Nora Shawki ‘08 discovered her passion for Egyptology two weeks after arriving at CAC in third grade. “We had to take an Egypt culture class, and my teacher Jailan Abbas showed us a movie reenactment of Howard Carter discovering King Tut’s tomb.” She explained, “it was one of the first times I saw anything that had to do with Egyptology, and this class made me more interested in my own heritage. When I saw that movie I thought, ‘this is what I want to do.’”
Shawki maintained her passion for Egyptology, and after graduating from CAC at the Great Pyramids of Giza, she pursued a bachelor’s degree in archaeology from the SOAS University of London and a master’s from Durham University in the UK. Recently, she returned to Egypt to pursue a PhD in Egyptian archaeology at Cairo University in partnership with Durham University.
For her PhD research, Shawki is focusing on settlement archaeology, a relatively new subfield. “I focus on regular people and what they were doing and where they were living. I use material culture from royal, religious, and regular people to understand the impact of royal policy on Egyptians who lived during the Late Period,” she explained.
She has chosen to focus on the Nile Delta in particular because the wet environment and expansion of modern settlements threaten to destroy the remains of ancient settlements. “Studying the Delta is a race against time. It’s more motivating to hurry and link all of the sites before we lose them because once they’re lost, they’re really lost forever.”
In 2015, Shawki received the prestigious Young Explorers Grant from National Geographic, which provided her with the funding needed to lead her own excavation of Tell Zuwelen, a site in Sharqiya Governorate. This settlement was a satellite of Tanis, a major religious, economic, and cultural center in ancient Egypt from the New Kingdom to the Late Period. Many people know Tanis, though, as the ancient city uncovered in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Shawki is both excited and nervous to lead her first dig, which will hopefully begin in October, after she receives official permits from the Ministry of Antiquities. She explained, “I prefer the actual archaeology part of my work, getting in the dirt and digging. You have to be passionate about it because you encounter a lot of obstacles on excavations.”
In addition to managing a team, ensuring the security of the site, and coordinating publication of any findings, one of the most significant challenges Shawki anticipates is engaging the local community in understanding and caring about her work. “You have to create a good relationship with the site so you can keep coming back every year and it turns into a type of community archaeology. The site is related to [the local people’s] heritage, and if they feel a connection and start to care, they’re going to want to help you.”
Despite the challenges, Shawki loves the day-to-day of her work. “You’re constantly finding artifacts, whether it’s a bead or anything. It’s history that you’re literally holding in your hands, and you’re the one who’s going to interpret it. Your job is to catalogue, research, and document everything properly so other academics can help you with the research, and we can all figure it out together. It’s really a collective effort in understanding our heritage on a larger scale.”
While Shawki has studied at many world-class institutions since leaving CAC, she appreciates the impact of her experience at the school. “My education at CAC inspired me to do what I do today. It motivated me. I can’t say I would have had that opportunity at any other institution in Egypt because I know schools don’t focus on Egyptian culture or heritage in depth. My end goal [in life] is to come back and be the Egypt culture teacher at CAC.” Shawki has many goals to accomplish as an archaeologist before making this dream a reality. However, she hopes to engage CAC students in her current research by having them visit and learn about the site in fall 2017.