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Ancient Egypt Magazine -- No. 113 (Vol 19.5) April/May 2019

Book Reviews

Book Reviews Index


Wonderful Things: A History of Egyptology 3: From 1914 to the Twenty-first Century

by Jason Thompson


The American University Press, Cairo, 2018

ISBN: 978-9774167607

Hardback, £35.

This is the culminating volume of Jason Thompson’s magisterial account of the history of Egyptology. It is twice the size of its two predecessors, with so much of the story happening during this period. Thompson is a consummate historian and presents a broad conspectus of Egyptology’s modern international development during the most traumatic years in Europe and America. The French dominated Egyptology in Egypt with a succession of Directors of Antiquities, despite the British virtually governing the country since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

The contrasting approaches by Directors Maspero and Lacau had considerable effect on the work at a time when rising nationalism began to cast its shadow. German scholarship led in literature studies, the British in excavations; the Americans came later into the field, notably with the ‘giant’ George Reisner working in Egypt, and also dominated Nubian and Sudanese studies in the early twentieth century.

The 20 chapters, essentially chronological but with thematic elements, are closely referenced and supported by an excellent bibliography. The coverage of Egyptology and its struggles to survive during the two great wars, particularly the catastrophic losses in the Great War, are a valuable insight.

Thompson appropriately devotes two chapters to Carter and Tutankhamun, giving a well-balanced and equable account of disagreements, and the French Director’s involvement in the discovery. Sir Alan Gardiner, a major figure essentially concerned with language and hieroglyphs, was generous with academic and financial support.

Thompson writes that whilst Egyptology is essentially fieldwork, it is the accurate publication and evaluation of that work that progresses studies in the subject: modern Egyptologists especially should read this book and be aware of the ‘shoulders’ upon which they stand.

Particularly notable chapters are no. 9 on “The Library”, no. 22, “Nazi Egyptology and the Second World War” (which also includes the Nefertiti problem), and no. 19, “Women in Egyptology”.

Without question, this book is a major contribution to the study of Egyptology and will long remain so, for both practising Egyptologists and lay aficionados.

Peter A. Clayton

24 Hours in Ancient Egypt: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There

by Donald P. Ryan


Michael O’Mara, 2018

ISBN 978-1782439110

Hardback, £12.99.

This very readable book covers much familiar ground as well as new material.

Its originality lies in the clever construction of the content. The fictionalised individuals whose lives provide the narrative are convincing portraits, based on a range of respected secondary sources which are listed in the bibliography.

Each character inhabits one of the 24 hours of the day and night, starting with the 7th hour, identified as midnight to 1 am, when, appropriately, the midwife delivers a new baby.

Other workers in the hours of darkness are the ruler, lying awake weighed down by his responsibilities, the embalmer, the old soldier reminiscing and the priest of Amun preparing for his onerous responsibilities.

Daylight after the 12th hour, 5am, sees the farmer preparing for his day’s work, followed by a revealing account of his wife’s lot, which includes an endless succession of chores that give her no time for leisure. After accounts from the lives of a quarry worker, a fisherman, a potter, a scribal student, the life of the priestess of Hathor contrasts with that of the housewife, including as it does, consumption of a large quantity of alcohol.

Within each individual story there are boxes of factual information which relate to the subject. The coffin- maker’s story, for example, contains a section on the availability of wood; the lady of the house’s party offers the chance to discuss relationships within families and the responsibilities of family life based on the Maxims of Ptahhotep. The very last story is that of the tomb-robber and contains information about ancient tomb robberies, modern discoveries of looted tombs and a debunking of the myth of curses on tombs.

The variety of characters covered allows for a considerable breadth of information on life for the rich and the poor. The second part of the day, from noon onward, touches on the lives of such diverse characters as the vizier, fan-bearer, great royal wife, mourner, architect, carpenter, bricklayer, lady, jeweller, dancing girl, physician and tomb robber. This format allows the exploration of many aspects of ancient Egyptian life in a very approachable way. The pictures set in the text are listed at the back with their source. Rather than listing the original locations of these useful illustrations, all are identified from their secondary sources.

Hilary Forrest

Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet
(Reprint edition)

by Nicholas Reeves


First Published 200, Thames & Hudson This compact paperback edition 2019 Thames & Hudson

ISBN 978-0-500-29469-7 or 978-0500285527 (original edition)

Paperback: £10.99.

It is perhaps a pity that Thames & Hudson failed to grasp the opportunity to reformat this paperback volume when they decided to reprint it. The result is unimpressive in appearance, with poor quality paper and all the colour plates concentrated in the centre pages. This does not, however, detract from the importance of its content, for Reeves puts the Amarna Period into context in a way that makes fascinating reading. Despite meeting the academic requirements of a full biography, and acknowledgement of quotations and source material, by delving beneath the dry facts into the motivation of the actors in this historical saga, he has created a work that is a real ‘page-turner’.

After recounting the various stages in the discovery and re-discovery of Amarna and its excavation by a succession of famous names, Reeves summarises the history of Egypt before the New Kingdom. He then makes a detailed analysis of the Eighteenth Dynasty, focussing particularly upon the reign of Amenhotep III, who by the end of his rule had taken upon himself divinity as the personification of the Heliopolitan deity Ra-Atum.

His heir, Amenhoptep IV, the future Akhenaten, was brought up in this Heliopolitan tradition and when he came to power, instigated sweeping religious changes which could be seen as fundamentalism, but also as a deliberate plan to subvert the power of the Amun priesthood and concentrate it in the hands of the pharaoh.

Reeves is of the opinion that Akhenaten had caused so much illfeeling among the establishment that he feared for his life; it was this paranoia as much as religious conviction that caused him to establish his new capital at Amarna. Reeves paints Akhenaten as a ruthless dictator, imposing his views upon his citizens by military force. His lack of interest in foreign affairs, and closure of the Amun temples eventually led the country close to financial collapse.

Much of what Reeves says is necessarily speculative, contradicts previous theories and continues to be challenged by other Egyptologists. He argues that Nefertiti became Akhenaten’s co-regent, that she ruled as pharaoh after his death and, most controversially, changed her name to Smenkhkara. He is adamant that the body in KV55 is that of Akhenaten, and thinks it possible that Tutankhamun was murdered by Ay who feared that the young king might decide to reinstate Atenism.

Despite this speculation, this is a work packed full of facts and evidence and must be essential reading for anyone interested in the Amarna Period.


Ancient Egyptian Coffins: Past, Present, Future

ed. by Helen Strudwick & Julia Dawson


Oxbow Books, 2018

ISBN 978-178-570918-0

Hardback, £70.

In 2016 the Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge) celebrated its bicentenary with an exhibition devoted to coffins, their manufacture and use, highlighting the research and conservation work carried out on the museum’s coffin collection. This volume collects together 20 papers from the associated conference and represents a vast wealth of specialist knowledge covering coffin production from the Middle Kingdom through to the end of the Ptolemaic Period.

Caroline Cartwright from the British Museum begins with an analysis of the different types of wood used to make coffins, using scanning electron microscopy of the cellular structures of timbers to accurately identification the species used. Particular wood, ranging from indigenous trees such as the sycamore fig, to ‘prestige’ imports such as cedar of Lebanon), were selected for a number of complex reasons, including the properties of the wood itself (ease of carving, resistance to insect attack, etc.), the status of the individual and the cultural tradition of the period.

Nesrin el-Hadidi and her Cairobased team discuss the results of an in-depth study of a rare sidder-wood anthropoid coffin belonging to prince Amenemhat of the Twelfth Dynasty.

A wide range of technologies, including the use of portable X-ray equipment and multispectral imaging, revealed details such as chisel marks, microbial damage and ancient repairs to defects in the wood. Such findings are useful for the conservation of the coffin but also shed light on ancient wood-working techniques.

Other papers cover the development of mummy-shaped coffins, coffin reuse during the Ramesside and Late Periods and non-invasive techniques to authenticate and study coffins, with a collection of 24 conference posters exploring a range of topics such as New Kingdom private sarcophagi, Late Period coffins from the Fayum, and archaism on Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Dynasty coffins.

The volume is well-illustrated with plenty of colour photographs, accompanied by an extensive bibliography, and is essential reading for anyone intrigued by ancient Egyptian coffins and the craftsmanship involved in their production.

Sarah Griffiths


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