Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Egyptology, archaeology, what's the diff?

A topic on the EEF lists has been on ethics of Egytpologists, with a subthread of what the difference between Egyptologists and archaeologists is. FWIW, I think they're two separate fields that overlap, not unlike that between zoologists and archaeozoologists.

When fresh-faced undergrads (or high schoolers) as me "ArchaeoBlog, what do I need to do to become an Egyptologist?" my first question back is to ask if they really want to be an "Egyptologist" or an "archaeologist who works in Egypt". The stock answer is that Egyptologists are largely art historians/philologists who sometimes, but not necessarily always, use some archaeological techniques to obtain data. Archaeologists, conversely, sometimes but not necessarily always, use some analysis gleaned from Egyptological studies to further their archaeological aims.

Generally, I think, Egyptologists tend to go through Classics departments while archaeologists go through the archaeology departments. I suppose one could start all sorts of arguments here, but you can probably throw out a few generalities as well:

-- Egytpologists tend to excavate tombs and temples; archaeologists go after settlements
-- Egyptologists use archaeological data to enhance their text/epigraphic interpretations, while archaeologists use text/epigraphic sources to enhance their archaeological interpretations
-- Archaeologists have different problem sets that range across civilizations worldwide, where Egytpologists concentrate more closely on the Middle/Near East.

Of course, a dozen Egyptologists right now could spend 25 pages debating those, but I'll stick with the general propositions.

It's been my experience that, at least among American archaeologists, and definitely among Americanist archaeologists, that Egyptologists and those archaeologists working in Egypt are sorta inferior, methodologically and theoretically. I would argue it's probably a result of the whole New Archaeology fascination with Science and the hypothetico-deductive method. They're probably right, in a way, that Egyptian archaeology is less methodologically developed and rigorous than that in North America. Much of that is historical; Egypt had abundant textual material that set up a good Egyptian chronology long before that of much of North America was established, and it was far easier to do, at least in the sense of requiring unintuitive methodologies (though see Predynastic Egypt). Egypt had king lists and tombs and temples and loads of inscriptions that structured the record while North American archaeologists had to develop chronologies using a combination of stratified sites and fairly sophisticated seriation techniques. And, not having any epigraphic data to interpret what they found in any sort of commonsense way, NA archaeologists have had to develop other methods of interpreting the rocks and stones and sticks and bones they found.

I know that the professor that directed my first project in Egypt had some struggles with other faculty members justifying the "seriousness" of the work there. The automatic response of NA people to anyone working in Egypt is sort of a mixture of envy and disdain. "Wow, Egypt, that sounds so exciting. But you're just digging up cool stuff, while we're doing Significant Archaeological Work." Certainly, there are many who work in Egypt who found our anal retentiveness on sampling, stratigraphic techniques, and general proclivity toward recovering boring old sherds, sherds, and more sherds pretty, well, boring as snot. But then, people start talking about temple architecture and I'm asleep.

And yes, I still look with some suspicion on anyone who works in Egypt wearing khaki field coats and pith helmets. AND THERE ARE MANY.

But, eh, kind of a rambling post, but there it is. I could actually yak about this for hours. I shall spare you that.