Checking in from Prague: Current Research in Egyptology

Nile Scribes made it to Prague this week to attend the 2018 Current Research in Egyptology conference. Held in the “Golden City” this year, the conference attracts graduate students in Egyptology and related fields as well as early career researchers from mainland Europe and around the world. What began as a post-graduate conference in the UK in the early 2000s expanded outside the island in 2010, when it was hosted in Leiden. This year’s conference took place at the prestigious Charles University

Overlooking the Vltava River from the well-known Charles Bridge
Overlooking the Vltava River from the well-known Charles Bridge

CRE 2018 at Prague’s prestigious Charles University

Charles University is located in the heart of downtown Prague and the conference was held in two buildings there. Each morning began with a keynote, which was held in the Faculty of Arts building close to the river. Afterward, we moved over to the Czech Institute of Egyptology, which is about a 15 minute walk. The variety and diversity of topics was quickly apparent to me when I took a look at the programme – I eagerly looked forward to meeting other Egyptology graduate students from outside the globe. The setting, while more welcoming to students than professional Egyptology conferences, was still filled with aspiring and skilled professionals – after all, CRE is an arena to improve your craft and prepare for the next step in your career. The welcome we received on Day 1 was warm and gentle – reminding all attendees that we are here to learn.

Dr. Miroslav Bartá opens the conference with an official welcome
Dr. Miroslav Bartá opens the conference with an official welcome

Day 1

The opening keynote was given by Prof. Miroslav Bartá, who spoke to us on his work on analysing Prehistoric rock art from his mission at Gilf Kebir and other nearby locales. He attempted to trace later Egyptian icons (e.g. the well-known smiting scenes) to their much earlier forerunners and some of the examples he showed seemed to make that point quite well. He also convincingly argued that the origins of many of these major elements ought to be found within Egypt and Africa itself – something that scholarship is only slowly beginning to embrace.

After the keynote, the congregation moved over to the Institute, where three concurrent sessions were organised. I was “lucky” to be the among the speakers of the first session, and I presented an aspect of my doctoral research on the current work that is being done to determine possible sources of lapis-lazuli. It was a friendly audience – they were very engaged and I was asked excellent (but tough) questions. In a subsequent talk, Perrine Poiron spoke to us about her doctoral research and traced the development (and eventual importance) of the title “son of Bastet” within the context of Twenty-Second Dynasty royal ideology.

Vincent Oeters speaks about the discovery of the stela of Tatia
Vincent Oeters speaks about the discovery of the stela of Tatia

One of the last talks that day took us to Saqqara, where Vincent Oeters spoke to us about discoveries made by the mission, of which he was part. They had found a large stela belonging to an official named Tatia – a large chunk on the top right was missing. He explained that they have found many stela fragments over the few seasons prior and were then lucky to match the missing chunk to the stela. The stela itself was discovered to fit perfectly within an empty spot within Tatia’s chapel – what a discovery! Vincent Oeters then looked deeper into the family tree of Tatia and surmised that he most likely is the brother of the famous vizier, Paser, who was active during the reigns of Sety I and Ramesses II.

Dr. Peter Jánosi explains his thoughts on Middle Kingdom art history
Dr. Peter Jánosi explains his thoughts on Middle Kingdom art history

Key Issues in Middle Kingdom Art History

Another keynote finished the evening: a personal look into the nature of art from the Middle Kingdom. Dr. Peter Jánosi from the University of Vienna began his talk with a brief overview of the transition from the First Intermediate Period to the Middle Kingdom and then focussed on some of the most wonderful pieces to survive from the period. In particular, the well-known statue of Mentuhotep II, who is always described as dressed in Osireian fashion, earned much of his attention. He asked: what makes us identify this dress of Mentuhotep II as Osireian, a god who is never shown with either the red or white crown? The speaker urged all of us to pay closer attention to what we look at, to consult earlier photographs to see up and close – always questions, always be critical. He warned us:

“Don’t believe what’s written in the books… They’re not always right!”

In another instance, which has stayed with me, he responded to a question about what was on top of Mentuhotep II’s mortuary temple: “Is it really important to reconstruct what was on top of Mentuhotep II’s Mortuary Temple?” After all, he said, there are more important issues!

Day 2

The next morning started off with a brief overview of the extensive site of Abu Sir just north of Saqqara, where the Czech Institute of Egyptology has actively been conducting fieldwork over the past few decades. While the site is well-known for its Old Kingdom burials, recent work has unearthed a temple dated to the reign of Ramesses II. However, Dr. Hana Vymazalová spent her time in elaborating on royal cults that were documented partly in the Abu Sir Papyrus Archives. Quite a few presentations from students from the Institute focussed on topics to do with the Old Kingdom, from an analysis of burial patterns to solar boats.

Thomas with some Canadian students from Québécois and French universities (f.l.t.r.: Samuel Dupras, Perrine Poiron, Cloé Caron, Thomas)
Thomas with some Canadian students from Québécois and French universities (Samuel Dupras, Perrine Poiron, Cloé Caron, Thomas H. Greiner) 

Cloé Caron from the Université du Québéc au Montréal/Montpellier examined the cosmological concept of Nu and highlighted in particular her “dreadful concept.” She found that it actually embodies two forces: a dreadful force on the one side (antagonistic), and a desirable on the other. The Nu encloses an area of liminal transition between the world of the mundane and the sacred. Vera Michel then from the Universität zu Wien examined many of the deposits and deposition pits found across area R/III at Tell el-Dab’a. Miniature vessels were commonly found and she evaluated their use within ritual contexts – were these part of any household cults?

Vera Michel highlights the use of miniature vessels within area R/III at Tell el-Dab'a
Vera Michel highlights the use of miniature vessels within area R/III at Tell el-Dab’a

One of the last talks of the afternoon was given by Marissa Stevens from the University of California at Los Angeles. For her talk, we explored the Twenty-First Dynasty and her catalogue of over 500 funerary papyri to examine the nature of titles belonging to temple staff. A highlight here was her discussion of the differences in status evident in the decoration and texts of these papyri, but also her excellent insight into the choices made by the deceased in what was represented in their papyrus. For example, men often competed against using their titles for benefit, whereas women would compete with each other to earn status based upon the inclusion of rare content in their papyri. What was further intriguing was that the higher-status elite did not compete in this arena nearly as much as those of lower status did.

Marissa Stevens elucidates the nature of priestly titles in Twenty-First Dynasty Thebes
Marissa Stevens elucidates the nature of priestly titles in Twenty-First Dynasty Thebes

The evening’s last keynote by Dr. Jana Mynářová unravelled the importance of textiles within the international correspondence between Egypt and her neighbours throughout the New Kingdom. While Egyptian textiles seem to not have been desired by their counterparts in the Mesopotamian region, they would actually become an important element in trade with the Aegean world, including Arzawa in Western Anatolya.

A delicious dinner awaited us at Mistral Café
A delicious dinner awaited us at Mistral Café

Following the keynote was the official CRE conference dinner, which took place at Mistral Café near the Faculty of Arts. While treated to a three-course dinner, I got to speak with colleagues from Australia and Poland about their work and also learned much about university departments and programmes in other parts of the globe. It was good to realise the many different paths and programmes Egyptologists take to make it in our field. In the context of CRE, the benefit was to be in the presence of persons in a similar place as I – it was as encouraging as it was challenging.

We will look to posting a second part to this conference in the near future.

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