This book aims to provide "some grounding in the basic history of culture" of ancient Egypt for students and general readers. Such introductions are needed, but although many illustrated volumes are available, few are fully satisfactory.
Here a series of chapters surveys topics familiar from other popular presentations, ranging through the environment, history, settlement patterns, government, religion, society, language and writing, domestic and temple architecture, funerary practices and art. Inevitably, the treatment of 3,000 years of a complex culture in just over 200 pages appears rather summary and uneven, and it is perhaps regrettable that the authors decided not to use anthropological models and did not provide more analytical surveys of the topics.
An accessible style has been aimed at, but the result can appear slightly bland, and one is left wishing that the authors had been allowed to mobilise their specialised expertise more fully in their presentation.
A survey of the range and potential of the surviving evidence, and some indication of the limits to what can be deduced from it, would have been welcome. The description of "society and its expectations", for example, repeats the images that are well known from elite tombs and other sources, but provides little impression of how only a small percentage of society is being described, or of the wider social context: "entertainment" occupies as much space as "marriage" and "child-bearing and family life" combined, a balance that cannot correspond to ancient experience.
Some of the generalised assertions are questionable, such as "today, the ancient language is well understood and virtually all texts can be read with certainty"; an arguably more accurate, if less comfortable impression is given by John Baines and Jaromir Malek in the Atlas of Ancient Egypt : "the day when all our difficulties with Egyptian will have been solved isI nowhere in sight".
Similarly, the statement that "as the texts show, the ancient Egyptians had a passion for fair play" is pleasing, but it disguises the fact that the concept of "fair play" might not be applicable to a very different ancient culture, and that texts do not always present an unbiased, accurate picture of reality. The description and handling of source material is not always up to date, and some statements rely on assumptions that are now increasingly questioned and qualified. The book is also not entirely free from factual errors.
The publishers' claims that this is "the most current and expansive examination of Egypt" are perhaps excessive. The photographs are good, but some of the line drawings are inadequate. The bibliography, which is presented as a resource for further exploration, is almost exclusively in English and does not indicate how much fundamental reference material is in other languages.
Richard Parkinson is assistant keeper, Egyptian antiquities, British Museum.
Egypt and the Egyptians
Author - Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter
ISBN - 0 521 44518 3 and 44984 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 218