In the Spotlight with...

Dr Chris Naunton 
Egyptologist, Director of the Egypt Exploration Society and Television Presenter




Why Egyptology? How did you become interested in the subject?
Not absolutely sure! I know that I watched Christopher Frayling’s 4-part documentary, the Face of Tutankhamun and was certainly interested by then (we taped it!), and I can remember letting my history teacher know while I was doing my A-levels that I would have preferred to study more ancient people and events than those of Tudor England. I went to university to study ancient history and Archaeology straight afterwards and loved it all but slowly became more and more focused on Egyptology while I was there. I never had any expectation that I’d be able to make a career out of it and I suppose a bit of me still thinks that I’ll have to go and get a proper job at some point :)

What do you find most rewarding/challenging about being an Egyptologist?
Egyptology is a very broad discipline and covers a multitude of sins. I’ve been very lucky in that my work has allowed me to  develop various skills and indulge in a few things that have become passions of mine. I am really grateful for the opportunities it has brought me to travel, to get to know a foreign country and culture (modern Egypt) as well as I have, to become an expert of sorts in a field that lots of people find fascinating, and to share the things I’ve learnt as a ‘writer, broadcaster and public speaker’ (a bold claim you might thing but it’s what my tax return says!). It’s very rewarding to work in a subject that is a passion for so many people involved in it, although those passions are often at the root of some of the disagreements that have perhaps provided the most challenging moments of my time in the field!

What’s a “typical” day as Director of the Egypt Exploration Society?
I arrive at the office at around ten after a short bike ride from home, and usually spend an hour or so dealing with e-mails that have come in overnight. I meet everyone on the London staff team at least once per week one-to-one, and frequently have other meetings, with Trustees, field directors and others. Otherwise I might be writing papers developing new projects or strategy, looking at spreadsheets to ensure the Society is on track financially, or venturing onto social networks to promote our latest activities. I also get a lot of Egyptological questions, especially from television companies I am working with, so its not uncommon for me to try to explain why we think the death mask of Tut may in fact have been made for someone else (a current preoccupation in the media!). There aren’t really too many ‘typical’ days however – one of the things I like about the job is that it’s very varied, although there’s also rather too much of it for this particular bearer of little brain to keep on top of some of the time.

What can Egyptology do as an International body to protect Egypt’s history from such destruction as those seen at Nimrud?
I would like to see the international community identify, following the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities’ lead, a clear series of priorities in terms of looking after sites and monuments in Egypt. Resources are scarce and getting more so, and I would like to know that we are doing everything required to ensure that as much of the physical remains of ancient Egypt as possible can survive into the future, ideally in the public domain rather than in private hands. I hope to be able to improve dialogue within the international community as part of my role at the International Association of Egyptologists, and make our colleagues in Egypt more of a part of that community than they have been up to now.

If you had been around in the early days of the Egypt Exploration Society’s foundation, which member of the (then) Fund do you think you would have got along with best?
I think probably Amelia Edwards. She was passionate, a great communicator, organiser and rallier. She was also not a part of the Egyptological establishment and set up the Society despite not only a lack of support from the establishment, but almost its active discouragement. She won the day because she succeeded in leveraging the popular non-specialist passion for ancient Egypt to make serious specialist work possible. I prefer not to be too establishment myself and I consider my own strengths, as with Amelia, not to lie so much in academic work but in communicating a passion to a wider audience. I suspect Petrie would have been too difficult a character incidentally!

What’s your take on the possibility that has been put forward by Nicholas Reeves that Tutankhamun’s tomb may reveal much more to it than previously thought?
I LOVE the idea. Nick builds a very compelling case. He is another who thrives outside the establishment and is something of a maverick, but as far as I’m concerned he’s got an incredible eye for detail, and he brings a great depth of knowledge and very logical approach to his research including to the new theory. I admire him for being able to make such a credible scientific case for something that is so sensational at the same time. I suspect some of our colleagues rather prefer the dryer, more scientific, more obscure parts of our subject to the sensational but for me it’s the excitement of the possibility of discoveries like this that has made our subject so popular, and what keeps it going in fact.

Is he right? I don’t know… If nothing else we should be very grateful that he has got us all thinking about the issues – his paper on the subject is freely accessible online and has been read by many, many thousands more people than would normally read such a scholarly work, and may well be encouraged to read other Egyptological literature as a result. He has also revealed new evidence about the death mask in the process, and his case that it was originally made for Nefertiti is now accepted by most experts on the subject I understand.

If you hadn’t been an Egyptologist, what else would you have chosen to do?
 1) Midfielder for Arsenal 2) guitarist in Radiohead. I may yet go off to try and do something that allows me to combine a passion for travelling, cycling, trains and writing, but Egyptology’s been pretty good to me so I’m quite content!

What were your best/worst subjects in school?
Best: French and German. Worst: physics and chemistry.

What is the most memorable class/lecture/talk you have ever had and why does it stick in your mind?
Actually Nick Reeves’ presentation to the 2012 annual meeting of the American Research Center is the first thing that springs to mind. He had identified a mummy mask and papyrus as all having coming from the same New Kingdom Theban tomb. He was able to show, thanks to a tiny fragment of the papyrus that had become adhered to the mummy mask, that the papyrus would have been placed over the mask, and more than that, that it would have been very carefully and deliberately placed so that the word for ‘mouth’ in the text on the papyrus was placed directly over the mouth of the mask. I thought it was a brilliant piece of detective work, and there’s something magical about knowing exactly how such objects were arranged – it forces you to consider the actions of the ancient Egyptian person responsible for their placement, which somehow brings the scene to life. It makes you feel closer to the Egyptians themselves somehow.

If you could select one person from history to ask them a question, who would you chose and what would be the question?
Gosh, I’ve never thought about anything like this. How about we go back to the time just after the Abd el Rassoul brothers discovered the royal cache (DB 320) and ask them if they’ll show us what they’ve found?

What is your favourite ancient Egyptian object and where is it displayed?
Ooh good question. I could give you quite a few different answers to this but I’ll go for… the mallet which is still wedged in between the lid and the main body of the sarcophagus in Mastaba 17 at Meydum. It was left there by one of the robbers plundering the tomb and never removed. It’s almost like the robber was caught red-handed - it’s just that we’re a few thousand years too late to bring him to justice. The reason? That same magic I mentioned above that comes from when you get a sense not just of the object but what someone ancient Egyptian was doing with it – it brings the scene to life.

Who would you most want to be stuck in an elevator with?
If I could get over the excitement I suppose it would be nice to chat to one of my heroes: Michael Stipe, Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Tony Adams.

What is your favourite word?
Booplesnoot.

How would your friends describe you in 3 words?
I like to think they might say generous, funny… They might also say lanky…

What was the last photograph you took on your phone?
A selfie of my girlfriend and me.

What would be a good theme song for your life?
Oh goodness… Music is a great passion of mine but I don’t often pay that much attention to lyrics. I also tend to get very excited about certain music for a brief while before it gets superseded by something else. Currently, a song that I think sound and feels like me / what I’m thinking / feeling, is It’s a Game by EL VY.

And finally….

What exciting things does 2016 hold in store for you?
I’m planning to cycle the perimeter of Ireland. I’ll be lecturing in Italy and Australia and visiting Egypt for work of course. We (EES) have a new member of staff in Cairo at the moment and will be bringing three students from the UK over to introduce them to professional Egyptology in Egypt all of which I’m excited about. And I’m hoping I might be able to get an electronic drum kit. It would also be nice to think that I’ll be able to get on and finish my book and a few other things I’m commited to writing, and to move things forward in my role at the IAE, but all of that might mean cutting back on my EES work… I’m hoping it’ll be an interesting and exciting year anyway!


My thanks to Chris for taking the time to do this interview!

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