CAS Blog

Archaeology in the Covid-19 Era: Challenges in Northeast Africa (and Worldwide)

Julia Budka, 01 June 2021

When I was asked in March 2020 to write a short guest contribution for Science.orf.at on the coronavirus-related situation in my field, like so many of us I did not envisage the crisis lasting for more than a year. It is thus a task of considerable interest to present here, in a short personal outline, the current challenges being faced by archaeology in general and Egyptian archaeology in particular.

Thankfully, my greatest concern of 2020 did not eventuate to the extent that I had feared: Covid-19 has (or had) parts of Africa firmly in its grip, but the effects have been less catastrophic than initially expected (surely, there has been a large number of unreported cases, and, like in other places, a final appraisal of the situation can only be made once the crisis is truly over; for current developments (cf. africacdc.org/covid-19). The two countries that are central to my work, Egypt and Sudan, have also been affected, but have suffered more from the absence of tourists (and to a much lesser extent from the absence of archaeological missions), i.e. from acute economic concerns more than from high infection rates.

Archaeological excavations in Egypt and Sudan, here the ERC AcrossBorders Team of 2017 on the island Sai, are not only relevant examples of interdisciplinary and international teamwork, but, as employers, also an important economic factor for the localities in question. Due to Covid-19, this key stimulus has disappeared without replacement over the past year in almost all locations. Photo: Julia Budka.

The vaccines are a light at the end of the tunnel here, and sometime in the not too distant future, travel and on-site research will be possible again. This will hopefully occur sooner than I currently believe, since the situation for my Egyptian and Sudanese employees can quickly become critical if archaeological projects do not return.

Archaeology depends on field research. In many countries, working on archaeological projects provides a significant and well-established source of income for local inhabitants. The absence of excavations is painfully felt here. As researchers based in Europe, however, we have a range of options to conduct alternative research programs during the pandemic. Important funding bodies such as the ERC and DFG have already implemented generous extension options for projects, so our task is to remain flexible and patient. In my ERC project DiverseNile, we were able, without major difficulty, to reschedule the first year to cope without field research, to work with data we have already collected, and to bring forward steps such as the comprehensive long-distance reconnaissance of our excavation area in Sudan through cooperation with the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (German Aerospace Center). However, if field research in Sudan remains impossible in the autumn 2021, it will also become difficult for us to fulfill our overall work program – I already had to cancel two research trips, and we now need fresh data and new results. Currently, the fact that we are able to plan the field research more extensively, in greater detail and with less time pressure still offsets any damage done, as does the time gained for the processing of older data.

Map of the research area of the DiverseNile/MUAFS project, for which data provided by the DLR (TerraSAR-X) are pending; the southern grids are already partly covered by our Drone Aerial Photography.

Apart from the critical situation concerning the feasibility of field research, I think that archaeology in general, and particularly Egyptian archaeology as a small specialist area, will be able to take some positives from the crisis. A lot has happened, and a complete return to the situation before March 2020 is unthinkable – and would indeed be fatal, not only in research, but also in teaching, general networking, and in terms of support for the next generation.

I would like to outline just a few points here, which I hope could be interesting and relevant for other disciplines as well, but which, without doubts, are strongly influenced by my personal experience and reflect my view of the situation.

Let us begin with mobility and travel: in non-corona times, i.e. normally, I am on the road every month, sometimes every week, even if it is just between Munich and Vienna. The field research trips take up approximately 12-16 weeks per year. The first lockdown in March 2020 therefore required some familiarization. Nevertheless, I have since then managed to arrange things accordingly and can now see the advantages of a less hectic life with less packing of suitcases. Although I still cannot wait to disembark the aircraft again in Khartoum or Luxor and finally work with my hands again, i.e. work with real objects and stand in the grid, a year without travel also had its advantages. It saved time and nerves, and life has been much easier to organize when one is not dependent on pet-sitters, is not forced to stay at an airport hotel because of a sandstorm, or does not have to endure a 12-hour odyssey halfway across Germany due to canceled trains, only then to have to rush to the airport once again because of that delay.

Travel is directly connected to workshops and conferences – of which we can say after a year of experience: they are certainly possible in a pandemic situation, with online formats being feasible and even having certain advantages, e.g. concerning the number of participants. I know that many people miss the personal contact and exchange, and I agree in many respects. For small work groups and project meetings in particular, live meetings cannot be adequately replaced – but I will no longer jump straight on to a train or a plane in order to attend a one or two-day event or (just) to deliver a guest lecture. A complete departure from online events in the future, in my opinion, will occur neither in archaeology nor in Egyptology: many events will surely adopt a hybrid approach in order to become more environmentally friendly, more compatible with families, and less time-consuming.

Closely connected to online events are the issues of diversity and internationalization – two areas in which Egyptology in particular has considerable catching up to do. As a discipline emerged from European humanism and tightly interwoven with colonialism and racism, Egyptology is dominated not only by men, but also by “white” people with a Christian background (as is evident for example in numerous terms used to describe ancient Egyptian religion, such as creator-god, divine proximity and piety, or in the pronounced prudery towards sources concerning sexual practices). Only recently, in the course of postcolonial debates, has work begun on a “decolonization” of thought within the discipline, with calls for alternatives to Eurocentric views within the field. The issue is multilayered, complex, and very controversial: it could easily make up an article in its own right. It is perhaps important to note here that there is not one “single” Egyptology, but in fact many Egyptologies that differ considerably between epochs, countries and traditions. The “postcolonial dilemma” (Weinstein 2015 cambridge.org/core/journals/international-review-of-social-history/article/history-without-a-cause-grand-narratives-world-history-and-the-postcolonial-dilemma) also influences my discipline, especially regarding new ways to organize excavations in Egypt – since the late 19th century, as mentioned above, these have been an important economic factor and have been characterized by hierarchical structures which cannot simply be replaced by flat democratic forms due to a new understanding of morality. But in contrast to past eras, when the excavation workers who carried out the actual work, i.e. the digging, remained nameless and simply “tools” under the supervision of scholars, these workers are now given voices and faces along with recognition for their contribution to the science they helped to advance (see for example the most recent exhibition project of the University of Leipzig on the excavation project Heliopolis, which gave special recognition to the Egyptian workers, the so-called Quftis, named after their place of origin Quft (l-iz.de/kultur/ausstellungen/2020/01/Sonderausstellung-zum-Ausgrabungsprojekt-Heliopolis-Kultzentrum-unter-Kairo-wird-am-16-Januar-eroeffnet). I believe that a new level of self-reflective research is required, one that accepts the challenges of renouncing the Eurocentric guiding principles of “classical” Egyptology and is prepared to discuss them on an international level.

We should be united in one point though: our research, which operates in Egypt and Sudan, must become more inclusive, we must create possibilities for low-threshold access to projects and events for Egyptian and Sudanese people, and we must pay much greater attention to specialist technical input from non-European regions, from the excavation regions, and also from Latin America and Asia. This has been possible for a number of years thanks to social media but, with the current boom in online events, a further important step has now been taken which is even more significant and comprehensive: it is no longer a visa, the financing of a flight or other factors that determine whether a colleague from Cairo or Khartoum can participate in a workshop, a conference or simply a lecture. The location is almost irrelevant, as long as a stable internet connection is available. In the planning of countless events, efforts are already being made to find time windows compatible with several time zones around the world. This new form of internationality, which includes particularly the younger generation from those countries whose cultural legacy is the focus of our discipline, has enormous potential. For me, this will be one of the main reasons to continue to hold digital and hybrid events once the crisis is over. The extremely high rates of worldwide participation in Egyptological events over the past few months has shown that this is of great benefit to many people.

Online events are currently making their mark not only on our scholarly communication, but also on all committee and administrative meetings and of course on teaching. In both areas, I have noticed a phenomenon, which I consider an important mark of progress: at seminars and particularly at committee meetings, a new dynamic is evident in the discussion culture. The competent chairing of such meetings is of course a prerequisite, but anybody who uses the “blue Zoom hand” for regulating contributions to a discussion has a fixed list of speakers, and all forms of interjection can easily be prevented. In my opinion, it is noticeable that in this new, virtual environment, a more dynamic discussion is able to emerge – although this is of course not always the case. I have repeatedly observed that people who tend to be shy find it easier to contribute to a discussion in such a forum, and that conversely (with good chairing) dominant personalities find it more difficult to force their mark on a discussion. For allocation committees in particular, this is a huge improvement – while a certain group of men otherwise tend to dominate a meeting through their physical presence alone, the virtual environment is more “objective” and provides new space for everybody. I believe that this is another important point to remember after the pandemic: the so-called gender bias in meetings and elsewhere is real and must be addressed; with sufficient sensitization, a fairer atmosphere can be achieved in the future in live meetings as well.

The Covid-19 crisis has also shown not only how important open access is for the publication strategy in the field of archaeology, but also how open data is central to the digitization projects of the discipline. We are already in a very good position regarding digital approaches, and the readiness to make use of such possibilities will surely be greater after the crisis. These areas are also part of the approach that should be our guiding motif: to make our research as easily accessible and as effectively communicated as possible.

Will the Covid-19 pandemic hence bring about a paradigm shift in archaeology? I do not believe so – but changes can nevertheless be expected through the new forms of digital communication. It is our responsibility to keep the ball rolling in the areas in which the crisis has directed us towards important solutions. Regarding the issues of internationalization, diversity and inclusion in particular, a new dynamic has been evident for a number of years in the discipline of archaeology and must now be effectively utilized. I am aware of the fact that throughout Germany and the world, the pandemic has uncovered extreme inequalities and has shown that those who were already privileged beforehand have been able to manage the crisis better than others. I thus have no intention to create a naive impression that “everything will now be better and more inclusive” – but on a small scale, and especially in my research on the archaeology of Northeast Africa, the crisis has contributed to overcoming barriers, which is something very positive that bodes well for the future.

Julia Budka, Archaeology in the Covid-19 Era: Challenges in Northeast Africa (and Worldwide), CAS LMU Blog, 01 June 2021, https://doi.org/10.5282/cas-blog/24