Lessons from Little Miss Sobek in Ptolemaic breasts, ancient clothing and nursing

Photograph of a toddler wearing a crocodile mask on her head.
Little Miss Sobek in her crocodile mask

At the time of writing its a little over four years since my last fieldwork in Egypt (at Hatnub), during which I discovered I was pregnant. After three years of nursing, motherhood and Egyptology, I now have a three-year-old pre-schooler (codename Little Miss Sobek) and a lot of new experiences which have made me think anew about various aspects Egyptology and reconsider some previous assumptions.

Given that nursing was the only safe method of feeding an infant until the 20th century and most people in ancient societies nursed their children for much longer than we do, it must have been incredibly commonplace in ancient Egyptian society and a regular part of most women’s lives. Yet the implications of this for Egyptology are rarely explored, probably because Egyptologists with direct experience of nursing have been relatively limited. Archaeology and Egyptology were historically dominated by men. Most of the early Trowel Blazers were white, upper-class women, whose children were largely fed and brought-up by others. More recently, advances in contraception, social change, and the problems of pursuing an academic and fieldwork-driven career while engaging in caring responsibilities have meant many Egyptologists have chosen not to have children. Those with direct experience of nursing are fewer still, owing to the cultural norms of the mid-20th century and the existence of safe and effective bottle feeding methods. Considerations of the effect of nursing on ancient Egyptian society are therefore very limited. Despite a long interest in clothing and textiles, it was only when I became a nursing mother myself, that I realised what an impact such an activity would necessarily have on society when it was a task performed by most women for a substantial part of their lives.

Ptolemaic Breasts

Some years ago I was visiting an Egyptian site and my husband asked me what date it was. I looked at the reliefs and said confidently, ‘Ptolemaic’. ‘How can you tell?’ he asked. ‘Well there are number of features, but what really gives it away are the Ptolemaic breasts’, was my response. If you look carefully at Ptolemaic period reliefs the breasts have a distinctive shape, with a rounded top that always looked to me like the shape produced by breast-implants. You can clearly see the typical Ptolemaic shape in the female deity behind Sobek in the wall relief from Kom Ombo, below, and also in the female deities in the featured image at the top of this blog.

An ancient Egyptian relief showing three gods, Sobek to the right followed by a goddess and juvenile in a divine triad.
Ptolemaic image of Sobek, crocodile-headed god on the right, from Kom Ombo (Image Rémih/CC BY-SA 3.0 from https://commons.wikimedia.org )
A limestone statue of a late 18th Dynasty lady in a wrapped and pleated dress and a bouffant wig.
The wife of Nahktmin wearing a wrapped-dress of the type that would become popular in the Ramesside period. 18th Dynasty, reign of Ay (Cairo Museum CG779b)

I had always assumed that Ptolemaic breasts were a feature of the ‘male gaze‘, a sexualising of female deities consciously or unconsciously undertaken by heterosexual male designers and masons. That is until I woke up five days after the birth of my daughter with my very own Ptolemaic breasts! For those who are unfamiliar with the nursing process, when a child is born the first milk produced (called colostrum) is very limited, although rich in nutrients and various important immunological elements. About five days after birth the ‘milk comes in’ which means the colostrum is replaced by milk that is less rich but much greater in volume. The physical effect of this is that the breasts swell up like little water-balloons, and they will do so again and again any time milk consumption drops. The balloon-like Ptolemaic breasts of statuary and relief may or may not have been sexually titillating, but their similarity to the full breasts of nursing mothers makes me wonder if they are intended to represent fertility and abundance. The human breast in its role as provider par excellence.

Easy access

Another lesson I learned early in my experience was how inefficient modern clothes are for feeding a child. Clothes with flaps that are either held in place by gravity or can be undone one handed (while cuddling a screaming infant in the other hand) are by far the most efficient type of clothing for nursing. Something like an ancient Greek Peplos or one of the draped, wrap-around dresses of the Ramesside period (right) would offer a lot of options. Draped and wrapped dresses also offer a flexibility over time. The same garment could be converted into an efficient nursing outfit simply by draping or wrapping it differently.

11th Dynasty wooden statue of a female offering bearer wearing a tight 'sheath-dress' with a diamond pattern. The dress is cut below her breasts, which are covered by broad shoulder straps.
Female offering bearer wearing a ‘sheath dress’ with wide breast-covering straps. The band beneath the breasts and straps would provide helpful support while permitting access for breastfeeding if required. 11th Dynasty tomb of Meketre, Luxor (Author Photograph, Cairo Museum JE 46725).

Of course if your climate and culture permit them, bare nipples are even better for nursing. This may be why so many Egyptian dresses leave the breasts bare, such as the the various styles worn by offering bearers and servants and the typically Egyptian ‘sheath-dress’ (left). Vogelsang-Eastwood (1993, 96-97) identified the ‘sheath-dress’ as a type of wrap-around, but either as a sheath or as a wrap-around it would have been an efficient nursing outfit.

Tyets for the tits?

Nursing necessitates a lot of time when the only breast support is the band around the chest, the shoulder strap of the bra being unclasped to allow the child access. I was surprised to find the band alone offered a great deal of support. Ancient Egyptian dresses with straps or fabric wrapped immediately underneath the breasts would have provided their wearers with similar support, while leaving the breasts uncovered for access. Shoulder straps, whether they covered or left the breasts bare, could have contributed further support while maintaining access for the feeding child. These discoveries made me wonder about the origins of the tyet amulet. It clearly represents a knot of cloth and its association with red had led some to suggest it represents a menstrual cloth, but there isn’t any conclusive evidence of this. Alternatively the tyet may have its origins in the straps and bands worn on the upper body. A role in supporting the breasts, nourishers of children, would also be consistent with its attribution to with Isis and its associations with ‘health’ and ‘welfare’.


They say that having children changes you, but I had no idea it would also change many of my ideas about ancient Egyptian culture, particularly those associated with nursing. What this has taught me is how important it is to have varied lifestyles and a myriad of experiences amongst archaeologists and Egyptologists. I might have personal experience of nursing a child, but there are myriad ways in which I am far removed from the lives and experiences of the ancient Egyptians. In incorporating a range of voices amongst Egyptologists and archaeologists we will tap into multiple sources of practical and experiential knowledge that may change our understanding of ancient cultures in the same way my nursing experiences have altered my understanding of ancient Egyptian clothing.


Vogelsang-Eastwood, G. 1993. Pharaonic Egyptian Clothing. Brill: Leiden.


5 pieces of advice I wish I’d heard in the first year of my PhD

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I’m currently thinking about those starting a PhD and the things I wish I had known when I began mine 11 years ago. This post focuses on advice I wish I’d heard, either to reassure me or to set me up for career success. In Should I do a PhD I reminded readers that a PhD is not a guarantee of a job, that the academic job market is saturated and that PhD candidates need to start making choices that will aid them in creating their career, right from the point they start considering a PhD. The advice and skills in 10 practical things I wish I knew in the first year of my PhD will not only help new PhD candidates create structure, develop useful skills and get control of their research, but also provide foundational skills for their future research career. This post offers further advice to help you make positive choices early in your PhD and create a solid foundation for your future career. I assume here that the reader aims for an academic career. The advice in this post is equally applicable to ‘alt-ac’ careers, but if you don’t intend to undertake further research in any forum there is less need to create a solid research foundation.

1. Your thesis is only the first piece of original research you will do

It’s easy to think that this PhD you are starting is going to be your best piece of work ever! People who begin PhDs have generally been high academic achievers during earlier phases of their careers and its sensible to assume that will continue. What’s more, as I mention in a previous blog post, there is a general idea that PhDs are something intelligent people do, almost effortlessly, to achieve recognition. These ideas can combine to make you feel like you should be easily writing the most incredible piece of original research – that’s what PhDs do, right?

There may be some people who experience a PhD like that, but for most of us it’s much harder. Original research is, by definition, difficult. It involves dead ends. It involves learning new skills. It involves getting criticised over and over again (hopefully constructively). If you begin with the idea that this should be effortless and incredible, you will rapidly experience anxiety when the inevitable difficulties arise. Begin your research career by reminding yourself that your PhD is an apprenticeship in original research – to achieve it you simply need to demonstrate that you can do research. Let go of perfectionist tendencies. It’s your first piece of original research, it doesn’t need to be the best thing you will ever write or the most awesome research you will ever do. Your masterpiece can come later.

A two-leafed wooden tablet with Greek writing visible inside.
A wooden tablet for writing practice, Greek. (Cairo Museum JE 51323)

2. Academic brand and mission statement

Your ‘academic brand‘ as Cathy Mazak terms it, sounds terribly corporate, but it’s really just shorthand for knowing what fields, specialisms, and techniques you want people to associate with you. Consider those you cited regularly in your previous research, I bet if you think about your most cited academics you can quickly associate them with a field, site, subject, opinion, or research method. That’s their academic brand!

Partially erased figures of Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the sun-disk of the Aten in an Egyptian tomb.
Akhenaten’s brand was so strong it got him erased from history. Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the Aten, Tomb of Meryre, Amarna.

Now you may think it’s a bit early to start branding yourself, when you’ve barely begun your PhD, but it’s never too early to start thinking about what kind of academic you want to be. You have already started creating an academic brand in terms of your past research (particularly any previous dissertations for your Masters) and your PhD subject. Your brand is important because everything in academia is easier when people can identify your research profile, see cohesion in your career history (this is especially important for jobs and grants), and recognise you as the academic who does X. Building your academic brand from the beginning of your PhD will ensure you are easily identifiable and can present a cohesive narrative in grants and job applications.

Mission statement

If your academic brand describes the type of academic you are, your academic mission statement describes how you will implement that brand in your field. My academic mission statement is in bold at the top of the About Hannah page of this blog and it’s followed up by further statements about where I want to go with my research.

Cathy Mazak has a lot of advice on identifying and solidifying your academic brand into something meaningful and effective for you and creating an academic mission statement. Although your PhD research and academic interests are likely to evolve over the course of your studies and into your early-career research, it’s never too early to start thinking about what kind of academic you want to be. What do you want to research? What methods do you want to use? What theoretical paradigms and principles inform your perspective? And what effect do you want your research to have on academia and beyond? I found thinking about these questions incredibly valuable for deciding how to direct my research, in writing grants and research proposals, and even for preparing author biographies for papers and presentations.

3. Plan your career

An ancient Egyptian stela with a large hieroglyphic inscription in the top two thirds and an image of the deceased in front of an offering table at the bottom.
Plan your career with the confidence of an ancient Egyptian writing a biographical inscription. Stela with biographical inscription of Samontuoser, Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, Florence Museum #6365.

Thinking about your academic brand and mission statement is important because it can help you position yourself for your future research career. Your academic brand should ideally include those skills and research areas that, I suggest in my previous post, will help you in your future career: a practical skill and, for Egyptologists, ancient language. You should also consider another horrible corporate phrase ‘unique selling point’ or USP. This is what makes you distinct from all the other researchers and will, therefore, hopefully, make you a desirable prospect on the job market. There is a caveat of course. If you are too novel or unique you may prove threatening or confusing. Academia tends towards the conservative and likes what is familiar. The aim of your USP is to be unique enough to be desirable but familiar enough to be comforting. Obviously, this is a difficult trick to pull off, and one that we really shouldn’t need. Academia ought to be dynamic and truly interested in inter-disciplinarity, but until the culture of academia catches up we work with what we have. This is also where having ancient language can be an asset for an Egyptologist because it instantly satisfies some of the inherent conservatism that we occasionally find in our discipline.

Now of course during the first year of your PhD you are unlikely to be able to make any firm plans for the rest of your career, but you can start putting your academic brand in place, thinking about the niche you could occupy in academia and developing and teaching the practical and linguistic skills you will need. Your brand, mission statement, and career focus may all change during the course of your research, but if you start with the intention of effective career development it will help you to maintain focus and create that cohesive career narrative.

4. Begin publishing

Publications will be essential to your future career, particularly if you are hoping for an academic post. Cathy Mazak is right to describe publications as a kind of currency in academia. Preparing and submitting publications during your PhD provides another outlet for your academic writing practice, lets you develop the skills of preparing and submitting publications, and will hopefully mean you have some published works on your CV by the time you graduate. Ideally, you want to develop a ‘publication pipeline‘ as Cathy Mazak has it or ‘research pipeline‘ as Raul Pacheco Vega describes it, with a series of publications moving through from grants to published outputs. In the first year of your PhD you want to start to create that pipeline.

The obvious place to start your publishing career is with your Masters dissertation. Getting your dissertation polished up for publication might seem daunting, but having something under editing will provide another outlet for your writing practice while you do you literature review and develop ideas about your PhD research. If your PhD evolved from your Masters then writing the latter up for publication may improve your PhD research as well.

A Trello Kanban board showing five lists entitled 'Submitted', 'Revisions', 'Accepted', 'Proofs' and 'Published' with cards for individual publications occupying the lists.
The ‘published’ end of my research pipeline in Trello. Each card represents a publication and they move along the pipeline from left to right as they progress.

Practically there are a lot of resources available for those writing their first academic article. As ever Raul Pacheco Vega and Pat Thompson have various posts about writing a journal article. There is also Wendy Belcher‘s book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks which is a step-by-step method for writing a journal article. Your supervisor or a trusted mentor can also offer help and advice and may offer to co-author the article with you if your dissertation is associated directly with their research.

5. Start a blog or vlog

In my previous post, I suggested harnessing the resources of social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, to find a wider academic community and learn new research and writing tips and tricks. While starting a blog or vlog (video blog) might not seem to be the most important thing while you’re developing your PhD research, it will have a number of positive effects that I recommend you harness. Firstly a blog or vlog gives you a ‘home’ in the online research community, a place to curate your academic brand and develop who you are as an academic. When I first developed my academic mission statement I included it on the ‘About’ page of this blog, together with a slightly more detailed discussion of my interests and research. A business card is all well and good, but a blog or vlog gives you a permanent online presence that anyone can find and learn more about who you are and what your research is all about.

Old Kingdom statue of a seated scribe.
‘Be a scribe’ . . . start a blog!
Henka, overseer of the two pyramids of Snefru, as a scribe from Meidum, 5th Dynasty. (Berlin ÄM 7334)

Secondly, a blog or vlog gives you experience in writing for a more general audience. A demonstrable ability to condense academic discussion for a popular audience is going to be helpful in the job market whether you’re aiming for an academic career or not. Relatedly, blogging offers another outlet for your writing practice, another place to explore ideas, essay out arguments and go on flights of fancy that you couldn’t indulge in your PhD or publications. My recent post about the Turin Papyrus and the shrines of Tutankhamun is exactly the kind of post that takes a different view of otherwise well-covered artefacts and couldn’t really be included in a formal publication. It occurred to me while writing about the Turin Papyrus for a serious academic article and my blog gave me an outlet to explore it further.

Fourthly, writing a blog can help you recover your individual style. By the time you start your PhD you’ve probably been writing for so long that academic or business style has rather crushed the personality out of your written products. As you progress through your research, the power of academic style over your writing is only going to get stronger. Having a blog or vlog where you can write more freely can allow you to maintain your stylistic independence. Since regularly writing this blog I have found elements of my personal style creeping in to my academic writing. It’s enough to make my academic writing feel like my own, without attracting criticism from eagle-eyed reviewers and I believe it makes my publications better.

Blogging and/or vlogging can be hugely beneficial to your writing and your career, but it’s worth exercising some caution. Blogging and vlogging are forms of publication so it’s important to make sure you cite anyone you quote, get permission to use other people’s images, avoid defamation and include any relevant acknowledgements. You’ll see in my recent posts (for example here) and youtube videos (such as this one) about georeferencing and satellite imagery I always take care to include a citation for the software and satellite imagery as required by the providers. This is just good manners, and it pays to avoid irritating potentially powerful corporations.

Caution is also merited regarding comments and hot-button topics. For the most part it’s unlikely you’re going to be blogging about anything politically incendiary but if you do it’s important to be prepared. A politically difficult subject will rapidly attract attention, you’ll get trolling and personal comments and can, in some cases, be the victim of threats and digital stalking. Please be cautious and take advice if you intend to say anything that could provoke such a response. More generally, if you’re blogging about archaeology, and particularly about Egypt, you should probably set comments to be screened before they are published. This means you can delete pseudo-science, advertising, trolling, and edgelord comments before they appear on your blog and will avoid you getting into fruitless debates with weirdos.


Petra M. Boynton 2017. The Research Companion: A practical guide for those in the social sciences, health and development. Routledge

Mark Carrington 2019 Social Media for Academics. 2nd Edition. Sage

Cal Newport 2016, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Piatkus

Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber 2016 Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. University of Toronto Press.

Jon Acuff 2019. Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done. Portfolio.


Ten practical things I wish in knew in the first year of my PhD

So you’ve gone through the arduous process of deciding you need to do a PhD, applying and getting accepted. Maybe you’ve even got funding (Congratulations if you have – getting funding is huge!). And now you’re ready to start the process. A quick search will reveal a large number of articles with similar titles to this one, including a whole collection by Pat Thompson. It seems like almost everyone is writing about their PhD experience. There’ll be practical advice about finding the library, setting up your IT and emails, arranging meetings with your supervisor and more general suggestions about keeping your focus, finding your feet, being flexible and prepared, growing a thick skin, and discovering the resources available to help you. It’s all good advice, but general comments like ‘grow a thick skin’ and ‘be organised’ don’t always point you in the right direction. It’s easy to say ‘Oh yes I’ll be organised’ without really thinking about what that means.

This October will mark 11 years since I began my PhD research, and July 2021 marks six years since I graduated. During the process of completing my PhD, and even more so since I graduated, I learned a number of things I wish I had known in that first year. Things that turn general advice like ‘be organised’ into specifics, with links to places you can learn more about what ‘being organised’ might look like, and how you can organise yourself in a way that works for you. Your first year is an ideal time for moving from being a student to a professional researcher, learning new processes and exploring how you work best. Making these changes will also help you feel in control of your PhD during a time when many are overwhelmed and uncertain about how to tackle such a large project.

1. Academic research requires project management

Project management is not something we think of in the same terms as academia. But successful academic research, writing and publishing absolutely requires project management skills. If you start you PhD with a good project management system you’re much less likely to lose track of something important. Your project management system needs to allow you to plan, organise and control your research. It should involve breaking down your project into manageable tasks and setting realistic goals. With an effective project management system you will always know what project(s) you are working on, how far along they are, what needs to be done next and how long this current task will take you. This early in your research you probably aren’t going to be able to plan out your entire PhD research, but you can certainly experiment with organising your current tasks. Practicing your project management skills this early in your research career will give you an opportunity to hone them so they are ready when you really need them, and embedding your PhD project in your project management system from the beginning will make forward planning easier once you can do so in more detail.

It may be that you already have a project management system from a previous job that you can adapt, but if not there are a variety of online options and academic coaches with suggestions. It can be analogue or digital or a combination of both. Raul Pacheco-Vega has pages of advice about planning research and I have personally found Cathy Mazak‘s academic project management advice to be very helpful. Cathy is an academic writing coach whose work I discovered after having a baby in the middle of a research job. She helped me organise my work, keep researching and writing through the COVID-19 pandemic and feel more confident in my academic career and development. Cathy offers paid programmes, but there’s a ton of free advice that can get you going, including a podcast, blog and Facebook page. Cathy recommends using Trello for practical project management and has some sample boards to help you get started. Whether or not her personal system is for you, sorting yourself out with some form of project management system at the start of your PhD will help you get organised and feel more in control of your research.

Trello Kanban board showing five lists labelled 'Tasklist', 'To Do', 'Doing', 'Awaiting Response' and 'Done'. There are two cards in 'Tasklist', one in 'Doing' and multiple in 'Done'
My Trello kanban board for a recently completed article, showing remaining tasks in the ‘Tasklist’ column and ‘Doing’ column and completed tasks in the ‘Done’ column. I use Trello for most of my project management, ranging from preparing individual papers to long term planning.

2. Writing is everything and everything is writing

It may seem like you have years until you need to write up your PhD, but the sooner you start writing the quicker you will start developing your academic writing skills. Academic writing is what produces publications, grants and jobs. It really is the essential academic skill and you cannot start practicing it too early. You can think of it like practising a musical instrument or running. During undergraduate and taught post-graduate study your academic writing is short and limited to maybe 10,000 words, like learning to play a modest piece of music or run 5k. But a PhD is book-length. This is like playing an opera or running a marathon and you need to train your mind for it.

Writing will also help you to develop ideas. You don’t need to polish everything you write to publishable standard either. As Pat Thompson points out, we write much more than we publish. Writing is an intellectual workout. It can be done simply to exercise your writing muscles and develop your ideas, everything else is a bonus.

Image shows the author working at her GIS in Olynthos in 2015.
Everything is writing – even working with the GIS

What can you write about when you’ve barely started? Writing may refer the process of putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard or mouth to microphone, but as Cathy Mazak reminded me three years ago writing is everything you do from grant writing to proof-reading. Everything you do from the outset of your PhD contributes to that final written product – so everything is writing.

And everything should involve writing. Whatever research task you are undertaking you should be writing about it. Fieldwork involves recording; archival research and reading involves note-taking. Learning a new piece of technology, organise your thoughts by writing a blog post about it. Undertaking a piece of GIS research, write down what you’re doing; the data, the methods, the outputs, the errors, the logic. Record everything. In my experience that one map that I georeferenced without writing down the RMSE, will be the one I need to include in the paper (or in your case thesis/dissertation)!

So whatever you are doing and at whatever stage of your research remember that everything your are doing contributes to your thesis (yes even the dead-ends). Everything is writing. And write about everything, in the old fashioned pen-to-paper, fingers-to-keyboard sense, to exercise your intellectual muscles and to record what you’ve done. In 3 years time when you’re ‘writing up’ your thesis, those records will save you time and energy.

3. Learn how you like to write (and research)

As PhD student you’re either going to have a lot of unstructured time for research (if you’re full -time) or highly specific time constraints (if you are part-time and writing your PhD around work and/or family). Either way, you need to make the best use of your time and the first thing you need to know is when you write best. Research writing is hard intellectual work and there will be times it feels easy and times it feels hard. Cathy Mazak calls those easy times your ‘soar state’ (formerly ‘Tiger Time’). Maybe you write best first thing in the morning, or perhaps you’re an evening person. It doesn’t matter when you do your best work, but if possible try to schedule your most intellectually taxing writing and research for those times.

You should also consider what props, rewards and rituals set you up for success in your writing. The rituals we use vary hugely but their purpose is to get us ‘in the mood’ for writing, demonstrate what we’ve achieved and reward us for reaching our goals. Pat Thompson has a collection of blogposts about this type of ‘Writing stuff‘. It may seem inconsequential during the excitement at the outset of your project, but when you’re struggling with theory, getting frustrated with tech or surviving a crisis, simple rewards, rituals and props suddenly mean so much more. During the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown I had a nearly 2-year-old entirely at home for almost 3 months, with nowhere to take her (apart from a daily walk) and my husband working full-time at the dining-room table. There was no way I could undertake ‘research as usual’. Instead when she went to sleep for her daily nap I would sit down at my computer. I consciously told myself it didn’t matter how long I worked for, only that I sat down and began. As soon as I sat down I put a bronze or silver star on the calendar. Some days I only worked for 10 minutes. Other days it was two or three hours. And sometimes I would nap too, or rest. It didn’t matter because over time those little stars accumulated. I felt good. I was exercising my brain despite the crisis and making steady progress on my research. By the time I reached August I had submitted a paper begun during COVID-19 nap time.

A calendar from July 2020 with bronze, silver and gold stars overlying the dates.
Calendar from July 2020 (after nurseries reopened) showing the days I worked during nap time (bronze stars), the days I worked longer while the toddler was at nursery (silver stars), and the days I submitted something (gold stars).

You also need to understand when to stop writing. You wouldn’t train for a marathon or practice for an opera every working minute – your body would rapidly become exhausted. In the same way writing is hard intellectual work, Deep Work as Cal Newport has it in his book of the same name. Like a muscle or skill it must be developed and like a muscle or skill it must also be rested. How long you can sustain fluid, soaring writing will depend on your energy levels and past experience but you need to learn to stop when it becomes a slog and rest regularly.

4. Develop a writing system

Once you understand when and how you write best you can start to create a ‘writing system‘ or routine. This should be a method that allows you to maintain momentum, writing regularly and exercising your intellectual muscles. The most important thing about a writing system is that it needs to suit your personality and situation and ensure you keep writing. Your writing system also needs to be encouraging and adaptable, particularly if you have work or family commitments. You don’t want to end up feeling guilty about ‘not writing’ when circumstances prevent it and you want to be able to pick it back up after a pause. It should also work with your project management system so you are always in control.

Writing systems boil down to three different types that can also be combined: write every day; write regularly but not every day; write in intensive bursts. Cathy Mazak teaches a system combining regular writing with intensive bursts. You can also try the write every day approach like Raul Pacheco-Vega. I recommend you try a variety of different systems and see which one works for you.

5. Learn time management

You’re ready to write regularly, have discovered when you work best, and are experimenting with project management and writing systems. Now you can start managing your time, corralling your PhD work into the time your have or structuring all those unstructured days. As with almost anything else there are multiple methods of approaching time management. Raul Pacheco-Vega has a lot of helpful posts ranging from semester planning to thesis planning. For managing your everyday life I like Cathy Mazak’s ideal week approach that helps you plan out how you would ideally spend your week, beginning with necessary rest and recuperation (such as lunch or regular exercise) and professional and personal commitments, before planning research and writing time at those hours that you do you best work. You can then use your ideal week in concert with your project management data to plan your weekly workload by allotting project tasks to specific time periods. Alternative approaches could include planning your research tasks on web-based calendar or in a physical planner, like Raul Pacheco-Vega’s Everything Notebook.

Trello Kanban board showing 5 columns with the days of the working week and cards below detailing activities between 9.00-5.30.
My current ideal week

In my current ideal week Monday is mostly devoted to childcare because I have my toddler at home on Mondays. Tuesday I allot time for catching up on email and social media and committee work, with teaching, my freelance work and CPD also possibilities. On Wednesday the morning is devoted to research writing. On Thursday and Friday I spend my mornings doing teaching prep, freelance work or CPD depending on what is more urgent. Afternoons include what I call ‘environment maintenance’ which means household chores I can’t do with a toddler around, plus emails.

As you become better at project and time management and get further into your PhD research you will become better at breaking your work into manageable tasks, estimating their length, and planning when they will be completed. Combining this with a better grasp of how your research is going to develop should make it easier for you to plan out your PhD project and thesis write-up. Raul Pacheco-Vega and Pat Thompson both have blogs on planning and structuring your thesis. Any type of long-term planning becomes easier once you are proficient at small-scale time and project management and your first year is an ideal point to start developing those skills.

6. Develop your literature review skills

The ‘literature review’ is something you will come across in academic discussions, but it isn’t a major topic of conversation amongst archaeologists or Egyptologists. In our disciplines it seems to be simply expected that we will engage thoroughly with the literature surrounding our subject and somehow be able to express that suitably in academic writing. This is a shame because explicit discussion of the literature review and how to do it can be liberating. Learning how to efficiently read, record and regurgitate the literature is both encouraging and a huge time-saver.

Succinctly, the purpose of the literature review is to demonstrate how your research fits in with the current state of your discipline. You will use it to show which ‘gap’ in the pre-existing research you are filling (and therefore reminding everyone that yours is truly ‘original’ research) and which other authors you are in a dialogue with: who do you admire, who inspired your research and (just as importantly) who’s work do you despise. You won’t need to read or cite every single piece of literature ever written on your discipline, but you do need to demonstrate you have a good grasp of it and be certain you haven’t missed anyone or anything really important.

A quarried face with traces of red paint from multiple First Intermediate Period graffitos.
Literature review involves entering into a dialogue with others in your discipline, much like the interleaving graffiti of the First Intermediate Period expeditions in Quarry P at Hatnub.

In order to complete your literature review you will need to develop a method of academic reading, and your first year is the ideal time to do so. There’s no right method of reading academic literature, but whatever method you choose needs to enable you to efficiently:

  • Understand what any given academic paper is about;
  • Summarise the paper
  • Identify any specifics of relevance to your research
  • Identify any interactions with other academic papers
  • Retain this information for the future.

What this boils down to in practice is typically a method for reading the paper, a method of summarising the paper and a method for storing the summary and bibliographic information where you can easily retrieve it. What methods you use will depend on how you read, summarise and store. Personally I like Raul Pacheco-Vega’s and Pat Thompson (Patter’s) advice on reading literature and undertaking literature reviews. I also like the Zettelkasten concept of recording ideas singly and linking them to each other and you can use Trello for it. I am slowly working on recording the common concepts I need to reference again and again, but after so many years of research, building something like a Zettel archive is difficult. The first year of your PhD is an ideal time for investigating literature review methods and developing something that will work for you.

7. Hone your writing

I have mentioned that writing is a skill and one that needs practice. But just like our marathon runner’s muscles, getting the right kind of help can dramatically improve your abilities. If you’re anything like me you came through academia with a certain innate ability to write academic prose (in my case its because I’m a stylistic mimic – my written thoughts start to fall into the same style as the last things I read). If you were never consciously taught to write, why would you think of honing that skill and actively improving? But however good your academic prose is, it can always be better, and happily there are many resources out there to help train your academic writing muscle. Both Raul Pacheco-Vega and Pat Thompson have resources on improving your academic writing. Pat Thompson has a many posts about writing the different parts of your thesis as well as collections of posts on writing a journal article or book. You may also find additional sources like the Explorations of Academic Style blog and advice on social media using the twitter hashtag #AcWri. The hastag #AcademicChatter and handles @WriteThatPhD @ThesisWhisperer and @AcademicsWrite also contain incredibly useful advice and links to other hashtags and handles. Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks Discussion Facebook group also has a lot of useful advice and tips. If vocabulary is an issue you can try the University of Manchester Academic Phrasebank. There are also many books on the subject, including:

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein 2018. They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 4th edition. W. W. Norton & Company.

Eric Hayot 2014. The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities. Columbia University Press.

Inger Mewburn, Katherine Firth and Shawn Lehmann 2018. How to Fix Your Academic Writing Trouble. Open University Press

Rowena Murray 2011. How To Write A Thesis (Open Up Study Skills). 3rd Edition. Open University Press.

John M. Swales and Christine Feak 2012. Academic Writing for Graduate Students. 23rd edition. The University of Michigan Press.

Helen Sword 2012. Stylish Academic Writing. Harvard University Press.

Eric Hayot’s book merits a particular mention as it includes one of the most useful pieces of advice I have ever read: The Uneven U, which is a method for arranging your sentences, paragraphs or chapters in a format that clarifies your argument and ties your evidence clearly to the statements it supports.

A statue of an Old Kingdom Egyptian official in scribal pose
Limestone statue of the Priest Ptahshepses as a scribe, reading. 5th Dynasty, from Saqqara. Now in the Cairo Museum.

Learning new ways of improving your academic writing will help you train your mind more rapidly and reduce the chances of getting negative or frustrating criticism about your writing style from supervisors or reviewers.

8. Learn the basics of your word processing and spreadsheet software

This sounds obvious but its amazing how many people don’t know basic tricks that will make their word processing software so much more ergonomic. You’re practicing your writing and beginning your research. Now is the ideal time to start checking out the functionality of your word processing software and change it if necessary. You’d be surprised how much you can do with Microsoft Word as I found reading a list of hacks in a Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks Discussion Facebook group (this is a private group so if you want to read the list I recommend you join – it also has a lot of other useful academic writing resources). You could do an online course, see if your University runs one or just start searching for solutions to the features of your word processor that have most annoyed you in the past. Over the years I have found that at lot of my annoyance with Word resulted from me not understanding how to get what I needed to from the programme.

9. Explore Reference Managers

Reference Managers promise to end those frustrating hours compiling a bibliography, checking every comma and parenthesis is in the right place and whether you’ve included the publisher and place of publication in the right order. Whether its Endnote, Zotero, Mendeley Paperpile, or another type of bibliographic software they all allow you to construct a database of references. These references can be inserted as citations into your document and those citations are then used to compile your bibliography in the format you specify. Theoretically its brilliant, but there are some caveats. Different reference managers have slightly different functionalities, as this comparison table from Oxford University shows. Some are proprietary and others are open source. Proprietary types are generally slicker, but can be expensive and may prompt ethical concerns. You may get a reference manager free from your University, but may need to pay or export your references elsewhere when you leave. Different reference managers also have different integration with tablets and phones, which may be a consideration depending on how you like to work.

At the start of your PhD you have the opportunity to test out reference managers. Your best option is to begin with the version preferred by your University and seek assistance from your library in getting any necessary training. If your University offers a choice you should probably check with your supervisors, mentors or peers which reference manager they prefer. However, you may find they don’t use one. In a poll I put up on a Facebook page frequented by many Egyptologists 62 didn’t use a reference manager, 27 used Zotero, 10 used Endnote and 5 used Mendeley. Quigga, Bookends, Ibidem and Refworks all got one vote each. I suspect for those of us who have a lot of analogue references, finding the time to input them all into a reference manager proves rather off-putting. Using a reference manager from the very start of your PhD should prevent you ever ending up in the same position, ensuring your references are consistently imported into the reference manager, ideally during the literature review and reading process. It will also provide an opportunity to learn how to make best use of your reference manager in concert with the rest of your reading and literature review process.

10. Go social

Social media have something of a mixed reputation, but whatever you think about the social media fandoms, twitter trolls or Mark Zuckerberg, social media represent a huge resource and intensely valuable community. Almost everything I have discussed or linked to in this blog I originally found on social media and I’ve discussed before my engagement in various Facebook Egyptology groups. You do not need to engage with toxicity or trolling if you chose not to. You can lock down your profiles, restrict your interests to academic subjects and limit the information you provide about yourself. By all means be cautious, but avoiding social media entirely cuts off an important resource and community.

A scene from an ancient Egyptian tomb showing various guests at a party.
Engaging with your community is important. Party scene, tomb of Nebamun, now in the British Museum (BM EA 37986)

Twitter is extremely popular amongst academics and you can find and follow mentors, supervisors, fieldwork and research projects of interest to you. It’s often the first place to locate the newest research in your field and catch up with recent discoveries on site. The wide range of twitter hashtags and tweeps in the academic writing, PhD, research and post-doc communities also provide up-to-date information on job postings, research opportunities and grants, as well as more general advice and encouragement on getting through a PhD. In addition to the academic writing hashtags above try #PhDChat #AcademicTwitter #PhDAdvice #PhdLife @AcademicChatter @Homo_Academicus @PhDSpeaks @PhD_Connect. Your favourite academic coaches are also on twitter including @ProfessorIsIn @ThesisWhisperer @MurrayRowena @RaulPacheco and @ThompsonPat. @RaulPacheco also has a lot of advice on how to manage your social media, and particularly you Twitter presence.

Facebook also offers opportunities, primarily in the form of groups to join. If you’re a woman, trans or non-binary person, groups like Cathy Mazak’s I Should Be Writing and the Women in Academia Support Network offer a supportive community for academics. BAJR Archaeology is open to everyone with archaeological leanings and its offshoot Mentoring Womxn in Archaelogy and Heritage is suitable for women, trans and non-binary archaeologists. On the Egyptology side there are a plethora of Egyptology groups on Facebook. The best ones are strictly supervised, with ruthlessly enforced rules about advertising, trolling, politics, pseudo-science and rudeness. Here you can find information on new discoveries, queries about objects, links to interesting pages and resources, information about exhibitions, lectures, study days and meetings. Try Em Hotep, Petrie Museum Friends, Sussex Egyptology, Essex Egyptology and various other local group pages you will find frequently link to these. For those with a specific interest there are also more targeted pages PrEgypt, Old Kingdom Egyptology, The Coffin Club, Hatshepsut Project, Not Just Another Akhenaten and Amarna Group, New Kingdom Egyptology Group, Egyptian Third Intermediate Period, Egypt in the First Millennium BC.

How you make use of social media during your PhD and throughout your research career is likely to be highly personal to you. There is no one single method because this technology is so new, so as with everything else here it’s worth experimenting to see what works and what you like. The first year of your PhD is the ideal time for such experimentation.


Mark Carrington 2019 Social Media for Academics. 2nd Edition. Sage.

Cal Newport 2016, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Piatkus.

Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber 2016 Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. University of Toronto Press.

Jon Acuff 2019. Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done. Portfolio.

Featured Image of the archaeological deposits of the ancient city of Elephantine

Should I do a PhD?

It’s that time of year again, summer has come and gone, COVID-19 is hopefully clearing up, people are putting their lives back together and some will be wondering if the time has come to do a much-desired PhD in archaeology or Egyptology. This post is inspired by a friend asking her post-PhD Egyptologist buddies if she should do a PhD and what, if anything, she should consider before she begins. We dutifully answered her, but I thought the subject could do with a longer treatment.


Before you decide to do a PhD its worth considering whether a PhD is really right for you and that means exposing several misconceptions:

A PhD does not guarantee a job

A PhD is the basic entry requirement you need for a research career, typically in academia. But it is only a foundation. To land a full-time, permanent academic job you typically need a PhD, a post-doc or two, teaching experience and a big helping of luck. There are some fields where academics do not routinely have PhDs, but academic archaeologists without a terminal degree are the exception. The normal post-doctoral route for archaeologists and Egyptologists is to undertake one or two post-doctoral projects (applying for appropriate grants, undertaking original research and publishing it), before landing an entry level academic position, often of a temporary nature. Full-time, permanent academic jobs in Egyptology are rare, and although archaeology is slightly better, there are many applicants for each job. You will often have to move location and sometimes country for every new job. It is entirely possible that you will complete an outstanding PhD but find your career stalled at the post-doc or adjunct stage. Now that is absolutely not your fault and its not the end of the world, but its worth considering carefully before you begin.

Before you decide to start a PhD please have a good look at the various authors and writers who are honest about success in academia and alternatives. Keep an eye on people like The Professsor Is In (US-centric but honest about the problems with the academic job market) and Tweeps like @FromPhDtoLife @ProfessorIsIn @AcademicChatter and #PostAc #AltAc #WithAPhD #PhDChat. From PhD To Life has just published a list of books about the many fulfilling alternatives to academia depending on what really interests you about research. Many of the jobs undertaken by Historians are also appropriate to archaeologists, such as those collated by the Employed Historian. You can also look at the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (@NCISorg on twitter) and their British partner group FIRE-UK for more information about researchers outside the academy. Having a PhD has great value in many fields and you absolutely don’t have to be an academic to find it worthwhile, but it’s not a guarantee of a career in academia or elsewhere.

A PhD is not an ego-boosting experience

A common public misconception about PhDs is that they are ego-boosting experiences, which innately clever people undertake almost without effort as an exercise in recognition. This misconception is common in TV and film where examples of the ‘omnidisciplinary scientist’ trope often have multiple PhDs. In fact, a PhD is quite the opposite of an ego-boost. No matter your competency, original research is hard work, involving multiple failures and dead-ends, problems with data, and confusion over new techniques. Academic writing necessitates regular peer review with considerable constructive, and sometimes less-than-constructive, criticism. Even the most competent and capable student is likely to experience competence-related anxiety at some point during their PhD. A PhD is absolutely not an ego-boost and may well leave you feeling like you know less at the end than at the beginning. (You don’t actually know less, you’ve just discovered how little you – and probably anyone – really knows about your chosen subject).

A PhD is ‘a real job’ and a hard one

Another public misconception is that people do PhDs because they don’t know what else to do. I’m sure there are some people who’ve done so, but I doubt they enjoyed it. PhDs are really hard and personally stressful. You’d have to be very relaxed indeed to undertake all that out of boredom. To get finished most PhDs require the passion of an interesting subject and/or the motivation of a future career.

Image of the author sitting on a balcony overlooking an Egyptian field with a differential GPS.
Programming the differential GPS on the terrace of the Marsam Hotel, Luxor. What this photo does not show is that this GPS was of an unfamiliar design and I only had a few hours of training with it. I spent two stressful days figuring out how it worked before I could begin our research.

Do you need a PhD for the next stage of your career?

PhDs are hard, stressful, challenging, expensive, confidence-sapping and there are no guarantees of either academic or career success. So why do one? If you can achieve your desired outcome without one then that is perfectly reasonable and you have saved yourself a whole lot of expense, stress, and frustration. On the other hand, there are a number of very good reasons to do a PhD. There are career options where a PhD is likely to be either essential or highly desirable. As Chris Naunton discusses in this blog post, exactly how we define ‘Egyptologist’ depends very much on our perspective, but it is much easier to be recognised as such with a PhD in the subject. Archaeology is a much broader church, but a PhD is still useful for demonstrating your mastery of higher research methods to future employers. Fundamentally there several good reasons to do a PhD:

It’s an essential requirement for your preferred career

As an apprenticeship in original research a PhD is the basic requirement necessary for various research careers. There are still some fields where academics do not generally have PhDs, but for archaeology and Egyptology if you want to have a chance of teaching and/or researching in a University or equivalent setting a PhD is the basic requirement. Various academia-adjacent careers may also expect or prefer post-holders to have PhDs. If you want to go into any sort of higher research in academia or elsewhere it is likely that a PhD is highly desirable, if not essential.

That said, archaeology offers a variety of opportunities to undertake research without a PhD. It may be worth getting experience in archaeological research before you decide a PhD is the right choice. If you can do the type of research that interests you without a PhD, you will have saved yourself considerable time, energy, and money.

It’s fun

If you don’t have career concerns or worries about paying the bills, it’s perfectly reasonable to decide to do a PhD for fun. The advantage is that you won’t be anxious about always ensuring you are in the best position for your future career, but you also won’t have ambition driving you through the harder parts. Even the best job has its boring bits and PhDs are much the same. Be prepared for those times when you wonder why you thought this would be ‘fun’. It’s also worth doing some serious self-reflection about why you want to do a PhD and what it might do to you. A PhD is an intellectual marathon. At some point, much like a marathon runner, you will hit ‘the wall’. A colleague looked at my face towards the end of my PhD and said ‘you’ve reached the point where you not only want to throw your thesis out the window, you want to throw yourself out after it’. I knew exactly what he meant. I was totally and absolutely fed up with my thesis and I wanted it to be finished. (Don’t worry, the feeling passes). You will inevitably face criticism and it may not be constructive. A PhD will expose exactly what you do and do not know and any insecurities you have. If you are going into this ‘for fun’ be prepared for it to be tough at times. To counter the inevitable bad days be sure to pick a subject that really interests you.

Author and tripods set up against an ancient inscription on a rock face.
Sometimes it’s just fun! Reflectance Transformation Imaging at Hatnub

Someone is paying you to do a PhD.

It may sound like a dream but sometimes the stars align and someone will literally pay you to do a PhD: your current employer; a research institution; or a grant-funding body. It sounds like an offer too good to miss, but depending on your benefactor they may not be as generous as they seem. If your employer is offering to fund your PhD then please make sure you are absolutely clear (and get it in writing) exactly what they are offering. They will usually pay your University fees, but you will also need funding for conferences and research expenses and time to undertake the work. Original research is intellectually taxing and unless your job is extremely easy for you, undertaking your PhD research in the evenings and at weekends will be extremely tiring. Try to negotiate time for your PhD research during your working day. You should also negotiate whether PhD-related conferences will be included in your work-time or not and who will pay for them. If your employer is funding your PhD, your research will probably relate to data they hold, but the chances are that at some point you will need to go elsewhere to collect data or relevant sources. It is worth negotiating with your employer for such trips to be paid for and included in your work time. If your employer is paying for your PhD, treat it like part of the job. Don’t let gratitude obscure the need to negotiate the details with them.

Funding from research institutions or funding bodies varies. At best funding will include your fees, a stipend, and research funds. A fully-funded PhD will allow you to work full-time on your academic achievements and provide necessary funding for attending conferences and doing research fieldwork, visits etc. Some funded PhDs form part of larger projects and are advertised on jobs boards like other academic posts. In other cases, you will need to apply for funding from the relevant body in cooperation with your University after you have decided upon a suitable project. Funded PhDs are obviously highly sort after and competition is fierce.

Can you cope with self-funding?

If a PhD is what you want to do, but you cannot obtain external funding you will need to self-fund; paying your fees to the University and finding your own living costs. You can to apply to smaller funding pots or grants for conference and research expenses, but these may not cover all your expenses.

Unless you are independently wealthy or retired, you will probably need to work while doing your self-funded PhD. Most self-funders work part-time and study part-time, but exactly how much time you can devote to working and studying is very personal. You will need to determine what you can afford, both financially and in terms of personal energy. It requires a lot of mental energy to undertake the deep thinking, creating, and analysing you will need to complete a PhD – it is ‘deep work’ as Cal Newport describes it in his book of the same name. How much of the pre-PhD, full-time work you can afford to give up is a very personal decision and depends on both what you need financially and how much mental energy your bill-paying work requires. Only you can know what you are capable of after a long day at work and how much actual work you need to do to pay the bills. Ironically, while living costs may be easier if you are living with others, that may also make it harder to move for research or future academic posts.

Focussing your PhD research to maximise your career-options

You really do need a PhD and you’ve worked out how you can afford to do one. But the post-doctoral career market is fierce and a PhD doesn’t guarantee you a future in research. How can you give yourself the best opportunity to get the career you want or the most transferable skills to shift into other sectors? It might seem strange to discuss this before you’ve even decided to do a PhD, but focussing your PhD research on the right things can provide a better foundation for the next phase of your career. There are a number of ways to maximise your chances of getting important post-doc and lecturing positions, and those skills can also help if you decide upon a career outside academia. Ideally, your PhD should include a practical inter-disciplinary skill, teaching of relevant subjects, and, if you’re an Egyptologist, ancient language:

Learn a practical skill

Being able to teach or provide a practical inter-disciplinary skill can make you more attractive as a post-doc or lecturer, and can also provide a useful practical skill you can offer to the world outside academia. Can you incorporate archaeological drawing, photography, GIS, coding, etc into your PhD? Can you get experience in a museum? How can you develop a practical aspect of your PhD that will appeal to a future employer?

Author standing on a mudbrick pyramid with a differential GPS de
Using GPS to survey a mudbrick pyramid at Dra Abu el-Naga, Luxor.

Now you can do, please teach.

Getting teaching experience can be hugely advantageous in obtaining your post-doc or first lecturing post. It doesn’t really matter what you teach, although it would be better if it was related to your PhD research. Many Universities allow PhD candidates to teach classes or cover for lecturers. Grasp those opportunities with both hands if you possibly can.

Acquire language skills

Most Egyptology lecturing positions expect you to be able to teach some form of ancient Egyptian language, often as well as various historical or archaeological subjects. Acquiring language skills and learning to teach ancient languages will be very appealing if you want to be an academic Egyptologist. As with most of the other aspects of this list, integrating these skills into your PhD research will make the process easier overall.

An offering scene showing a man and woman in front of an offering table
TT35, Dra Abu l’Naga. Being able to read and teach basic Hieroglyphs is a useful skill for anyone hoping for a career in Egyptology.

Always have a plan B!

What’s your plan B? Academic posts are rare and competition is fierce. You can write the most amazing PhD, teach, learn all the skills, get grants and publish regularly but still miss out on a post-doc or lecturing post. If you don’t get into academia or want an alternative research career, how can you set yourself up to succeed in the world of work? This is a very personal question and it depends on your pre-doctoral experience and the nature of your doctoral research. For the most part, the skills learnt during a PhD are very transferable, but you can improve your chances by learning practical skills that are valued in industry. My career has been advanced much further by my GIS skills than by my Egyptology. Coding, programming, and other ICT skills are much in demand and various industries will always appreciate skilled grant writers and researchers. Before you begin your PhD consider how you can turn your PhD and your past experience into a career both in and outside of academia.

Where should you study?

Where you study and who supervises you is an intensely personal decision. If you are funded as part of a larger project you may have little choice. Personal constraints in terms of family and employment may also play a part. It’s worth considering the requirements of the institution and the individual supervisors before you decide. It goes without saying that you will need an institution and supervisors with appropriate skills for your field of study. As a rule, it is probably wiser to pick a supervisor or supervisors who specialise in the aspects of your PhD where you are personally weakest. But there are other considerations too. How often will you need to meet your supervisors? Can you work remotely? What opportunities for teaching are there? Does their style mesh with your needs? Do you need greater independence or greater involvement from your supervisor? These are all very personal considerations that you should take into account when deciding on your preferred institution and supervisor.


Cal Newport 2016, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Will a computer take my job?: Archaeology and technological development?

In recent years there’s been a lot of discussion about how soon the computers are going to take over, which jobs will be lost to mechanisation and how we deal with the resulting unemployment and political change. Journalists and think tanks have evoked the spectre of Skynet, the evil defence system from the Terminator franchise, to ask how we deal with the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and increased mechanisation. The BBC even published a handy computerisation checker to see if a robot will take your job over the next 20 years. Some have predicted that in time a large proportion of jobs will be automated, even those that require high skills, compassion or intellect, and that we need to prepare for the effect of this on society with political and economic measures like the citizens’ income.

At present archaeology is unlikely to be automated. It doesn’t appear in the BBC list of professions likely to be automated in the next 20 years. The closest profession to archaeology is ‘Social and humanities scientist’ with a 10.4% probability of automation, a figure low enough to be reassuring. But given the march of technology and the increasing availability of computer programmes for archaeological investigation, many have suggested that even complex jobs like that of an archaeologist will eventually be automated, even if this takes 50 or 100 years.

The idea of automation also has a deep, but often unconscious effect, upon the perception of archaeology amongst both professionals and the public, particularly where archaeologists are making use of highly computerised technologies, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), satellite remote sensing, geophysical  analysis,  and others. The perception, perhaps fueled by the way technology is used as a ‘magic box’ in popular culture, is that data goes in and unambiguous archaeological answers come out. This perception is both deeply inaccurate and dangerous for the scientific profession, including the ‘technological archaeologist’. It fosters the idea that answers generated by technology are straightforward and unambiguous, when in reality they are anything but (as is well demonstrated by the debate over the radar scanning of Tutankhamun’s tomb). It also reduces the archaeologist to little more than a ‘data chauffeur’, collecting or loading the data into the programme and then presenting the answer at the end.

While grotesquely devaluing the role of the archaeologist or scientist, it is the latter issue which I believe contributes to the oft-repeated  assertion  that even subtle, nuanced jobs requiring flexibility and creativity are at risk of automation.  After all, if the archaeologist (now downgraded to little more than a technician) need only load the data and present the result at the end, then is that highly educated scientist really doing anything anyone else couldn’t do? Surely as machines get better they’ll be able to load their own data and present the result, eliminating another job?

The reality is that obtaining useful answers to archaeological questions usually requires  various intermediate stages of data processing (sometimes in a different programme from the one that will perform the ‘main’ processing), initial analysis, further analysis and statistical validation. But even this list doesn’t really convey the actual role of the archaeologist or why we couldn’t just programme the computer to undertake all those stages. To really understand why human input is required throughout the process we need to look at how an archaeologist interacts with a computer programme to obtain useful answers to their questions, where the process is or could be automated, and where it relies upon professional judgement and experience.

I have long thought that some of the public anxiety and media hype about the rise of the machines exaggerates the reality of what technology can actually achieve. While it’s clear that many jobs will be automated in the future and we need to deal with the political and economic effects of that, to truly understand which jobs will disappear we need to unpick the details of our professions and truly consider which elements could be automated and which either require, or are faster, when undertaken by a human.

My own GIS research into visibility (often called ‘viewshed analysis’) has given me some insights into how difficult it would be for a computer to be an effective archaeologist. It has long been possible for a GIS programme to rapidly and efficiently calculate visibility from a given point, either to another point (i.e. line of sight) or more generally across the landscape (generating what is called ‘a viewshed’). To do this it needs only a digital terrain model of the topography and the point from which visibility is to be calculated. But knowing what is visible from say the Great Pyramid, or Stonehenge, doesn’t actually answer any particularly exciting archaeological questions. Even the most basic archaeological question – where could the Great Pyramid be seen from – requires us to both obtain more information and make judgments, judgements a computer couldn’t make. Firstly we must decide who is doing the seeing. If we are talking about people walking about on the ground, we need to know how tall they were. If we are interested in people within a nearby city or temple, we need to know both how tall they were and how tall was any structure they were standing on (the city walls perhaps?). The most basic of archaeological questions requires us to obtain more information and make professional judgements about the nature of nearby structures and the heights of the population.  And we still haven’t really learned anything useful yet – the Great Pyramid is obviously large and obviously very visible, so we didn’t need a computer to tell us it could be seen from a large area.

To really answer interesting questions about visibility at Giza we need to interact further with our GIS programme. We’ve now determined the height of the population and any relevant structures and calculated precisely where the Great Pyramid could be seen from. Why don’t we repeat the process for the other two kingly pyramids at Giza? That might provide us with useful archaeological information, such as are there any areas where all the pyramids could be seen? Are there any areas where they were all invisible? Do those areas correlate with any specific archaeological sites? These questions might provide us with really interesting answers. But to answer them we need to interact with the GIS in stages, re-running the analysis for each pyramid, then combining the results. This involves several procedures today, but even if we could code the programme to run through the sequence by itself, the results alone tell us nothing useful archaeologically.  We’d need to look at the areas from which the three pyramids are visible or invisible and use our archaeological knowledge and experience to consider if there are any sensible archaeological reasons they might have been excluded or included. Are there any archaeological sites that might have required a view of all pyramids (the capital Memphis or the temple of Heliopolis for example)? If so, do we think, based on our knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture that a deliberate decision was made to ensure the three pyramids were all visible from those sites? Can we perform a statistical analysis to show that our results are statistically significant and aren’t just coincidence? Or can we demonstrate by analysing lots of other locations on the Giza plateau, that the locations of these pyramids were the only ones that ensured a consistent view of all three pyramids from, for example, the capital of Memphis or the temple of Heliopolis?

Each stage of this putative research involves GIS analysis, from the initial viewshed showing where the Great Pyramid could be seen, to the last investigation of the viewsheds of other locations without pyramids across the Giza plateau. While the computer performs various specific analyses at each stage, it is the archaeologist who turns computerised assessments of the visibility of individual pyramids and locations on the Giza plateau into a genuinely interesting piece of research investigating where the three pyramids could be seen from and if that is both statistically significant (i.e. it isn’t coincidental) and culturally significant (i.e. it is consistent with Egyptian culture). At each stage the archaeologist is required to exercise both experience and judgement, in collecting data and setting parameters such as the height of the population, evaluating the results of the computer analysis with reference to archaeological data such as the locations of Memphis and Heliopolis, and directing the next stage of the research towards answering an archaeologically interesting question about the motives governing the positing of the Giza pyramids.

In this particular example, and in most computerised or technical archaeological analyses, the archaeologist is the keystone that holds the digital analyses together, forming them into a coherent piece of research that answers an archaeologically interesting question. The archaeologist is only able to do that because they have experience in the technical and cultural aspects of their subject and are able to make rational judgments based on that experience, which direct the research towards the often uncertain  goal of answering useful and interesting archaeological questions. We might one day create a computer that can do this, but no modern computer can even begin to perform that synthetic but instinctual task of guiding a developing project towards an amorphous goal. A goal that often changes as the evidence develops, while taking due account the constraints implied by the specific Egyptian culture and archaeological context.

While reassuring us about the potential for human archaeology during the rise of the machines, clear consideration of exactly how we work with and interact with technology is also to be welcomed for other reasons. A better understanding of the role of technology within scientific disciplines like archaeology will mean consumers of archaeological information and results will better understand the accuracy and limitations of those results and hopefully will be less likely to be ‘blinded by science’. It should result in greater respect for the ‘technical archaeologists’, who are sometimes sidelined as ‘operators’ and ‘technicians’, and a better understanding of the complexities involved in obtaining genuine answers to archaeological research questions using technology. I suspect that this latter issue, in particular, will become surprisingly important over the next decade. We have seen a huge technological step forward in terms of the variety of data, analytical techniques and computer programmes that are available, but unlike the previous generation of technological advances (such as Carbon 14 dating or residue analysis), the application of more recent techniques to archaeological data in order to answer research questions is not always straightforward. This has led to a certain amount of technically-driven archaeology, where a new technique is applied to archaeological data but not incorporated into a theoretical or analytical framework for answering meaningful archaeological questions (this is sometimes called ‘technological determinism’).  There’s nothing wrong with applying new techniques to archaeology, of course, but they need to be applied in a way that is archaeologically meangingful. My own research into Egyptian quarries isn’t intended to develop or showcase brand new technology, but to apply recently developed techniques to answering interesting, and often previously unanswerable, research questions. If we are to do high quality archaeological research and move beyond the excitement of new technologies, we need to actively consider the processes by which we move from technical analysis to answering research questions. And while we’re at it, we might be able to help out our scientific colleagues and wider society. By demonstrating how to make technologically cutting-edge work meaningful, we can show that the imposition of the human scientist into the technological process is a necessity that cannot simply be replaced by a computer algorithm.

Undercurrents: Clichés and scientific archaeology in Egyptian foreign relations

Pair of Cypriot ‘base ring juglets’ from the Petrie Museum (UC13419). Foreign pottery is found at various Egyptian sites, providing evidence of trade and exchange between ancient Egypt and its neighbours.

Scientific and archaeological papers presented at a recent conference on Egyptian foreign relations revealed that ancient Egyptian foreign relations were far more complex than elite and monumental and textual clichés express. Although I was aware that such clichés represent a very partial view of the ancient world, as the conference progressed I realised how far I had internalised and normalised the elite, ancient Egyptian worldview they presented. This experience raised questions as to how far we who study the ancient world absorb its mores, how we control for these in our research and investigate the social complexities obscured by them.

In September I was asked to present a paper on recent research in the Western Desert of Egypt at the University of Liverpool  Undercurrents conference  (sponsored by Marie Curie Actions), which looked at the relationships between ancient Egypt and the cultures on its periphery and across the ancient world.

The papers at the Undercurrents conference covered a wide range of cultures, sites and disciplines from satellite imagery, to Tutankhamun’s gold appliques, to the iconography of the gods of Pi-Ramesse. Every paper contributed to the overall theme, looking at the complex interaction between the Nile Valley and its neighbours, near and far. Pottery, like the Cypriot base-ring juglets (above left), played a significant role in several papers, but scientific analyses of various different types was also a key theme.

A recent increase in scientific analyses of data from multiple sources (e.g. Zakrzewski et al. 2015) is currently providing new insights into ancient Egyptian culture and society and this is likely to continue and increase. The studies presented in Liverpool are a part of this trend and demonstrate the value of scientific and archaeological studies for understanding the great variety of ancient Egyptian interactions with their neighbours and revealing the contrast between the genuinely complex and flexible web of ancient cultural interactions and the limited and clichéd impression of these relationships that we get from Egyptian sources.

We are familiar with the stereotypical ways Egyptian iconography portrayed foreigners from a variety of races. For each group the Egyptian artist emphasises specific distinguishing characteristics, including skin colour, dress, facial features, hairstyle and beard types, that identifies them as both ‘un-Egyptian’ and with a specific tribe or area.

A line of bound Nubian captives at the foot of the colossal statues of Ramses II at Abu Simbel.

These stereotypes appear in stock scenes as dangerous enemies being vanquished or as bringers of tribute. The depiction of the foreigner as the chaotic ‘other’, requiring subjugation for the political and ritual protection of Egypt is most evident in the ubiquitous ‘smiting scenes’ (Köhler, 2002; below) which date back at least as far as Narmer palette and the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3200 – 2686 BC). The same religious and political message is conveyed by New Kingdom imagery of Pharaohs, in their chariots, triumphantly leading their armies to victory over the bodies of slain foreigners.

The ancient Egyptians’ presentation of their ‘foreign relations’. A ‘smiting scene’ of Thutmoses III from the outer wall of Karnak temple showing the execution of captured foreign prisoners.

There is certainly some truth in these scenes. The New Kingdom Pharaohs fought battles with various foreign groups, taking prisoners and booty. How common real ‘smitings’ of captured enemies were is debatable, but there’s no doubt as to the impression that is intended by images of ubiquitous Egyptian victory. Foreigners are dangerous, threatening and must be vanquished. Only in their defeated state can they be permitted a presence on Egyptian monuments.

When they are not being brutally executed, foreigners are presented as grateful bringers of tribute in several Egyptian tomb scenes. The inspiration for these scenes may be diplomatic gift exchange, such as that described in the Amarna letters, which record diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and its neighbours (Moran 1992).

Egyptologists have long observed that if we were to believe the Egyptian sources, we might imagine that interactions between Egypt and its neighbours were dominated by war and tribute, with relatively little room for trade. We have assumed that recognising the ritual clichés inherent in Egyptian elite self-presentation of foreign relations immunises us, enabling us to objectively dissect the ancient sources, seeking a more detailed  and nuanced understanding of the complexities of ancient Egyptian foreign relations. Indeed this concept, that the recognition of bias or partiality enables us to manage it in our research, is a crucial element in all historical research and textual analysis.

But when faced with the scientific analysis presented at the Undercurrents conference I realised that I had absorbed and internalised much more of the ancient Egyptians’ self-presentation than I thought. Although I had always assumed that the clichés of dominion and tribute were merely the politically, socially and ritually appropriate face of a much more complex system of trade and exchange, my surprise at the reality of ancient trade relations revealed to me how far I had internalised the elite Egyptian worldview. As paper after paper revealed Egyptian society enmeshed in webs of trade relations and international fashion, that involved exchanging divinities and actively working with groups that are elsewhere presented as a threat to be conquered, I realised that I hadn’t been sufficiently skeptical. Skeptical of the endless lines of captive foreigners bringing tribute or awaiting illustrative (in both senses of the word) execution, of Egyptian claims to hostile encirclement by chaotic enemies, the endless battle reliefs and the ritualised fear of the non-Egyptian world. While paying lip-service to the idea that the reality was more complicated that the texts, my repeated exposure to and interest in ancient Egyptian written sources, iconography and imagery meant that, like an ancient scribal student copying texts, I had thoroughly absorbed and internalised the elite Egyptian worldview presented in those sources. A hefty dose of scientific and archaeological analysis was required to reveal the reality of this to me.

This raised many further questions for me. How do I respond to this in my future research, avoiding interpreting my data in terms of ancient cliché, without ignoring useful cultural information from textual and monumental sources? Given how far I had internalised an ancient Egyptian worldview, even while assuming it was only a partial impression of reality, then what else might I be missing?  How else has my 21st-century-mind become attuned to the imperatives of an ancient Egyptian scribe?  And if this affects me, then how does it affect my fellow archaeologists, classicists and historians who also work with complex, literate societies?

I cannot answer all these questions, indeed I wonder if anyone can, but I can attempt to answer the first one. If we can’t help but internalise the norms of the societies we study then it is even more important that we investigate those norms from multiple textual, archaeological and scientific perspectives, that we consider the evidence of different classes, sexes and ethnicities, and that we are aware of the ancient clichés hidden in our minds. To do this we need the increase in scientific and archaeological investigations that are currently moving beyond the elite and monumental elements of the ancient world. But we also need to integrate the results of those scientific and archaeological studies into our understanding of monumentality, iconography and textual interpretation. A better understanding of ancient reality hides in the cracks between science, archaeology, epigraphy, text-criticism and iconography. To excavate those realities we need to be prepared to integrate multiple sources, comparing, contrasting and questioning their different perspectives to understand the complex reality that is revealed by archaeology and scientific studies, the simplistic and clichéd way that reality was presented in ancient monumental iconography and politicised texts, and how those presentations influenced or brought about changes in economic trade and political activities.


Köhler, C. E.  2002. History or ideology? New reflections on the Narmer palette and the nature of foreign relations in Pre- and Early Dynastic Egypt. In E. C. M. van den Brink,  and Thomas E. Levy (eds), Egypt and the Levant: interrelations from the 4th through the early 3rd millennium BCE, 499-513. London ; New York: Leicester University Press.

Moran, W. L. 1992. The Amarna Letters. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Zakrezewski, S. Shortland, A and Rowland, J. 2015. Science in the Study of Ancient Egypt. London and New York: Routledge.