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TwtS – the penultimate instalment

August 10, 2018

I’d kind of forgotten about this, or rather I knew I had promised another post but then the school holidays arrived ad I forgot everything that wasn’t necessary to (my) immediate survival.

As you may recall I had said I had a shocking revelation for you. You will be unsurprised to learn that it isn’t really that shocking, but it is mortifying and, for me, disappointing. So, without further fluffing, I missed Jasmine Day’s keynote about Margit Labouchere’s letters to Howard Carter. I know! Gutted! Hopefully someone will summarise in the comments or the abstracts will soon be on the TwtS webpage[i]. Can I just say I was really looking forward to it, especially after missing part of her Skype talk back in 2016? I am obviously doomed not to hear Jasmine, it’s clearly my version of the Mummy Curse. There are some who will argue that it is simply co-incidence and, given Jasmine was on first session in both 2016 and 2018 and I have a tendency to oversleep/get lost/develop cracking headaches, it’s unsurprising that I missed her talks. I know better. Mummy Curse for sure.


Anyway, I staggered into the conference on the Saturday with a horrible headache so my impressions of the papers I heard in the morning are sketchy and my apologies to Michelle Scott and Nolwenn Corriou because although I was physically present, mentally I was many miles away waiting for the drugs to work. This was particularly annoying because the bits I heard were utterly fascinating.

Michelle was talking about how the popular appeal of Egyptology is as strong as the academic, particularly the detective aspects – bodies without tombs, tombs without bodies, bodies and statues without appendages, Egyptology is often about discovery, recovery, and particularly, absence. The traces of the material existence of something now lost: in this case King Djer’s arm. Petrie excavated the Early Dynastic Royal Cemetery at Abydos in 1901 and discovered the mummified arm, he assumed it was the arm of a woman because the jewellery was ‘feminine’. This interpretation was challenged after the discovery of Tutankhamun. In the excavation report it was the gold that was emphasised rather than the mummified remains, and indeed the plates of the jewellery – gold, turquoise, lapis lazuli and amethyst – formed the frontispiece of Petrie’s report.

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(Photo taken from because my photo of Michelle’s slide was illegible. You’d think I had a hangover my photos are so bad, oh if only!)

The jewellery is now on display at the Cairo Museum, but the mummified arm is lost and now only exists in photographs. Michelle discussed how the agency of the image has been used to construct ancient Egypt in both popular and academic accounts, how our visual image of ancient Egypt is largely the result of Harry Burton’s photographs of the Tutankhamun excavations and prior to these there was a very different idea of Egypt’s past.


(See what I mean?)


She also discussed the fragmented body as a site of remembrance, how certain body parts have been seen as more ‘significant’ than others, and how museums are changing their approach to displaying human remains.


It was a packed paper: photography, detection, interpretation, agency, alterity, relics and religion – it was undoubtedly even more detailed than I’ve presented here, but you get the idea.


Nolwenn, my huge apologies to Nolwenn, who’s absorbing paper about She Who Sleeps (Sax Rohmer, 1928 – yet another one I’ve not read) has been filtered through my headache. By this time I’d recovered enough to just be incredibly stupid so I didn’t take any notes or photograph any slides because, get this, I was sure I’d remember what was said. Yup, 2 months later, with no prompts, like that was going to happen! I’m really sorry Nolwenn, I’m not going to do you justice here and I’m going to have to largely re-produce the abstract.


Nolwenn was talking about Orientalism and the construction of the Orient through Victorian and Edwardian fiction, in particular She Who Sleeps[ii]. The plot of Rohmer’s novel is that when the hero lands in Cairo he is somewhat disappointed not to discover the Orientalist fantasy he’d imagined. However, buying a piece of papyrus which he deciphers leads him to a tomb and a mummy and the adventure he craves. None of which is real, it all the invention of an actor Paul Ahmes who tricks the hero and the reader into believing that this is a classic mummy story with the requisite revived mummy and beyond the grave love story.


Quoting Nolwenn’s abstract ‘What this novel highlights is that, as Edward Said showed it in his study of Orientalism, the Orient is a construction for and by the West. Within this narrative, forged objects are just as relevant as authentic artefacts insofar as the imaginary that they convey is the same as that which is projected onto genuine antiques. The fake antique artefacts that are used to build the plot of Rohmer’s novel contribute to this construct while emphasising its fictional character. Perhaps unwittingly, Sax Rohmer points out the notion that the representation of Egypt and its past is in fact manufactured by the West, much like the Egyptian “antiquities” produced in Birmingham and sold in the streets of Cairo.’

Check out Nolwenn’s Academia page and there’s an open access edition of her paper about mummy fiction, imperialism and gender here.

Thankfully I was somewhat revived by lunch because I was chairing the next session and I don’t think Liam and Sara would have appreciated super stupid me being in charge. Unfortunately, because I was in charge, my notes are sketchy, but at least I have some notes and know that both Sara and Liam were presenting papers about obelisks.

Liam’s paper, discussing pagan monuments rehoused in Christian culture, considered the Theodosian obelisk – aka The Mighty Shaft of Istanbul. Despite the name, Theodosius was probably not responsible for moving the obelisk from Karnak to Istanbul because it was first taken to Alexandria and it was probably Constantius who retrieved it from Alexandria and had it moved to Istanbul. Disregarded in Alexandria, it had fallen (or been pushed) over, and was just lying in the dirt. In Constantinople it became a focal point. The Emperor Julian wrote about the obelisk and mentioned sects worshipping there, since Julian was the first pagan emperor it’s intriguing he used such terms.


(If you enlarge this and squint you can just about read it, yes, I was still taking photos like a drunk, sigh)

Liam explained that the obelisk has not been interpreted inter-disciplinarily, classicists have tended to consider it alongside those others taken to Rome,


whereas Egyptologists have looked at in isolation focussing on translating the hieroglyphs despite it missing up to a third of its inscription and Byzantinists have looked solely at the added Christian base and as a source of information about the Emperor.


Yet this ignores the context of the obelisk and its history. Obelisks were common military expedition spoils, they were seen as extension of Roman power and their presence in Romanised environments granted them rehabilitation through association with imperial power. But they were also seen as having magical power, their symbolism and re-use could harness other potent forces: Constantine – the first Christian Emperor – in the clearest example of this association of symbolism, designed his burial place as a tomb at the centre of 12 obelisks which represented the 12 disciples. And there were many other examples, but I am running out of time for this post so I’m going to pause here and return at a later (hopefully not too later) date and round up 2018’s Tea.


[i] It has just occurred to me that if the abstracts do go on their webpage then these conference reports of mine are utterly redundant. But hey, when has that ever stopped me?

[ii] Sax Rohmer was the pen name of Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward, writer of many, many books including the Dr Fu Manchu series. It is ironic, if not poetic justice, that someone who made a living by objectifying the Chinese died of complications as a result of contracting Asian flu.

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