I recently attended a two-day conference entitled ‘Tea with the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt and the Modern Imagination’ at the University of Birmingham. It was, as I was to find out, an interdisciplinary conference offering diverse subject matters from mummy heads to Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra (for full details see the programme here). For many at the conference, myself included, it was an opportunity to step out of their usual research and stretch their imagination in a new direction. As a result the conference provided new perspectives in the area of Egyptomania and the study of the reception of Ancient Egypt.
Having attended many conferences and organised a few myself I know how hard they can be to get right and the organisers Nichola Tonks and Ellie Dobson managed to do it, balancing academic standards with a friendly touch. Besides the usual minor technical difficulties, which are a hallmark and a necessity for any conference, it was brilliantly organised. What was evident from the first session was that this was going to be, and was, a welcoming environment for presenting ideas and fostering new relationships. As an early postgraduate student having such an environment to present and discuss your ideas is a must and ‘Tea with the Sphinx’ did this while still presenting a challenging experience. It expanded my knowledge and led me to think about the subject matter differently.
The relaxed and friendly atmosphere was summed up by the homemade Egyptianised cupcakes, by Nichola, which brought the concept ‘consuming ancient Egypt’ to a whole new level! (they tasted amazing by the way!). The consuming continued in the aptly named 'Blue Nile' restaurant for the conference dinner where Egyptianising tropes and puns dominated the conversation.
Over the two day conference multiple ideas and viewpoints were presented and the interdisciplinary nature of the conference meant that the attendees were constantly challenged and kept entertained. I’m not going to attempt to summarise all of the papers (HARN has started a blog post on this) but I think one session encapsulated the entire event, the ‘Comic Session’. Eagerly awaited, the comic session, like the conference itself, was engaging, funny, novel, thought provoking and inspiring (Thank you to Daniel and Nickianne).
“To be a modern women you need to look to the past’ Mara Gold
‘Superman, come look at my shabti' Daniel Potter
'Where do rabbits source their antiquities?' Martyn Barber
My own talk focussed on the reception of Ancient Egypt in Ireland. I had entitled my talk ‘Guinness with the Sphinx’ playing on the title of the conference to give it an ‘Irish’ twist. At the end I had included a slide of a fake antique Guinness poster I had designed (having found that none existed). I didn’t know if I would show it, I was going to see what the tone of the conference allowed. I showed it!
Thank you again to the organisers and all the attendees for an engaging and enjoyable two days.
 McDonald, S. and Rice, M. (2003) Consuming Ancient Egypt. Left Coast Press.