Barry Kemp obituary


The Egyptologist and archaeologist Barry Kemp, who has died aged 84, remodeled our understanding of on a regular basis life in historical Egypt. His biggest contribution to archaeology, carried out between 1977 and 2008, was the excavation of Amarna, a web site in Egypt roughly midway between Cairo and Luxor.

Right here lie the ruins of the short-lived capital metropolis constructed by the revolutionary pharaoh Akhenaten within the 14th century BC and subsequently deserted after his demise. Extending over an space of some 60 sq. kilometres, Amarna is essentially the most intensive city web site to have survived from pharaonic Egypt; like its Roman counterpart, Pompeii, it preserves a time capsule of city life within the historical world. In Kemp’s personal phrases: “There isn’t any different web site prefer it.”

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Barry Kemp was modest and introverted in life, however radical in his work. {Photograph}: Andreas Mesli

Underneath Kemp’s guiding hand, the excavations at Amarna shed new mild on innumerable facets of historical Egyptian civilisation, from odd individuals’s life expectancy (brief) to their weight-reduction plan (meagre) and their non secular customs (numerous and eclectic). Notions of metropolis dwelling below the pharaohs have been upended, with Amarna rising as a sequence of modest villages surrounding just a few massive authorities buildings, slightly than a metropolis within the trendy sense.

Difficult acquired knowledge and proposing daring, new interpretations of the proof have been Kemp’s forte. He as soon as wrote that “the true examine of man is a subversive topic”, and although he was softly spoken and introverted, his radical credentials shone via his work. He was by no means extra fluent or persuasive than when questioning established orthodoxies.

An excellent instance was his 1995 article within the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, How Non secular Have been the Historical Egyptians?, which challenged millennia of scholarly assumptions – courting again to the traditional Greek historian Herodotus – that the Egyptians have been obsessive about faith. As an alternative, Kemp made a robust case that, past the slim confines of the royal court docket, individuals weren’t particularly religious. Not each scholar agreed with the thesis, however none may fault Kemp’s mastery of the proof.

Kemp revealed prolifically. His contribution to a landmark 1983 examine, Historical Egypt: A Social Historical past, centered on the expertise of odd individuals slightly than the achievements of kings. It modified Egyptology for ever, and the topic reinvented itself as a contemporary social science. Kemp’s pioneering strategy discovered its fullest expression in his magnum opus, Historical Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, first revealed in 1989. Three editions and 35 years later, it stays a regular reference work.

Kemp was born in Birmingham, to Norah (nee Lawless) and Ernest, a travelling salesman who served in Egypt with the military throughout the second world struggle. His pictures and postcards residence sparked Kemp’s curiosity from an early age. He studied Egyptology at Liverpool College, and graduated with a BA in 1962. Aged simply 22, he was appointed right away as an assistant lecturer in Egyptology at Cambridge College, the place he remained for the entire of his working life, being promoted to lecturer in 1969, reader in 1990, and eventually professor in 2005, two years earlier than his retirement.

{That a} professorial title was a very long time coming was much less a mirrored image of Kemp’s tutorial standing – which was undoubted – than of his temperament. Like considered one of his heroes, the late-Nineteenth-century archaeologist Flinders Petrie, Kemp intentionally eschewed the camaraderie (and posturing) of academia, preferring the spartan lifetime of a dig to meals on excessive desk. He sported the traditional look of a subject archaeologist – bushy beard, dishevelled jumper and strolling boots. At Amarna, he was in his factor, spending a number of months every year in a tumbledown, ramshackle dig-house with a band of like-minded colleagues, extra interested by uncovering secrets and techniques from the sands of Egypt than in creature comforts.

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A 14th-century BC bas-relief uncovered at Amarna, depicting the pharaoh Akhenaten and his spouse Nefertiti. {Photograph}: De Agostini/Getty Photographs

In Cambridge, in contrast, Kemp’s instinctive dislike of the institution, and of forms in all its types, made the college an uncomfortable place for him. For many years, he resisted a school fellowship, lastly accepting one from Wolfson Faculty 38 years after becoming a member of the Cambridge college. In 2006, he parted firm with the Egypt Exploration Society, which had sponsored his excavations at Amarna for practically 30 years, and arrange his personal organisation, the Amarna Belief. That allowed him to do issues his personal method, which was how he favored it.

Regardless that he was an inspiring trainer, Kemp had little urge for food for lecturing undergraduates. On a school open day within the early Nineteen Nineties, he was to be discovered standing on the entrance to the Egyptology library, directing potential college students to the close by classics college: fewer college students to show meant extra time for analysis. But for these college students fortunate sufficient to have had Kemp as a lecturer or postgraduate analysis supervisor, there may have been no wiser or extra beneficiant trainer.

Modest and self-effacing, Kemp didn’t relish the limelight. Recognition by the scholarly institution got here with election to a fellowship of the British Academy in 1992. When made CBE in 2011, his acceptance of the honour – for companies to archaeology, schooling and worldwide relations in Egypt – got here as one thing of a shock, given his quiet radicalism. However for Kemp, this was recognition of his efforts to coach younger Egyptian archaeologists, in order that they might stick with it his work and be the interpreters of their very own historical past.

Kemp was married thrice. The primary two marriages led to divorce. He’s survived by his third spouse, Miriam Bertram, additionally an Egyptologist; his daughters, Nicola, Victoria and Frances; two granddaughters, and one great-granddaughter.


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