Dr Alice Stevenson
Dr Alice Stevenson is the curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London. Her work is primarily in Egyptian prehistory which focuses on the millennia before the construction of the first pyramids.
So we’ve got the Ancient Egyptians, five thousand years ago, stumbling across a meteor and going, that is extraordinary.
On getting interested in science and archaeology
I was just one of those kids that was reading…I was reading about dinosaurs, and so I wanted to be a palaeontologist, then I wanted to be an astronomer, and I thought that was about looking into a telescope, discovering a galaxy, then it turned out to be more about numbers which I was a little less good at so eventually it transferred to archeology, so always exploring time and discovery and just trying to understand the depths of human experience.
I think it was when I was shopping for a university degree, and I was sitting with all the prospectuses and I was thinking maybe I’ll do marine biology or something and I just kept coming back to the description of archaeology – world archaeology – you could study the Aztecs, the Maya, the Egyptians, the Neaderthals, so eventually I was just like, this pull is too strong, I’m gonna have to go study this.
On carbon dating
Well, I’ve recently been involved in a Leverhulme funded project, which is mainly based out of the University of Oxford, looking to get new radio carbon dates for the formation of the Egyptian state.
There are many forms of carbon in the atmosphere, so there’s C12, C13, C14 and the isotope C12 – that’s quite stable, but C14, that’s radioactive and will decay. Plants take in all of those forms of carbon through photosynthesis and those different proportions of carbon between what the plant’s taking in and what’s in the atmosphere are kind of the same as long as the plant’s alive, because as soon as it dies, it no longer takes in this carbon and so the radioactive carbon starts to decay with a half life.
Now, because that’s at a steady rate and because organisms get their carbon from eating plants through the photosynthesis mechanism, all living organisms while they’re alive should have equal proportions of carbon within their bodies as in the atmosphere, but when they die, equally that will stop being the case and the radio carbon starts to decay. And what we can do is measure the remaining amount of radioactive carbon to see how long it’s been since an organism died. So as archaeologists, we’re looking for things like plant remains, basketry, reeds, wood, things like that which we can date.
What we can do with pottery is something called relative dating so, radiocarbon dating, that’s absolute dating, i.e. we can give a number in years, and for relative dating we can say, this pot is older than this pot based on style so, you know, you know the difference between a Bronze Age, between a Neolithic and an Iron Age pot, you know, we can put them in a relative order.
On the excitement of studying Eygpt
So why is Egypt so popular with the public? Um, I think because Britain has a long history of involvement with Egypt and I think we also have a certain nostalgia, so things like the discovery of Tutankhamun in 1922, it made such huge headlines and so many museums across the world and in this country have material from Egypt. So, for example, Flinders Petrie, when he went out to excavate he was often sponsored by museums and in return for sponsoring those excavations, museums would get a proportion of what was found in the field. Some would stay in Egypt but then some would be sent around the world so, you know, your local town hall would often have an Ancient Egyptian object so it was…it became part of British life as Britain and the rest of the world started really going to museums in the 19th century.
Well, this is the thing. So if you think about the Great Pyramid at Giza, so we’re around about 2500 BC, we’ve got to go back about a thousand years to 3500 BC and we’re in what we call Predynastic Egypt; this was before there was hieroglyphs, this was before any form of historical record. We have, at the beginning of the 4th millennium BC, pastoralist, seasonally mobile pastoralist communities who start coming into the Nile Valley beginning to have a greater commitment to serial agriculture, settling down more in villages, we start to aggregate, so what was a little bit more egalitarian starts to become more hierarchical, so chiefs become more powerful, they gain followers, and by the end of the 4th millennium BC this had escalated to the world’s first territorial state. So think of a nation state, something like Britain, the head of that territorial state was King who was often considered to be divine and so that’s a huge change, a very quick change from small, seasonally mobile pastoralist groups on the one hand at the beginning of the 4th millennium BC to this hierarchical state with this very powerful individual right at the top at the end of the 4th millennium BC, so by 3000 BC. So I’m interested in looking at that very profound change in society.
It’s important always to have a sense of perspective and I think we in our current society, we look around and we see so many social inequalities there are so many haves and so many have nots; it’s a big question to ask how did we – how did society – get to that point? How is it that we have certain political institutions or economic institutions, how have they developed, what are their basis, what are the human desires, foils, all the rest of it that leads to that…to those conditions and archaeology is one of the few disciplines that gives you that depth for really long historical periods, over centuries, over millennia, so we get to ask those big questions with this huge data set.
On working on a dig
Well it’s a very, very slow process, but if you are in, say its a grave, for example, you’ve taken the soil down. It’s a matter of photographing every single moment in every single layer, making sure that all the associations of the object, for example, things like radio carbon dating, you know, we’re interested in tiny seeds, you can get a radio carbon date from a seed so it’s…you’ve got to have a very careful eye to be seeing those associations.
So you make sure everything is recorded with reference to grids and various other important numbers so that the object that you find is tied to its context so with a series of numbers you can always lead back to where it was found and the other things it was found with.
I think that the great joy of archaeology is that you can go down the very, very scientific route, maybe you want to go into chemistry and really go into very high level work on radio carbon dating. Radio carbon dating also involves a lot of statistical approaches so mathematical brains are also ones that would be really useful in archaeological science. But then again maybe you’re more of a linguist, maybe it’s the languages, maybe it’s art, so really, yes, having a mix of subjects, it just enhances perspectives and archaeology just draws on so many different disciplines in exploring the human past.
I’ve never had a Eureka moment! I work a lot with museum archives so this is why recording in archaeology is so important because people go back to those records and go back to the objects and study them again. So I guess I’ve had those Eureka moments where, you know, an excavation that happened, you know, decades and decades ago, suddenly we find there are records and we’ve got new questions. You know, at the point that something’s been dug, you know, in the late 19th century, they’ve got very different questions from the kinds of questions that we’re interested in today so my Eureka moments have often been when I’m rummaging in museum basements and I’ve found a little clue or documentation that will allow me to go back and look at a famous site and see it in a whole new way and ask new questions about it.
On the Petrie Museum
So the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology was established in 1893 with the kind bequest of a lady called Amelia Edwards and she was a Victorian novelist and travel writer who’d gone to Egypt and she had fallen in love with the country but was horrified at the kind of destruction she was seeing. And when she came back to Britain, she rallied all Victorian society and worked closely with the British Museum in order to start the Egypt Exploration Fund, and one of the first people that worked for that was Flinders Petrie. And Flinders Petrie was unlike many Victorian archaeologists, wasn’t just interested in the treasures, or just the ancient inscriptions, he was interested in the small and the everyday and so those were the sorts of things that he collected. And he, like Pitt Rivers, was adamant that you should record where everything is found and document it. So the Petrie Museum is unique in many respects for not only having 80,000 objects from Egypt and Sudan, much of which were collected by Petrie on these excavations, but it’s that they are not the kind, often the monumental pieces in the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum or the Louvre, they give you insights into the Ancient Egyptians’ lives and there are so many stories that can be told about those objects because we’ve got this archive of photos and excavation notes and letters which allow us to explore stories of not just the Ancient Egyptians but also Flinders Petrie, of Victorian science, and so it’s enormously an exciting resource.
I spend most of my time helping other researchers explore his collection or fending off requests from other museums to borrow the material and, actually, we lend a lot of material to international exhibitions. Teaching… University College London is very active with object based learning, lots of students sitting down, examining objects, for example at pottery, it could be someone looking at pottery techniques, it could be geologists coming in to look at geology from Egypt, it could be mathematicians come in and they’re interested in sequence dating and mathematical modelling of archaeological sites, so there’s all sorts of things going on, no two days are the same.
Most of the collection for the Petrie Museum is actually already photographed or online but a lot of it isn’t on display, so only about 10% of the 80,000 objects are on display, so occasionally it can…though people see the online catalogue and think, oh yes, I know that object, but actually you go to the cupboard, turn it over and suddenly perhaps there’s a hieroglyphic inscription that no one knew was there. So yes, discoveries are always being made in the museum.
I guess one of the most astonishing things we have, when you think about your place in the universe, one of the most astonishing things we have in the collection are three little beads and they just don’t look like anything, they’re just like little rusted balls and these came from a grave that dates to about 3500 BC, but it’s actually the first example of worked iron anywhere in the world. And the reason is, because they’re made out of meteors. So we’ve got the Ancient Egyptians, five thousand years ago, stumbling across a meteor and going, that is extraordinary.
Because these little beads were also strung together with lapis lazuli, which has to come from Afghanistan, found with carnelian from the Eastern desert, from gold, and so they put together this stunning piece of jewellery with all these exotic stones so you really get a sense that they knew that this was something special.
On the questions asked by an archaeologist
Lots of archaeologists spend their time thinking about big questions like how did the Egyptian state form and why did humans start doing agriculture and what’s the meaning of religion. Actually, one of the things that I spend most of my time…because I work in a museum with specific objects is, I wonder what this meant to a human being 5,000 years ago. You know, you find things buried with babies, you know, someone lost their child, and what would that have meant? You know, what was their experience and life like, and many archaeologists would say that’s too big a challenge but that’s actually the reason that I’m interested in this material, is that is meant something to people.
You can, you know, when you find things that have been used as well, like a grinding stone that’s been really heavily worn and you think, this has had years and years of use before it was laid to rest with this individual, it’s been buried so it would’ve been caught up in many moments in their life so it’s just one of those points of perspective and I spend a lot of my time thinking about time and duration and generations and just how many have been and gone.