Out of the mummy's shadow

Ancient Egypt in Africa - Ancient Perspectives on Egypt - The Wisdom of Egypt - Mysterious Lands - Views of Ancient Egypt since Napoleon Bonaparte - 'Never Had the Like Occurred' - Consuming Ancient Egypt - Imhotep Today

December 17, 2004

This series of eight paperback volumes derives from a conference, "Encounters with Ancient Egypt", held at the Institute of Archaeology in 2000. However, as Peter Ucko's foreword to the series makes clear, those papers have been supplemented by others specially commissioned, while those given at the meeting have been extensively revised and supplemented. This makes the series much more than a set of conference proceedings.

The context for the series is summarised as follows: "The discipline of Egyptology has been criticised for being too insular, with little awareness of the development of archaeologies elsewhere. It has remained theoretically underdeveloped." The purpose of this series is to address those shortcomings and give a different perspective to that normally presented by "Egyptological publishing".

In some measure, then, it might be seen as a 21st-century version of the important summary volumes such as The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals (1969), Man , Settlement and Urbanism (1972) or The Explanation of Culture Change (1973). The main difference is that those collections, also based on conferences, addressed a particular theme, whereas these eight volumes are attempting to cover a range of themes relating to Egyptology/Egyptian archaeology.

The effect is, arguably, that the treatment of some issues of criticism is uneven. This is particularly true of the matter of "theoretical underdevelopment". While most of these volumes can be said to have significant theoretical content, there is no attempt to develop a distinct body of Egyptological theory in the way that archaeologists working in other areas might understand the term. There is no "New Egyptology" or "Post-Processual Egyptology" emerging from these volumes.

However, this apparent lack is also a strength, in that it places Egyptology firmly within the compass of archaeology and establishes it as sharing some of its theoretical perspectives. Its weakness is, perhaps, that it fails to make clear to those working outside Egypt and the Near East that Egyptology often has an embarrassingly rich array of evidence that needs to be considered in providing explanation. In this regard, Egyptology's theoretical needs are often different from those of other archaeologies.

If one volume is missing from this series, it is one that attempts to explain the process of interpretation in Egyptology to those working outside the field.

The volumes are very well conceived. While each is independent, they are well cross-referenced so that topics of particular interest can be followed across several volumes. For convenience here, I will treat the books in three broad groups.

The first group comprises Mysterious Lands, Ancient Egypt in Africa and Ancient Perspectives on Egypt . The first of these volumes looks at the ways in which the Egyptians considered not only "real" lands and peoples but also those truly mysterious lands that made up aspects of the underworld or the cosmos. The editing of this volume by a field archaeologist (David O'Connor) and a gifted linguist (Stephen Quirke) is a particular strength of the volume and comes through in the careful selection of papers and the useful introduction. Jim Allen's paper on "The Egyptian concept of the world" is rightly placed immediately after the introduction and gives the reader an excellent grasp of how the Egyptians perceived their world. With this view in mind, we can appreciate something of the underworld as well as their perception of other countries. The land of Punt, the best known of Egypt's mysterious lands, is given two chapters. That by Dimitri Meeks takes us through the evidence for the location of the country, while Stephen Harvey looks at it in cultural, literary and artistic perspective.

The second volume, Ancient Egypt in Africa , provides a stimulating and often controversial view of Egypt's position in Africa. Even today, commentators seem to be unsure whether Egypt should be considered as part of the "Middle East" or whether it is an African country, and this uncertainty among academics is addressed. The criticism made of Egyptologists that they too often treat Egypt in isolation is unfair; particularly during the past four decades, an increasing volume of research has been devoted to economic and cultural contacts between Egypt and her neighbours. Nonetheless, there has been a tendency (mentioned by David Jeffreys in his introduction to Views of Ancient Egypt since Napoleon Bonaparte ) to accept unchallenged a certain approach to the country.

In this volume, we have a chapter by Martin Bernal, author of the controversial Black Athena (1987/1991), dealing with "Afrocentricism and historical models for the foundation of Ancient Greece". The views of his less popularly known predecessor in this field, Cheikh Anta Diop, are examined by Kevin MacDonald, specifically with reference to the influence of a "Black Egypt" on the rest of Africa. MacDonald concludes that "there is little basis for strong cultural connections between Dynastic Egypt and the African interior. But, with all of their flaws, the works of Cheikh Anta Diop still raise some questions that are worthy of consideration concerning the peopling of Africa" and that "the works of Diop and other Afrocentrists have amply demonstrated the contemporary ideological importance of issues surrounding 'origins' and 'identities'". Other papers in the volume (by David Edwards and Robert Morkot) provide a welcome overview of aspects of Nubian archaeology, which has often been popularly regarded as Egyptology's poor relation.

Ancient Perspectives on Egypt contains 12 papers that try to reflect how Egypt might have been perceived by those who came into contact with it.

This is arguably the most disparate of the volumes, covering a wide area (outside Africa) over a long chronological span, and the editors have done well to marshal the papers into a useful order.

Of the second group of volumes, The Wisdom of Egypt: Changing Visions through the Ages takes us through a series of changing visions of ancient Egypt from classical times to the 19th and 20th centuries. The coverage is well balanced and a coherent picture of the perception of Egypt is developed. A chapter on "Ancient Egypt in medieval Arabic writings" (by Okasha El Daly) was essential here, and a further chapter on similar lines could comfortably have been included. All too few "histories of Egyptology" acknowledge that an awareness of ancient Egypt existed in the Arab world before Napoleon brought it to Western attention, not least because few scholars are familiar with Arabic sources.

As Jeffreys points out in the second volume of this group, Views of Ancient Egypt since Napoleon Bonaparte , Egyptology itself was confined to the period before c. 330BC, and as a result later material was considered the preserve of Arabists, not Egyptologists, even though it was relevant to their own discipline. Jeffreys' volume includes a useful overview of the development of Egyptology since Napoleon, and in particular aspects of its administration since that time. The volume as a whole provides a good deal of material that will be useful to not only Egyptologists but also to modern historians and those studying social history. The chapter by Timothy Champion on "Egypt and the diffusion of culture" will be welcomed by non-Egyptologists as helping to put into place the pivotal role of Egypt in the development of hyperdiffusionism.

David Dixon's "Some Egyptological sidelights on the Egyptian war of 1882" certainly gave me a new insight into Kitchener. Papers such as this provide a welcome link between social and archaeological history and help to give a genuine social context to the subject. All too often the political background to Egyptology is forgotten by authors once they have considered the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799.

" Never Had the Like Occurred " examines how the Egyptians viewed their own past and used it to inspire and inform their present at different stages in their history. There are relatively few publications dealing with Egypt's view of her own past or indeed material culture. Jan Assman's The Mind of Egypt (2002) is one of the few to examine such territory, and the present volume will form a welcome addition to that body of work. A paper by David O'Connor on "Egypt's views of 'Others'", which could almost equally well have been part of Mysterious Lands, serves only to emphasise the relatedness of these volumes.

The final group comprises two books, Consuming Ancient Egypt and Imhotep Today: Egyptianizing Architecture . The first is a departure from traditional Egyptological territory but a welcome one. Here we find papers dealing with "'Mummymania' for the masses - is Egyptology cursed by the mummy's curse?" (by Carter Lupton). Similarly, El Daly asks "What do tourists learn of Egypt?" giving insight into the "tourist experience" - which is not, perhaps, the one that most Egyptologists would like the tourists to take away from the country.

Imhotep Today is an excellent companion to Consuming Ancient Egypt and looks at Egyptianising architecture across the world. This is architecture in its widest sense, not only as buildings but in art, as described by Helen Whitehouse in her "Archaeology wedded to art: Egyptian architecture in 19th-century painting". The same author examines "Egypt in the snow", that is the Egyptianising architecture of St Petersburg: a reminder of just how influential the post-Napoleonic rediscovery of ancient Egypt was.

Part of this rediscovery was the decipherment of hieroglyphs, and this is well illustrated in Alex Werner's paper "Egypt in London - public and private displays in the 19th-century metropolis", in which the author illustrates how by the latter half of the century hieroglyphs were well enough understood for the names of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort to appear in the Egyptian court at the re-erected Crystal Palace at Sydenham.

The following chapter by Chris Elliott, Katherine Griffis-Greenberg and Richard Lunn looks at "Egypt in London - entertainment and commerce in the 20th-century metropolis" and deals with the cinemas and stores of the capital. The photograph of a stone facade showing a power drill in the hand of Seth (god of chaos and confusion), which forms part of the Homebase building at Earls Court, is particularly appropriate and says as much about 20th-century DIY as Egyptian inspiration.

All eight volumes of the series are produced on good-quality paper and are well illustrated, which sets them apart from many traditional approaches to conference publishing. The photographs are generally well reproduced.

Overall, this is a series of books that should be in any university library. While not all the criticisms made of Egyptology in the editor's introduction are equally valid, the content goes a long way to advance the study of Egyptology and Egyptian archaeology and to establish its place within world archaeology.

Paul T. Nicholson is senior lecturer in archaeology, Cardiff University.

Ancient Egypt in Africa

Editor - David O'Connor and Andrew Reid
Publisher - UCL Press
Pages - 219
Price - £25.00 Box set £165.00
ISBN - 1 84472 000 4 Box set 1 84472 008 X

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