanding we need for the bigger, sexier part of the pyramid projects.
So there’s a tremendous amount of research going on. People often say, “They must have found everything in Egypt.” They said that right before Kent Weeks rediscovered this tomb of the sons of Ramses II. And there are many, many more discoveries going on. The British and French have found some beautiful upper-class tombs from the time of Tut with wonderful wall reliefs. People don’t realize that there’s so much work still to be done in Egypt. There’s no end to this field if you have imagination and some vision of where to look for projects.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.