In this Slogging AMA, the team at Hackernoon talks to Egyptologist Chris Naunton. Chris is an authority in the study of Ancient Egypt and is one of the leading experts in the field. We speak to Chris about his work, projects he has worked on and his achievements.
This Slogging thread by Jack Boreham, Chris Naunton, Limarc Ambalina, Amy Shah, Sidra and Mónica Freitas occurred in slogging's official #amas channel, and has been edited for readability.
Hey @channel, please join me in welcoming our next AMA guest, Chris Naunton, an Egyptologist and expert in Egyptian history. He has written books about Ancient Egypt and appeared in over twenty different documentary films. He also lectures online and offers tours to Egypt.
Please feel free to ask Chris anything about:
Hi Chris Naunton, it's a pleasure to have you with us. Can you tell us a bit about what an egyptologist is and what you do?
Hi Jack, Thanks for the invite! Egyptology is the study of ancient Egypt (you might think it ought to include other aspects of the history of Egypt and other subjects too, but this is what it is. So an Egyptologist is someone who studies Egypt in the ancient past, meaning the Egypt of pharaohs, pyramids, mummies, Tutankhamun, Ramesses, Cleopatra etc.
Most Egyptologists have a grounding in archaeology, Egyptian language and texts (hieroglyphs and other scripts), art, architecture, religion, funerary beliefs etc.
It's not an easy way to earn a living - there aren't many jobs, so there are many more people with qualifications in the field who then go on to do other things in life. Those who do manage to make a living from it are generally either university lecturers or museum curators. In Egypt itself, there are many more jobs than elsewhere - for obvious reasons - and lots of Egyptologists are employed on archaeological sites around the country. I'm a bit unusual in that I make a living from writing, media work, lecturing and accompanying tours.
Chris Naunton, that's fascinating. What made you want to get into egyptology? Also, can you tell us a bit more about your writing and media work. Some of the big projects you've done?
I'm not sure what it was that made me want to get into Egyptology. Failing to play for Arsenal or become a rock star have something to do with it! But, more seriously, alongside wanting to play football and guitar, I was certainly interested in Egyptology in my teens, and I can well remember my family tuning in to the TV series 'The Face of Tutankhamun' which was shown on BBC TV in 1992, 70 years after Tutankhamun's tomb had been discovered.
I was very interested in that and when I realised that this was something you could choose to study at university I leapt at it. I was engaged with my studies in my last years at school, but I knew going to uni would be a good idea.
Egyptology seemed like the most interesting way of getting a degree that I could think of, and once I was there, I found - to my surprise - that I loved it and felt I had found my niche.
As for writing and media, I've published three books in the last. Few years: Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt in 2018, Egyptologists' Notebooks - a history of exploration and discovery in Egypt as told through the drawings, paintings, maps, notes etc. of the earliest Egyptologists - last year, and a book for children 'King Tutankhamun Tell All' earlier this year. I have another one coming out next year, but I'm not allowed to say what it is yet...!
TV-wise, I presented a documentary about Flinders Petrie for the BBC in 2012. I have been the lead contributor on quite a few shows. Highlights include 'Ultimate Tut', which has just reappeared on NatGeo / Disney+, Secrets of King Tut's Treasures (Also Disney+), and a personal favourite of mine, Egypt's Lost Pyramid' in which I got to follow the opening of a burial chamber in a newly discovered pyramid. That was made for Channel 4 in the UK (and is still available on All4) and The Smithsonian Channel in the US. I've just come back from a first visit to Egypt since COVID arrived - to do a little bit of filming, but I'm not allowed to say what that's for either yet!
Chris Naunton, hahaha, we all dream of making it to the big time of football. From my perspective, when you have a small spark of something you love to do and nurture it, it can take you places. I'm a freelance writer at the mo, so in understanding the hustle of trying to do what you want to do, what advice would you give students who have a passion for something say if they have graduated and are not sure how to break into their niches. Also, how would young people get into your line of work? Any advice?
What was some of your highlights from filming these shows? Why did you like Egypt's lost pyramid show so much?
As a fellow writer, how did you go about starting to write your books? 😄
This is one of the coolest AMA topics ever!
I want to ask one semi-serious question for my selfish interests: based on what you've seen from Egyptian architecture and hieroglyphs, is there evidence that the Egyptians believed they saw aliens? Secondly, what is the coolest thing you've found or discovered throughout your work?
Have you found it necessary to learn other languages for your work? How did you learn if so?
Advice for students with a passion. Well, first of all, it's great to have a passion for something - not everyone does - and it can give you energy, a determination which can carry you a long way. If/when you get to do what you're passionate about for a living, then it gives you a great deal of satisfaction, more, I suspect, than loads of money or material things.
That time when you've graduated, and you're trying to get into something can be really hard - you don't know how long you'll have to wait, and if you'll get where you want to be at all, and it's hard to know when to keep going and when to cut your losses. I'd say, try not to worry about it, try not to be impatient. Indulge your passion - think about it, read about it, do it (whatever works for whatever your passion is), but don't let it take over your life - you'll need a break to do other things too. And don't worry about going off and doing something else for a bit - you can always come back to it.
When I think back to when I had just graduated (after my masters), I was advised to go away and take a year out rather than go straight into a PhD. So I tried to line up a load of work experience, and I got some but not as much as I wanted. In the meantime, I got a job in a bar which was great - I had something to do, I was earning a bit of money, and whenever I could, I was reading about Egyptology, going to museums, and applying for stuff.
I didn't expect much would happen in that year - I was going to keep my hand in, earn some money, enjoy myself and then go back to my studies -that was the plan. But in the middle of applying for everything, I got a job, a lowly administrative job. Still, it was a job, it paid, it was in Central London, and it got me into an institution in my field (the Egypt Exploration Society) which set me up for everything else I've done since. I eventually went back and did a PhD but not until three years later than I'd planned! So, in summary, a mixture of doing the right things, applying for stuff, but also making sure I had a life outside 'work' too, and being open to opportunities (a crappy admin job) - really worked out for me!
Egypt's Lost Pyramid was great because of the immense privilege of being there on the spot when a burial chamber was being opened. It's very rare that a sealed burial chamber is discovered like that, so to have had the opportunity to witness it and be the person trying to relay the story of what was going on for the viewers back home was a great privilege. It's also worth adding that most of the time, the things you see in documentaries are staged to some extent, and things get done multiple times, so there's some element of... 'performance'.
For example, when you see someone like me visiting a colleague, and we're filmed at the entrance to the museum or whatever shaking hands and saying 'hi' - well, that usually gets filmed sometime after we've met for the day. We have to do it several times, so it's not really 'real' in that sense. The opening of the burial chamber happened in real time - we couldn't open it and then seal it again and have another go - it involved lifting a massive multi-tonne stone block - and it was chaos - lots of people shouting and bundling in a small space. My instinct was to let everything happen, but the crew told me, 'get in there! What can you see!'. Great experience...!
There have been lots of other highlights: I've seen a few amazing objects out of their museum cases, I handled Tutankhamun's iron dagger, I've been all around the tomb of Tut - access is restricted most of the time. It's all been great fun!
How did I go about starting to write books? I was very lucky in that I was approached by my publisher (Thames and Hudson). I had no intention of writing a book, but the editor of their archaeology list had seen me in a film about Tutankhamun and asked if I'd like to write a book about it. I was very busy with a full-time job as Director of the EES at the time and didn't feel there was enough that was new to say about Tut, nor that I was the right person to write about him.
But I did like the idea of writing a book, and luckily for me, the editor's response was 'OK, well what would you like to write about?'. I had just pitched an idea for a series about 'missing tombs' to a TV production company and suggested that could be a good idea, and luckily for me, they went for it - that became 'Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt'. So I was very lucky - I got the opportunity to write my first book as I already had a platform thanks to the EES and my TV work. BUT, it's also worth saying that I had started a blog when I became EES Director, which was intended to be my way of sharing my thoughts about the EES and the direction I wanted to take it in with our supporters.
The editor had seen that, and he was impressed by my willingness to write for non-specialist audiences and my style. So putting myself out there - and the blog was my initiative, I wasn't asked to do it by anyone, and it helped. I would mention that up to that point, I had published a few articles and reviews and written a PhD thesis, but it was almost all academic writing, and I felt a little constrained by that, unable to write in a way that felt natural for me. Two things helped change that:
I didn't share it with anyone, it was very personal, and I wrote it as if having a conversation with a friend or thinking aloud - there was swearing, colloquialisms, contractions etc. All the things that you think you're not supposed to use when you're writing. I found it incredibly liberating, and it helped me find my 'voice' as a writer.
In reply to Limarc. No, I can't think of any evidence that the Egyptians thought they saw aliens. They believed in supernatural beings and things coming from or dwelling in the sky, but they thought in terms of gods. I don't think they would have had the kinds of ideas that would be a match for our vision of 'aliens' in the sense of beings from outer space!
The coolest thing I've discovered? Well, I've not done a lot of digging myself. When I was involved in field projects, I usually did other things like finding recordings or documenting inscriptions. But archaeology unfolds very slowly in any case, and most 'discoveries' aren't revelatory in that sense. Having said that, if there's one thing that was discovered while I was supervising excavations (the actual digging is done by local specialists) was a fragment of newspaper from the 1890s which was addressed to 'Mr Quibell, The Ramesseum'. Quibell was an English archaeologist who worked in the area just over a hundred years before I was here, and the Ramesseum was his site. Even though it related to the recent and not the ancient past, it was nice to find and a useful reminder that archaeologists eventually become a part of the landscape themselves.
In reply to Amy, hi! Yes, it has been necessary for me to have some knowledge of other languages in my work. There is a kind of unwritten agreement that most academic literature in Egyptology is written either in English, French or German. To do original research, most of us need at least to be able to read all three languages. I was lucky that English is my first language, and I had studied French at German at school, so I had a good grounding, which has mostly seen me through. Having said that, Google Translate is a god-send! Some literature is written in other languages: Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Arabic. Arabic is also very useful when working in Egypt, of course!
So I have a good knowledge of French and German, a little Italian (mainly from having worked with an Italian team in the field) and a little Arabic.
Oh, and of course, I studied the ancient Egyptian language and hieroglyphic script for two years at university. A certain kind of inscription formed the main part of the evidence I was looking at for my PhD thesis, so knowing that language was indispensable for that.
Welcome to the HackerNoon AMA, Chris Naunton! Egyptian mythology, culture, and history of art are so rich and fascinating! I mean, the amount of creativity involved is mind-blowing! You have chosen an awesome field of work :)
I have so many questions! What’s your favourite Egyptian mythological character? What do you think of the influence of other religions/cultures on ancient Egypt? (Such as Islamic influence or Roman invasion)? What’s your PhD thesis about?!
Chris Naunton, wow, amazing stuff. I can imagine it is something; you are very passionate about. All of those things must have been incredible to do and witness. I know over the last couple of years, you have been part of playing in the past. A video game documentary series. Since at Hackernoon we cover games, can you tell us a bit more about this and how good games are at reimagining history?
Sidra Hi! Very nice to be here 🙂 Thanks for your questions! I'm not sure I have a favourite mythological character. Still, one god that I've had a particular interest in lately is Thoth, an ibis-headed god of wisdom and learning who was associated by the Greeks with their god Hermes. A group of wisdom texts called the 'Hermetica' are attributed to Thoth/Hermes. Even if they weren't written by the god, they probably originated in Egypt, influencing the world.
Sidra It's difficult to know to what extent other religions affected Egypt in what we call the Dynastic period (c. 3100 to 332 BCE). Some gods whose origins were elsewhere in the ancient world came to be worshipped in Egypt during this time, usually as manifestations of Egyptian gods, e.g. Egyptian Seth = Canaanite Baal) but otherwise, Egyptian religion seems to have been resistant to other religions, which is true of much of the rest of its culture, which is why it seems to us not to have been distinctive and unique. There was much more mixing during the Ptolemaic Period (332 - 30 BCE); the Ptolemies were Macedonian Greek in origin and brought their religion and gods, deliberately combined with Egyptian gods to create a new religion that would be acceptable to Egyptians and Greeks. Of the major monotheistic religions, only Judaism existed before the end of the Dynastic Period. Christianity and Islam would eventually arrive in Egypt, but they mostly replaced the pagan religion rather than mixing with it.
Sidra My PhD thesis is about the 25th Dynasty - when Egypt was ruled by kings from Kush in modern-day Sudan. I was interested in how the Kushites governed Egypt and the extent to which they brought in their people and ways of doing things vs leaving it to Egyptians they had alliances with. It's a really interesting period in Egyptian history!
Jack Boreham Ah yes, video games! Well, I should say that I still don't consider myself a gamer, but I do now have a console and have spent a good few hours playing Assassin's Creed Origins, and I have Valhalla and Odyssey now, too, although I haven't had much chance to play those yet. The story is that around summertime last year (2020), I was finishing up some work on a children's book and needed to provide the illustrator and designer with some ideas as to how ancient Alexandria would have looked. I was looking for some reconstruction drawings made by a French artist well-known in archaeology for such things. But a Google search turned up loads of images from this video game Assassins Creed, and they looked amazing! I'm not a gamer, but I've always been interested in tech and virtual worlds and wanted to play the game.
I'm a Mac user and wanted to know if there was a way I could get it - I asked Twitter, and someone I knew a little through Egyptology but didn't know was also an avid gamer - Gemma Renshaw - offered to show me around the game via a remote connection. Another friend of mine, Dr Kate Sheppard of Missouri University of Science and Technology, asked if she could join too, and so the three of us romped round some of the sites in the game, and Kate and I were blown away.
The three of us decided this might be something worth sharing with an audience - this was the time when thanks to COVID, everyone was stuck at home, and online lectures etc., were booming. So a few weeks later, we gave a virtual tour for non-gamers to see how ancient Egypt was recreated in the game. Following that, Gemma got some funding from the University of Southampton, where she's doing a PhD to run a further series of virtual tours with invited experts along with Kate and me. The 'Playing in the Past' project was born. Thanks to a friend of mine who works in PR, the project was reported in the gamer press, and eventually, Ubisoft, who made the game, took an interest which was a great moment!
In my view, Assassins, Creed Origins does an incredible job of recreating ancient Egypt. The natural landscape, the buildings, the people and the animals feel 'right' for the period in which the game is set - the end of the Ptolemaic. It can't be 100% accurate - we don't have all the info we'd need for that, and certain concessions have to be made to make the game playable - but other than that, it's about as good as it could be, I think. And the graphics make for an incredibly immersive experience, much more so than you could achieve in any other medium. I got so enthusiastic about it that I eventually bought an Xbox to play Assassins Creed! I have since bought some other games, too, so it's almost converted me into a gamer but not quite.
I'm a huge fan, though anyway - as someone whose entire working life is devoted to sharing knowledge/teaching in some sense about the ancient world. I firmly believe we need to embrace all media to try and reach people. People like me might be more familiar with old school stuff like writing books or giving lectures, and those are still highly effective, but there's no point in trying to pretend we're going to reach everyone who might be interested in ancient Egypt in those ways. There are a lot of gamers out there, and Assassins Creed gives Egyptology the possibility of reaching some of them too.
Hi Chris Naunton. Thank you for being here! I've always been curious about Egyptian history and mythology. Are there any resources you'd recommend for someone wanting to start learning about it? Also, have you ever found a fiction book that reflected well enough Egyptian history?
Mónica Freitas Hi Monica! For Egyptian history, you could try The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson or The Story of Egypt by Joann Fletcher. For mythology, try The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt by Richard Wilkinson or Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt by Geraldine Pinch. You might find some of these a little bit dry/technical. I'm biased, but my book Searching for the Lost tombs of Egypt was written as something anyone with an interest could pick up and read cover-to-cover, and it deals with history and myths as the background to the search for tombs. There are also lectures on, and guides to, specific subjects on my website, here: https://chrisnaunton.com/recorded-talks-online/ Hope this helps!
Hi, Chris Naunton. That's a wrap on this AMA; thank you for your time answering our questions. It has been a pleasure to have you on. Do you have any closing remarks or anything you want to promote, such as social media channels?
Well, thanks again for the invitation! It's been seeing all the questions, and I've enjoyed answering them. If I haven't already plugged my stuff enough(!), if anyone wants to know more about what I do, my website is whttp://www.chrisnaunton.com, and I try to post details of most of the main things I'm involved in social media. Hope to catch up with everyone somewhere in cyberspace!
Thank you, Chris Naunton, amazing to have you. All these threads and convos on this slack channel are always available if you want to chat with other experts. Thanks again 😄