Pharaohs' dress to unused Coptic

June 8, 2001

The publisher of the Encyclopaedia Britannica has decided that their product is no longer viable as a comprehensive work sold in book form and are replacing their traditional marketing with an online portal. The best current form of the encyclopaedia itself is a DVD, which is sad for those who like books, but saves a lot of bookshelf space and has many other advantages.

Meanwhile, other publishers create many large, specialised reference sets. As library budgets contract, reference sections are seen as good marketing targets. These works tend to follow the model of Britannica's Macropedia in having long essays, rather than the thousands of short ones characteristic of older collections. An example of what can be achieved in the newer genre is the six-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992).

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt , produced by OUP New York, is an instance of these trends. In Egyptology, its three volumes, all in English but with authors from many countries, contrast with the seven-volume Lexikon der Ägyptologie (1972-91). The latter is a multilingual monument of traditional, largely German scholarship, addressed mainly to specialists in Egyptology and neighbouring fields, and a very valuable, heavily documented work that can positively stimulate research. It even contains significant theoretical articles that were perhaps smuggled past the editors. It makes no concessions to a broad readership.

Despite its great qualities, the Lexikon has evident weak-nesses. Its main focus is on ancient Egyptian texts and philology, and it covers archaeological and visual materials less well. Many thought it might have been followed by a "Lexicon of Egyptian Archaeology" - a gap that is rather well filled by the one-volume Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt edited by Kathryn Bard (1999). The Lexikon is almost unillustrated, though it has quite good maps. And although its title includes the word "Egyptology", it nowhere discusses the nature of its subject and hardly mentions methods and goals of research.

So what is the Egyptology the new work covers? I would myself say that it is the study of ancient Egypt in all its aspects, from Neolithic times to the disappearance of indigenous Egyptian civilisation around AD400. It can also include Christian Egypt down to about AD1000, when Coptic, the successor of ancient Egyptian, ceased to be a spoken language. Preserved evidence is weighted toward high-cultural phenomena, while the enormous amount the Egyptians invested in tombs and temples makes death and religion natural focuses of interest. As in many archaeologically based subjects, it is often necessary to model social and intellectual contexts in order to situate the evidence and gain a sense of what is lost. And if conceptual frameworks are absent, evidence and interpretations cannot be generalised or compared with those derived from other places and social forms, so that much of the subject's value can be lost.

Egyptology is not a discipline but a range of approaches to a single region and a single immense period. Egyptologists attempt to stay abreast of numerous and disparate bodies of material and approaches to them. What keeps the subject more or less coherent is its focus on time and place. Although some may not agree, methods in Egyptology are those of other disciplines and should become more so. Dependent on their special interests, those entering the field need to acquire skills in areas as diverse as linguistics, social theory and physical sciences.

In addition to the vast appeal of ancient Egypt to a wide public, Egyptologists believe that the study of its civilisation offers much to research on complex societies and civilisations, as well as providing essential background to the emergence of later empires and civilisations in the Near East, Greece and Rome.

All this is ample justification for a broad scholarly presentation addressed to non-specialists as well as specialists. The Oxford Encyclopedia 's preface states that it addresses "students, scholars, and the merely curious". The new work is more methodologically aware than the Lexikon and goes some way toward the diversity of approach I would advocate. Its coverage is more balanced than its predecessor's. Much thought has gone into the selection of head words. There are many synthesising articles, for example covering both major historical periods and areas such as "Art". The encyclopedia treats topics that the Lexikon did not touch, including the legacy of Egypt in the West. I was pleased to see an entry "Egyptology" - but disappointed on reading it, because it hardly addresses the field's current mainstream.

The encyclopedia is a reference work more than a research tool. With seemingly random exceptions, references are confined to the bibliographies and specific citations of sources within the text are lacking. Full access to primary materials or to writing on Egyptology as a whole is therefore not provided. Some articles are frustrating to read because even a professional cannot work out what piece of evidence an author is alluding to.

Non-English material, which is the large majority of what is published in Egyptology, tends to be weakly represented. The intellectual range of the subject is restricted by this Anglophone bias. Thus, today's most prominent Egyptologist, Jan Assmann, rates only four entries in the index and there is not much sign that approaches such as his are either taken into account or argued against.

For a work such as this, it is difficult to secure authors, many of whom have "contributor fatigue" because so many reference sets are produced. The editors of the Oxford Encyclopedia have not succeeded in enlisting as many leading scholars for major entries as the user might have hoped. There are excellent articles in some areas, notably ones that have come into focus in recent scholarship; here the editors have skilfully identified promising trends. I was impressed by the treatments of crime, marriage and divorce, women, and symbolic domains such as colour and crowns. In a different way, "Irrigation" by Karl Butzer, the grand master of the area, succinctly updates his widely used 1976 book. Many shorter entries, for example on single literary works, equally concisely provide all one needs, and some have unexpected and stimulating ideas.

Too many authors, however, are not familiar with recent work or write conceptually weak entries. Thus, the principal article on "Literature", while citing recent research that has introduced fruitful and diverse methods, is more an evaluative essay than a systematic review, and its coverage of different periods is spotty (the entry "Demotic literature", on material from about 400BC to AD300, is much better). The treatment of the crucial area of economics is almost devoid of theoretical or generalising engagement. Its opening "Overview", focusing on its author's own hypotheses about land allocation at the beginning of Egyptian history, is positively bizarre. Major topics tend to be poorly organised, their overviews avoidably duplicating the content of the following groups of essays.

A good reference work must be scrupulously edited in addition to having a high standard of contributions. Here, the encyclopedia betrays a worrying absence of quality control by the publishers. Volume one starts on the wrong foot: the first entry, which is about the ancient site Kom Medinet Ghurob, has the name of the different place Abu Ghurob. Articles translated from other languages or written in English by non-native speakers are not well copy-edited and contain many misunderstandings and "false friends". Personal name forms are not always consistent; I found three spellings of the 6th-dynasty expedition leader Horkhuf.

The transcription of the Egyptian language into Latin script is not uniform. The reader who has no Egyptian will be puzzled by the variety of systems and will have to locate the article "Scripts, hieroglyphs" for summary elucidation. Bibliographies overlap excessively, while some contributors have got away with citing almost exclusively their own works. There are hundreds of slips in names of authors, titles, dates and page numbers; some books that are cited do not actually exist. Evidently nothing was verified against original sources, databases or other research tools.

The weakest element is illustration. The principal map, on the endpapers, is very schematic; plans, figures and tables are few. The pictorial illustrations could have been very valuable, notably in incorporating non-textual sources, but they are hardly integrated with the text in content or in design and their selection is haphazard. Presumably in order to avoid copyright fees, numerous major works of art are shown in 19th-century line drawings that are now curiosities of book production. Many photographs are very poor.

Apart from the issue of quality, some illustrations are wrongly identified, including quite well-known images such as the face of Tutankhamun, which is ascribed to a king of different appearance from 650 years earlier. The error-ridden captions must have been done by production staff who were unfamiliar with the material and with norms for what a caption should contain. Many illustrations will be embarrassing to the authors in whose articles they are sited. All this is far below the standards of major publishers of illustrated books.

Like any multi-author work, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt is uneven. Its best articles provide excellent, up-to-date and thought-provoking surveys of key topics and it contains a mass of information of which, despite my strictures, the vast majority is reliable. But it is not consistent enough to recommend without qualification. For my student reading lists I intend to give references to the best articles. I would much have preferred simply to cite the encyclopedia as a reliable and stimulating source for Egyptology as a whole.

A future compilation, perhaps in multi-media or online form, may be able to build on the experience of a collection like this to create a superior reference work. To succeed fully, it would benefit from a bolder execution of an overall concept as well as from more attention to detail, especially by its publishers. Meanwhile, the encyclopedia has a great deal of good content and covers a wider range than has hitherto been available. It will give valuable service to many people, but they should not see it as authoritative.

John Baines is professor of Egyptology, University of Oxford.

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