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Ancient Egypt Magazine -- Volume Eleven Issue Two - October 2010

 

Book Reviews Index

Dancing for Hathor:
Women in Ancient
Egypt

by Carolyn Graves-Brown

 

The Greek Historian Herodotus believed that the Egyptians had “reversed the ordinary practices of mankind” in treating women better than in any of the other civilisation in the ancient World.

 

The author looks at women in ancient Egypt from the Pre-dynastic Period through to 300 BC, after which Egypt began to be more influenced by other cultures.

 

Not surprisingly perhaps, the most common occupation for women was that of housewife and mother, but, as the author demonstrates, drawing on funerary remains, tomb paintings, and reliefs, and architectural and textual evidence, the next most common career was the priesthood, where women fulfilled a number of roles, some wielding considerable power and influence.

 

Women served a number of deities, but one of the most important was the cult of Hathor, where they were often dancers and musicians.

 

A wide range of subjects is covered in the eight chapters. The differences between rich and poor women are described and the various roles of women throughout Egypt’s long history in various occupations ranging from the expected domestic tasks to women and trade, women at the royal court and women in the temple. Sections discuss how the Egyptian women were treated in law, their property rights and their role in warfare.

 

The scope of this book is wide indeed, from the problems of pregnancy and childbirth to women in the royal harem plotting to kill the king. The book is well written and very readable.

 

Questions such as “Was ancient Egypt a matrilineal society?”, “Were women considered to be sex-objects?”, “Were the ancient Egyptians prudes” are posed and answered.

 

For a really good and fairly detailed overview of the role of women in ancient Egypt, then this is an excellent book and will be ideal for students of course, but of use to anyone interested in ancient Egypt, regardless of their sex or gender.

 

The book has only a handful of illustrations; more would have been preferable, but this particular subject matter is very difficult to illustrate. There is a very large and comprehensive bibliography for anyone who wishes to pursue aspects of the subject in even more detail.

 

Published by Continuum UK, 2010.

ISBN 978-1 8472 5054 4.

Hardback, price £20.

 

Ancient Egypt and Nubia

by Helen Whitehouse

 

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford houses one of the most important collection of objects from ancient Egypt and Nubia in the UK.

 

The scope of the collection is wideranging, but of special importance are the impressive artefacts dating to the Prehistoric and Early Dynastic Periods, and the distinctive sculpture and paintings of the Amarna Period. Objects such as the superb early maceheads of Kings Scorpion and Narmer, and images of Akhenaten and Nefertiti and their daughters may well may be known to many already, but there are a large number of other splendid and unique objects in the collection, included and illustrated in this publication.

 

Most of the objects came from excavations in Egypt from the 1880s to the late 1960s, but the museum itself was inaugurated in 1683, when interest in ancient Egypt was beginning and when the first European travellers were visiting the country. The introductory chapter tells the story of the early interest in Egypt and how Egypt came to be represented in Oxford in a museum and collection of growing importance.

 

There then follows a selection of seventy- six objects, in chronological order. Each object is illustrated and is well described by the text, which puts each of the objects in its historical and artistic context.

 

The result is an excellent publication and a definite ‘must-have’ souvenir of any visit to the collection. However, even if you have not yet, or cannot, visit the museum, this is a good book to have for there are some remarkable objects shown here, which deserve to be better known and which are rarely illustrated in other publications. In addition to the early period and Amarna pieces, included are: a remarkable chariot-wheel hub, which shows the extraordinary skills of the ancient carpenters; a fragment of a royal wig, probably from a statue, carved in wood and with part of an inlaid diadem surviving; and objects from ancient Nubia.

 

Published by The Ashmolean Museum, 2009.

ISBN 978 1 85444 202 4.

Paperback, price £16.95.

 

 

 

The Nile and its People

by Charlotte Booth

 

Few books on the history of Egypt cover the entire span of history from antiquity to the present day. This book is therefore most useful, as anyone visiting Egypt will encounter later cultures, which on the face of it appear very different from each other, but often demonstrate a direct link between the past and today.

 

Covering a period from 5,000 BC and 7,000 years of history, the author uses the River Nile as the focal point for the story, explaining how the river was and is important to Egypt in so many ways.

 

Beginning before the development of the cities and towns along the river, the author describes the well known account of how the river was fundamental to the development of ancient Egyptian civilisation, not just for providing the all-important water, but for communications along the country.

 

Even just over one hundred years ago, the Nile was the main highway and people and trade sailed the river.

 

The river today sees a flourishing trade in tourism, but is still important to the country, providing water for irrigation; and the waters of lake Nasser and other barrages across the river generate electricity for the country.

 

Today the Nile has been tamed, but in antiquity the annual inundation was a time of hope and concern, for too high a river could wash fields and homes away; too low and the results could be poor crops and even famine.

 

It is thought to be a period of poor Nile floods that marked the end of the Old Kingdom. The river was a dangerous place too: squalls could capsize boats and dangerous animals such as crocodiles and hippopotami hid in its waters.

 

No wonder the Nile was regarded as sacred and given a name and personality … the Nile god, Hapy, and the dangerous animals were worshipped.

 

The Nile was important to Egypt as an independent country, but in Greek and Roman times, Egypt became the crossroads of the ancient world, and continued to be so right up to modern times, especially with the opening of the Suez Canal and before the emergence of air transport.

 

The river, or the water from the river, has also been, and still is, a threat to many of the monuments. The author looks at some of the recent action taken to protect the antiquities and what might need to be done in the future.

 

It is clear that the river is a dynamic force, and even in our modern society, Egypt’s very existence relies absolutely on the river.

 

I am not sure that I agree with the author’s assertion that the river is the only source of water, meaning that ice cubes are made from it today and food is washed in it. Much of the water in Egypt comes from wells, and did so in the past, so the water is naturally filtered, and of course many people, not just tourists, use bottled water, which comes from underground springs.

 

It is easy for many visitors to fail to appreciate the importance of the river, in antiquity and today; this book shows how the Nile has shaped the cultures of the inhabitants and how it has been used, manipulated and exploited.

 

The more observant of you will notice, however, that the image on the cover is not actually of the River Nile, but of the reflecting pool in front of the temple of Debod, now in Madrid.

 

Published by The History Press, 2010.

ISBN 978 0 7524 5506 8.

Paperback, price £16.99.

 

The Realm of the Pharaohs:
Essays in Honor of Tohfa Handoussa

edited by Zahi Hawass, Khaled Daoud and Sawsan Abd El-Fattah

 

Born in 1937, Tohfa Handoussa is one of Egypt’s pre-eminent Egyptologists, described in the introduction by Zahi Hawass as “A Modest and Loving Egyptologist”. This volume is a collection of essays on a wide range of subjects, contributed by friends, colleagues and students in appreciation of her long contribution to Egyptology in Egypt.

 

The typical result of such a book is an interesting selection of titles, not necessarily connected or linked by their subject matters, and the contributors use such volumes to publish some of their latest research. I can’t list all the contributors or titles (some of the essays are in French) but they include several articles on unpublished stelae and ostraca in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

 

Mohamed I. Bakhr writes on ‘A New Treasure from Zagazig: preliminary report on an important discovery at Bubastis’, Tarek El-Wady on ‘Boat Graves in Old Kingdom Royal Funerary Complexes’, Mohamed El- Tonssy on ‘Goddesses of Force in El- Tod Temple’, Zahi Hawass on ‘A Statue of Thutmose II and the God Amun – Genuine or Fake?’ and Ranier Stadelmann on ‘Stories and Anecdotes about and around the Pyramids’.

 

The essays are illustrated with linedrawings and some black-and-white and colour photos, all of good quality.

 

The articles are written by experts, for experts, so the readership of this volume may be limited to students who have a particular interest in the subjects covered, where this volume will be the only reference work available.

 

Sadly, a printing error has duplicated eight pages from the introduction in the middle of one of the essays, resulting in eight missing pages of text.

 

Published by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, 2009.

ISBN 977 437 842 3.

Paperback, price £28.50.

 

Amarna: The Missing Evidence

by Sue Moseley

 

The end of the Eighteenth Dynasty always seems to attract much interest and interpretation of the somewhat limited hard evidence available. The gaps in our knowledge have, over the last hundred or more years at least, allowed many authors to freely interpret the evidence and often come up with amazingly contradictory explanations.

 

In this book the author seeks to provide ‘new’ evidence, to re-interpret the established facts, and, as she says, to challenge the reader to join in by solving puzzles and adding their own contributions via social networking sites.

 

This is a good compilation of the many conflicting views and ideas about this period and points for and against some of the conclusions are well made.

 

However, I have reservations about how general readers can necessarily add anything to the debate, when the ‘evidence’ they may themselves have may be based on earlier books, on old, sometimes now disproved ideas, or even on the evidence from TV documentaries, all of which can sometimes be seriously flawed.

 

In most of the chapters, the author puts forward two versions of events, one the ‘established’ version and the other her own version. Each chapter ends with a summary of both viewpoints with the final comment to the reader: “You decide.” I wish it was as black-and-white as that. Any reader, myself included, will probably find that he or she agrees with some of the points made, yet disagrees with others. I suppose that is because many people seem to engage in this period of ancient Egyptian history more than any other, for a variety of reasons, not necessarily based on historical or archaeological evidence.

 

I am pleased that the author seems to discount any apparent diseases or ‘syndromes’ connected with Akhenaten himself, and even the arguments that he was a woman. New hard evidence, if it is to be believed, shows that Akhenaten was, to all intents and purposes ‘normal’, but that won’t of course stop any of the hoary old myths re-appearing in books for the next few generations.

 

Unfortunately, some of the conclusions made in this book, such as Tutankhamun being the younger brother of Akhenaten, have (perhaps?) been rendered obsolete by the recently-published results on the family relationships of Tutankhamun. I do not necessarily agree with the suggestion that the famous bust of Nefertiti is in fact one of her daughters: the known iconography of Nefertiti and the presence of the royal uraeus to my mind make the latter option unlikely.

 

I suppose that the interesting thing about this book is that it does encourage some debate, but anyone could (and I suspect that it will not be long before someone will) write a book in a similar format and come up with completely different conclusions based on many of the same ‘facts’.

 

However, those interested in the Amarna period will no doubt enjoy this book, and, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with some of the conclusions, as the author states “you decide”.

 

Published by Peach Pixel, 2009.

ISBN 978 0 956 1693 0 3.

Paperback, price £14.99.

 

Sacred and Profane: Treasures of Ancient Egypt from the Myers Collection, Eton College and University of Birmingham

edited by Eurydice Georganteli and Martin Bommas

 

The exhibition of which this is the catalogue is mentioned in an article on page 32 of issue 62.

 

Well-produced and typical in format for many exhibition catalogues, it describes the objects and provides an historical and artistic context for them, along with the story of how the collection was put together and its importance today.

 

Major W. Myers was one of many collectors of antiquities at the end of the nineteenth century, but seems to have had a eye for the best objects and the right contacts in Egypt to be able to obtain them.

 

Objects in the current exhibition are illustrated, sometimes with more than one photograph, and are fully described.

 

Many of the objects are small and the excellent photos show all their intricate details clearly.

 

This book is ideal as a souvenir of the exhibition, but especially useful for the many people who might not be able to visit Birmingham in the limited period when the exhibition is showing.

 

Published by D. Giles Ltd, 2010.

ISBN 978 0 704427 37 2 Paperback or 978-1904832805 Hardback

Paperback price £12.95.

 

Artists in the Old Kingdom:
Techniques and Achievements

by Naguib Kanawati and Alexandra Woods

 

This new publication looks at the Old Kingdom art of tomb paintings and reliefs.

 

One for the first revelations of this book is that the ancient artists were not anonymous, as is often thought, but that we actually know several of their names, inscribed in some cases on the tomb walls they decorated.

 

The scenes they created in the tombs acted as models for the rest of ancient Egypt’s long history. One of the great difficulties in appreciating the skills of the artists is our use of photography to capture the often very detailed and delicate modelling, as the lighting used can both reveal and conceal some of the superb detail. The scenes are designed to be seen in person, albeit by the limited number of people who may have had access to the tomb chapels in antiquity.

 

The examples of Old Kingdom art in this book concentrate on the Old Kingdom tombs at Giza, Saqqara, Deir el-Gebrawi, Akhmim and Meir.

 

Chapters look at the work of the artists, at some of the known individuals and their works, and discuss the roles of the painters and sculptors, who both contributed to the finished scenes.

 

It is possible, for example, to see the work of different artists in the decoration of individual tombs and also to observe their differing skills.

 

The artists’ materials and techniques and the colours used are then covered.

 

This is followed by information on selected Old Kingdom tombs (with plans and written descriptions of the tombs), and on the tomb owners.

 

References to books published on the tombs are also included.

 

A large section of excellent photographs of selected wall scenes are included from many tombs, some well known, but a large number that will be unknown to readers; several of them have been discovered recently. It is always good to see new examples, and many of the new discoveries are notable for their well-preserved colours.

 

The photos are divided into themes: ‘artists at work’, ‘major figures’, ‘minor figures’, ‘animal husbandry’, ‘deserts and marshlands’, ‘entertainment’, ‘fishing and fowling’, ‘activities in the field’, ‘food offerings and furniture’, ‘transportation’, ‘funeral procession and incidentals’, and ‘hieroglyphic signs’.

 

Despite the limitation of photographs already mentioned, the colour images are clear and precise. They have been selected to illustrate the various themes and to demonstrate the skills and techniques of the artists.

 

It is clear that the painters and sculptors enjoyed a special status, working as they did with the élite of Egyptian society.

 

Some are shown among the family members of the tomb owners in fishing or fowling trips and are shown being offered food by servants. Some even had their own tombs.

 

It is also clear, as this book ably demonstrates, that painters and sculptors exercised their respective skills to decorate some remarkable monuments, many of which have survived until today and can be, in many cases, visited and enjoyed in a way that would not have been possible in antiquity.

 

Visiting the tombs and seeing the tomb decoration at first hand is always a delight. Whilst Old Kingdom tomb scenes regularly feature in many books on ancient Egypt, this book will give readers a real insight into the wide range of subjects covered and the work and skills of the men who created the scenes that were so important to the tomb owners and which are so much admired today.

 

For those who cannot visit the tombs in person, or for anyone studying Old Kingdom art in detail, this book will be an essential reference work.

 

A comprehensive and bibliography is included for those that want to find further reading material on the subject.

 

Published by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, 2009.

ISBN 977 437 985 3.

Paperback, price £32.50.

 

Ancient Egypt on Five Deben a Day

by Donald P. Ryan

 

Described as “more reliable than Herodotus and more upbeat than the Book of the Dead” this is an “essential guide for the discerning time traveller”.

 

It is a guide book for a traveller visiting Egypt in the time of Rameses II around 1250 BC. (If this seems familiar, a similar book covering the same time period was published and reviewed in AE in 2008.) Perhaps I am warming to the concept of such a book, though my main caveat is that we cannot be sure exactly what travellers in and visitors to Egypt may have actually been able to see. Would they, for example, have been able to visit the abandoned city of Akhetaten and hear the story of Akhenaten’s reign as described in this volume? There is certainly a great deal of information in this book. Chapters cover getting to Egypt, what to take, and how to prepare for the journey.

 

The mechanics of how to barter are explained and the traveller is advised to take trinkets for this purpose, along with a stout stick. Everyone is advised to go well-dressed unless they are claiming to visit the country as an economic refugee.

 

When in Egypt, the nature of the country the people and their beliefs are well covered with lots of the usual sort of anecdotes we find in travel books today. In the case of medical emergencies, the common use of purges is explained as a cure for all evils! Visitors are given all the information on the main sites, though it is clear that temples could not be entered and many tombs we know today were still sealed … in these instances the author uses the ‘it is understood’ or ‘there are rumours of ...’ approach to describe things that could not be seen then, but can now.

 

This book is well written and great fun. To my surprise I found that once I started reading it, it was very difficult to put down.

 

I love some of the ‘warnings’ to tourists. It is, we are told, possible to buy sheets of papyrus and that sometimes scribes will paint scenes on them or hieroglyphs, which make excellent souvenirs. It is advised that any writing is verified by a second scribe, just in case one ends up with one that actually says “I went to Egypt and all I brought back was this sheet of paper.” There are even phrases that might come in useful on a trip (though sadly the phrasebook classic, “my postillion has been struck by lightning” was not included!) I did however like “Does this loincloth make me look fat?” … which is, of course, “In too-ee kheper-kooee em djeda yoo-ee her-wetjes pay daeeoo?” This is a great little book and one to be enjoyed. It would make a great present for anyone interested in Egypt, so you either need to drop hints to friends and family or otherwise buy a copy for yourself ! RP

 

Published by Thames and Hudson, 2010.

ISBN 978 0 500 251485.

Hardback, price £12.95.

 

 

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