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Ancient Egypt Magazine -- Volume Eighteen Issue Three - December 2017

Book Reviews

Book Reviews Index

 

Giza and the Pyramids

 by Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass.

 

This volume was some thirty years in the making, being continually expanded and rewritten to keep pace with the wealth of new evidence uncovered on the Giza plateau. The authors are in a unique position to present the definitive guide, each having dedicated more than forty years to excavating and studying the Giza site, separately and collaboratively.

Their first task is to dispense with the ‘alternative’ ideas surrounding the pyramids which fail to take into account the mass of evidence left behind by the Fourth Dynasty pyramid builders; notions of a workforce of enslaved Hebrews are also dismissed. The authors then present a comprehensive assessment (and reassessment) of the entire Giza plateau area, from the geological formation of the sedimentary rocks (some 55 million years ago) to the resurgence of the area as a mass cemetery during the Late Period.

The order of chapters is somewhat confusing in places; after a logical sequence on the geography, geology and early history of the site and origins of pyramid building, a chapter on “Explorers, scholars and expeditions” (Chapter 6) pops up, followed by one covering pyramid rituals; each of the main monuments is then given its own chapter (in chronological order), before moving to the development of the cemeteries and life in the settlements. A discussion of possible construction techniques is left until Chapters 16 and 17, with final chapters on the abandonment of the plateau and revival in the New Kingdom and Late Period.

An Afterword covers the 2013 discovery of the Journal of Merer (detailing his work delivering stone for the building of the Great Pyramid), and the work of the ScanPyramids project (for the latest, see news, page 7).

Of the Giza monuments, we learn that some seven million cubic metres of local limestone was cut to create the three great pyramids; Khafra may have suffered from ‘pyramid envy’ – by building on a higher base and using a steeper angle of slope, he made his pyramid 7m higher than that of his father Khufu; Debehen’s inscription claiming that king Menkaura granted him his very large tomb may have been concocted by his family to cover up his purloining of an unused royal tomb; and the Sphinx may have been painted in bright colours as part of its New Kingdom restoration (as shown in an artist’s reconstruction). Colin Reader’s theory dating the Sphinx to the Early Dynastic Period (see AE84) is given a thorough discussion; the authors however disagree, arguing in favour of a Fourth Dynasty construction. The enigmatic monument of the queen Khentkawes I (who may have ruled in her own right at the end of the Fourth Dynasty) is given its own chapter, detailing the discovery of her valley complex, harbour basin and dedicated pyramid town.

Shedding light on life at Giza, we find inscriptions and graffiti suggesting that skilled workmen worked year round on site while other labourers (divided into ‘gangs’ of 5 phyles of 40 men) were brought in on a rotating shift system. Thirty years of excavations at the Heit el-Ghurab (‘Wall of the Crow’) site to the south east of the Great Sphinx have revealed a large settlement, administrative centre and Nile port dating to the reigns of Khafra and Menkaura, containing large ‘galleries’ which acted as barracks for conscripted workers (cue photograph of the team having a ‘lie down’ in order to calculate how many workers each could house).

You will need a strong coffee table for this one – here in this huge, richly illustrated volume is everything you ever wanted to know about Giza, the pyramids and the people who built them.

 

Thames & Hudson, 2017

ISBN 978-0-500-05189-4

Hardback, £75.

 

SG

 

Egypt: Lost Civilizations

by Christina Riggs.

 

Though less of a polemic than Riggs’ last book, Unwrapping Ancient Egypt (2014 – reviewed in AE85), this work is a critical assessment of the modern construction of ‘ancient Egypt’. Part of a series entitled Lost Civilizations, Riggs’ new work shows that ancient Egypt was in fact never ‘lost’ – and that the whole concept of ‘loss’ can be interpreted as a means of modern (read ‘Western’) powers distancing the ancient past from contemporary inhabitants of countries like Egypt, in order for those powers to gain control and legitimise the imperial project through ‘discovery’ and ‘science’.

Opening in Sigmund Freud’s antiquity- littered consulting room, Riggs charts a brief history of Egypt itself, drawing attention to the arbitrary nature of many Egyptological conventions.

Her characterisation of the socalled Intermediate Periods as times when people just hung around ‘waiting for something to happen’ gets to the very heart of our simplistic notions of history, which have gone generally unchallenged in Egyptology, especially in popular manifestations of it.

Chapters explore the decipherment of hieroglyphs, the importance of the River Nile, Pharaonic art and its influence, and – in decidedly more sinister territory – the racial profiling of ancient peoples and the continuing assumptions made about the ‘race’ of the ancient Egyptians. Riggs returns to old ground with a brief survey of the interpretation of human remains, and the general denial of the importance of wrapping as ritual. All in all, she shows that ancient Egypt is whatever we want it to be. Importantly, many of our assumptions are just that – assumptions, and so ought to be acknowledged as such.

One small criticism is the limited number of illustrations; several pieces mentioned in the text lack photographs, due probably to copyright preclusions, but perhaps also to dissociate from the gratuitous ‘glamour shots’ that litter many books on Egypt. That aside, there is no doubt that this will be a genuinely eye-opening read for many.

The fundamental point is inescapable; for those with an unproblematic, romantic vision (‘enjoyment’) of ancient Egypt – i.e. most interested people – this will be a surprising and not-altogether-pleasant jolt. Therefore, for the numerous consumers of ‘pop’ Egyptology (and I write this as a frequent peddler of such), members of special interest societies and readers of this magazine, this is an absolutely essential antidote to the gloss and the glitz. Modestly priced, this book is highly recommended.

 

Reaktion Books, 2017

ISBN 978-1-780-23726-8

Hardback, £15.

 

CP

Abusir: The Necropolis of the Sons of the Sun

by Miroslav Verner.

 

This extremely detailed volume is the latest in a dynasty of books written by Verner about Czech excavations and wider work in the Abusir burial grounds, beginning with Forgotten Pharaohs, Lost Pyramids (1994) and Abusir: The Realm of Osiris (2002 – reviewed in AE18). In fact this latest edition, thoroughly revised and updated, covers much the same territory as the latter which, being of ‘coffee table’ size and filled with colour illustrations was perhaps a better buy for the reader seeking a general introduction.

This new edition, being octavo with mostly black and white illustrations (apart from 28 colour pictures in the middle) could be seen as something of a step down from the 2002 volume, but of course brings the mission’s latest discoveries into print. The text follows roughly the same pattern as its predecessors, providing an excellent summary of the Old Kingdom exploitation of Saqqara, with an overspill into Abusir immediately to the north, before turning to a discussion of the Fifth Dynasty succession and the historical problems arising therefrom.

The bulk of the book – written in one massive chapter of 319 pages (thankfully broken into headed sections) – presents a vast amount of descriptive narrative embracing the Czech excavations of pyramids, and royal and private tombs at Abusir, many of which, as the author points out, have thrown up more questions than answers about the Fifth Dynasty.

Here will be found complete accounts of the burials of various royals, the royal hairdresser Ptahshepses, the discovery of the intact tomb of Iufaa and the evolution of ‘sun temples’, along with fascinating observations on early papyrus fragments, mummification processes and the potential for further discoveries including probably, more animal labyrinths.

The author provides the minutiae of archaeological investigation in a very readable manner, salting his text with discussions about various problems either resolved or thrown up by excavation.

One nice touch concerns his use of the present tense when referring to Ptahshepses’ spirit emerging through his false door to receive gifts.

In addition to the Old Kingdom material, there has been work on Early Dynastic cemeteries and Saite-Persian tombs, demonstrating a much longer period of use at Abusir (facts not entirely appreciated by earlier excavators such as Ludwig Borchardt). This too is described in the book, along with vital, but often unappreciated, protective and restoration operations, expensive and time consuming, but vital if these valuable mausoleums are to survive into the future.

A couple of errors were spotted, including (on page 31) Maspero’s dates given as 1885-1915 (it should read 1846-1916), but this is a very minor criticism. As a study of a necropolis and its relationship to dynastic Egypt, this is an admirable distillation of the now lengthy set of scholarly reports on a burial ground holding many, many more years of work. With the Czech Institute of Egyptology in charge, the site is in safe hands.

 

AUC Press, 2017

ISBN 978-9-774-16790-4

Hardback, £40.

 

Alan Jefferies

The Sunshade Chapel of Meritaten from the House-of-Waenre of Akhenaten (Museum Monograph 144)

by Josef Wegner.

 

E16230 is an ‘unassuming’ 2.3m high round-topped quartzite block, often called the ‘Amarna Stela’, held by the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania since 1900 and little studied until now. The block was badly defaced during the post-Amarna campaign of damnatio memoriae, and again when the block was recut (creating its rounded top) for use as a base for a sphinx of Merenptah during the Ramesside era. The block was later used as a threshold in a building in Islamic Cairo before its arrival in the US. In spite of this, it is still possible to see the images of Akhenaten offering to Aten, in the company of a female, and to read some of the inscriptions.

In this monograph, Josef Wegner tries to untangle the “fascinating archaeological conundrum” posed by the inscriptions, to discover more about this enigmatic piece and what it can tell us about the Amarna royal family. He concludes the so-called stela is one of the most important architectural pieces to survive the Amarna Period. The block formed part of the heavily ornamented façade of a ‘sunshade’ chapel (a commemorative cult building highlighting the link between the royal family and the Aten) dedicated to Akhenaten’s eldest daughter Meritaten. The chapel was originally built within the large ceremonial palace known as Per Waenre in Akhet- Aten, but there is some uncertainty as to the location of this structure due to the ambiguity of the inscriptions. Wegner presents two equally intriguing possibilities: the block originates from a previously unknown third Sunshade of Meritaten at Amarna (Akhet-Aten) or (more likely) it was part of the ‘House of Waenre’ at Heliopolis, suggesting the existence of a separate Aten cult area, also known as Akhet-Aten at the northern site.

An absorbing read, well-illustrated, which will appeal to anyone with an interest in this intriguing and mysterious period of Egyptian history.

 

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2017

ISBN 9781-934-53687-2

Hardback, £45.

 

SG

Current Research in Egyptology 17 (2016)

edited by Julia Chyla et al.

 

The seventeeth annual Current Research in Egyptology (CRE) conference was held in Krakow in 2016 where 120 delegates from 24 countries presented 69 papers and 13 posters.

The researchers, mostly at an early stage of their careers, presented a wide range of topics arranged in sixteen thematic sessions.

Of the fourteen papers selected for this publication, nine are arranged in chronological order covering the time span from the Predynastic to the Graeco-Roman Period, with the remaining five considering more general thematic, theoretical and crosscultural topics.

The Predynastic Period is strongly represented with two of the papers reevaluating old notes and field reports drawn up by Walter Emery at Saqqara North and Flinders Petrie at Naqada.

An interesting paper by Filip Taterka relating to the New Kingdom analyses the military expeditions of Hatshepsut, and his research challenges the traditional view of Hatshepsut being largely a peaceful ruler. He stresses the importance of the army during her reign and by analysing a range of texts and artefacts suggests her involvement in a number of military campaigns.

In the cross-cultural section, two papers examine cultural comparisons between Greece and ancient Egypt.

Maxwell Stocker’s paper conducts a literary analysis of Greek and ancient Egyptian narrative poetry using the examples of Homer’s Odyssey and the Tale of Sinuhe, whilst Sánchez Muñoz traces Egyptian musical elements incorporated into Greek traditions.

Porin Reznicek’s paper describes how an analysis of unprovenanced and little studied objects, in his example artefacts from the Egyptian collection in the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, illustrates the extent of the information that these artefacts may have for future research.

This volume comprises an interesting range of papers relating to recent research on ancient Egypt. There are two minor criticisms: the publication could have benefitted from short biographies of the authors and secondly, some of the papers were unduly lengthy, whereas a more rigorous word restriction would have permitted the publication of some of the other interestingly- titled papers presented at the conference.

 

Oxbow Books, 2017

ISBN 978-1-78570-600-4

Softback, £39.99.

 

Roger Forshaw

Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture (Third Edition)

 by William H. Stiebing Jr.and Susan N. Helft.

 

This is a comprehensive overview of the history of the ancient Near East, originally published 2002, and now completely revised (with the addition of Susan Helft, a specialist in art and archaeology of the ancient Near East, as co-author) to incorporate the latest archaeological findings, added debate sections on controversial issues and more emphasis on the role of women.

From the Prehistoric era, the book progresses in a broad chronological arc, with chapters covering each civilisation: the emergence of civilisation in Mesopotamia (c. 4000 BC); the Akkadians and Ur; the Early Bronze Age in the Levant, Anatolia, Persian Gulf and Central Asia; Egypt to the end of the Old Kingdom; the Old Babylonian Period (Fall of Ur, Hammurabi, Hittites); Middle Kingdom and Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt and the end of the Bronze Age.

Final chapters cover the Early Iron Age, Assyrian domination, and the Achaemenid Persian Empire up to the conquest of Alexander the Great. A new chapter on ancient Israel and Judah has been added, with an Afterword on the legacy of the ancient Near East.

Although aimed primarily at students (the steep price of the paperback is somewhat off-putting, although the e-book version at £23.09 is more affordable), this is a highly readable work that will appeal to academics and general readers alike.

 

Routledge, 2018

ISBN 978-1-138-68641-0

Paperback, £89.99.

 

SG

 

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