By news editor, on 30 January 2012
In his inaugural lecture as Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology, Stephen Quirke – who is also Curator of UCL’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology – delivered a radical and highly personal vision of the future of Egyptology.
Invoking Walter Benjamin in On the Concept of History, Professor Quirke explained to a full auditorium how the collection, for him, is a problematic legacy of foreign (and often unwelcome) intervention in Egypt’s cultural past: an assemblage of unstable “monads”, overflowing with tensions and “waiting to explode”.
The talk began with the Arab Spring, moving back through the history of Egyptian archaeology, viewed not just from the standpoint of European scholars and explorers, but also through the eyes of Egyptian observers such as Al-Jabarti.
It ended at the recently established cultural village of New Hermopolis, devoted to the revitalisation of Middle Egypt through alternative forms of tourism and education.
There was also a vote of thanks from Dr Ayman El-Desouky of SOAS, who acknowledged Stephen’s quiet but fundamental role in the establishment of their Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies: a ‘hidden hand’, evoking the title of Stephen’s own (2010) book, which uses the archives of Flinders Petrie’s excavations to bring to light the biographies of those Egyptian archaeologists who have been largely written out of the subject’s history.
El-Desouky spoke of Stephen’s radical scholarship, grounded in an uncanny ability to discern the silences and absences that frame orthodox knowledge, such as the muting of Arabic and African languages as sources for understanding ancient Egyptian texts and material culture.
There was, however, no trace of polemic in Professor Quirke’s lecture. It was delivered with a characteristic gentleness and modesty that has endeared him to colleagues, students and to an international public, not least in Egypt itself.
In marking his elevation to the Edwards Professorship, Stephen chose to largely set aside his own remarkable track-record of Egyptological scholarship – including some 18 monographs and 40 academic papers – preferring instead to destabilise our assumptions about what constitutes Egyptological knowledge, and to confront us with the prospect of a new and less strident Egyptology, written from the margins rather than the centres of power.
Prof Quirke’s lecture is one of a series of 75th anniversary inaugural lectures being held in 2012 to mark the Institute’s 75 years leading global archaeology. Further details of all anniversary events are available on the Institute’s dedicated 75th anniversary webpages
David Wengrow is Professor of Comparative Archaeology at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. His research interests include early state formation, cognitive and evolutionary approaches to culture and prehistoric art and aesthetics.