Interview: Mary McKercher, of the Brooklyn Museum, on Egypt

Posted by zyrcster in Interviews

Photographs of Egypt have long fascinated the West. We talked with Mary McKercher, photographer and archaeologist for the Brooklyn Museum’s Mut Expedition, about the most recent season of work. Her new photographs are on Flickr in the Mut 2009: Sights at the Site and Beyond set and at the museum’s Dig Diary.

Mary McKercher

Mary McKercher

Mary, what is your involvement with the Brooklyn Museum and the Mut Expedition?

Based on work I had done for another expedition, Richard Fazzini, Curator of Egyptian art at the museum and Director of the Mut Expedition, hired me as expedition photographer in 1979. We first met face-to-face at the site and were married later that year. I am still the expedition photographer but I get involved in the digging as well since I am trained in archaeology and speak reasonable Arabic. Back in Brooklyn I handle the post-season photo work and have lately become interested in studying the pottery we have found.

Going back to the Mut Precinct year after year is the best part of the job. Luxor is a beautiful place and there is always the curiosity about what we will find this year. We also have many Egyptian, European and American friends and colleagues whom we only see in Egypt. Not only is it fun to catch up with the news, but the chance to work with people we like and respect and to talk to colleagues about what we are doing while we are doing it can be very useful.

Mut & Amun

What is the Mut Expedition?

The 20+ acre Mut Precinct, part of the Karnak temple complex, lies about 100 yards south of the Amun Precinct to which it is linked by an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes. It contains the Mut Temple (surrounded on 3 sides by a sacred lake called the Isheru), two other large temples, a number of smaller chapels, and remains of domestic buildings of various periods.

Mut, the consort of Amun and mother of the moon-god Khonsu, had 2 forms, like many Egyptian goddesses: beneficent Mut, and fierce Sakhmet, who protected Egypt but could destroy it if angered. This dual nature is the reason for the many large statues of lioness-headed Sakhmet at the site. Rituals to keep Mut/Sakhmet happy often involved singing, dancing, eating and drinking.

The earliest official dig took place in 1895-97 and was led by two Englishwomen, Margaret Benson and Janet Gourlay, the first women to lead an archaeological expedition in Egypt Although additional work was carried out by others during the intervening years, the Brooklyn Museum expedition, begun in 1976, was the first to undertake a systematic exploration of the site as a whole. Since 2001, we have shared the site with an expedition from the Johns Hopkins University. All work at the site is carried out under the supervision of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, which is responsible for the exploration, preservation, and restoration of Egypt’s rich cultural heritage.


Mary McKercher

Mary McKercher

What were your goals in photographing the dig?

Since archaeology is, by its nature, destructive, it is essential to document everything that is uncovered before it is removed. Photography is one type of documentation; written records, drawings, and plans are others. The goal is to record what is about to be removed in order to provide archaeologists with the information they will need when they return home and start to write up their fieldwork. Photographs also document the many objects, decorated blocks and other materials found during excavations.

Most dig photography is fairly routine, as you can see in the various dig diaries: mud brick or stone walls, the progress of restoration efforts, interesting small finds, etc. Occasionally, however, we do get a surprise. In 2007, for instance, when we turned over a seemingly uninteresting slab of sandstone leaning against a wall, we found a gilded and painted relief on the other side.

There was mention of the Imsheer winds and the sand that kicked up — what were specific challenges to photographing this project?

Windy Day

The Imsheer winds are always a problem. Working in continually blowing dirt is uncomfortable for everyone: it’s hard to breathe and your eyes are always tearing from the dust. The fine grains are also hard on photographic equipment, particularly digital cameras that are more sensitive to dust than film cameras. Sometimes the only thing you can do is turn your back to the wind, cover your face (and camera) and wait for that gust to pass. Most frustrating is when you’ve spent an hour or so cleaning up an area for photography only to have a dust devil (think tornado) tear through, scattering dirt, twigs, and other junk all over your nice clean surface.

The heat can also be a challenge. By the end of the season it is not unusual to be working in 100° F heat on a site with no shade. It can be exhausting, but I wouldn’t trade working at Mut for anything.

I was interested in this photo of the lake bottom. What’s the story behind draining the lake? How did you approach your Flickr photos?

Isheru lake bottom

Isheru lake bottom

Actually, the sacred lake photo was a happy chance that was the direct result of work at the site, this time by the Johns Hopkins University expedition. While my main focus is documenting the work we are doing at the site, I also keep an eye out for situations or scenes in Mut and beyond that I think would make interesting photographs – like the shots of the Egyptian desert taken on the flight to Luxor.

I look on the Flickr posts as my opportunity to share a few of these pictures with a wider audience.

What role has Flickr played for the project?

We did our first dig diaries in 2005 and 2006. In mid-2006 Shelley Bernstein, Chief of Technology at the museum, came to us with the suggestion that we create a series of photo sets for Flickr to provide a background to what we are doing now and also bring the Mut Expedition’s work to a wider audience. We were a little intimidated – neither of us was (or is) particularly internet-savvy – but with Shelley’s patient instruction and help we eventually created 8 sets on the history of the site, our work in general, and certain specific buildings or projects. The purpose of both the blogs and the Flickr photosets is to help people learn more about archaeology in general and our work in Egypt in particular.

At the end of the 2008 season, Shelley suggested a closing Flickr-linked blog of photos that were more in the “isn’t this cool?” category than the purely archaeological. This year we expanded the idea by using Flickr to share photographs that were interesting or intriguing (to us) but not directly related to the dig.

We get notified regularly of comments on both the dig diary and the Flickr postings, and respond when we can or when we think we have something to add to a discussion. This year’s dig diary seems to have generated more interest than previous years, which is great. What surprises me, though, is that we are still getting new comments on photos that have been out there on the dig diaries or Flickr for years.

What’s the process behind uploading photos to Flickr and the stories to your museum’s blog?

Posting the blog and Flickr photos is a real collaborative effort between the archaeologists, photographer and conservator in the field and the IT people in the museum.

When I download each day’s photos to my computer, I try to pick a few that might be useful for that week’s blog or Flickr posting. On Thursday (the end of our work week) Richard and I go through the photos, decide which to use for the blog and then one of us writes the captions. Our goal is to give people an idea of the flow and complexity of work and the excitement (and sometimes boredom) of archaeology. If the conservator is blogging, we coordinate with him or her so that we don’t duplicate efforts.

Since we have no way to connect to the internet in our hotel room, I load photos and captions onto a CD every Friday (our day off and the only day we have any spare time) and head for the nearest internet café. The 7-hour time difference between Luxor and New York works to our advantage: if I email the material to the museum by 9 am in NY (4 pm in Luxor) there is time during both our normal working hours to fix any problems, like photos that don’t transmit. Shelley and her team are terrific: the material I send Friday morning, Luxor time, is usually posted by the end of the day New York time.

Inside Abu el-Haggag Mosque

Inside Abu el-Haggag Mosque

What’s a memorable story about this dig for you?

The most memorable event, for me, is meeting Richard that first season. At that time the expedition lived in a mud brick house behind the Amun Precinct in pretty primitive conditions -we had electricity and running water (usually), but it was not unusual to come across a scorpion when on the way to the bathroom, and we really did have to shake our shoes out each morning before putting them on. We have been together for 30 years now and still get a thrill out of each other and out of archaeology.

Any feelings as a photographer that the photos you took will someday be regarded in the sense that we regard photographs from the William Henry Goodyear collection of yore?

The 19th century photographers set out to show the world a country that was largely unknown to them and to the Western world at large. Their interest, therefore, was more in the picturesque and scenic rather than in scientific documentation. The purpose of archaeological photography is quite different: we are seeking to document what is found. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t superb archaeological photographs, but that isn’t the reason the pictures were taken.

There is no question, however, of the importance and amount of serious research material that is now available online. A number of institutions post not only dig diaries of their work in Egypt and elsewhere, but fully-written reports of that work as well. This trend will only continue and become increasingly important.

How can we relate the Goodyear collection to the present Mut Expedition?

This new group of Goodyear Collection images is an nice mix of daily life (such as the camels or the Assiut street scene), ancient monuments, Islamic architecture, and pharaonic sculpture. I find early photographs of Egypt fascinating, particularly shots of the monuments as they were before excavation. Being able to see photos not only from the museum’s collection but from other institutions as well is great. However, none are directly relevant to the Mut Precinct and our work there. Mut was rarely photographed by the classic 19th century photographers: it was just too ruined. I only know of a few, of which 2 are illustrated in the museum’s Flickr photo sets: one by H. Bechard 1880s (”The Mut Precinct Then and Now“) one by Beato taken after 1897 (”The Mut Precinct: Baboon Restoration“).

Occasionally there are photographs of areas near the Mut Precinct. For instance, I think the NY Public Library’s “Lousor vue du nord” and “Louxor” may both be of the village to the west of the site but can’t be sure.

Be sure to read the Museum’s blog post about the wrap-up of this dig.

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4 Responses to “Interview: Mary McKercher, of the Brooklyn Museum, on Egypt”

  1. Shelley Says:

    Mary, next year I’m requesting a photo of you uploading from one of the internet cafes in advance :) You kept talking about those really gross keyboards – that needs illustration :)

  2. striatic Says:

    it is really cool to see all the effort that set represents articulated in this way.

    makes the photos worth a second look.

  3. Mary McKercher Says:

    Shelley, The problem with the keyboards is more mechanical (choked with dust) than physical, so a photo wouldn’t really show much; you’ll just have to come to Luxor and try them yourself. Actually, given how much use the internet cafes get and how pervasive dust and sand are in Egypt, it’s amazing the computers work as well as they do. The owners/managers really do a pretty good job under the circumstances, and they have made a big difference to us: without them there would have been no Flickr sets, no blogs and no email.

  4. indicommons» Blog Archive » Happy Commonsversary, Brooklyn! Says:

    [...] Interview: Mary McKercher, of the Brooklyn Museum, on Egypt — Our interview with Dr. McKercher was a treat. As an expedition photographer and archaeologist, her insight into the work in general and the Brooklyn Museum in general is invaluable. She brings to life the Brooklyn’s Goodyear Archives with her knowledge and sheds light on the work the scientific work of the museum. [...]

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