02 Jul 2020

Good Archaeology, Bad Archaeologists?

What do we do when the EES pioneers we admire were also looters, racists, and white supremacists? A report about the online discussion with Heba Abd el Gawad (Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage), Carl Graves (EES) and Stephanie Boonstra (EES).

What do we do when the EES pioneers we admire were also looters, racists, and white supremacists? 

On 12th June 2020, the Egypt Exploration Society was proud to host ‘Good archaeology, bad archaeologists’ in partnership with the AHRC-funded project, Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage.

Heba Abd el Gawad, post-doctoral researcher for the project, led the organisation of the event which sought to consider how we should acknowledge and address the EES’ own colonial history, how EES ‘pioneers’ can be held accountable, and what impact their acts have on Egypt and its heritage today.

The discussion was held using the Society’s online event platform and was attended by over 300 people from all over the world who were actively engaged prior to the event using Twitter (#EESUnpackingColonialism) as well as polls during the event itself.

Dr Carl Graves, Director of the Egypt Exploration Society, introduced the event by outlining some often-overlooked elements of the Society’s colonial foundations. He questioned whether the difficult path between audiences with general and scientific interests had influenced the development of the EES since its foundation. Bringing together discussions by other scholars who have already started tackling historic and ongoing colonialism in Egyptology, Carl questioned whether it was time for a new ‘Truth about the Egypt Exploration Fund’ drawing on the title of W C Winslow’s 1903 exposé about the American Branch of the EEF and its relation to the London office. This presentation introduced some of the current research at the EES which underpins our forthcoming activities. Some further remarks will be published in issue 57 of Egyptian Archaeology magazine.

Dr Stephanie Boonstra, Collections Manager at the EES, introduced the audience to some of the more recent initiatives of the Society to make its collections accessible online as well as to engage researchers and the public with these resources. One outcome of these efforts is a planned focus in 2022 working alongside Egyptian colleagues on the centenary of Egypt’s partial independence from British colonial rule and how archaeology and heritage informed this period in Egypt’s history and the development of modern Egyptian identity.

Following this introduction as to why the EES must reconsider its colonial past, Heba led a discussion which questioned what Egyptian heritage is considered to include. This was based on the misunderstanding by many that Egypt’s history is purely Pharaonic and forced attendees to consider the living and experiential heritage of Egyptians today. Using feedback received through Twitter prior to the event, Heba coordinated polls to clarify what the audience understood by ‘Egyptian heritage’ as well as what they considered the role of Egyptians were on early excavations.

Recent world events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement provoked questions from speakers and the audience regarding early pioneers and the need to readdress their contributions, particularly individuals such as William Matthew Flinders Petrie who is often considered the Father of Egyptology but also a well-known eugenicist – something often overlooked in presentations of Egyptian heritage but tackled more fully in recent redisplays at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian & Sudanese Archaeology at UCL.


"When Nasser and Heba met Petrie" comic-strip part of the "Nasser, Heba, and our Dispersed Heritage" Egyptian Arabic comic series released bi-weekly by Egyptian comic artist Mohammed Nasser (Nasser Junior) and the Egypt's Dispersed Heritage project engaging Egyptian audiences with the history of the British collection and distribution of artefacts from Egypt to the world.


Heba: Nasser, let me introduce to you Petrie, an important archaeologist
Heba: he played a major role in the archaeology of our Egyptian heritage
Petrie: you mean OUR heritage
Heba: well, some things are in his favour while others are against him (closest translation).


It raises the question of how Petrie can be held accountable today for his eugenics involvement, yet, also remembered for his contribution to archaeology.

This comic was made relatable to Egypt's present by hinting at discussions within Egypt after Mubarak's death & the controversy of how he should be remembered after his death. Many memes emerged responding to his complex legacy and this comic played on the same humour stance, thus, quite relatable to Egyptians today.

The event exposed several uncomfortable truths about western Egyptology and its impact on Egyptians. The final poll for the event asked the audience whether they felt that British/Western archaeological presence in Egypt contributed to the supressing of Egyptians in the past. The audience voted 78% in favour of this deduction. However, the 22% who believed that this was not the case continues to demonstrate the complex and difficult nature of unpacking colonialism in Egyptology.

Current opinions in Egypt as well as ongoing problems of classism and other socio/economic/cultural factors all make this subject a difficult and uncomfortable discussion for many. Some attendees praised the EES and Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage for having such a brave discussion as well as exposing some difficult truths. Other attendees felt that the event did not go far enough. Recent world events, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement, have exposed injustice and exclusion inherent in archaeology. While this event sought to consider the colonial history of the Egypt Exploration Society and how best to emotionally, ethically, and practically confront it, some attendees also felt it was time to discuss racism in Egypt today as well as exclusion of underrepresented communities in the disciplines of archaeology and Egyptology. The speakers acknowledged that these were issues worthy of discussion but did not feel that there was sufficient time, nor the expertise available on the panel, to appropriately open them further. The Society would be happy to support other institutions to unpack these difficult subjects too and looks forward to unpacking further uncomfortable subjects in this way.  

Next steps

As stated during the event, this was just the first step in understanding public opinion regarding decolonising Egyptology at the EES. The results of the polls and feedback gained from the event on social media and by email will be used to inform the Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage project as well as ongoing efforts to make the EES a more inclusive Society, particularly for communities in Egypt which have previously being excluded from narratives about their cultural heritage.

Several conversation streams became apparent during the discussion including: the role of Egyptians on archaeological sites, the presence (or conspicuous absence) of Egyptians in Egyptological archives, and what we consider ‘heritage’ to include. These threads will be explored further through social media, again using #EESUnpackingColonialism to track contributions. These more specific threads will form the basis for further discussions between the EES and Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage which will then be reported to those interested in this developing conversation. Please continue your discussions on social media using #EESUnpackingColonialism and we will use your comments to form further discussions and events - the dialogue must continue!

Finally, from the findings made by Heba and your social media conversations, a focus group will be formed to assist the EES Board of Trustees in creating an ethical commitment which will inform our future operations.

This is not an easy path, but it is important that we are all on it – together. We hope that our supporters will also be inspired by these actions and continue to fund our work. Thank you.

As well as Twitter, you will also find some further reflections on the first event courtesy of Dr Chris Naunton on his blog here, and also featured in the Alchemy: Research & Consultancy blog here

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