Fulfilling my Archaeologist Dreams: An Unforgettable Autumn in Egypt at the Site of Memphis, Egypt’s Ancient Capital

Some of you might know that I’ve spent the past three months in Egypt, living literally next door to the pyramids of Giza and working about an hour’s drive away at the site of ancient Egypt’s first capital city, Memphis (now partially covered by the modern town of Mit Rahina).

Until just two days ago, we weren’t able to speak in detail to the wider public about the nature of the project owing to permissions, but I’m now so pleased to say that my collaborators, Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), have just published our first press release:

and our generous primary funder, USAID, has used social media several times over the Autumn to hint at our activities:

There’s so much to say about the programme that we are running and the incredible history of the site of Memphis (it was the political and religious centre of pharaonic Egypt for thousands of years, the pyramids are part of its cemetery complex, it is the home of the Apis House (the only site of its kind! …where bulls were mummified as part of an elaborate ritual process), Alexander the Great sacrificed to the Apis bull and was crowned king here; it was long a tourist and pilgrimage destination for everyone from ancient Romans to Greek philosophers to antiquarian travellers, and it was ‘lost’ – no one could quite locate its remains – until just two centuries ago.

I’ll save more of the details for our collaborators to tell you about when we launch our webpages and social media in the future. In the meantime, if you’re keen for views on ancient Memphis, check out this impressive Facebook page run independently by one of AERA’s alumni. Also, make sure to learn more about AERA’s fabulous and long-standing research and teaching efforts in Egypt.

For now, I just want to briefly mention the fieldschools that we’re leading, which form one of the principal outputs of the project (and are a new addition to AERA’s portfolio). Herein, we are training Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities inspectors and related Egyptology and museums professionals in archaeological site management, heritage interpretation, tourism development and community engagement. This training is an applied programme, delivered via a combination of lectures, classroom-based production, and on-the-ground development of Memphis as a tourist destination (including construction of a walking trail/interpretative route around eight of Memphis’ principal sites). Just yesterday, at the Ministry of Antiquities headquarters in the Zamalek district of Cairo, we celebrated the graduation of our first 32 Egyptian trainees and 4 Egyptian supervisors, who work at key heritage and cultural locations around the country. I was excited to see that one student, the excellent Shaimaa Magdi, invited her journalist friend to the event, so you can catch some of the diploma ceremony on YouTube:


and if you read Arabic, you can learn more about it all here.

What’s been the most special aspect of this project for me? Definitely my contact with Shaimaa and the many other Egyptians who’ve studied with me, my small team from York, and AERA. These students are truly the most wonderful human beings that I’ve ever encountered. They have touched me in a way that I couldn’t have fathomed, and I feel like my faith in the fundamental goodness of humanity has been affirmed by my interactions with them. I can’t say enough how much happiness, laughter, kindness and warmth they’ve shared with me. I looked forward to every day of teaching them because they made me feel hopeful for the future, and they made our many challenges seem slim and even manageable because of their individual and collective good spirit and generosity. On a personal level, then, I’ve been changed by them.

MSCD_FS1 and FS2 Students Site Tour _10/11/2015
Fieldschool 1 and 2 at Memphis. Photo by Amel Eweida.

But as I teacher I’ve been changed too. This is a direct result of my students’, AERA’s, and York’s shared eagerness to learn together, to revise and edit and rethink our outputs together, to challenge common understandings of heritage management, to work six days a week, at least 9 hours a day (and, on many days, up to 12 or more hours per day!!) on panels and guidebooks and websites and more, and to create something completely new out of a very difficult archaeological site that’s been virtually forgotten. It has been inspiring, and it’s profoundly altered my professional practice.

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Myself and Amina, one of the graduates of our first fieldschool, on graduation day – Tuesday, 15 December 2015. Photo by Ian Kirkpatrick.

Moreover, often on a daily basis, I’ve received the most touching feedback from the students – the kind of feedback that makes you cry with joy – that reaches right to your soul – that warms your heart and leaves you feeling empowered and capable of changing the world. I’ve asked permission from one of my students, the exceptional Sara Komy, to quote her words, because I would be lying if I said that the project wasn’t full of challenges, but it is the highs that come from these comments that instantly boost your confidence and motivate you in the face of difficulties:

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This message of Sara’s is just one of a series that have touched my heart, given me strength, and further heightened my deep love for Egypt. As you can imagine, even though I only flew home yesterday, I miss my students tremendously. Everyone should be so lucky to meet people who make you feel as if, together, you can genuinely transform the course of history and construct a better world.

I’ll leave you with a couple more images of all of the happy times that we’ve had together (and there have been many!).

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Singing together and enjoying the bus trip back from site with some of fieldschool 1.
MSCD_FS2_Students Final Site Tour_13/12/2015
One of our supervisors takes an extra candy while on a break from touring Hathor Temple and Apis House at Memphis. Photo by Amel Eweida.

I look very forward to returning to work with my Egyptian collaborators again in 2016. I’m off now to catch up on everything I’ve missed here in York!

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Fieldwork, Interpretation and Stretching our Conception of Heritage Studies

Detail of a storyboard produced by a team of heritage practice students at the University of York
Detail of a storyboard produced by a team of heritage practice students at the University of York

My 10-week heritage fieldschool for first-year undergraduates was launched at the end of April, and since then, we’ve been engrossed in its many elements, which (like all field training programmes) entail a major commitment of time and energy: more than 32 hours per week of making, doing, learning, revising, accounting and critiquing. As per last year, I designed the course to provide students with the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the full spectrum of heritage practice, from excavation and recording through interpretation, collections handling, audio-visual production, museological display and curation, to archiving, promotion, audience evaluation, reporting and critical self-reflection. The structure is similar to that from 2013 (read more here), but it’s benefited from a massive amount of feedback offered by the students themselves, by our many collaborators, and by generous members of the public and readers of this blog.

The students are documenting their process on group blogs, which you can access through the links below.

Head over Heels into Heritage: http://headingintoheritage.blogspot.co.uk/

Moving Forward into the Past: http://movingforward-past.blogspot.co.uk/

I continue to be amazed by the amount that can be achieved in such a short timeframe, and by the phenomenal progress demonstrated by these students who, just a few weeks ago, had virtually no experience with planning interpretative content, nor with audio-visual production and editing, archival research, blogging, presenting to non-academic audiences, or curation. We invite others to follow along as the next 7 weeks of their training unfurl and they evolve into filmmakers, exhibition designers, audience evaluators, promoters, event organisers, and digital media technicians. I’m really proud of their accomplishments, and I hope you might consider offering your constructive input on their outputs and experiences as we move forward.

This year’s fieldschool is particularly interesting for me, as it coincides with a larger personal research project (part of my PGCAP certification) that I’m doing on the efficacy of digitally-mediated pedagogy. I’ll be presenting on that research several times over the next couple of months, including at the Google Apps for Education (European User Group) conference, and the York Learning and Teaching Conference (please come along – there are some amazing presenters featuring at these events), and I’ll hopefully—fingers crossed—also be publishing some aspects of it in an exciting forthcoming issue of Internet Archaeology (more details soon).

In preparation for these outputs, I’ve been conducting 30-60 minute interviews with my undergraduate and Master’s students who’ve kindly agreed to give me critical feedback on their experiences of my courses. Honestly, I was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response that I received from everyone when I emailed to ask for their time—nearly 100% consented to being interviewed, meaning that I’m now in the course of conducting these interviews and processing thousands of minutes of associated qualitative data. I’m very indebted to my students because they’ve offered me much food for thought—and some needed positive reinforcement too. Perhaps the most revelatory of these interviews so far have come from last year’s cohort of fieldwork students, because I can reflect immediately on the relationship between their experiences and my current cohort’s evolving experiences.

I’ll quote here from one such interview:

I think it really did [have an impact on my understanding of heritage]…Before, all year, we were learning a lot of the background of archaeology which was really literature based, so I think we all really enjoyed the module because you had the chance to be creative and think outside the box of what heritage and archaeology have been built up for you to be…[And] it gave me more confidence…gave me confidence to apply for internships, which I wouldn’t have done otherwise…[And] we produced something at the end which we were all really proud of…And also I talked to people outside our sphere of the degree course…What was great about it [the module] is that we were given the task…and we just ran with it. It was great to be given the opportunity to do what we wanted with it, and I think that definitely gives you ideas for the future…Definitely I take different creative experiences from it, and I’d use the ideas in the future…

I engage with digital media in my teaching because I think they have the potential to transform the research that we do, as well as our fundamental conceptions of the nature of archaeology and heritage studies themselves. These media can facilitate (and, of course, hinder) the pedagogical experience, but my concern is not so much their impact on teaching itself as the effect they can have on how my students practice, interpret, and create our field of enquiry in the future. If they leave the classroom feeling enabled, equipped and confident to test out these tools in different contexts, then I feel like I’ve made a constructive contribution to their professional trajectories—and to the profession itself.

Scholarly discussion of the creativity that is made possible through digital media work is recognised within educational (e.g., see Smith and Burrell 2013), media studies (e.g., see Gauntlett 2012; Losh 2012) and archaeological (e.g., see Morgan and Eve 2012; Richardson 2013) circles, but arguably among the latter the conversation is primarily driven by professionals speaking to other professionals or to the interested public, without the benefit of extensive and reflective student input. The digital humanities literature on ‘critical making’ or ‘building’ as a form of scholarship and training is more advanced (e.g., Ramsay and Rockwell 2012; Ratto 2011), and I am hopeful that my research (alongside the work of, for example, Shawn Graham, Terry Brock and Lynne Goldstein, among others) will offer an avenue to insert archaeology into that more substantial and influential line of thinking. At the same time, I am also hopeful that this work will contribute to and challenge the existing discourse on field schools/field work in (and beyond) archaeology, recognising the scope that creative, public, digital production has for narrowing the gap between theory and practice, and simultaneously empowering students.

I’ve much more to say on this topic, but I’ll save it for my talks and forthcoming publication! I’ll end by expressing my great thanks to all those who are supporting the students on this year’s heritage fieldschool, including my fantastic teaching assistants Claire Price and Katrina Foxton; the unparalleled team at the Yorkshire Museum – especially Natalie McCaul, Martin Fell and Mike Linstead; filmmaker Gavin Repton; my colleagues on the Star Carr Project; and the many experts who’ve taught the students either in person, via Skype, or by otherwise sharing resources, opinions and good practice – including Colleen Morgan, Simon Davis, Tom Smith, Sophie Norton, Teri Brewer, Joe Tong, Tara-Jane Sutcliffe, Don Henson, Angela Piccini, and Nicole Beale.

As anyone who does fieldwork knows, our investment is long, intense, and filled with highs and lows and innumerable blunders and miscalculations; yet the outcomes are deeply rewarding because of the friendships, creative breakthroughs, and collective ‘ah-ha’ moments that are generated through its collaborative, experimental underpinnings. Thanks so much for following along on our adventures.

References:

Gauntlett, D. 2011. Making is Connecting: The Social Meaning of Creativity, from DIY and Knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Losh, E. (2012) Play, things, rules, and information: Hybridizing learning in the digital university. Leonardo Electronic Almanac 17(2):86-102.

Morgan, C., and Eve, S. (2012) DIY and digital archaeology: What are you doing to participate? World Archaeology 44(4):521-537.

Ramsay, S., and Rockwell, G. (2012) Developing things: Notes toward an epistemology of building in the digital humanities. In Gold, M. (ed.) Debates in the Digital Humanities, Open Access edition: http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/11. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ratto, M. (2011) Critical making: Conceptual and material studies in technology and social life. The Information Society 27(4):252-260.

Richardson, L. (2013) A digital public archaeology? Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 23(1):10, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/pia.431.

Smith, C., and Burrell, A. (2013) Creativity in learning spaces: We can all gain! Paper presented at the University Campus Suffolk Annual Learning and Teaching Day, Ipswich, 5 July 2013.

Creativity, Intellectual Freedom & the Field School

I have the great privilege of doing some guest blogging for the fantastic Savage Minds site, an anthropology blog that I’ve been following almost since its inception in 2005.

I would normally just repost the content of my contributions to Savage Minds here, but I’m keen to direct you straight to their webpages in the hope that you’ll find them as inspiring and thought-provoking as I have.

My first blog for them is about field schools, fostering spaces of creativity, and my concern to ensure that students are offered just as much access to — and opportunity to develop — these kinds of creative spaces as any other collaborator on our field projects. At its core is the connection between data and big ideas/vision, and whether, as Current Archaeology once wrote, ‘archaeologists have no soul’.

Here it is:

Creativity, Intellectual Freedom & the Field School (guest blog on Savage Minds)