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Interview with Joyce Tyldesley

May 3, 2014

On Friday 2 May Joyce Tyldesley held a lecture about Tutankhamen at Chowbent Unitarian Chapel in Atherton.

Joyce is quite well-known to many people and this is not surprising. She is a very busy lady.
She is an archaeologist and Egyptologist. She writes books, the latest one about Tutankhamen. She can be seen on television sometimes. She also has a red belt in karate. And to top it all off, she teaches. This is how I met her. I am one of her online students, currently doing the Certificate in Egyptology via Manchester University.

Joyce Tyldesley
Joyce during her lecture about Tutankhamen
© All Rights Reserved

After the lecture she was kind enough to allow me some time to ask her a few questions.

SJ: What sparked your interest in Egyptology?
JT: I think it was several things, actually. People ask me this a lot and I’m not absolutely sure. I think, first of all, coming from the north west, because we have so many archaeological museums around us and particularly in Egyptology. That always interests me. I think being born at the right time. In 1972, I was 12, Tutankhamen was around. So that also was very inspiring. There was a lot on the television at that time about Tutankhamen and that really interested me. And it was the right age I think to get interested. And I quite like detective stories. I think that is in it as well. It’s just a big detective story, isn’t it? So I think it’s three things, to be honest.

SJ: Do you still find those same things interesting now or has that shifted or expanded?
JT: Tutankhamen is quite unfashionable. Luckily, suddenly in the past year or two he has almost become acceptable, but for a long time people have considered Tutankhamen to be too popular. But I find the whole period so fascinating. I’m interested in the idea that we know the name of somebody and yet know so little about them. And yet they clearly were very important in Egyptian history, but we don’t know that much about them. We are still reconstructing the history.

SJ: Based on the lecture you just gave it occurred to me that we have all this material, but still don’t know much about the items and their use.
JT: Yes. Obviously Carter was very good, he conserved as much as he could, but basically it just ended up in a museum and was almost forgotten about. It has only been relatively recently that we started looking at them again. That painted box that I showed, there’s a whole story behind it. Not even looking at the contents, that’s just the outside. There is just so much information there, it takes years to do that. That’s why I wanted to write a book about it. I wanted to show there is a massive amount of information in there that we could access if someone had the time to go through it.

SJ: Do you have a favourite artefact in a museum? If so, which one and where is it?
JT: I’m quite fond of the bust of Nefertiti, which is in Berlin, but that’s because I keep looking at it. I like the two jars with the bandages of the Two Brothers in the Manchester Museum. I find them quite appealing. But they are not on display.

SJ: What is your favourite site in Egypt?
JT: I spent a lot of time working in the Delta and I really liked that. But increasingly I’d like going to Luxor and look at that environment. And Aswan. And possibly the Deir el-Bahari temple of Hatshepsut. But then again, there’s a whole story there. It’s a really obvious one to pick.

SJ: Because it’s so obvious people gloss over it and don’t realise there is so much we still don’t know?
JT: Exactly! If it wasn’t Tutankhamen people would have been doing more. Now they think there’s nothing there.

SJ: As one of your online students, I have noticed there are a lot of women doing the course. Do you see the same tendency among the professionals?
JT: No. When I started there were very few professional female Egyptologists. Rosalie David is the only example I knew of in Britain. She was pretty much the only one that I knew of. And since then, it has become almost half and half. Among the students there’s a lot more women.

SJ: Would you like to hazard a guess why this is the case? Are more women interested in Egyptology or are men perhaps less likely to pick up a study?
JT: I think it could be that. I think it’s also that women may be more open to doing study. Any lecture I give there will be 3 times as many women as men. I mean, some men are quite elderly and may have lost their partner, but it doesn’t explain why more women study it and professionally it’s only recently that women have become equal. Specifically about Rosalie David being professor, I don’t think there’s anybody else.

SJ: In the late 1700s and early 1800s we had Egyptomania. Do you think that at the moment the interest in ancient Egypt is on the rise again?
JT: I think it’s been raised a lot. It’s all the new discoveries. It’s the fact it’s on the television a lot. Because 30, 40 years ago it was very rare to have a programme about ancient Egypt on television. Beyond the Tutankhamen one there was virtually nothing. So you’d have no access to it. You’d have to go to Egyptologists to find it or do a degree in it to learn it. And it’s about getting access to books. I remember writing my first books, I couldn’t access the books. Even when I was at Liverpool, if it wasn’t in that library there I couldn’t access it. It wasn’t possible to go on to JSTOR and get access to things. There’s so much access to stuff. But in a way it’s good, because a lot of people can access ancient Egypt in their own home. They can go online and read about it. They can watch television. But I have noticed that societies – I do a lot of society work to try and promote the subject – they’re dwindling. People aren’t turning out at night. I wonder also about our online course. Whether the fact that people are starting to do free online courses, whether people will be expecting to be able to get everything for free and in their own home. It possibly requires a different approach.

SJ: Without naming the best or the worst, how do courses in Egyptology at various universities (in the UK and abroad) compare? Can you even compare them on quality and the material they cover?
JT: They are very varied. It depends what you’re interested in. some will focus on period, some will focus on language. It’s hard to compare them. Each one, even in the same country, has to be looked at differently. To say you got a degree in Egyptology almost means nothing unless you know where you got it from. Because it can mean so many different things. Some people only concentrate on the Ptolemies, for example.

SJ: What are your plans or wishes for the future of your career?
JT: I would like to do some field word, because I haven’t done any for a long time; my own field work. But I’m stuck at the moment, because I’m in teaching and learning and I can’t apply for grants. And I’d like to write some fiction about ancient Egypt. I’m always very careful to say ‘this could happen’ because I don’t like it when people put their own impressions into it. But sometimes it would be nice to say what I really think has happened.

SJ: Are you considering completely fictional or strongly based on history? Like Alison Weir who wrote a book about Elizabeth I and in the back of the book explained where she had taken liberties.
JT: I don’t know. I don’t even know if I can write fiction. I’ve never done it. I’m thinking it should be completely fictional. I have read Alison Weir, but not that one. I’m very interested in the idea of using fiction to tell history. That it’s not true, but it’s not wrong either. It’s more or less accurate. The danger is that people will think the character you’ve drawn is the character, but it’s a very useful way of teaching history. You have to make it very clear that it is fiction. That’s my secret ambition, but I don’t mind sharing it.

I would like to thank Joyce for a very interesting lecture and afterwards taking the time to talk to me.


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