Wondrous things

Detail of the Alexander Mosaic showing Alexander the Great (circa 100 BC)Detail of the Alexander Mosaic showing Alexander the Great (circa 100 BC)

Rosemary Hawkins talks about the WEA's ongoing Egyptology course at Wanstead House, which returns next month and invites students new and old to learn about Alexander the Great and other subjects.

"I see wondrous things," Howard Carter replied when he first peered into Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922. In 1972, I marvelled at some of those 'wondrous things' at a special exhibition at the British Museum and, 30 years later, I visited the tomb and was mesmerised by the 3,000-year-old paintings on the walls.

Knowing nothing about Ancient Egypt, when I discovered the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) ran courses in Egyptology at Wanstead House, I enrolled thinking I would find out all I needed to know in a couple of years. How wrong I was. I was not aware the civilisation actually existed for more than 4,000 years and that there was much more to Ancient Egypt than a few pyramids outside Cairo and a few temples and tombs near Luxor. Never realising how many different aspects of the civilisation could be studied, 15 years later, I am still learning.

Led by very experienced tutors, each an authority in their own specialised field, students have studied the lives and times of different pharaohs, temples and tombs and the daily lives of the villagers who built the tombs, including individuals who lived there and their laundry lists! Other areas of study have included Egypt's contact with the Near East, its place in the Bible, its literature, art and textiles, with a visit to the Petrie Museum to look at the beaded dress the tutor had discovered in a bundle of rags. In the classroom, all subjects are supported by visual aids of sites and artefacts. One lecturer even brought along his toy soldiers so we could re-enact one of the battles.

The Ancient Egyptians recorded everything, from historical events on walls of temples to court cases on papyri and autobiographies on the walls of their tombs. Of course, until Champollion deciphered hieroglyphs, much of the written evidence remained a mystery, but now there are plenty of texts to peruse in translation, and even while I've been studying the subject, new finds have been made which have changed people's theories about events.

From these classes, some of us have attended lectures with the Egyptian cultural attaché, joined study days at Egyptology societies or participated in study tours of Egypt itself, visiting many sites off the tourist trail where we have been shown around by the archaeologists themselves. At one site, they are looking for Cleopatra's tomb. However, one of the most memorable visits was climbing down a 10m ladder into a burial chamber. It is at this site that our current tutor spends his summers, recording the finds from the tombs of two nobles. He assures us he will be back for the first of 20 classes that start next month, when we will be studying the Nubian pharaohs, Alexander the Great, the Ptolomies and Cleopatra.

The next WEA Egyptology course runs from 1 October to 25 March at Wanstead House. Email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 020 8989 8200

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