A human among the immortals

Christopher Eyre on an attempt to enliven a history of the pharaonic era with an ordinary girl's life story

April 24, 2008

The difficulty of making life in ancient Egypt appear real - and not just a set of pretty pictures moving in a stilted dance across a tomb wall, and talking in translatorese - hits every author who attempts the task. The cliche is that the Egyptian record deals only with the posh, and the life of some sort of ill-defined elite, while the archaeological muck somehow fails to provide enough evidence for the life of real people.

What is true is that, despite the huge written record, it is only the personal and the individual that is really missing. Letters survive, of course, and some legal texts, but there is an absence of personal memoirs: no diaries, no proper biographies and limited sorts of fiction. The tomb (auto)biography is a formulaic genre for ideological self-presentation, while character development and individuality are foreign to the literature that survives.

It is in the interstices of this mass of data that some sort of picture of an individual can be teased out. We don't even seem to know enough about any single individual to write a proper modern biography; and one cannot say that any attempt to write a fictional biography, or to place ordinary fiction in ancient Egypt, has ever moved beyond cardboard characterisation.

But the reality is that the archaeological and textual records together do provide the basis for a picture of private life that is more vivid than perhaps anywhere else in the ancient world.

Kasia Szpakowska picks up the challenge of a type biography, to instil humanity into her account of the evidence for ordinary life in pharaonic Egypt. She envisages a girl, born and brought up in the Middle Kingdom town of Kahun, and uses incidents of her life - put into her own mouth - to give a personal context at the beginning of each chapter.

This particular girl is a plagiarist, and students will enjoy identifying which well-known Egyptian texts she steals her phraseology from. But the biography is a peg only, not worked through into a fictional life in the body of the chapters. Instead, it is used only occasionally, as a point of reference to remind the reader that the survey of archaeological and textual evidence has human inhabitants.

Szpakowska turns first to the wonderful variety of objects and texts from William Flinders Petrie's excavations at Kahun, and she builds through them to a wide survey of the corpus of finds relevant to the material life of a town-living Egyptian. There are no kings here; the focus is on the material situation of a middle-class person.

The chapters follow the order of life, from birth and upbringing to work and home life, religion, illness and death, showing how the material record documents the way life was lived.

Szpakowska ranges from the latest scientific analysis of skeletal material, through every category of object, to the traditional use of documents and literary texts for narrative. It is a minor complaint, then, that a book of this nature would have benefited from rather more illustration and rather less muddy reproduction of photographs.

The result is a magnificent undergraduate textbook, because of the focus on the actual record. Although the order and content provide a relatively traditional approach, everything is documented and referenced in precisely the way a student needs, giving a definitive survey of the current state of knowledge and interpretation.

At the same time, the presentation is distinctly readable - not academically overburdened - and the introduction provides a non-Egyptologist with historical and archaeological context that is more than enough to follow Szpakowska's personal exploration and guide through the record of life as it was lived.

Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

By Kasia Szpakowska
Blackwell Publishing
£50.00 and £17.99
ISBN 9781405118552 and 18569
Published 13 December 2007

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