Graduate student unearths ancient Egyptian life stories from burial texts
Marissa Stevens, a graduate student in the department of Near Eastern languages and cultures, presented her research at the final round of the University of California Grad Slam in April. (Courtesy of Anastasiia Sapon)
By Kelly Davis
May 14, 2018 11:55 p.m.
A UCLA student discovered that ancient Egyptians used material objects to construct their social identities just as people do today.
Marissa Stevens, a graduate student in the department of Near Eastern languages and cultures, studied how ancient Egyptians used funerary papyri to convey social status and personalities by examining social documents buried with the dead. Stevens presented her research May 3 at the final round of the University of California Grad Slam, an annual contest in which UC graduate students present their research in just three minutes.
“I studied these social documents to understand what it meant to own these documents,” Stevens said. “These (documents) were used for Egyptian elite individuals – a lot of documents had identifying information on them, like names, titles and family members.”
Willeke Wendrich, the director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press at UCLA, has conducted archaeological excavations in Egypt with Stevens. She said Stevens applied the same attention to detail that she used in her archaeological work when studying the documents buried with Egyptian dead.
“By carefully comparing the type of instructions, the composition of these funerary texts and the ownership, she has created a deep understanding of the social relationships of Egyptians who lived around 1000 BCE, over 3000 years ago,” Wendrich said.
Stevens said that although ancient Egypt may seem remote and different from modern society, modern humans share many similarities with ancient Egyptians, such as how their behaviors are often motivated by materialism and public opinion.
“By studying a society that seems far removed from our own, we can take a look at ourselves and understand ourselves a little bit better, and then also understand the Egyptians a little bit better when we realize that we are not that different,” Stevens said.
Kara Cooney, Stevens’ advisor and chair of the Near Eastern languages and cultures department, said she thinks the most interesting aspect of Stevens’ research is that she uses information from ancient Egyptians’ deaths to understand how they socially competed with each other in life.
“It’s kind of like going into an old American high school and differentiating social statuses through the kinds of shoes kids were wearing, if that was all that was left behind in their society,” Stevens said. “The shoes could tell who the rich kids were, the seniors and freshmen and who were popular.”
Stevens said ancient Egyptians spent as much time and money on burials as some people do on weddings today.
“Look at a modern, Western wedding where brides spend thousands of dollars on a dress and tens of thousands on the venue and food,” Stevens said. “Both ancient Egyptian funerary burials and modern-day weddings are social events that reinforce the status of the individual and their family.”
One of Stevens’ favorite parts of the project was studying the funerary papyri of a 21st-dynasty individual named Nodjmet, who was the wife of a high priest. Stevens had a chance to see Nodjmet’s papyrus in the British Museum in London before conducting her research in Egypt, where she was later able to translate other pieces of Nodjmet’s papyri.
“It was awesome to see her coffin and her mummy and know so much about her,” Stevens said. “Being able to piece all of these things together was very cool.”
Stevens said that she has known that she wanted to be an Egyptologist since she was 8 years old.
“Most children go through a phase where Egypt is really cool and interesting. Or maybe it’s dinosaurs or being an astronaut,” Stevens said. “I tell people I never grew up – I was always in a very supportive environment, my parents and my teachers supported me.
Cooney said Stevens is relentless when it comes to her research.
“She gets onto something and she’ll never stop,” Cooney said. “She’ll try to look at a research question from any possible angle and start looking for patterns.”
Stevens said she hopes people will realize that cultures that initially seem distant are not always so different.
“Understanding ancient cultures in general shouldn’t be seen as ‘other’ or foreign,” Stevens said. “It’s about learning from them and their contributions – what they did is lay the foundation for the entire world culture.”