Nigel Fletcher-Jones is a freelance writer, an editor-at-large for Eisenbrauns (an archaeological imprint of Pennsylvania State University Press), and a former Director of the American University in Cairo Press. Previously, he held executive level positions in Blackwell Publishing Inc., Nature Publishing Group, Elsevier, and Cell Press. Nigel writes magazine articles and books for the general reader mostly on aspects of Egyptian history and archaeology — his recent books include Abu Simbel and the Nubian Temples (2019) and Ancient Egyptian Jewelry: 50 Masterpieces of Art and Design (2020). He is currently researching a new book on the Late Roman period in British history.
Nigel holds a PhD in archaeological anthropology from the University of Durham.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you do as a freelance author and an editor?
Since I retired in 2020, I've been writing articles for magazines, from commissions, mainly about ancient Egypt, Islamic architecture and more recently on early medieval history in Kent, where I am based. I also work for the Eisenbrauns list—part of Pennsylvania State University Press—which specialises in middle-eastern archaeology and I'm trying to help them develop a list in Egyptology and Egyptian archaeology. This work takes me to fantastic conferences each year too and is a great way of reconnecting with friends I’ve made over the years in Egyptian archaeology.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I'm very interested in two of the major figures in Canterbury history: Saint Augustine who came from Rome to bring Christianity to the Anglo Saxons in 597 AD; and Thomas Becket, who was murdered in the cathedral here in 1170. I'm working on an article about Canterbury and a few lesser known sites in Canterbury related to these two figures: St. Martin's Church, a late Roman building but used by Augustine when he came to Kent; and Eastbridge Hospital, where pilgrims would spend the night when visiting the shrine of Thomas Becket. I’m aiming to bring out the human aspects of some of these little known sites and the principal figures that were involved in them. It’s a bit of a departure for me because the books that I've written in recent years have all been on ancient Egypt, including one on Abu Simbel, the great temple in the furthest south of Egypt; and one on ancient Egyptian jewellery, using the Cairo Egyptian Museum collection as my model.
I imagine you must have connected with people across the world who also write on similar, niche projects?
Yes, absolutely, and that's one of the joys of being a commissioning editor. Even in my role as director at the American University of Cairo Press, I was commissioning in Egyptian archaeology and Egyptology which gave me connections across the world. I’m quite active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and have around 10,000 connections on those pages who are in similar areas to me; it’s like a little family! There are probably 2,000 professional Egyptologists in the world but there are 10s of 1,000s of interested amateurs and I try to connect with them.
Where did your love for archaeology and Egyptology come from in the first place?
I like to say that all children go through either a dinosaur phase or an ancient Egypt phase and with a very small percentage, that interest stays with them for the rest of their life—I was one of the Egypt kids! My father also used to take me around enough castles to last a lifetime and so I’ve always had an interest in history and ancient sites.
As an archaeologist, I've worked on many kinds of sites: from Viking sites to Roman to Australian Aboriginal sites and latterly Egyptian temples. The skills that I learned from my degrees in archaeology make me something of a world archaeologist and I can apply the skills from one area to another. I think the key enjoyment for me is absorbing the archaeology, and making that accessible to somebody with an interest in that specific subject, such as ancient Egypt.
As the director of American University of Cairo Press, you were based in Cairo for a number of years. How did you find living and working there?
I've worked in a number of places in my career: Amsterdam; Boston; New York; Cairo and London, and each has their separate entities. I have always been lucky to work with very good teams of people, or I've been able to create very good teams of people, who are passionate about the transmission of academic information.
If I had to say which location I enjoyed working in the most, I think it would be Egypt. I loved working with my Egyptian colleagues and to have the ability to simply walk across Tahrir Square to go into the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and see all the beautiful objects and spend time amongst the temples. It was a great end to my full time professional publishing career.
What advice would you give someone hoping to go into a similar role to yours?
If you want to become a freelance editor, like I am now, you need to find a niche area that you're passionate about and that you can contribute something of substance to. Then you just need to spend time reading, even if that’s wading through some terrible Victorian prose as a lot of sites were excavated towards the end of the 19th Century. I've never felt sorry for doing something quite different, like archaeology, because it stays with you for the rest of your life. Hopefully, you will continue to be interested and to read material, and eventually get the opportunity, as I did, to try and share that with a much broader audience.
Did you ever consider teaching archaeology?
In the early days, yes. I finished my PhD in 1986 and at that time, there were quite severe budget restrictions on the academic sector. It sounds a bit trite, but I do really love books and I felt that was the route that I should take—to try and communicate my passion for books, not knowing at the time that I would end up writing. There is a huge difference between commissioning books and being a publisher, and actually taking the plunge and becoming an author. I wasn’t sure if I had a book in me but this is something I’ll never regret. Eventually, I published Abu Simbel and the Nubian Temples and it is a great feeling to see a book with your name on after all the years reading on that subject.
How did you find the writing process?
I found the research phase the hardest part: trying to make sure everything you write is accurate. I think I’m actually a terrible writer as I spend so much time on every sentence, but I know I’m not the only one who does this. I’ll write a sentence and then I'll go for a little walk around my study here and then I'll come back and write another sentence, so it takes a bit of time and I’m probably a perfectionist in that regard. I'll then look at it and I think I've lost all skills in punctuation, so it takes me forever. I think the trick is to keep plugging on but to know when to stop. I also do my own photographs so that's another component of the process but it's an enjoyable one.
Are you writing another book at the moment or planning to write any more?
I’m interested in writing one about what happened in the late Roman world and the origins of the Germanic people who came in after the first fourth century. The trick though is, again, just finding that hook that draws people in and highlights the implications of that period on how we live today. Here in the South East of England, the influence of the Anglo Saxons and the late Roman period is still present in our lives today in various ways; we see it clearly in the place names here, for example. I would also like to write a book that helps people understand the context of going on a Nile cruise, including the meaning of the temples, the Valley of the Kings or Hatshepsut’s temple.
How do you feel about modern films, such as the recent Death on the Nile adaptation, depicting parts of Egypt? From an expert’s perspective, how accurate are those representations?
I think it's a fantastic thing. Egyptian civilization is fascinating and the interesting thing about the Kenneth Branagh Death on the Nile is that none of it was filmed in Egypt! It was predominantly filmed in Morocco and then the scenes of Abu Simbel were actually filmed just outside London. But it's fantastic that people get to see representations of these things. In the Peter Ustinov version, there were definitely liberties taken with how quickly you get from one place to the other but I think it’s great that it can spark some interest in Egyptology. Tourism is also a major component of the economy in Egypt and so if it helps too, then that’s great.
When you're not reading about archaeology, what other books do you like to read?
I am definitely a nonfiction person and I read enormous amounts of history. I enjoy John Julius Norwich’s works: he wrote a truly fascinating history of Byzantium and managed to convey a very complex history in a fluent writing style. Another book which comes to mind is an out-of-print biography of Napoleon by Vincent Cronin, which managed to take such a polarising figure and create a human story about him. That’s what I’ve aimed to do with my books – bring the human aspect to the page.
Do you have any books you'd recommend to a budding Egyptologist?
I think a book like Nicholas Reeves’ The Complete Tutankhamun is a great place to start. I would suggest going to your local library and pick out something there, or go to the British Museum and look at the Egyptian Gallery, which is a collection made over the last 150 or so years. Even in our little library here in Canterbury, there’s a collection of things that Victorian travellers brought back and they are fascinating to look at. Just keep reading and exploring!