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Biblical Archaeology Review 49:2, Summer 2023

Who Did It?

What famous mystery novelist earned a doctorate in Egyptology and authored two nonfiction books on ancient Egypt?

Answer: Barbara Mertz (aka Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels)

American author Barbara Mertz (1927–2013) studied Egyptology at the University of Chicago and graduated with a Ph.D. in 1952. Before becoming a fiction superstar, she published two nonfiction books on ancient Egypt: Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt (1964) and Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt (1966). On the advice of her publisher, she wrote under pseudonyms to keep her fiction and nonfiction works separate. Under the name Elizabeth Peters, she wrote 39 novels, 20 of which starred the heroine Amelia Peabody and her archaeologist husband Dr. Radcliff Emerson. The pair solved various mysteries, while simultaneously doing exceptional archaeological work in Egypt during the Victorian era. Mertz’s expertise in Egyptology shines through these novels, despite being works of fiction. She also wrote books starring art history professor Vicky Bliss and librarian Jacqueline Kirby. Under the pseudonym Barbara Michaels, she also wrote 29 suspense novels.

Even as a famous novelist, Mertz made time for Egyptology. She remained a member of the Egypt Exploration Society, served on the editorial advisory board of KMT, and advocated against the trafficking of stolen antiquities. Perhaps her largest contribution to the field, though, was introducing many readers to ancient Egypt through her novels.

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