From Dorset to Egypt - how the Lost Pyramid City of Giza inspired Claire Malleson to realize her passion.

If you’re a professional woman, your weekdays probably look pretty similar: Wake up. Coffee. Wrangle kids/partner/self out of the door. Commute. Meetings. More meetings. Commute. More kids stuff/gym. Dinner. Occasional “alone time”. Repeat.

Remember when you were in your early 20s, getting started in your career? Is this what you thought your days would look like? Did you ever imagine a path different from that which others expected for you? Did you even give yourself the chance to dream?

British-born Claire Malleson has a different story. Growing up in rural Dorset, she aspired to be in theater. But then, her instinct kept pulling her to an unusual passion - Egyptian archeology.

Thing is, she didn’t just dream it. She made it there. Now, she is changing again - still working within her passion, and this time helping the next generation.

We caught up with Claire to learn about her journey.

Your LinkedIn profile describes you as a Director of Archaeological Science, Archaeobotanist. Can you explain what you “do"?

In archaeology, people often choose to specialize in either excavation or the study of materials; ceramics, stone tools, animal bones etc. During excavations, naturally, lots of ‘things’ are excavated, and these all have to be studied by various different specialists.

My title relates to my work with Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA). AERA started 30 years ago when Dr Mark Lehner began excavations near the Great Pyramid at Giza, in Egypt. Dr. Lehner uncovered the remains of an ancient town that was home to the people involved in managing the construction of the two smaller pyramids at Giza – the so-called “lost city of the pyramids”. It was Dr Lehner’s book about the Pyramids that got me hooked on archaeology in Egypt.

I manage all the work on the ‘things’ we excavate and I specialize in the study of plant remains – archaeobotany. I also run our ‘lab’ where an international team of experts study the remains of everyday life in that town; the beer jars and bread molds, the beef and mutton bones, the flint knives and quern stones and the tools from construction.

Claire in the lab.

Claire in the lab.

You grew up a long way from Egypt in a rural, conservative part of southern England. How did you discover this passion?

Growing up in the UK, we were taught to value ancient history – not something that is true the world over. In the UK we are surrounded by ancient monuments and museums – especially in Dorset - so family days-out to places like Avebury had an effect on me.

I initially studied theatre, and went to Drama school to train to be a stage and production manager. I followed that career for several years, and when I was touring in Europe in 1998 I began to realize that the happiest moments of touring was not the work, but the trips on my days off to national museums with Egyptian collections in places like Paris, Madrid and Berlin.

Growing up, and going to an all-girls grammar school in the late 80s - early 90s we were surrounded by the first real growth of women in power, the first female prime minister in the UK, I took it for granted that I would go to University and have a career, and I was lucky enough to have parents who supported my choices. My mother had a degree from Oxford and worked in IT, my father was an artist blacksmith.

I was fortunate to grow up in an environment that never questioned that I, as a woman, would ‘do’ things any differently to a man – other than the expectation that I would one day have my own family. I am very thankful that I never felt under any pressure from people around me to ‘choose between’ family or career – a question that is never asked of men.

You’re now teaching as an Assistant Professor at the American University in Beirut - what is it you love about teaching?

This new job is a huge change of lifestyle - I did question it for a while, but as I am very passionate about teaching, I knew it was the right choice. Teaching informs my research, the questions students ask often trigger my thinking outside my own intellectual ‘box’ and I always feel motivated in this environment.

Teaching gives me a chance to provide opportunities to young people, to open their minds to things that exist outside their own experiences, and to help them find their way in an increasingly complicated and challenging world.

I am invested in self-discovery and self-awareness and have worked with a wonderful coach (Kim Ingleby – Energised Performance, based in Bristol UK) for many years, and have read my way through Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, Brene Brown and a mountain of other books about how to ‘be’ as a human in your own self, how to live in a way that supports your goals. I love bringing that learning into my teaching in small ways.

What has been the biggest trade-off you’ve made while pursuing your career goals?

For six years I did not have a home base. I moved locations from dig to dig in Egypt between September and May about once every 2-8 weeks, then spent summers in the UK, where I visited friends around the country. I always had some kind of home base, but I learned to make any room in any place my ‘home’ while I was there.

Now, even though I am more stable, I split my time between homes in Beirut, around Egypt, and across the UK. I sometimes feel like a positive version of Voldemort – with pieces of my soul in each of my homes, never quite feeling ‘whole’. On the other hand I feel so lucky that I have this life where I have so many places I can call home – so it works both ways! It means that friendships, relationships, are predominantly all long-distance, but thanks to technology that’s not too much of a barrier.

What has been your experience as a woman in your field?

In Liverpool, when I was doing my PhD, the majority of the students in my department were female, but most of the professors were male. This is still the case, but it is changing, slowly. While on excavations in Egypt, it is not unusual for most, if not all of a team of specialists to be female, and that creates a supportive and productive work environment. I have worked on more than one project in Egypt where babies were welcome in the dig house. In my experience within research-based work, archaeology is a relatively level playing-field for women who do not have children, and it is challenging but perhaps increasingly level for those who do have families.

What has been your biggest mistake or challenge so far?

I think it’s the same challenge we all face – who AM I? Questions about personal identity, where I ‘fit-in’ to the world, what is my purpose, are probably the underlying roots of most human problems. If you don’t feel you have identity or purpose, insecurities and fear naturally start to dictate behaviors – and probably 99.9% of the time for 99.9% of people this all happens totally unconsciously. Trying to become really self-aware about what my why really is, in all circumstances, is an ongoing challenge, but that fact that I am now more aware of becoming aware is really exciting.

What are you most proud of now?

I’m excited that my first book is about to go to press! I am also proud that I made the change from my previous career to follow something that I was passionate about. I still distinctly remember a conversation with my Dad where he asked where my main interests lay – Theatre or Egyptology – and I had to admit it was Egyptology. My housemate at the time, Patricia Graham (who recently gave up a corporate career to run a new craft workshop initiative in North London), really encouraged me to take the leap and give it a try.

I’m also proud to be able to say that I have friends and family who keep going, getting up, and getting on every day, sometimes in truly very challenging times. The strength of some of my friends under real pressure just amazes and inspires me.

There are women reading this who feel that they are grinding it out in the corporate world. Do you have any words of advice for women who are considering finding more fulfilling work?

Figuring out who you really are, your identity, and which parts of that you want to change – and why - rather than framing it as ‘changing my work / job’ is really the most holistic and helpful way to look at things.

Get a coach! Find a group or a person that supports you to investigate yourself and figure out what you really want, what you don’t want and WHY. A job is just one part of life, and you can’t just look at that, you have to look at the whole picture. Figuring out who you really are, your identity, and which parts of that you want to change – and why - rather than framing it as ‘changing my work / job’ is really the most holistic and helpful way to look at things.

I actually love getting ‘dressed up’ for work in nice clothes and wearing make-up to go to my office/class room every day at the moment because for years I was pulling on the same filthy dusty pair of work trousers and playing in the dirt on excavations! This is my new professional identity and I love it – but I know I still need to pull on the filthy jeans and play in the dirt from time to time to maintain my ‘archaeologist’ identity because without that identity I am not really me.

You can connect with Claire here. Read here for more info on AERA.

In the field.

In the field.