“When I said I wanted to be an Egyptologist they called me a nutcase”

We interview Professor Joann Fletcher, the woman behind the BBC’s “Immortal Egypt”

Born in Barnsley in 1966, Joann Fletcher is not only a Visiting Professor at York, but also a best-selling author and award-winning TV and radio broadcaster.

Fletcher’s award-winning documentaries have kindled popular interest in the mysterious world of the ancient Egyptians and brought their colourful lives into our living rooms. She has recently finished writing her latest book, The Story of Egypt, and writing and presenting her latest documentary series for BBC2, Immortal Egypt with Joann Fletcher. Her passion and dedication to Egyptology was born when she was a little girl growing up in Barnsley in the late 1960s.

thumb“My earliest drawings in wax crayons at nursery school were of Egyptian Gods,” she says. “I remember my mother saying to me: ‘if you’re interested in Egyptology then you can study the ancient Egyptians as a job.’ We were having dinner and I was aged six. I said ‘That’s great, that’s what I’m going to do’. And literally that’s all I’ve ever done.”

But her path has been far from straightforward and, as Fletcher says, “full of interesting hurdles. “For a little girl in born in Barnsley in the late 1960s to say ‘I’m going to be an Egyptologist’, well… people thought I was a nutcase.”

“As a profession Egyptology is relatively okay with females now,” she says. “We’ve got a fairly good balance of male and female. The thing that has stood against me in certain quarters is – would you believe – my [Barnsley] accent!”

Indeed when Fletcher has been attacked – and in the past she has been attacked viciously – “it’s always – oh she’s from Barnsley, she’s got an accent. Certainly until recently it was the done thing in certain [archaeological] circles to pretend you don’t have an accent and to airbrush out your background – but that’s not something I’m prepared to do; I’m proud of where I’m from.” And that loyalty has certainly paid off.

In June 2016, Fletcher’s hometown will award her the Honorary Freedom of Barnsley – the highest honour a town can give. And it’s a well-earned honour.

At age eighteen the pull of Egyptology had only grown stronger and it was time for Fletcher to take her passion one step further and find a university. “There was only one course for me and that was at University College London (UCL),” she says.

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“At the time the course only took on three people per year. At my interview I said – with the confidence and naivety of youth! – ‘if you don’t take me on this year I’ll come back next year!’ But they took me on! I spent three years at UCL studying the most fabulous, fabulous course, just a stone’s throw from the British Museum.”

Was she tempted to stay in London? She shakes her head: “I wasn’t too keen on living in the south-east. I’ve always felt that it was unfair that people in the north-east couldn’t study Egyptian Archaeology within our own region.”

Fletcher’s “lifelong passion” to bring Egyptology to more of the north continues to be fulfilled. Her recent work includes helping put much of Harrogate’s Egyptian collection on permanent display, guest curating exhibitions in Barnsley and Wakefield, and studying the storage collections in many other museums around Yorkshire.

She recently helped pull together a collection of ancient coffins, burial masks and objects of daily life covering over 3,000 years of Egyptian history that were rediscovered during the relocation of museum stores in Wigan, and are currently displayed in the town’s exhibition ‘Ancient Egypt Rediscovered’. Fletcher believes that the “secret” to the success of her latest series Immortal Egypt was the variety of shooting locations.

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“Of course we filmed extensively in Egypt and the Sudan,” she says, “but we also filmed in little-known collections elsewhere, including Wigan Museum – which perhaps isn’t the first place that people might think of when it comes to ancient Egypt!” She continues: “We were privileged to handle a gold coffin mask which was found only a couple of years ago in Wigan’s museum storage. It’s very rare to be allowed to hold something of such rarity and beauty and value – and there it was in Wigan. It allowed us to better tell the story by showing the familiar alongside the unfamiliar.”

Today Fletcher is a Professor at the University of York. “As the base for my work, York is my natural home,” she states. “I love the city, and the University is one of the world leaders in archaeology. It’s got a spectacular record and my colleagues are wonderful. York also has a history of combining archaeology with science which is something we certainly do in our work on mummification.”

In 1999 this intra-academic relationship led to Fletcher co-founding the University’s ‘Mummy Research Group’.  Research results recently “pushed back the beginnings of Egyptian mummification by almost 2000 years” in a joint project with colleagues at the universities of Oxford and Macquarie. With Egypt’s early mummification practices also featuring in the recent Immortal Egypt, the documentary series covers “the entire history of ancient Egypt. The complete story of Egypt has never really been documented on TV in this way – certainly not on the BBC – and most histories of Egypt begin around 3,000 BCE. But thanks to new discoveries we were able to push that back to 17,000 BCE.”

The difficulty of comprehensively covering such an extensive period of history in a short time led Fletcher to write her latest book, The Story of Egypt, to “support the things we simply didn’t have time to mention in the four-hour series.” “The book and the TV series work in tandem to cover some of the more nitty-gritty details about Ancient Egypt.”

So what’s next for Fletcher? “A big project with Barnsley Museums, a new series and a new book.” But – she says quickly – “they are all in embryonic stage at the moment. And of course I’m still teaching at York and working on research projects there so it’s always pretty full on.”