Joyce Tyldesley is a University of Manchester Egyptologist and author of Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Getty panel discussion titled “Did Women Ever Rule the World?” she spoke in the green room about running half-marathons, visiting the Neanderthals, and why northwest England has so many Egyptian artifacts.
What are you reading for pleasure?
I’m reading a book by a lady who’s been doing triathlon and Iron Man events in her 70s, because I’ve decided to get fit, and I thought I need a bit of inspiration here. So I’ve been doing half-marathons—well, all right, I’ve done three!—and I thought I needed a bit more inspiration. And I’d just finished a book by the Brownlee brothers, who are triathletes, and I thought, “Well, I’ll try this [book] from an older lady who’s been doing it as well.”
So are you going to try a triathlon?
I don’t think so. I’m really terrible at swimming. To be honest, I’m really terrible at running as well! I’d just like to get better at it. And I started to read my way through the Lindsey Davis series of detective stories, which are set in ancient Rome. I’m very interested in the idea of historical fiction. I think a lot of people learn about the past and connect to the past through it.
Was there a teacher or professor who really influenced you?
When I was about 12, the traveling Tutankhamun exhibition came to England, and my school decided to go and see it. It was in London, and I’d come from the northwest of England, so it was a really big thing. And the school chartered a train, and the entire school got on the train, and we all went to London to see it. And in the weeks before the Tutankhamun exhibition there was a lot on the television, really good quality programming about Tutankhamun and about ancient Egypt, and we did projects at school. And we went on this big trip, and we got to London and I’d never been to London before. And because we had to charter the train on a day when schools didn’t get priority access [to the museum], we didn’t actually get in to see the exhibition! We managed to queue up in the British Museum forecourt, we got almost to the point where you had to get the tickets, and then we had to go back. In a way it didn’t really matter, because we’d done so much work on Egypt, and there such an interest in Tutankhamun, that I think [my interest] really came from that. So it’s not one person, but it’s one time. I still have a little sarcophagus that I made, when I was that age, with a mummy inside it, a mummified Barbie doll!
Where in the northwest are you from?
I’m from Bolton, which is near Manchester. We’re really lucky in the northwest, because we have a lot of museums that have a lot of Egyptology collections in them. Because we were part of the cotton trade, and when we stopped getting cotton from the United States [during the U.S. Civil War], we started to get it from Egypt. So cotton mill owners in the northwest started to travel to Egypt, and a lot of these mill owners were very interested in the Bible and finding the truth of the Bible, so they started to collect Egyptian artifacts and bring them back to the northwest. And eventually they found a way into our museums.
What do you do to unwind?
Trying to run, at the moment. And I do a bit of writing occasionally. I’m really interested in writing history-based fiction, and it’s something that I’ve got to get my nerve up to do.
If you could time travel anywhere, where would you go?
Obviously I’d like to go to ancient Egypt, because I’d like to check out some of the ideas that I’ve had. But that’s kind of like work, really. I’d also like to go all the way back to the time of the Neanderthal man and just see exactly what was happening. And I’d like to see for myself how the tools were made—they made such beautiful tools. And the cave paintings, stretching right through the Paleolithic Period. Who did those paintings, and what are they for?
Is there a film that you find yourself returning to every now and then, to kind of check in with yourself?
It’s not very highbrow, but I love Lord of the Rings. I watch that a lot. I like the trilogy, the director’s cut. Also I think I like it because I watched it a lot with my son when he was younger. So it always brings back really happy memories.