Egyptology Research in a Time of Covid

Taking up a PhD again in the middle of a pandemic might not have seemed the best idea. I had to give up my research on the Sekhmet statues of Amenhotep III in the autumn of 2017 when I lost my job. Not long after we moved from London to the much greener pastures of Sevenoaks, Kent, and building works and decorating our grade II listed Victorian house took up much of my time. In my spare time I took long walks in Knole Park, with its ancient deer park, and volunteered at Knole House, one of the great treasure houses of England. I put Egyptology to the back of my mind for a while. But then covid hit and the lockdown of 2020 took hold. With lots of time on my hands I did more DIY jobs and then I decided to take my Sekhmet research out and try to finish my Sekhmet catalogue, or at least type up the material I did have to hand.

The deer at Knole Park, Sevenoaks, Kent

Before long I had typed up over 200 pages of details on Sekhmet statues all over the world – statues in Tokyo, New York, London, and Paris, and in smaller museums and cities ranging from Toledo, Ohio to San Simeon, the lavish castle built by William randolph Hearst in California. I sent this off to my dear former Professor at Exeter for his thoughts and he urged me to return to the research and to the University. And so I have.

It hasn’t been easy though undertaking research in pandemic – libraries and museums have been closed, and even now that some places have re-opened, you can forget about going into a museum storeroom or travelling to Paris for the day to look at the Sekhmet statues in the Louvre.

Sekhmet statues lined up in the Louvre, Paris, December 2016

Luckily I had boxes and boxes of articles and research material I had collected between 2010 and 2017 to go through first, and it was not long until I discovered a whole new world of online archives and libraries to trawl through. In fact, many libraries and archives began uploading more digital copies of their archival material and books, so that students, unable to attend lectures, and researchers could access them. I logged into my account on Academia.edu and typed in a few keywords – “Amenhotep III”, “Sekhmet”, “New Kingdom” and so on – and before me appeared articles and journal entries for me to download and read. The more I logged in, the more Academia.edu began to send me suggestions of articles I might like. It was a glorious pleasure for a book worm! With my university email I could also log in to JSTOR and find countless journal articles to read.

Next I began looking at museums websites and contacting curators, and those that could get into their museum storerooms began to send me photos and documents, and enlightening discussions and correspondence began. I made new friends, some of whom were terribly excited by the topic and wanted to help however they could.

Objects found during the digging season of 1896 at the Ramesseum, including a Sekhmet bust (lower left). Copyright The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

Online I found historic photographs, excavation records, and PDFs of classic egyptological works now long out of print. I began to create not only a digital database of Sekhmet material, but a virtual library of the greatest egyptological books ever written.

A drawing of a Sekhmet statue in the British Museum by Joseph Bonomi, 1842-3

I trawled through Henry Salt’s and Bernardino Drovetti’s inventories of Egyptian objects sold to the Louvre in the 1820s, and read descriptions of objects in the British Museum with drawings by Joseph Bonomi, published in the 1840s. I looked at 19th century newspapers for descriptions of Egyptian antiquities, including information on Belzoni, and before long I had double the material I had started out with.

A description of Sekhmet statues in the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1833 – these statues eventually ended up in the Metropolitan Museum, New York

I looked through my pictures of trips to museums, taken in better times, and slowly but surely built up descriptions, measurements and information on provenance on these statues for my future PhD catalogue. I even found websites where you could take virtual tours of Egyptian temples, so I could walk down the avenue of sphinxes and up to the great pylon of Luxor temple from the comfort of my living room. I also enjoyed zoom lectures given by archaeologists and curators in places as far apart as Aberdeen and Cairo, lectures I would never have had a chance to attend in normal times.

Photographing a Sekhmet statue, in happier times, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, July 2016

What I have learned is that my passion for Egyptology is stronger than ever, and even when I am a basically a prisoner at home, I can experience Ancient Egypt in new and different ways. It will probably be another month before I have a chance to once again walk the halls of the British Museum and see ancient objects and sculptures up close, and my fingers are crossed that I shall be able to return to Luxor next year to undertake some fieldwork. But until then, there is a world of online resources to discover and enjoy. If you see a Sekhmet statue in a small museum or private collection, please email me at tara.stumm@gmail.com !

By Tara Draper-Stumm

  • To uncover various Egyptological online resources visit the Egyptology Forum ; to search for historic books and Egyptological volumes try Archive.org – for further Egyptological resources visit the Griffith Institute or have a look at your local museum website to see what images and information are available.

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