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Barnsley lass Joann really digs Egypt

SHE'S discovered the mummy of the most important woman in Ancient Egyptian history - but is now banned from conducting expeditions in the country - and she's from Barnsley - Dr Joann Fletcher talks to star reporter Rachael Clegg about life as an Egyptologist and how her beloved South Yorkshire mining town is more connected with Ancient Egypt than one would think

WITH her noise-piercing, wild hair and long black jacket, Joann Fletcher is not how you imagine an Egyptologist to look.

There's not a shred of tweed on show and no trace of a plummy accent.

This renowned Egyptologist, who is believed to have discovered the body of the beautiful Queen Nefertiti, is as Barnsley as Arthur Scargill.

Joann's here, at the University Centre Barnsley, to deliver a lecture on Yorkshire's historic connections with Egyptology. She's been obsessed with Ancient Egypt since she was a child, thanks to her parents' book collection on the subject. "I was fascinated by the visuals - I loved the primary colours they used and the way they represented people in simplified form," she said.

This fascination would remain with Joann - now 44 - throughout her life. She studied Egyptology at University College London in 1987, followed by a PhD at Manchester University entitled Ancient Egyptian Hair: a study in style, form and function. She now lectures at the University of York and advises the Royal Pump Room Museum in Harrogate on its Egyptology collection.

And she's fascinated by all manner of body adornment: "There's a fantastic ancient Egyptian wig in the British Museum that was set with beeswax resin and the curls are still there 3,000 years later," she says, passionately.

But Egyptology is a field dominated by the privileged and, regionally-speaking, the Home Counties, not a northern mining town. Rising through the Egyptology ranks for the former Barnsley Girls High School student wasn't easy.

"When I wanted to study for a degree I wanted to go to London - it was the Miners' strike and I turned up with my 'Coal not Dole' badge. I was actually advised by one Egyptologist in this country that I would never get anywhere.

People either warm to me or can't stand me. And they can't understand my accent. Apparently I'm a young girl who knows nothing. Yes, I'm female. But young girl? Well I'm 44."

She didn't let such attitudes bother her.

In 2002 and 2003 Joann took part in a controversial project in the Valley of the Kings in which she found the body of Queen Nefertiti, who is believed to have been the most powerful woman in Egypt. Joann's hunch about the body stemmed from the discovery of a Nubian wig traditionally worn by female members of the royal family, which was found next to the mummies.

Her research has been backed by scientific research and numerous British archeologists yet Zahi Hawas, the security-general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (who authorise all excavations in Egypt) dismissed her findings as unsound. As a result, Joann has been banned from conducting further expeditions in Egypt.

The expedition was sponsored by the Discovery Channel, which broadcast a programme on Joann's work: "It was a very successful programme. I've never seen the whole thing because I've only got terrestrial television but yes, it was quite popular and a few cages got rattled. It was pointed out 'who do I think I am?' I'm not one of the elite and then, that comment: 'oh, she's from Barnsley' was made."

"But we know it can only be her - the science proved it. We've measured all the facial measurements of X-rays of all the royal mummies and the facial measurements are unique to everybody. To within a millimetre she has exactly the same measurements - you know that famous bust? Well it's exactly the same measurements. We work with scientists but we were backed up by some of the leading authorities as well. At the time the Egyptian authorities did DNA analysis and said the body was a man - which was rubbish - and then they did more analysis and showed that it was a young girl but now they've shown that it was an older woman who has probably had children."

Joann's not the only connection Barnsley has with Egyptology. Joann's here, at the University Centre Barnsley, to deliver a lecture on another Barnsley-bred Egyptologist - Harold Jones.

Harold's father was headmaster at the School of Art in Barnsley - which stood barely a few yards from Joann's lecture theatre. Harold clearly inherited his father's artistry, and as a young man studied at the School of Art in London, but his bad health prevented him from completing the course - he suffered from tuberculosis.

In the belief that the warm air would aid his condition, Harold was sent to Egypt to work as an excavation artist. His first job was to record excavation KV55, the tomb of Tutankhamun's father. Photographic technology in that period was poor, making Harold's meticulous drawings invaluable. Harold's attention to detail led to him being put in charge of excavations in Egypt.

And in 1909 he discovered what was, at the time, believed to have been the tomb of Tutankhamun.

"The thing that was published as the first tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered by Jones but what it actually was was a robber's stash, which included stuff inscribed with Tutankhamun," says Joann.

"It's just a little pit. It was 1909 when they discovered that. Harold actually died there in the dig house in 1911, which was a terrible tragedy, he was only in his early 30s but he was a really gifted archeologist and artist."

Harold's funeral was in Luxor, it was attended by Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter - who would later discover the real tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Jones never knew his discovery was a robber's stash.

Joann said: "There is a historical connection between ancient Egypt and Yorkshire. But there's an assumption that we're some sort of cultural desert. That's absolutely not the case - it's very much a subject that has been hijacked by the south east.

"There's an assumption that people have to go to the British Museum to see artefacts from Ancient Egypt, which is what I believed when I was a child but this is just not the case."

Sheffield's Weston Park Museum has a wealth of Egyptian antiquities in its vaults, according to Joann. "Sheffield has an exquisite collection which was the result of a collector from Sheffield who had a fantastic eye for antiquities and it's brilliant quality stuff. They've got everything - shabti figures, two complete human mummies and canopic jars that held the entrails of a human, one of them's still with the stomach. It's just superb stuff."

South Yorkshire has a longstanding connection with Egyptology, as Joann said: "Barnsley has a connection with ancient Egypt and once these are brought to the fore kids will think 'this is my heritage as well' - rather than think 'this isn't for the likes of us'. That mentality makes me quite cross."

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