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New Publication!

March 20, 2018

Our very own Kate Sheppard, whiz HARN administrator and Associate Professor at Missouri S&T has a new book published


Edited by Kathleen L. Sheppard. vi+310 pages; 5 black & white plates, 1 colour plate. 399 2018 Archaeological Lives . Available both in printed and e-versions. Printed ISBN 9781784917821. Epublication ISBN 9781784917838. 
Book contents page
Caroline Louise Ransom Williams (1872-1952) is remembered as the first American university-trained female Egyptologist, but she is not widely-known in the history of science. Her mentor was James Henry Breasted, well-known as the first American Egyptologist and founder of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. As long as they worked together and as much as they depended on each other professionally, Ransom Williams is little more than a footnote in the published history of archaeology. She was a successful scholar, instructor, author, and museum curator. She also had personal struggles with her mother and her husband that affected the choices she could make about her career. This book presents the correspondence between Ransom Williams and Breasted because the letters are crucial in piecing together and allowing an in-depth analysis of her life and career. 

The written conversation, comprised of 240 letters between the two, shows that Ransom Williams had a full life and productive career as the first American female Egyptologist. Through these letters, we see part of a life that is unique while at the same time analogous to other professional women in the period. This edition is the first book-length discussion of Ransom Williams’ life and career. 

About the Editor DR. KATHLEEN SHEPPARD is Associate Professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Missouri S&T in Rolla, Missouri, USA. She received her PhD in the History of Science from the University of Oklahoma in 2010. Her research focuses on the history of Egyptology in the US and in the UK, and especially women’s roles in the discipline. She finds that telling the life stories of women in Egyptology is not only interesting, but it is also crucial to fully understanding the founding and development of the discipline. In her spare time, she is a mom, wife, and Ironman triathlete. 

For more information about how to get hold of a copy see here


Review – The Painted Queen, Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess

March 16, 2018

Constable Edition cover – Harriet Taylor Seed


This is, presumably, the final Amelia Peabody mystery. Elizabeth Peters, one of the pen names of Barbara Mertz,  died in 2013 leaving The Painted Queen as an unfinished manuscript which the family asked Joan Hess, her friend and fellow crime writer, to complete. Due to various circumstances, it wasn’t until last year that The Painted Queen was finished and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that my reservation got to the top of the queue at my local library and I got my hands on this long awaited final installment.

Barbara Mertz photo by Osmund Geier

Elizabeth Peters and cat, photo by Osmund Grier, copyright

In the interests of full disclosure and bias, I should state that I am a big fan of Elizabeth Peters. I first came across the Amelia Peabody books in, the now demised and much missed, Murder One on Charing Cross Road while looking for a present for my father-in-law. I know I bought him Crocodile on a Sandbank, Street of the Five Moons and an Edward Marston train detective book thing (turns out Edward Marston is a non de plume too, what is it with all these pseudonyms?) I am not entirely altruistic in my book gifting, there’s a good chance if I give you a book then I’m intending to read it when I next come to stay and this was definitely the case with the Elizabeth Peters books (as you may have gathered by my inability to remember the title, the Edward Marston didn’t appeal – to me, John on the other hand preferred trains to Egypt, read all the Edward Marston books and then moved on to Andrew Martin which demonstrates something even if I have no idea what that might be). Anyway, before I lose myself in a welter of parentheses and authors, Elizabeth Peters appealed because, well, crime and archaeology, what’s not to like? And, it turned out I wasn’t alone, lots and lots of people liked Elizabeth Peters’ books, particularly the Amelia Peabody ones, among the fans were lots and lots of archaeologists particularly EgyptologistsThe Painted Queen begins with a foreword by Salima Ikram, a woman easily as formidable as Amelia Peabody*, Professor Ikram says:

One of the great delights of the Amelia Peabody books is that in each one, Amelia combines murder, mayhem and mystery with solid doses of Egyptology and history … Through her books, Barbara managed to seduce readers into caring not only about Amelia, Emerson and their circle, but also about Egyptology. She managed to educate without bludgeoning people with too many facts; she humanised archaeologists and explained what we do in the field, dull though it often is, with its endless sifting of sand in the quest for telling ‘odds and ends’.

It is hardly surprising that Elizabeth Peters used Egyptology as a background for the Amelia books, she had a Phd in Egyptology from the University of Chicago where she’d been supervised by John A Wilson and wrote two histories of Egypt in addition to her many, many novels. More surprising was her deftness of touch, as Professor Ikram says she didn’t bludgeon you with information, instead it worked as part of the over all story, but there was that depth of knowledge informing her work, she visited the locations, researched the subject, called on her many Egyptology friends for information and advice, Professor Ikram again:

Although she never excavated in Egypt, she had visited more sites than many archaeologists. I particularly remember a bumpy ride to the rarely visited Abu Rawash [site of the Pyramid of Djedefre], a site that Barbara had wanted to see for some time, as she was thinking of featuring it in a new book. When we got there, we carried out an almost total suspension of Barbara over the burial pit of the pyramid so that she could see what it looked like, and concluded with an Amelia-style picnic at the edge of the pyramid, in the mortuary temple.

And, it wasn’t just the Egyptology that was so well informed, yes, many of the events in the Amelia books are improbable (the sheer number of murders, impostors, last minute rescues and dramatic denouements is preposterous to say nothing of Ramses’ precociousness and Nefret’s background), but they are improbable events that take place within real late nineteenth/early twentieth century happenings and regularly involve real people. The Sudanese uprising led by Muhammad Ahmad, Women’s suffrage, the Denshawai incident and other uprisings against Turkish and British rule in Egypt, the tensions under the protectorate, the 1st World War all figure in Peters’ plots, all impinge on the behaviour and actions of her characters in one way or another. Peters’ characters interact with real officials from the Egyptian Service des Antiquités including Auguste Mariette, Gaston Maspero and Jacques de Morgan. Egyptologists such as Flinders Petrie, Archibald Sayce, Margaret Murray (and many, many more) are all name-checked, others including Howard Carter and Theodore M. Davis make regular appearances in the books. Government officials for example, Lord Cromer, Lord Kitchener and Lord Allenby all feature in the stories, all elicit a reaction from her characters.

Barbara Mertz copyright Barbara Mertz

On site – copyright

Furthermore – and this is where her deftness of touch comes in – Peters’ characters react, accepting various plot devices, as people of their education and station would react. Peters gives them the opportunity to grow, mature, to modify their views as the series progresses. Although the Emersons and their entourage are presented as remarkably free from the racist and colonialist attitudes of their nationality and class, their tolerance is used to highlight the more usual attitudes around them. Yet, even these paragons of liberality have their moments where they revert to the social mores of their rank, probably the most telling example of this is in The Ape Who Guards the Balance when it is discovered that David Todros, the grandson of their reis Abdullah, and Lia Emerson have fallen in love. Initially, with the exception of Emerson, all the adults react with horror, how can they marry when she is British and he is Egyptian? Amelia’s struggle to accept the situation is well done and again demonstrates Elizabeth Peters’ knowledge of the era and understanding of her characters.

This appreciation of period comes through in the ways her characters wear the right clothes – no matter how many shirts Emerson wrecks he always wears a shirt on site with trousers, never shorts, and dresses formally – under duress – for dinner, as does Ramses. Amelia experiments with dig costume, voluminous ‘Turkish’ trousers, divided skirts and finally breeches under a long jacket. A jacket she never removes or even unbuttons.

Barbara Mertz photo by Shaun N Campbell

Elizabeth Peters in character, photo by Shaun N Campbell, copyright

On formal occasions she wears the dresses and hats of a wealthy woman while Nefret, who inherits a great deal of money, wears dresses by Worth and other haute couture designers. Her characters speak as they should, yes occasional Americanisms creep in, but on the whole they speak, well, in character whether they are talking to others of their class or impersonating various people. Which isn’t to say that the books are all brilliant masterpieces of literature, they’re not, they’re improbable fiction, but improbable fiction well done. And, they are variable, personally I don’t think she really hit her stride with Amelia until the 3rd instalment – The Mummy Case – the plot of The Last Camel Died at Noon is just plain ludicrous and makes me think of the Skeksis and Podlings in The Dark Crystal.

So, after what’s turned into something of a eulogy to her, is The Painted Queen a worthy addition to the Elizabeth Peters canon?

With all due respect and sympathy to Joan Hess the answer has to be – not really, no.

Obviously, it is hugely difficult to come into a long established series – there are 19 previous novels in the series – and to add to the complication this book slots in to the middle of the series. Joan Hess recognised this:

…the topic turned to Barbara’s unfinished manuscript. I will admit my gut froze as I sensed the inevitable question would I complete The Painted Queen? My first response was an adamant refusal. The idea of attempting to capture her voice, her erudite style, her wit and her vast knowledge of archaeology in the early twentieth century, seemed ludicrous.

It would be completely unfair to judge Ms Hess’ abilities as a writer on this book alone, and, were I a serious reviewer, I would have read some of her independent fiction for comparison. But I’m not and I haven’t, and on the basis of this I have no intention of doing so. If you’re a Joan Hess fan you can tell me what I’m missing.

Obviously there’s little actual Egyptology, and it must be very difficult to write already created characters without descending into parody, and Ms Hess doesn’t parody Elizabeth Peters, but equally she doesn’t bring the characters to life. The vocabulary used by them is all wrong, full of Americanisms and anachronisms, there’s no subtlety or deftness. Nor does Ms Hess have an understanding of the social conventions of the time – she has Daoud, one of their Egyptian workmen, join Amelia for tea on the terrace at Shepheard’s Hotel, which simply wouldn’t have happened in 1912. Although as a historian and archaeologist these misconceptions are irritating and to an enthusiast the characterisation is unconvincing I guess as a stand alone murder-mystery none of this would really matter if the plot was strong enough. But, it’s not. There’s a lot of it, mind. The queen of the title refers to the head of Nefertiti recovered from Amarna by Ludwig Borchardt of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft. Rather than dealing with the, still unresolved, question of how Borchardt persuaded the antiquities inspector, Gustave Lefebvre, to allow him to take such a fine item back to Germany, The Painted Queen has a different excavator locate the head, a storyline involving antiquities forgers, a race around Cairo, kidnappings, druggings and the inevitable rescues – I’m still not sure what the purpose of this is. Another strand involves the German invention of MDMA – Ecstasy – which is being used by a German agent, posing as a missionary, in an attempt to incite the Copts to rebel against British rule while the Germans invade Egypt, no, really**. The main story, as I understand it, is a murderous band of brothers (and their mother) with prophetic christian names intent on killing Amelia and Ramses in revenge for the death of their half-sibling. The christian names presage how they will die once they have, anticlimactically, failed in their assassinations – so Judas is stabbed in the back, Guy gets blown up, Cromwell is beheaded by a train and Absalom gets caught up in a tree and dies. I think this is supposed to be amusing and/or ironic. – in an Alanis Morissette understanding of irony.

Elizabeth Peters and another cat - hey, I like cats - photo by

Elizabeth Peters and another cat – hey, I like cats – photo uncredited, copyright

So, after many words my advice is: if you’re new to the Amelia books don’t start here; if you don’t like them this isn’t going to change your mind; and if you are a fan but haven’t yet read this one then go back and re-read an old one instead. That’s what I intend to do.

And, on that note, I will wish you all a wonderful weekend of books and cats or whatever takes your fancy


*I speak from experience having met her, we are nearly the same age, she is very intelligent, articulate, elegant – in her presence I managed none of these things, but at least didn’t pour coffee down myself which is what I usually manage to do in these situations, I am hanging on to that shred of pride.

**I have no idea what invasion plots were being devised in 1912, they may well have been this ridiculous, but it turns out Ecstasy was invented then by German Pharmacists, who knew?

Internet Dossier – History of Archaeology

March 13, 2018

HARN member, Nathan Schlanger, has been in touch to say:

This is just to let you know that an internet dossier on the “History of Archaeology” has just been published on the Inrap website
This is in French, admittedly, and rather French-oriented (if only to remain manageable), but I hope that you or your students may find it of interest. I would of course welcome all your possible comments, suggestions and criticisms, as well as links to other websites or publications. 

The antiquity of the Guennol Stargazer – legal, looted, fake?

March 9, 2018

conflict antiquities

(The posting of the series was interrupted by a system error in Microsoft Edge, then the deliberate deletion of the lost data by Microsoft Support. It will continue next week…)

Last year, I noted the incomplete collecting history of a marble Kilia idol (also discussed as a Kiliya/tepegöz figurine/statuette), the Guennol Stargazer. The lawsuit, brought by the Republic of Turkey against Christie’s auction house and collector-seller Michael Steinhardt, continues. I make no judgement.

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International Women’s Day 2018

March 8, 2018

Campaign, Reflect, Celebrate!

Please feel free to add your own links in the comments



“mere” corruption, political insecurity and conflict antiquities trafficking in Cyprus and Turkey

March 5, 2018

conflict antiquities

When considering trafficking of and markets for (fake) conflict antiquities, it is helpful to remember that cultural property crime can be connected with common problems, such as corruption and oppression, in uncommon ways. Furthermore, disparate cases can sometimes help to interpret one another.

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Sellers and buyers of undocumented antiquities already dismiss or demean exploitation, crime and violence at source. Will they also ignore threats in “their own” countries?

March 2, 2018

I’m finding this series of posts by Sam Sam’s really interesting so I hope you are too.

conflict antiquities

Roberta Mazza, who blogs on Faces and Voices and tweets @papyrologyatman, has published an article on Hyperallergic about the illegal papyrus trade and what scholars can do to stop it.

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