If you have been watching the History Channel over the years, you may have noticed a fresh crop of historians, scientists, and archeologists keeping things exciting. The History Channel has gone through a rebranding to attract young, new audiences. In addition to the usual fare of documentaries, shows like Ancient Aliens and The UnXplained have popped up, blurring the line between history, and engaging, far-fetched theories. One of the latest additions is Egyptologist Nicholas Brown, as seen in The UnXplained’s “Mysterious Mummies,” and he’ll be the first to tell you that Ancient Aliens isn’t really a thing – and he’s got the creds to tell you why.
Over the last decade, he’s split his time between Los Angeles and Cairo. He just recently became a Ph.D. Candidate at UCLA and received his MA degree in Egyptology from the American University in Cairo. His excavation experience includes working with archaeological sites in Aswan (at Elephantine Island and Wadi el-Hudi), as well as funerary sites in Luxor, Amarna, and the Sudan. In 2016, Nicholas spent the summer working at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as the Terrace Curatorial Research Associate in Egyptology. He returned to the MFA over the summer of 2019 to conduct archival research for the Egyptian Art Department’s exhibit “Ancient Nubia Now.” Nicholas’s research interests include funerary material culture from the New Kingdom, as well as the use and perception of ancient Egypt within modern contexts. When most kids were watching cartoons and playing with Transformers, Nicholas was hearing the call of the pyramids.
I was interested in archaeology as a kid, probably around six or seven years old. My grandmother gave me my first book on ancient Egypt, and I became obsessed with mummies, golden treasure, and pyramids. Then, as I got older, I realized that I love to travel, and I love history – so work as an archaeologist made sense. And after my first trip to Egypt in 2011, where I fell in love with the people, culture, and place, it made sense to me to start a career as an Egyptologist.
Forget coming out as gay, he had to come out as an Egyptologist.
I will start off by saying that my family is now very supportive of my career choice and work over the years. Initially, they were hesitant and worried about job security, my work (and safety) in the Middle East, and how I would pay for all the schooling required to get a job as an Egyptologist (I am up to 11 years of college education so far). My parents are very practical baby boomers too, so they wanted their kids to work in “cookie-cutter” jobs like public safety, law, or medicine. However, they have seen my dedication and the hard work I have put into my studies and career over the years. And as I network more and get job opportunities and excavation work, they are starting to see that I can work in this niche career!
Brown shares that you do not just take a course in Egyptology, grab an Indiana Jones hat, and pack some luggage.
It is hard to just get on excavation projects in Egypt without being on the ground there to network and apply for different openings. The easiest way to do it from the states is to sign up for an “archaeology field school,” either here in the US or overseas. Most times you need to pay for this experience, however, so it can be costly. (My first excavation in Egypt cost me something like $5,000 to go on and participate. And to work as free labor for the team.) Once you have the excavation experience and field training, it is then a bit easier to reach out and ask for work to different museums, universities, or research institutes that are conducting archaeological digs.
But what is the allure in Egypt specifically? There’s archeology available in other parts of the world without all the sand.
Modern Egypt is a really great place to work. The people are friendly and hospitable, and the culture is so dynamic and so different from what I was familiar with growing up. That said, it was a place that I feel comfortable working at for the rest of my career.
Ancient Egypt itself has a long history (over 5,000 years), so this gives me the opportunity as an archaeologist and scholar to study the same culture (more or less) over a prolonged period and uninterrupted. Also, the state of preservation of archaeological materials in Egypt is unprecedented anywhere else in the world. The dry desert climate in Egypt helps to preserve things like the clothes that people wore, the loaves of bread they ate, or even the letters and documents that they wrote. As an archaeologist, someone who studies the human past, I appreciate and value making these human connections with our ancestors, so having this type of evidence to work with helps to make the ancient Egyptians more “human” in my opinion.
For Nicholas, seeing the Great Pyramids for the first time was love and first sight. The rest took a little getting used to. Cairo is an overwhelming city, and the monuments are huge. As much as Egypt is known for its wonders of the world, it is also known by our community to be a very dangerous place. A survey taken in 2013 showed that 95% of Egyptians believed that homosexuals should not be accepted by society. Contemporary Egyptian law does not explicitly criminalize homosexuality, but it does have several provisions that criminalize any behavior or the expression of any idea that is deemed to be immoral, scandalous, or offensive to the teachings of a recognized religious leader. These public morality laws have been used against LGBTQ people, resulting in raids and arrests that often result in extreme violence and even murder in the jail system. Surprisingly enough, this is the land where Nicholas came into his own.
I did not really start to explore my sexuality until I was 22. Obviously growing up I had “feelings” and ideas about who I was but given that I grew up in Santa Barbara County and went to school there for my BA, I never really had the experience to leave home and discover who I was. Once I moved to Cairo and was separated from my hometown and family, I felt freer to really start exploring who I was as a young man. LGBTQ life in Egypt is more of an underground scene. Initially how I met most of my friend group over there was through apps and at house parties. It is important, however, for anyone living there or visiting to be cautious about their sexual identity. I do know several men who were tracked by the secret police and eventually arrested for being gay. There is a mix of families that are tolerant or accepting of their children being LGBTQ, and the opposite side where family members will ex-communicate, beat, or even kill anyone in their family who comes out as LGBTQ.
When I am in Egypt, my purpose of being there is for work and research as an Egyptologist. This is always my top priority, so while I am happy to be a member of the LGBTQ community, I have to be careful and cautious while I’m there. The biggest problem for me, as an American, is that I can be deported from the country if I get arrested for being gay. (Egypt has a law that it is legal for them to deport any gay foreigners from their country.) Now with close Egyptian friends and colleagues I am honest about my sexuality, relationships, and identity as a gay man. But I just must use my best judgment about who I talk to about that stuff.
What can we do from the American perspective for the plight of Egypt’s LGBTQ community?
I think the best way we can help our LGBTQ friends over in Egypt is to be respectful ambassadors of the LGBTQ community here in the United States. Be aware of the cultural norms and societal rules in Egypt. Obviously, as a guest in Egypt, you must be respectful of the culture and their right to think that way (whether you agree with it or not). I think it is key that we remember this and try to just make smaller impacts on people’s lives and opinions on the LGBTQ community over a prolonged period.
Despite the conditions for LGBTQ people, Nicholas believes in the richness of the culture.
Egyptians’ generosity with their time and wanting to show me, a foreigner, the best parts of their country and culture has always struck me when visiting Egypt. Since moving to Cairo in 2012, I have grown a lot as a person. Particularly in the ways that I treat and respect others.
Ancient Egypt is a constant surprise to Nicholas.
So much about ancient Egypt continues to impress me and leave a legacy. For instance – the ancient Egyptians were so smart – they were incredible engineers, architects, astronomers, and mathematicians (among many other admirable professions). The pyramids throughout Egypt are a testament to this. Additionally, there is the relatability to them as human beings – we have so many artifacts and documents that talk about what the ancient Egyptians were experiencing and feeling, and all in their own words. There are letters written on papyri that talk about family feuds, or quarrels with neighbors. There are also even stories of kings who were assassinated, or the world’s first-recorded sit-in protest by a group of workmen against Pharaoh. It is amazing how much our own social experiences and human emotions can be seen in the ancient Egyptians, who lived over 4,000 years ago.
His crowning excavation would come from Amarna, built by the Pharaoh Akhenaten of the late Eighteenth Dynasty, and abandoned shortly after his death.
The most exciting find I ever made was the discovery of an intact burial at a cemetery site I was excavating at back in 2017. The cemetery was a burial ground for the lower-class members of this town I was working at, Amarna. And I had the chance to work there for a season to help rewrite our understanding of this historical period and to shed light on the fact that life in ancient Egypt was hard and physically tolling on the population working there at the time.
The burial I found was of a young adolescent – between 11-14 years old. The grave was intact. There were no fancy grave goods, or “golden treasure” buried with the deceased. But what I found most striking about this find was I was the first person in over 3,300 years to be at that place. The last people at that site, who buried this person, were likely family members or loved ones in grief. It was a powerful moment in my career and one that I will not forget.
There is a common misconception that Ancient Egypt just up and disappeared without a trace. Nicholas is quick to point at that this, in fact, is not true.
In our history books here in the States, Egyptian history ends (maybe) with the death of Cleopatra, if not earlier. However, Egyptian society continued to thrive and exist long after her death. First under the Romans, who conquered Egypt around 30 B.C., and then eventually by invading groups like the Arabs from the Arabian Gulf, the Persians from Iran, and the Turks from the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey). Egypt was quite an influential power and political entity throughout the Middle Ages, while Europe was experiencing a “Dark Age” of intellectual thought and engineering development. Throughout this period, Egyptians continued to develop their cities, agricultural land, and built great fortresses and castles in Cairo and Alexandria.
So, how about those Ancient Aliens? Some of the theories that come out from the show and from the growing base of Ancient Alien fans – both scientific and not – are compelling.
I think that believing that aliens built the pyramids in Egypt is certainly an interesting interpretation of the evidence. It does an injustice to the ancient Egyptians themselves – and does not give them proper credit for having created such amazing monuments, particularly the three pyramids at Giza that everyone knows (there are dozens of pyramids all over the country). We have other incredible monuments from ancient Egypt (think of the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, or the tombs carved at the Valley of the Kings), but people are so obsessed with “disproving” that the ancient Egyptians were not able to construct these monuments at Giza.
For the pyramids at Giza, we have the quarry that was used to mine the stones to build the core of the Great Pyramid of Khufu (which Khafre, his son, later built his own pyramid on top of). And, when you look at the masonry of the Great Pyramid, it is not this “perfect” alignment and placement of stone blocks like ancient alien enthusiasts claim. It is quite haphazard in places and there’s a lot of mortar and filling used to fill the gaps between stones (a sign of human labor). Also, we have the workmen’s tombs and living quarters from the Giza Plateau, from where the large workforce lived and based their construction operation. Finally, another piece of evidence we have is the Diary of Merer found along the Red Sea coast near Wadi el-Jarf. This papyrus describes the work that took place to transport limestone blocks used as the casing stones for the Great Pyramid of Khufu – from their quarry at Turah to the Giza Plateau. It is an amazing, first-hand account of an ancient Egyptian official and his work on the pyramids at Giza.
What does the future of Egyptology hold?
With the advancement of science and technology, there are a lot of new studies that we, as Egyptologists, can do on ancient artifacts and ancient Egypt in general. For instance, we can digitally “unwrap” a mummy today with CT scanning. And by doing that we can learn so much about the health and life of the ancient Egyptians without having to disturb their physical remains.
I love my job as an Egyptologist – both studying the ancient Egyptians and working with my Egyptian colleagues and peers. It is an exciting and fun time to be working as an archaeologist in Egypt!
You can follow Nicholas on IG: @NB4326
Listen to our podcast with Nicholas on Apple, Spotify, or anywhere you get podcasts.
Last modified: June 21, 2021