Sanctified folklore has it that some years ago a survey was done to find out which object in the British Museum attracted most visitors, in the form of person-hours spent gazing. The answer turned out to be, not the Elgin Marbles, not Magna Carta, not even the Rosetta Stone, but the mummified ginger tomcat in one of the upper Egyptian rooms. A surprising conclusion perhaps, since tomcats in better nick can be found on the top of almost any garden wall, but it reminds us of one of the fascinations that ancient Egypt can exert: it shows us the apotheosis of the ordinary.
No other ancient civilisation produces such an immediate effect with such material: children's toys, sometimes with children's fingerprints still on them, make-up sets and writing equipment, bed linen complete with laundry marks, wine jars with their vintages and the names of the proprietors inscribed, and letters to the taxman protesting about excessive coding.
Then there is the pharaonic death industry, which ensures the preservation of such objects while setting them in a context of awesome mystery combined with poignancy. In addition, Egyptian artists and craftsmen are rightly praised, and many of their works have entered the canon of great art.
The wealth of material that has survived is extraordinary, and reflects the fact that ancient Egypt lasted some 35 of the 52 centuries since the beginning of writing, and for many of those centuries the pharaoh may have been the richest man on earth. Add the excitement of archaeology, and the pedigree of a study which begins at the height of the Romantic era, and the result is quite a few person-hours of curiosity.
A plethora of books exists to satisfy this curiosity, so why is it necessary to add to them? Although there are endless publications devoted to the religion, history, art and archaeology of Egypt, there are few works of overall synthesis. A one-volume Dictionary of Egyptian Civilisation (originally French) appeared in translation in 1962, but this has been unavailable for years, and the quality of its illustrations was middling. An encyclopaedia devoted to Egyptian archaeology is in preparation in the United States. However, a gap exists in the market, and the British Museum has made an astute attempt at filling it.
The British Museum Dictionary turns out to be the best of two worlds: a basic textbook that would not disfigure the coffee table, and a picture book with bite. From the point of view of illustrations, the museum has got it made, since it possesses the largest Egyptian collection in the world outside Cairo, and probably the most accessible as well. The bulk of the illustrations in this volume, when not photographs of buildings or works of art taken in situ in Egypt or the Sudan, are based on the museum's own holdings.
The entries on individual sites, with their maps, are the strongest feature of the book, since this is a field where it is often difficult to find an accurate summary quickly, and short but up-to-date bibliographies refer the curious to greater things while assuring the complacent that they are in safe hands. Egyptian religion, a magnet for the alternatively pious, benefits from a series of crisp paragraphs that steer a course between the patronisingly literal treatment still sometimes encountered, and the archly mystical tone that one hopes will not be allowed to take its place. Technology is given proper emphasis, as is excavation history and technique, and lapses into jargon are few enough not to depress. The brief historical entries are perhaps the flattest feature of the book, but there is enough information in the guides to further reading to reward the persevering. In addition, there are the inevitable synopses, such as the one on Egyptian literature, which no reviewer can envy an author having to write. There is the usual timechart and list of dynasties at the end, but more remarkable is appendix II, a list of the principal tombs at Thebes and their owners, together with their official numbering. This is precisely the kind of information that is difficult to locate in a hurry, and is a sign of the thoughtfulness that has gone into the book.
When your niece or nephew next goes to the British Museum and comes back wanting a ginger tom, you may get away with buying this dictionary instead.
John Ray is reader in Egyptology, University of Cambridge.
British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt
Author - Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
ISBN - 0 7141 0892 7
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £.50
Pages - 328