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By Carole Green
Whilst other girls of her age may have dreamt of being a ballerina, hairdresser or nurse, Scarborough's Joann Fletcher was just four years old when she realised she was destined to be an Egyptologist.
“I became fascinated by ancient Egypt, largely as a result of my parents’ book collection. They’d got several Egyptian books and the visuals drew me in as a small child and I was totally smitten by these beautiful looking people. Of course in 1972 the big Tutankhamen exhibition came to London and again everyone went Tutankhamen crazy including me, I was totally hooked.”
When Joann’s mother told her she could become an Egyptologist and actually earn a living studying ancient Egypt she couldn't believe it. From the age of six she says she was “a total ancient Egyptian anorak, that was it, I’ve never looked back, I just live and breathe it and I have a real passion for it.”
At school, careers advice was a bit thin on the ground, but Joann persevered and went to University College London to study ancient history and Egyptology. She specialised in the Ptolemies (one of the ancient Egyptian dynasties) and Cleopatra and also in ancient Egyptian hair, wigs and forms of adornment:
Joann working on an iron age bog body
This was a subject that had been overlooked in the study of the ancient Egyptians and Joann did her PHD on hair and wigs. Studying, as she says, “on the wrong side of the Pennines in Manchester because the museum there had some superb mummies”. Her interest in mummification developed alongside the study of hair and the scientific tests that can be done to learn more about the way the ancient Egyptians lived.
The ancient Egyptians don’t have a monopoly on mummification! The technique was first developed in Northern Chile around 6000 BC, several millennia before the Egyptians ever thought of it. Joann has, over the years, worked on mummies from all over the world including other parts of South America, North America, Libya, the Yemen and the Canary Islands.
When she finished her PHD, Joann flew in the face of convention yet again and decided to become a freelance Egyptologist. Critics gave her three months, but within a month she’d had a fantastic offer to work in Cairo. A film crew were doing some filming and having the gift of the gab she gave it a go and one job led to another.
The Pyramids at Giza
Joann has filmed all over the world, Egypt, the Canary Islands, South America and has just finished a series called ‘Mummy Forensics’ for the History Channel.
All this has brought her plenty of criticism from what she calls ‘the establishment’:
“I don’t do it the proper way, I don’t wear the tweeds, I don’t speak correctly. I’ve got a northern accent heaven forbid! The spite that’s come from that area is really quite amusing and on the other hand it’s balanced by people coming up to me in the street and saying ‘wow brilliant stuff’. I’m not going to talk down to anybody and why on earth would I? It’s not rocket science it’s Egyptology!”
Joann manages to get quite a lot into her life – as well as the television work, writing books on female pharaoh’s Nefertiti and Cleopatra she lectures at the University of York (and is a Mum). However, one of most rewarding parts of her work is with local museums.
In 2001 Joann was invited by Harrogate Museums to authenticate some of the Egyptian material they had in storage. Most of it had been collected by the Kent family from Beckwithshaw near Harrogate. They had displayed the artefacts in their farmhouse. When the last member of the Kent family, Benjamin, died in 1968 the collection was left to the Harrogate Corporation. With no money or space to put it on display, it had to go into storage.
Mummy mask in Harrogate Museum
Joann, along with Harrogate Museums, The University of York and funding from NESTA (National Endowment for Science Technology and Art) has studied and analysed the collection and it is now on permanent display in Harrogate. Joann says the collection is “spectacular”.
Joann is passionate about her subject, especially when it comes to the female pharaohs:
“I am so hacked off with constantly reading about these women as queens. They weren’t queens they were pharaohs, the texts tell us they were pharaohs and if the modern world doesn’t like to accept the fact that women could rule on an equal basis with men in ancient Egypt that’s tough!”
Anubis mask: Harrogate Museums & Arts
Life is good for Joann Fletcher at the moment, she’s fulfilled all her dreams and she’s been filming in the Valley of the Kings again:
“Again there will be a little bit of controversy over that, but it’s what life’s about, you have to rock the boat to progress.”
last updated: 09/06/2008 at 17:35