Amanda Kiely participates in excavation work in Egypt where she maps and draws tomb architecture - all on the side of her career as a lawyer. Deborah Singerman reports.
Become a forensic scientist or join the police force? Amanda Kiely's parents thought the latter too dangerous and the time she had to devote to the physics and chemistry core subjects for the former persuaded her "that if she was going to do a job that required that much effort to do it well it probably wasn't worth it".
After a spell as a paralegal at a firm on Sydney's north shore, she moved on to litigation at Cowley Hearne. Through a series of interstate mergers this became Thomson Playford Cutlers where Kiely is now an associate working in planning and environmental law. But most summers she is off on an archaeological dig through Macquarie University's Australian Centre for Egyptology, pursuing her main historical interest, Egypt.
"It is so different from modern times. While Egyptian history can be political, I'm more interested in the art and architecture, the religion, the beliefs, customs and practices (the type of mummification practised in Egypt is unique), the pharaohs and the foreign campaigns to create and maintain their empire."
She began at Helwan, an Early Dynastic cemetery site on the east bank of the Nile opposite Saqqara, south of Cairo and the Giza Pyramid complex, studying for a Master of Arts Egyptology from 2003 onwards. Students have an option to participate in the excavations and the team, although mostly Australian, includes international members of all ages. "Getting the degree is easy. Trying to get on the team to go to Egypt is a lot more difficult. It's so competitive."
Backed by a letter from the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, people on the excavation get a resident visa allowing them to do the voluntary work and get perks such as free entry to all tourist/archaeological sites as well as travel and accommodation within Egypt at local prices. The Helwan project is now in its 12th season, under Macquarie egyptologist Dr E Christiana Köhler, who has been its director since 1997. It is funded by research grants awarded by Macquarie as well as the Australian Research Council, the Institute for Bio-Archaeology/San Francisco and the Brennan Foundation/Santa Fe.
Unlike the famous tombs in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, Kiely says the Helwan tombs are of ordinary people. "They have no decoration on the walls and they are cut directly into the ground. Our most exciting finds are funerary stelae - a limestone slab carved with scenes of the tomb owner seated at an offering table with loaves of bread. Funerary stelae vary in size but are small enough to carry. Because of robberies over the years, it's rare to find an intact tomb."
Only about 40 funerary stelae have been found out of the more than 10,000 tombs unearthed at Helwan, she says, and most of them are stored in boxes in the Egyptian museum in Cairo.
Having gone to Helwan so many times Kiely, 30, is now a regular team member and her assigned job ("the director says my title is draughtsperson") is mapping, drawing the tomb architecture and features. Not surprisingly she is known as the "Egyptologist" at work. "It is something different about me that not everyone can say they do or have an interest in. When I am introduced to people they say, 'Oh, you're the person who goes to Egypt'."
The firm, she believes, "kind of likes the idea. They think it is good to have an interest outside of work. It's often a topic of conversation and I have given presentations to paralegals, summer clerks and solicitors."
One advantage is that the digs are during an Australian summer, a time of year when legal work is quiet, especially because she is in litigation and the courts are closed.
There has been some overlap with her legal work, mainly when she chose Egypt for her comparative international environmental law paper for her Masters in Environmental and Local Government Law. It is hard to compare her day job and her time in Egypt, but she is clear about the breakdown between the two.
"I'm doing the digs as a hobby. It's an interest that I don't want to lose. That doesn't mean to say that I don't also love law. I enjoy it and wouldn't want to do anything else, but it's very different.
"People often ask me, do you prefer one more than the other," she laughs. "It's hard to answer. I enjoy them both, but law is my career and a practical thing to do. I need to do this job to be able to afford to do the other."