Getting to Know our Guest
Could you please introduce yourself in a few words.
My name is Salima Ikram and I am an Egyptologist. I excavate, teach, work in museums, publish for scholars and enthusiasts, adults, and children, and sometimes appear in the media.
If you had to pick your favorite Cirque du Soleil show, which one would it be? (And why?)
This is hard to choose. There are so many amazing shows. I think I like the beauty and talent of the performers as well as the exquisitely crafted and choreographed events. Saltimbanco, one of the older creations was amazing, wedding the old and the new. And Mystère is, of course, amazingly beautiful and subtle.
Getting Started in Archeology
Can you tell us a bit about what sparked your interest in archeology and Egyptology and what motivated you to pursue a career in this field?
On my 8th birthday I got the Time Life book on ancient Egypt, and when I was 9 and half, I visited Cairo with my family, and fell in love with the Grand Gallery of the Great Pyramid. Then, we visited the Cairo Museum, where I saw Rahotep and Nofret's statue, turned around and thought they were real, and decided that I had found 'my' people and decided to become an Egyptologist. In school I studied history, French, and visited museums and sites. In College, I double majored in history and classical and near eastern archaeology at Bryn Mawr College, and took classes in Egyptology and Indus Valley archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania. I did a year abroad at the American University in Cairo, volunteered in the Egyptian Museum, worked on an excavation, and then went on to do a M.Phil and PhD at Cambridge (UK). After that, we moved to Egypt, where I was fortunate enough to obtain a position at the American University in Cairo, first a part-time position, and later a full-time one.
The public perception of archaeology is often influenced by creative portrayals in media and literature. How do you balance the need for accurate representation with the creative aspects of storytelling when communicating your archaeological findings to the public?
Archaeology is inherently fun and interesting, and about people, so it is relatively easy to communicate this to the public, but one has to be careful about sensationalizing finds and also explaining the kind of detailed work that archaeology entails.
Archaeology often involves filling gaps in the historical narrative with informed speculation. How do you navigate the balance between evidence-based conclusions and the creative imagination required to reconstruct aspects of ancient life that may not be fully understood?
I think that archaeologists have potential as fiction writers—we have to create different scenarios to fit the different pieces of evidence that will explain what we have excavated. We often become enamored with a particular idea or theory, and then when evidence to the contrary emerges, we have a hard time letting go.
Community-based archaeology projects are getting more and more frequent. How can involving local communities in archaeological research contribute to a more holistic understanding of the past?
Sometimes people who have not been mired in academia have fresh and intuitive ways of interpreting the evidence and this is very helpful all around. It also connects people to the past, but also to one another and builds communities through time and space. I also like to ask people who are professionals in different aspects of technology (carpenters, stone masons, potters, goldsmiths, etc.) to look at objects and images to see what they have to say about them as their understanding of technologies is profound.
Which archaeological projects or discoveries have you been part of that you believe have had the most significant impact on our understanding of ancient civilizations, and what do you hope they contribute to the legacy of archaeological knowledge?
That is a very hard question to answer! I think one such find is the embalming deposit in the Valley of the Kings tomb 63. It contained the materials for the mummification of at least one if not more royals, and by examining the contents of the deposit carefully, we are coming up with a deeper understanding of the science of mummification. Working in Egypt’s Western Desert has been extraordinary as the discoveries of rock art as well as sites dating from Prehistory to c. AD 700 allows us to explore climate change in the Eastern Sahara and how the Nile Valley might have been settled. The events of the future definitely have very direct and powerful roots in the past!