Egyptology and Egyptologists
by Jimmy Dunn
The first thing to realize about Egyptology and Egyptologists is that, while Egyptologists almost exclusively work in the field of Egyptology, so do others. The science of Egyptology is not exclusive toEgyptologists, because there are other professions that are needed in the study of ancient Egypt.
Interestingly, Egyptology is rarely defined in any detail. Most books do not go into any real detail of this science, and even when one visits the web site of major colleges that offer degrees in it, they rarely define the science. Its easy to say that Egyptology is the study of ancient Egypt, but that is a rather broad definition that really does not correctly define the profession. For example, Egyptology does not really encompass the study of Egypt before the existence of mankind, and usually does not attempt to study Egypt prior to about 5,000 BC, nor is it interested in the period of time after the Arab conquest.
However, between these periods, Egyptology covers a very wide and diverse range of studies. Egyptology investigates the range of ancient Egyptian culture, including the people, language, literature, history, religion, art, economics and architecture. Egyptology is basically a history
focused science that evaluates ancient Egypt through the writings that are left behind in whatever form, its artwork and archaeological discovery. From an historical standpoint, it continues to use the chronological framework provided initially by Manetho, an Egyptian priest living during the time of Ptolemy I and II, who wrote a history of Egypt. It is therefore not surprising that other professionals do sometimes become involved in Egyptology, even though they are not Egyptologists. A very good example might be the technicians that are currently performing CAT scans on mummies.
Archaeologists are particularly involved in Egyptology, though Egyptologists are also trained in and do archaeological work. It has been said that Egyptology lies firmly between the sciences of history and archaeology, but that is rather one sided, because there are so many other sciences that play a part in Egyptology. However, archaeologists are particularly involved in periods prior to the actual dynastic period. Many others, from architects to anthropologists, also work in the field of Egyptology, in one way or another. Furthermore, it might be said that most of the Egyptological work, and Egyptologists themselves, usually do not work specifically in Egypt. While field expeditions are a rather visible and sometimes glamorous part of Egyptology (though it also comes with a great deal of hardships), probably much more work is carried out on the findings back at universities and museums outside of Egypt, though of course Egypt has some fine schools and one of the most important ancient Egyptian museums in the world.
One frequently finds terms such as "amateur" invoked along with Egyptologist. Basically, that is because many people enjoy studying Egyptology, and even doing research on it, but they lack a formal education in the topic and they do not earn their living studying the science. Egyptologists are, in some respects, not unlike photographers, technically. If one makes their living studying ancient Egypt, then they are a professional Egyptologist, irregardless of their educational background. Unlike lawyers or doctors, a license involving a specific education, is not absolutely required.
However, in practice, this is a wholly different matter. Without a formal education in Egyptology, most of those who might wish to make a living at Egyptology lack both the formal historical education and various skills, such as reading hieroglyphics. Furthermore, Egyptology is not a profession that can usually be practiced independently, such as photography. One must usually draw a paycheck from a museum, university or other organization that will require a formal education in the field. And unlike many years ago, when one only needed some financing to go treasure hunting in Egypt, today the SCA (Supreme Council of Antiquities) limits excavation to recognized organizations which are mostly museums and universities.
On the other hand, not all people with a formal education in Egyptology actually end up being Egyptologists. Outside of Egypt, there are few schools that offer an undergraduate degree specifically in Egyptology, but in Egypt, many young people can and do receive an undergraduate degree in Egyptology. Those that do not continue their education sometimes find no work in the field, and so while they may call themselves Egyptologists, they do not earn a living as professionals. Others do find jobs as tour guides, but they earn their living in this way rather than in the actual study of and research in Egyptology.
In reality, almost all of the Egyptologists who do important work in the field have advanced degrees, and usually doctorates earned from very specific schools. Formal students of Egyptology usually begin with related undergraduate degrees, such as history or archaeology, though a number of schools offer Egyptology "modules" as a part of the undergraduate work, and some offer actual undergraduate degrees in Egyptology. Interestingly, some excellent schools, particularly outside the US, offer advanced degrees without actually having to have an undergraduate degree.
Many of the universities that teach Egyptology have very diverse programs and specializations, as well as very different approaches to education in general. For example, undergraduate studies in Egyptology in American schools are frequently much less specific to Egyptology than in some other countries, where the focus is almost strictly on Egyptology without the addition of more generalized courses.
However, most schools, by the graduate levels, provide courses that are somewhat similar in scope. Languages is always an important part of the studies, including not only the study of hieroglyphics in general, but various courses on specific phases of the language, such as Hieratics, and even Coptic. Many courses cover Egyptian history, with various courses aimed at specific periods. Art is also one of the primary focuses along with religious and cultural courses. Many generalized programs also provide specific courses on archaeology and methods of field work, though some programs branch out with specialties that may or may not include much archaeological study.
Those who graduate with an advanced degree in Egyptology will usually have a relatively limited scope of available jobs in Egyptology. Today, very few Egyptologists are really well known. Most work more behind the scenes in museums or universities, and it is frankly rather rare that they get the opportunity to actually do field work in Egypt. In fact, fresh graduates do not often even have the chance to assist in excavations, because this work is often performed by a more seasoned project director who uses students as assistants. In fact, only a very few "superstars" get to work in the field all of the time. Most of the remainder of the Egyptologists doing field work in Egypt do so only during a "digging season" and then return to a university to teach. Many of them must also secure their own financing through contributions in order to do the work.
In reality, few graduates in Egyptology ever find work in the field. There is no expanding job market, and one must typically wait for someone to retire in order to find a position. Those that finally do find a job usually work as teachers, or in some research capacity within a museum, and with perhaps one or two exceptions, even the best of them never become wealthy. This is why fathers and even Egyptology professors often warn young students away from the field.
Not that there is a lack of work to be one in the field of Egyptology. There is in fact much left to be learned, and much to be studied, but little money available to pay for it. So today, Egyptologists grind along, usually covered up with actual Egyptological work mixed in with teaching assignments and even fund raising responsibilities. For many that do get jobs, it is a difficult life, but they do it anyway because of their love of ancient Egypt.
- Our Page on Well known Egyptology from the Past and Today
- Our Directory on the Discovery of Ancient Egypt
Last Updated: June 12th, 2011