Somehow, she transported us to a balmy summer night down the Nile river in the middle of a pandemic. Our latest virtual fireside chat brought us to Dr. Colleen Darnell, a time-travelling 1920s fashionista and groundbreaking Egyptologist, who we’ve long admired here at Messy Nessy Chic. You might compare her to female “Indiana Jones” or an F. Scott Fitzgerald leading lady armed with a spade (who else could rock such a sleek bob haircut on the excavation site?), but that wouldn’t be do enough justice for this passionate educator and storyteller who uses her platform to capture the hearts and imaginations of those outside of academia with such poise and style. Helping us momentarily escape reality with her stories from ancient Egypt, we asked Dr. Colleen Darnell, aka The Vintage Egyptologist, some of our burning questions, such as: are there really boobie traps in the tombs? Could there be another Tutankhamen-level discovery in our lifetime?
If you missed this Live Q&A, you can re-watch all the wonderful moments from the full Keyholder video event here in the Keyholder Vault. In the meantime we’ve transcribed some of the best questions below to whet your appetite…
Messy Nessy Chic: Welcome! I’ve been following you for quite a few years. You just launched a YouTube channel as well with your husband (also an Egyptologist) right?
Dr. Colleen Darnell: Thank you for having me, it’s such a great opportunity to answer questions and talk a little bit more about what we do. Yes, we have launched a YouTube channel! The first video is about cat humour in ancient Egypt, and our next one is soon to follow.
MNC: Can we start with what is the difference between an Archaeologist and an Egyptologist ?
CD: So, Archaeology is more general excavating the past. Even within archaeology, there’s urban archaeology, or “epigraphy” where you study inscriptions. We do a lot of that, and Egyptology tends to be the field of someone studying the ancient hieroglyphic and hieratic texts. I like to participate in both.
MNC: How often do you travel to Egypt for your work? How long, and where do you stay?
CD: I travel to Egypt a couple times a year. We work out of an expedition house in Elkab which is about two hours south of Luxor on the East Bank of the Nile. It’s a historic home built in 1908 by a British architect and Egyptologist. It’s just this remarkable, magical setting. My husband John Darnell directs the expedition, the Elkab Desert Survey Project.
MNC Audience Member: At what age did you find yourself becoming interested in Egyptology?
CD: I wanted to be an Egyptologist since I was about 5-years-old. I continue to rediscover and come back to it, with new motivations. That makes it really awesome – this constant rediscovery of new aspects, new ways of approaching the topic, and engaging with an audience besides just academia.
MNC: What’s a day in the life of your work?
CD: Sometimes it’s excavating, sometimes it’s epigraphic work. A lot of it depends on the season. We have to work around our academic schedules. That can mean working in May and June when it is quite warm. That means super early wake-up times; you’re eating breakfast around 5:00 am and heading out to the site [to work], whether it’s clearing a Late Roman building, something between 400 and 600 CE, or copying rock art.
MNC: What do you think is the likelihood of finding another Tutankhamen in our lifetime?
CD: Honestly, fairly low. That’s always a difficult position to take. I think the reason it’s unlikely is because so many kings are accounted for, and there are a couple tombs at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty that still have yet to be found. But there’s no reason to necessarily think that they would be intact.
MNC: In 2017, I read about something called the “The Big Void” being discovered in the Great Pyramid of Giza. It claimed it was basically a big 100-ft long, empty room with no points of entry, which made me wonder – how much of the Indiana Jones-y, Hollywood boobie trap stuff can be believe in regard to these sites?
DC: So, nothing [that’s] Indian Jones-style boobie traps [laughs]. There were very large stones that lead up to the Grand Gallery in the Great Pyramid. And even if the Void is there, it would be as a relieving chamber like over the burial chamber in the Great Pyramid. If it exists, it would not be something that originally held objects the way the so-called Queens Chamber was – which was not where the Queen was buried, by the way!
MNC: Are the tombs in Indiana Jones referencing anything real in particular?
CD: There are these amazing tombs at Tanis, which were the basis of the excavations that you see in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). All of that is replicating this amazing discovery in 1939 of in-tact royal tombs at Tanis – a discovery that was completely overshadowed by WWII.
MNC Audience Member: What sort of things were royals buried with? Why?
CD: One of the things I love about Ancient Egypt, is that their sense of morality is remarkably similar to our own. They had to have something called the confession of innocence, essentially, saying that they haven’t killed, stolen, cheated on their taxes [smiles] – all of these things. They emphasize their complete belief in, essentially, a heaven and hell.
MNC Audience Member: How did you make it to heaven?
CD: One had to pass the test of the weighing of the heart, which is when the heart balances with the feather of Maʽat, the “feather of truth.” If you pass that test, you’ve led a moral life. You get to go on into immortality in a blessed existence. If you fail, your heart gets eaten by a creature that is part crocodile, part lion, and part hippopotamus – and her name is Ammit, or, “she who swallows.”
All of the objects in the tombs are a combination of things that would be appropriate for the rituals that would take place in the afterlife, as well as things that you owned in your own life. For example, Tutankahmen also had a lock of his grandmother’s hair. I think that’s such a tender little detail.
MNC Audience Member: One Victorian Era hobby was mummy unwrapping parties. Why were they so fascinated by Egyptology?
CD: There’s both this sense of Victorian curiosity, and interest in the exotic. Unfortunately, with [some excavators’] interests as well as with many other people in the Victorian Era, [they] were doing it because of misguided, ‘racial science’ of the period. It was not purely a good or wholesome interest in the ancient Egyptians; there also were undercurrents that we can see from other aspects of 19th century investigations of the past and other people.
MNC Audience Member: When I visited Egypt, I noticed ancient graffiti, if you will – what’re some of your favourites?
CD: Ancient Egyptian “graffiti” – I’m using air quotes for this [laughs], because they did not see it always as a desecration – is fascinating. Often, it was a way of interacting with earlier monuments; along desert roads, rock inscriptions or graffiti [would be a way letting people know they travelled along those same roads]. Even graffiti on temple walls in Egypt are often more properly called “votive surcharging,” because they are votive inscriptions, in a way, and that were intended to be there.
MNC: Can you literally speak – what’s in called, that ancient Egyptian language…Coptic?
CD: Well you can read Coptic very well, because unlike with hieroglyphs it’s written with vowels. It is a liturgical language, even today, much like Latin in the Catholic Church. So Coptic, because it is written with Greek letters, we can essentially pronounce it. That’s a fun means of reconstructing how ancient Egyptians would’ve sounded.
MNC Audience Member: I checked out your Instagram page, and I was absolutely stunned by your vintage fashion! How did you get into that? Are they truly vintage?
CD: Thank you so much for those kind compliments! Most everything John and I wear is true vintage. The visual appeal, I think, really does help us promote Egyptology and learning about antiquity. It’s just the way we feel most comfortable dressing. I think it’s an awesome coincidence that the style we most love was one of the heydays of Egyptology, that hugely influenced 1920s fashion.
In fact, for my show-n-tell today, I brought this piece – it hasn’t made it to my Instagram yet, so you’re seeing it first! A velvet Egyptian Revival cape from the 1920s…
MNC: Do you ever go vintage shopping whilst in Egypt?
There is an amazing shop in Cairo called “Nomad” that has quite a lot of really great silver pieces and objects and jewellery made in modern day Egypt, by craftspeople in Upper Egypt in the desert. That’s a great place to pick up pieces with historical significance from the last 50 or 60 years. I think there are one or two vintage shops that have started to open up in Cairo, and I definitely am going to check them out in the future!
MNC Audience Member: Can you tell us more about those incredible Nile cruises you host on the steamship Sudan? Will you hold one in the future?
CD: Absolutely! Obviously, right now is not the time to talk about specifics. But when it is again possible, it’s going to be one of the first things we do. We start off in Luxor at Sofitel Winter Palace Hotel, which is hugely historic; that’s where Lord Carnarvon was staying when the tomb of Tutankhamen was being uncovered. Then we sail on The Sudan visiting other Greco-Roman temples and sites along the way. When we get off the ship, we go to the Old Cataract Hotel, which is also where Agatha Christie stayed.
MNC: It was likely the steamship Agatha Christie was on when she wrote Death on the Nile, right?
CD: Absolutely, it’s more [like] time-travelling than any other experience we’ve had. You step onto that deck, and you’re stepping back to 1920.
MNC Audience Member: Do findings from excavations today remain in the countries in which they’re found?
CD: So since 1970, all objects that are excavated in Egypt remain in the country. Anything excavated now, in Egypt, stays in store rooms that can then be accessed and objects can be studied. It’s a really well organized system.
MNC Audience Member: Is there a museum you particularly applauded for its presentation?
CD: The Metropolitan Museum of Art has always been one of my favourites. There’s this room that almost no one goes in, I would argue it’s one of their least visited spaces, and it is mostly filled with broken pot shards. Those are actually broken wine amphorae from a giant celebration from the reign of Amenhotep III. That one broken pot shard [can] tell us more in terms of its text, because it has the date of the vintage, the vintner, and location of the vineyard, than, say, a beautiful faience statue of Amenhotep III.
MNC Audience Member: What’s the most ancient object you have at home?
CD: Well, above me is a modern cast from a gateway from 1845 that is an Egyptian cemetery gate in New Haven, Connecticut. So that’s pretty exciting. Most of the furniture in our house is from the late-1600s to about 1850.
Actually, [that brings me to] one more show-n-tell piece [pulls out a statue]. The full scale replica is in the Peabody Museum. This is one of the very few Medieval instances of Egyptomania! Obviously much smaller than the original, but it’s a sphinx from the late 12th century.
We also have a book from 1806 – which we included the Echoes of Egypt exhibit we curated – and it’s a translation of a book by an Iraqi scholar writing around probably the year 1,000 CE and the “alphabets” he attempted to translate were hieroglyphs. So this was really the first attempt to translate hieroglyphs, 800 years before [Jean-François] Champollion. That, again, is just one of these stories you really don’t hear. Egyptology: The Missing Millennium : Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writingsis a must-read for people who want to learn about unexplored aspects of Egyptology.
MNC: I’m so surprised to know that there was Egyptomania in Medieval times!
CD: It’s very rare. This one’s actually signed. It’s on the Echoes of Egypt Exhibit page. It’s possible the artist didn’t realise it was ancient Egyptian, specifically, but just that it was ancient.
MNC: How are you keeping yourself entertained during the lockdowns?
CD: Shanghai Mermaid, which is one of our favourite vintage parties in New York, is hosting a virtual party called “A Night on the Nile.” John and I have been doing some filming for that, so we will be a part of imagining it’s February, 1923 in Luxor, Egypt, live on YouTube. If you want to participate, there will be breaks in-between the entertainment with some really great performers. That will be by Zoom. You can wear vintage pyjamas, get dressed up – it’ll be a great excuse to pretend you’re going out, although it’s all virtual. Hope to see you there!
MNC: Well Dr. Darnell, it looks like we’ve already run out the clock – this has been so fascinating. Thank you so much for expanding our brains today!
Before you go can you recommend some of your favourite books and movies about your world?
CD: Of course!
- Agatha Christie has a novel set in ancient Egypt called Death Comes as the End (1944). It’s pretty short, you could read it probably all in one sitting. But it is remarkable, because Agatha Christie was married to an archeologist, Sir Max Mallowan, who worked in Mesopotamia. They actually met at a dig site, I’m pretty sure. That novel is so archeologically attuned. She quotes ancient Egyptian literature, she basis some of the characters off of a set of Middle Kingdom letters from roughly 2,000 BCE that are in the MET. She incorporated those letters into her novel before they were even published in Egyptological books! Her husband knew the man who was doing the translations, so…[winks]. They’re incredible letters. Very snarky. A lot of the intrigue in the actual letters – not the novel – is [about a remarriage]. It’s really neat. She captures a lot of that in her novel.
- My husband John and I have been watching quite lot of Agatha Christie’s Poirot lately!
- I also wanted to give a big shout-out to Jodi Picoult, her new novel is coming out in September, 2020, called The Book of Two Ways – I got to help her with her research. She came to Egypt with me in 2018 for an incredible 10 day trip around different sites for her novel, which is set in modern times but does follow an Egyptologists. That’s available for preorder!
- In 2013, I published a book called Imagining the Past, and what I loved about that book, is that it was an examination of ancient Egyptian historical fiction. Not modern novels set in ancient Egypt, but the ancient Egyptians writing stories set 100 or 200 years in the past.
- Most of the work I’ve done on Egyptian religious texts are actually from the New Kingdom. John and I published a book in 2018 that was the first single-volume English translation of the hieroglyphic texts in the Valley of the Kings called The Netherworld Books and, spoiler, that’s going to be the topic of our next YouTube episode on May 1st!