Facetime with Cleopatra

When people think of Ancient Egypt they conjure up images of a monolithic moment in time. A time when the great pyramids were built and Cleopatra sat on the Ptolemaic throne, attended the occasional soiree with Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar who lived nearby.

What we don’t realise is the Ancient Egypt conjured up in their minds actually spanned thousands of years.

In fact, while Caesar was hanging around, in terms of time, Cleopatra would have been more likely to have contacted us on Facebook than have been around to oversee the construction of the pyramids.

Jamie Fraser, Senior Curator at the Nicholson Museum in the University of Sydney, says Australians love the idea of Egypt because we can engage in this “huge, rich cultural legacy in so many different ways”.

“But we're actually closer in time to Cleopatra now, than Cleopatra was to the building of the pyramids.”

As to what excites people in particular, Fraser says it’s obviously the country’s rich tomb archaeology.

“It really grabs people, and it really sets fireworks off in their brains,” he says.

Caption: Coffin of Padiashaikhet, c.725–700 BC (25th dynasty) plaster-coated painted wood.
Image Credit: supplied by Nicholson Museum

Tomb archaeology has fascinated people for hundreds of years but really took off in the 20th century with the discovery of the young Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb in the early 1920s by British archaeologist Howard Carter.

Besides the extraordinary riches and thousands of artefacts found inside the tomb, one of the key reasons Tutankhamun ignites so much interest is the tomb was found virtually intact thousands of years after the door was closed. It was preserved in time.

Fraser, who is also an archaeologist, says what’s so fascinating about Egypt is we’re able to uncover how people in different civilisations lived over millennia in the one place.

“When you go to Egypt, the archaeology's structured in a lot of different ways, depending on the sort of site you're digging.

“You can walk up to a site that might have been an ancient city, but may have multiple layers like a wedding cake.

“Some things are quite young, maybe medieval Egypt, might be at the top, and you might strip that back to Roman Egypt, strip that back to Ptolemaic Greek Egypt – the time of Cleopatra, down through the New Kingdom, through the Middle Kingdom, through the Old Kingdom and the time of the pyramid builders.

“The trench might be 10 metres deep from the top to the bottom and you might be walking down through 5000 to 6000 years of history,” Fraser says.

He says the Nicholson Museum collection manages to represent the broad sweep of Egyptian history.

“The earliest artefacts we have are paleolithic, so they're hundreds of thousands of years old, when people were still hunting and gathering along the Nile River.

“As for the latest objects we have in the Egyptian collection, they are medieval Coptic objects, but we have a whole swathe of items from the various kingdoms and empires that rose and fell in Egypt for the thousands of years in between.”

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