Baboon tax collectors? PhD student Alex Loktionov on deciphering Egyptian texts
Posted: June 15, 2016|
Alex Loktionov, 23, is an Egyptology PhD student and teaching assistant at Cambridge University's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, and a postgraduate mentor in the Cambridge Admissions Office.
He was born in Lyon, France, but always studied in Cambridge, completing his BA at Selwyn College, his MPhil at St John's, and is now based at Robinson.
What is your particular area of expertise?
Ancient Egyptian legal texts. I'm focusing on how ancient Egyptian judicial procedure and conflict resolution changed over time, from the early Egyptian state in the Old Kingdom (c.2600BCE) all the way through to the New Kingdom (c.1200BCE).
So that's over a millennium of courtroom drama, from trials of tomb robbers to disputes about missing donkeys…
I'm also really interested in how Egypt and its legal system related to the wider world – especially the way justice was dispensed in ancient Iraq (Mesopotamia). I think it's likely that there came a point when the Egyptians began to absorb Mesopotamian ideas into their own legal framework.
How would you explain your current work to a stranger on the bus?
I read Egyptian hieroglyphs. That's usually enough.
Where do you do most of your work?
I like the top floor of the Haddon Library of Archaeology and Anthropology.
When I'm translating I often end up working with very heavy books – dictionaries and bulky transcriptions of hieroglyphic texts. They're stored in that room. I'd rather not drag them around so I sit up there. It's an ugly room with only one desk, so it's always empty. It's great for getting things done – no distractions.
What first inspired you to study Egyptology?
I think most people are fascinated by Egypt when they're in primary school – mummies, pyramids and King Tut. And then it gradually wears off. Well, in my case it didn't.
What kind of student were you at school?
I loved languages and history but never got anywhere with maths. That said, I tried my best in all classroom subjects.
What I really hated was sport – particularly as I was forced into playing rugby, which I considered the peak of barbarism. Nobody should have to go through that without the chance to opt out.
What's the most exciting part of your job?
Getting an insight into the minds of people alive 4,000 years ago. Being an Egyptologist is an incredible privilege in this regard: most archaeologists working with a period so distant chronologically have no texts to go on, and all inferences have to be made from uninscribed sites and objects – which are often cryptic.
The ancient Egyptians, however, are often kind enough to write something down for us – for instance we have several treatises giving instructions on how to live a "moral" life almost two millennia before the Romans. That I think is amazing.
What keeps you awake at night?
Sleep is generally not one of my strong points – I think I would do better if I could sleep in two four-hour chunks, one at night and one after lunch, rather than having to do it all in one go!
I often stay up very late doing translations. It's always tempting but not a good idea really – I then end up having dreams about the post coming through in ancient Egyptian, but for some reason I've forgotten all the hieroglyphs and can't read it. It's massively frustrating.
What's the worst thing about your subject?
The seemingly endless political turmoil in the Arab world. Many of my colleagues working across Near-Eastern Archaeology have had projects cancelled because of the wars in Iraq and Syria. Key sites and museums have been destroyed.
I'm very lucky that Egypt has so far avoided the worst of the violence – although the political situation there is not exactly good. And what if Da'esh takes root in Egypt? They've already gained ground in Libya and nobody seems able to stop them.
What false preconceptions do people have about your field?
It's all about mummies, pyramids and ultimately death because that's all the Egyptians cared about. I guess this misconception is to some extent inevitable as so much of the archaeological evidence comes from tombs, which tend to be better preserved than houses or administrative buildings.
What's the most interesting thing you've learned this week?
In New Kingdom Egypt, there was apparently a tax collected by overseers of baboons. Or maybe it was collected by the baboons, and the overseers just looked on to make sure that they were doing it properly? On a serious note, it's a nice illustration of the curious stuff which you can get in texts.
What's the best thing about studying in Cambridge?
The sense of community in the department. People are friendly but at the same time are not wild party animals. You get a good mix of different ages and research interests across periods and continents.
What do you think will be the next big discovery or development in your field in the next 10 years?
Hopefully a breakthrough in our understanding of ancient Egyptian judicial procedure! After all, I have to hope for that since it's my PhD…
On a larger scale though, I think digitisation of archives and dictionaries will continue apace and will have a transformative impact on the discipline. The advent of searchable PDFs and "intelligent" documents has really changed things – so much more material is accessible now.
See here for more about Alex and his work.
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