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Meet the Egyptian Female Archaeologist Leading Her Own Excavation at Just 27 Years Old

We sit down with young Egyptian archaeologist Nora Shawki who talks gender barriers in the field and leading her first excavation.

Staff Writer

Meet the Egyptian Female Archaeologist Leading Her Own Excavation at Just 27 Years Old

It is always inspiring to see young Egyptians paving the way for future generations in different fields, and even more so when they are young women. Nora Shawki, who has been making waves in the field of archaeology, is set to lead her very first excavation in October this year. Speaking to Cairo Scene, the 27-year-old explains what her experience as an archaeologist in Egypt has been like.

What inspired you to get into archaeology and how old were you when you were first introduced to the field?

I’ve been lucky enough to have been exposed to this world and become enamoured with it at a very young age. I had just moved back to Egypt and started school at CAC. During my first semester of third grade (9 years old), we were required to take an Egypt Culture class. It consisted of an overview of our history and heritage in Egypt, as well as numerous field trips. In the first couple of weeks, we were shown a documentary on Howard Carter and it included a reenactment of the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The moment Carter peered into the keyhole to see what was inside, I was hooked. That moment triggered my fascination with archaeology.

Was your family supportive of your decision to study archaeology?

My family has always supported me to follow my passion in archaeology. They encouraged me to not only follow my dreams and pursue my interest in this discipline, but also supported me emotionally and financially into attaining the highest level of learning in the field. After graduating from high school, I moved to London to continue my studies at SOAS, where I specialised in History of Art and Archaeology for my bachelor’s degree. This exposed me to a larger network of archaeologists in my field in Europe and led me to pursue my master’s in one of the leading archaeology departments at Durham University in the UK. I focused on Egyptian archaeology and my thesis was titled Late Period Egyptian Naoi: An Archaeological Study on Divinity and Legitimacy Through Sacred Shrines. I continued to excavate throughout my academic career in Egypt, which led me to the decision to pursue my doctorate at Cairo University.

What was your first dig? How was the experience?

I began excavating in 2012, during the final year of my bachelor’s degree. I surveyed a site in Borg El Arab, Taposiris Magna. The site was the basis for my BA dissertation. My first excavation was at Tell Timai (Timai el Amdid), a site near Mansoura in the Delta. This jump-started my career in Delta archaeology. I worked with a foreign mission, led by the University of Hawaii. I was lucky enough to work with a team of hardworking and motivated researchers who taught me excavation techniques early in my career. What is the oldest item you’ve ever found?

My period of focus is the Ancient Egyptian Late Period (664-334 BC). This refers to the last flowering of native Egyptian rulers following the Third Intermediate Period. The Late Period begins with the twenty-sixth Saite Dynasty into the Persian conquests and ending with the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great and what inevitably led to the establishment of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. I tend to focus on sites during this period. Although during my most recent excavation at a site in north Sudan, Tombos, we were excavating New Kingdom (1550 -1077 BC) material. The oldest material I’ve handled would probably be New Kingdom pottery and bones from a cemetery at Tombos.

What is the most significant or fascinating item you’ve uncovered? Why?

In my work, I find almost everything fascinating. All finds are significant as they help connect the dots and tell us an overall story of the site and people who lived there previously. As archaeologists, we’re attempting to piece together history, piece by piece (figuratively and literally). I eventually became the resident figurine expert at one of the sites I worked at, Tell Timai. During one of the seasons, we were excavating domestic structures at the Graeco Roman site and a number of figurines turned up – ranging from phallic figurines to wedjat amulets and scarabs. This ignited my interest in figurines and amulets, it gives you an insight into the daily life of a past civilisation. These were pieces that were kept in the household that told a story about what these people were worshipping privately and allowed us to further understand the role of religion and faith in their daily lives.Why did you choose to lead your first excavation now?

When I’m not researching for my dissertation, I’m excavating as much as I can. I’ve been blessed to be a part of prominent excavations in my field, which continue to enhance my interests and allow me to further my own research. I was introduced to the excavation side of my work through foreign missions, led by archaeologists from universities abroad. I work with diverse teams, which also include extremely bright Egyptian archaeologists. I had always aspired to work with a fully Egyptian team due to the fact that I myself am Egyptian. I began to understand how the system works in Egypt and realised that many of the missions were foreign. The Egyptian-led excavations were mainly internal, meaning they were led either by an Egyptian institution or a team from the Ministry of Antiquities. During my MA, I came across a grant by National Geographic, that funds early career researchers – aiming to jump-start careers in archaeology.

I began to really specialise in settlement archaeology in the Delta and one of the sites in my research was Tell Zuwelen, a site in Sharqiya. A number of similar sites in the area suggest that Tell Zuwelen may be part of a communication network and agricultural hinterland of Tanis. This site was last excavated properly in 1884 by Flinders Petrie and only had minimal surveying and excavation in the seventies by the Ministry of Antiquities. I had been researching the site for about a year before I decided that I would like to excavate the site myself. My research is aimed at utilising Tell Zuwelen as one of the key components in understanding how the region developed in terms of settlement patterns and economic relationships between Tanis and surrounding sites. I decided to apply for it as I applied for countless others. As academics, we’re constantly applying for funding bodies to be able to conduct our research in the field. It’s a time-consuming process, but necessary nonetheless. I waited roughly 9 months for a decision and, to my surprise, I received the grant, making me a National Geographic Explorer. It’s a peer-reviewed grant from National Geographic, which funds young explorers to conduct their research, enabling me to direct my very own site.

How long have you been trying to get approval for your first excavation?

I received the grant from Nat Geo in 2015 and began the process a couple months later. I’ve been trying to receive the dig permit for a little over a year now.  

What hurdles did you face?

We have extreme bureaucracy in any sector in Egypt, that’s not surprising. Although instead of encouraging and empowering young Egyptians to excavate, we make the process more difficult for our own people. The system is internal, therefore the Egyptian-led digs are either through the local institutions or ministry employees. There’s a large gap in the middle for independent scholars for example. Certain laws in the country need to be altered in order for more Egyptians to benefit from the country and for the country to benefit from them in return.

For example, I’m currently a PhD student at Cairo University yet with the current law, I wouldn’t be able to continue and become a professor at my university. To do so, I would’ve had to have already obtained my BA as well as MA from Cairo University beforehand, then get hired as a TA, which eventually leads to a professor position. The fact that I had studied abroad prevents me from being able to get hired at these local institutions even though I’ve done the equivalency of my degrees in order for them to be recognised by the Egyptian government.

Another issue is working in the Ministry of Antiquities. They usually hire graduates from the same pool, as a type of placement. The last time the ministry actually hired anyone was in 2012, following the revolution. We have thousands of archaeology graduates from Cairo University alone, and there’s no place for these bright young minds to go. They are either idle or forced to switch careers completely and take another path. We need to have outlets for Egyptians from all educational backgrounds, not just local institutions, in order to better serve our country. I love my country and my work clearly shows that, as I and others like me who studied abroad return to help and serve our country in any way we can, and we’re not able to.How did you prepare for the excavation?

The preparation and planning involved in an excavation is a crucial aspect – so everything runs smoothly. I’ve assembled a fully Egyptian team mainly consisting of colleagues I’ve worked with previously as well as colleagues from Cairo University and the Ministry of Antiquities. I’ve visited the site a couple of times to survey the site as well as meeting the locals as we’ll be working side by side with them. I hire workmen from the surrounding villages which aids me in my work while creating more job opportunities for them. In doing so, I try to let them understand the work we’re doing in the region. This in turn, gives the site a sense of value to the locals and gives them a connection to their cultural heritage. All Egyptians should be proud of their heritage and one of my aims is to show people the value of the natural landscapes we’re living in.  

Do you feel that it is a mostly male-dominated field? If so, what is it like being a young woman in this field?

In Egypt, it’s mostly a male-dominated field. Although abroad, I would say this field is female-dominated. I’ve never had a real issue in the field. When I’m excavating, I work with people from all over, different social backgrounds and mentalities but there has always been a level of respect towards me since the beginning. The locals from the villages as well as Quftis (residents of the city of Qift, near Luxor) – which I work with daily side by side, have always showed me the utmost respect and tell me how proud they are of the work that I do. Once you have  strong relationship with them, the work runs smoother and things become slightly easier as they understand your aims and goals. I’ve worked with the same people for 5 years now, and there’s a bond that’ll last a lifetime. I view men and women as equals in all aspects, so it doesn’t affect me while I’m in the field. Starting out, this was all very new to me. I work in places that are extremely rural and in tough conditions for the most part. It’s not a career that everyone’s cut out for, that’s for sure. You really have to be passionate and love what you’re doing. These situations make you realise how strong you are when you’re pushed to your limits.

What are you hoping to uncover/achieve with this dig?

For the Tell Zuwelen project, I’m hoping to better understand the region. The proposed methodology includes surface surveying, in order to collect surface pottery sherds and/or artefacts of the Tell to create a preliminary typology. Mapping the site by setting up a 50-metre GIS grid followed by a magnetometry survey to detect and map archaeological structures and features in order to identify the enclosure wall remains, the extent of the cemeteries and the identification of a possible sacred chapel complex, already visible with satellite imagery using Google Earth. Drill coring will then be carried out following the survey to attempt to reconstruct the environmental surrounding, stratigraphy, and collect samples from subsurface deposits for further analysis and dating. The goals for the first survey season are to map the site before further encroaching occurs, conduct a geophysical survey to define any remaining structures, and finally preliminary drill coring to date and understand the landscape of the Tell. There is high potential for research before these remote sites are completely destroyed or covered by modern villages. Zuwelen is one of many sites that must be substantiated by archaeological work before the site is permanently lost.Photos provided by Nora Shawki.