Dr Robert Morkot

Research interests

I have wide interests in the Ancient Mediterranean and North Africa, and in the history of archaeology and reception of antiquity in western Europe. My particular expertise is in the external relations of Egypt, particularly from the Late Bronze Age to Roman Periods. My doctoral work and many of my publications consider the region immediately to the south of Egypt – ‘ Nubia’ and northern Sudan – but I have also worked on Egypt's relationship with Libya, and with Western Asia.

My research has been paradigm-shifting, but inevitably, also controversial: Egyptologists do not like having their paradigms shifted! In the late 1980s I collaborated with some colleagues from UCL and the Institute of Archaeology in London in writing Centuries of Darkness (http://www.centuries.co.uk/) which challenged the accepted dating of the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age in the Eastern Mediterranean. Many of the ideas had already been voiced or been the subject of fierce academic debates: notably Kathleen Kenyon's 'low' chronology for the archaeology of Palestine. Centuries reviewed and revived many of these debates within a broad context, and also introduced some new elements, such as my own chapter on the 'Nubian Dark Age'. As a result, this was quite a divisive book! It was lampooned by Bernard Levin in The Times, but there were also numerous reviews in many of the leading academic journals, and by major scholars: many were sympathetic to the issues, fewer supported the conclusions. The heart of the 'problem' diagnosed was the reconstruction of Egyptian chronology. Some Egyptologists, notably Kenneth Kitchen and Barry Kemp did respond (in the major review article in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal) but the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology ignored it, as did many Egyptologists. Indeed, many Egyptologists still get upset at the mention of it. However, there is an increasingly large number of specialists throughout the archaeology of the region who have come to accept the proposals within their own regions,.

My doctoral dissertation proposed a radical re-interpretation of the 'emergence' of the Kushite state that conquered Egypt in the mid-8th century BCE (ruling there as the Egyptian '25th Dynasty'). It reviewed the evidence and viewed it within the context of what happens to 'colonies' and peripheries following imperial collapse: it was ironical that much of it was written in East Germany just prior to the collapse of the USSR. This too, was highly controversial, but the main thrust of my arguments have now been adopted by most archaeologists of the region.

In both my doctoral work and Centuries of Darkness, I challenged the idea that there was a 200-300 year 'gap' in the history and archaeology of Nubia. I presented my ideas first in a paper called 'The Nubian Dark Age' at a conference in Geneva: it did not go down well, but surveys and excavations over the past twenty years have now shown that there was no 'Dark Age' or gap. How the archaeology is to be interpreted  - whether it confirms a Centuries-style lower chronology, or supports the conventional Egyptological chronology - remains to be seen.

One particular aspect of my research which has continued to develop from my doctoral work is on the economic interactions of the ancient world. As part of this, I have developed a particular interest in ivory as a material and as an item in international trade. Most recently I contributed a paper on ivory 'Changing empires, changing sources' to the conference 'Ivory trade and exchange in Late Antiquity and Early Islam'. This was the first conference of a Leverhulme Trust research project led by Professor Hugh Kennedy (SOAS) and Dr Myriam Wissa (SOAS) ‘Bridging religious difference in a multicultural Eastern Mediterranean Society. Communities of artists and their commercial networks in Egypt from Justinian to the ‘Abbasids (6th-10th centuries)’.

I am  involved in research in the western European relationship with the Ancient World, and its ‘rediscovery’ and ‘invention’. This relates closely to my work on Museum collections and has helped to re-contextualise objects which were acquired by travellers in the early 19 th century. It also relates very closely to the teaching of the history of Archaeology at Exeter. One aspect of this research is historiography: how writers have understood or invented the past, and how ideas have been developed and transmitted. For example, ‘On the Priestly Origin of the Napatan Kings’ discusses how a racist idea of the 19 th century has continued to influence our interpretation of the archaeology of the northern Sudan, even though the more overt racism was removed as the idea was repeated and elaborated.

In 2012 I held an AHRC Fellowship which enabled me to pursue many of these themes. Called 'The intellectual development of Egyptology 1780-1880' the project examines the issues and ideas that dominated the developing academic discipline of Egyptology. Most studies of the period have concentrated on the decipherment of hieroglyphic, the 'looting' of monuments and taken a positivist view of the way the academic discipline evolved. My own work focuses on the what travellers and scholars thought about Egypt: what were the questions that they asked and tried to answer? And how did ideas about Egypt relate to the other key intellectual issues of the 19th century?