Lara Weiss: ‘Egypt is not just pyramids and mummies’

Egyptologist Lara Weiss is curator at The National Museum of Antiquities and has been leading the VIDI research project ‘Walking Dead’ since 2017. The exhibition ‘Sakkara: Living in a necropolis’, which will be on display at the museum starting March 9 next year, is part of the project.

‘The National Museum of Antiquities has been conducting research in the Egyptian city of Sakkara, the cemetery of the ancient city of Memphis, since 1975. The aim of this research is to find out more about the background and history of the museum’s collection. Each year, a number of weeks of excavating and research are carried out there near the spots where museum objects were found during the nineteenth century. The VIDI grant I received in 2017 has enabled us to carry out even more extensive research and to deploy more people to this end.’

Necropolis Sakkara

‘Together with my team, I investigate the graves from the New Kingdom (1539-1077 B.C.) in Sakkara, that were opened at the beginning of the nineteenth century by collectors, but then disappeared under the sand again. The tomb of high official Maya and his wife Merit came to light again, one hundred and fifty-seven years after the National Museum of Antiquities had received their tomb statues. I think it’s interesting to look at how the ancient Egyptians relate to the past, because when Maya and Merit’s grave was built, pyramids had already been standing there for thirteen hundred years. What went on at such a cemetery at the time; what kind of rituals and religious practices took place, where exactly were the graves placed and what did certain grave decorations mean?

Egyptology’s relevance – and that of archaeology in general – is to give historical depth to contemporary discussions. My research is about religious identity and answers the question of how traditions are formed, adapted or even invented. There is still so much to discover in this field, which surprises me time and time again. Religion is not something that people follow to a tee; they add their own twist and that was no different in Ancient Egypt.’

From excavation site to museum

‘Together with exhibition creaters from the The National Museum of Antiquities, I translate the research on Sakkara into a public-friendly exhibition: ‘Sakkara: living in a necropolis‘. We kind of bring a piece of Egypt to the museum, so that visitors can learn more about exactly what we researched there and what the results were. The combination of research and working in a museum gives me even more opportunities to explain to a wide audience what you, as an academic, do. Because Egypt is not just pyramids and mummies.’

Interdisciplinary and innovative research

‘In the field of traditional Egyptology we mainly study old reliefs and texts – and we still do – but currently it is also very important to work in an interdisciplinary way. It is no longer enough to only look at ‘old shards’. Especially after forty-four years of excavation in the same area, it is important to take the research to the next level, to connect things more and to come to new results. In the past, for example, graves were excavated from the inside out and not from the outside, which is necessary to understand the interrelationship of the graves. For the research we work with information we already have, from libraries and our archive. But we also carry out innovative research because there are always new question you can ask. You can excavate, for example, in a way that really gets you answers to those questions: slower and better documented.’

Face to face with the past

‘The most impressive thing about my work is to see something for the first time in thousands of years or to have it in your hands. It was under the sand all the time, where it was left behind. I call it the ‘authentic experience’ with the object; suddenly you travel thousands of years back in time. Furthermore, the teamwork at such an excavation project is beautiful; in addition to all kinds of international employees, we also work with Egyptian workers from surrounding villages who have sometimes been involved in the excavations for generations. It’s great to be able work together to get all that beauty above ground.’

Give it one hundred percent

‘I live in The Hague, on the edge of Scheveningen. I don’t have time for hobbies or a team sport, but I walk a lot in the dunes or in the woods. Because I work a lot and sometimes until late in the evening, I need it to recharge and the outside air helps me a lot.

Can I give the reader some advice? In my opinion, many students with a smaller or more specialised study programme feel that there is little job perspective. I used to have that idea too. Looking back at my career so far, it wasn’t always easy, but when you go for it one hundred percent, everything is possible. Almost everyone I studied with has a job related to his or her education, provided they really persisted and were flexible in terms of where they lived. The most important thing is that you do something that interests you and that you think is important – whether that be Egyptology or something else – then you’ll be fine.’

In the Humans of Humanities series, we will do a portrait of one of our researchers, staff members or students, every other week. Who are they, and what do they do? You can find more portraits and information on this page.

Lieselotte van de Ven

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