Being undisciplined

Given that ‘write blog’ has been on my to-do list for more than two months, not keeping up with my to-do list is clearly one way in which I’ve been undisciplined of late. That and descaling my kettle – which is steaming away with some distilled vinegar inside it as I (finally) write this post.

But there’s another way in which I feel undisciplined: having taken three university degrees in archaeology and Egyptology, it’s been a long time since I felt confident or comfortable describing myself as either an archaeologist or an Egyptologist. Sometimes, those do feel like the most apt designations of where I sit in terms of having an academic discipline. Other times, I feel more like a historian or an art historian. After all, I do work and teach in an art history department, and I have spent most of my life looking at, thinking about, talking about, and writing about the past and what survives of it in the present.

One of the many satisfying things about working on the history of photography the past few years has been discovering that many other academics in this field also feel undisciplined. We are employed at, or studying in, a whole range of archives, museums, and research institutes. Many of us are based in university departments designated as history of science, art history, or just plain history, not to mention departments of archaeology, anthropology, Classics, or film and media studies. At conferences, thrilled to find someone else in the world who cares about the colour of 20th-century photograph mounts, we cluster at coffee breaks asking each other not just ‘what do you do?’ but ‘what are you?’ and ‘where are you?’ – as if the rest of the time, we were goslings in a world of ducks.

Nothing wrong with ducks, of course. But it takes a certain kind of perseverance – or stubbornness – to follow an academic path less travelled, for all that the academic world has been talking about ‘inter-disciplinarity’ for a long as I’ve been part of it. Two things happened this past week that reminded me, once again, that much of my current and recent research seems alien, inappropriate, or simply irrelevant to the archaeologists and Egyptologists whom I still think of as my colleagues and my audience. Updating one colleague on my forthcoming Photographing Tutankhamun book inspired her to caution me, ‘Of course, you have to remember that they are archaeological photographs’. It’s not the first time I’ve heard something like that from an Egyptologist – the implication being, I think, that no other critique or consideration of the photographs is possible except as ‘scientific evidence’. Nonetheless, my book spends 100,000 words or so exploring all the other meanings and roles that photography had in archaeology – and I certainly hope that most Egyptologists will read it.

A couple of days later, during a conversation about approaches to teaching, another colleague told me that the history of archaeology isn’t archaeology. Archaeology is method, to this colleague’s mind, and students of archaeology first and foremost need to learn field practices and technical analyses. Then interpretation. Then, maybe on the side, some of the history of archaeological thought. ‘But that’s not archaeology’, this colleague emphasized. Since my own research and teaching argues that you can’t operate in a self-aware and effective way within a discipline unless you understand why it does the things it does, or doesn’t, do, we had reached an impasse. I was outside of archaeology, to her mind. A gosling waddling between neatly squared trenches.

After that conversation, I tried to remember my first classes as an archaeology undergraduate at Brown University. There was a field techniques class in the second semester of my first year, it’s true. Sandbox archaeology, we called it. It’s where I met my first boyfriend. I can use a trowel and a plumb bob, draw a trench section, and even just about draw pottery. But before we were allowed to do field techniques, we had to take a class that introduced us to archaeology through key sites, thinkers, and themes. It wasn’t a critical or theoretical class, not at all, and I would not read or think about the history of archaeology, colonialism, and the Middle East until I picked up an Edward Said book as a graduate student, plucking it from a table for the cover, the price, and the fact that it was in English when I was travelling in Egypt and had run out of Henry James.

More than field techniques and field experience (I have washed my share of potsherds), it was that general ‘introduction to archaeology’ class at Brown that started to give me some sense of being an archaeologist and thinking like an archaeologist. I then became an Egyptologist by virtue of studying hieroglyphs, a core requirement of my master’s degree. By the time I started my doctorate, I had abandoned archaeology and Near Eastern Studies departments to spend time in an art history department, which suited my interests better in many ways – but confused my identity even more. In the end, and with apologies to Edward Said, I wound up with a doctorate in Oriental Studies because it was the closest I could come to studying the art and artefacts that I wanted to study.

For more than ten years now, I’ve been the only Egyptologist employed by an art history department in the United Kingdom – a department that decided more than twenty years ago that archaeology and anthropology were essential complements to more traditional, Western art-based approaches to visual and material culture. It’s been a good fit for me, or at least as good a fit as any. But I’m still not sure what to call myself – nor, I think, are many of my colleagues.

Hence the relief at finding birds of a similar feather in the field of photographic history. The more work I do on the history of archaeology and Egyptology, however, the more convinced I am that it is deeply, even urgently, relevant to the practice of archaeology and Egyptology today. At a photography conference last year, I sat at dinner next to one of my heroes, an art historian who works on representations of the Middle East and the Mediterranean in 19th-century images and thought. Why shouldn’t an art historian work on the history of photography, he said – and why shouldn’t I, an Egyptologist, be able to be an Egyptologist while working on material so foundational to the field as the Tutankhamun excavation photographs? Why indeed.

We’re not the ones who need to change, was his point. It’s the ducks. I think I can quack to that.