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Ancient Egypt Magazine -- No. 115 (Vol 20.1) August / September 2019

Book Reviews

Book Reviews Index


Handbook of Ancient Nubia

edited by Dietrich Raue


De Gruyter, 2019

ISBN 978-3-11-042038-8

ISBN-13: 978-3110416695

Hardback, £227; eBook £227.


This eagerly awaited publication provides a comprehensive introduction to ancient Nubia, based on the rich results of research projects from the last thirty years. Leading experts have contributed a diverse range of thematic chapters focussing on aspects of Nubian history and archaeology which are brought together in two volumes and aim to provide an update on “all historical and archaeological studies ever pursued on Nubian topics”.

It is no overstatement that this work will change the face of the study of Nubian and Sudanese archaeology and, undoubtedly, will also form a key reference text for scholars of ancient Nubia for years to come.

The field of Nubian archaeology is characterised by an ‘interdisciplinary work style’ which, as Raue notes in his preface, is not simply a buzzword.

This approach means that projects do not generally focus on specific historical periods, nor do they deal with a specific material culture of one population: an idea which is reflected in the themes presented in this book and runs throughout the essays. General introductory essays place the reader in the historical and geographical context of ancient Nubia, including aspects of physical anthropology, geology and ancient languages. The accessible tone of these introductory narratives makes them useful for all readers, particularly those who are approaching the subject of ancient Nubia and Sudan for the first time.

A series of chapters presented chronologically then explores different aspects of ancient Nubian material culture, ranging over thousands of years from the Palaeolithic to the Meroitic and Islamic Early Modern Period. Evidence for desert dwellers is also addressed in the final section which focusses on the results of recent survey work on the desert fringes of Nubia. Notable studies include Raue’s exploration of the presence of Nubians in Egypt during the Third and Second Millennia BC, where he correctly states that “The history of the investigation of Nubian presence in Egypt is also a history of Egyptology”. Steffen Wenig (Freie Universität Berlin) also provides an accessible overview of the Art of the Meroitic Kingdom, which will be especially useful for those wishing to learn more about nuances of ancient Sudanese art.

This collection of essays is presented in an accessible format and is beautifully illustrated with colour images and explanatory line drawings.

Relevant bibliographic references can be found at the end of each chapter for further reading and glossaries of technical terms are also provided, which will be particularly informative for those new to the subject. These volumes will provide an accessible introduction for those who wish to learn more about this fascinating region of the Middle Nile.

Anna Garnett


The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Moon:
Coffin Texts Spells 154–160

by Gyula Priskin


Archaeopress Egyptology 22 Archaeopress, 2019

ISBN 978-1-7896-9198-6

Paperback, £30; ebook £16.

It is always a pleasure when a book gives you completely new information.

The present book focusses on a small number of spells in the Coffin Texts, of Middle Kingdom date, giving full commentary and (laudably) the hieroglyphs from which those translations derive in order for those who are able and interested to check the author’s interpretations. Coffin Texts such as those under discussion survive in different versions, in different coffins, and no two variants are quite the same; there is a very useful discussion of the resulting issues of such complex textual transmission.

The author also provides a nice overview of mentions of the moon in other contexts that this reviewer has not seen elsewhere, and that alone would make this an interesting read for anyone intrigued by ancient Egyptian religion. In comparison to the sun, which tends to dominate our ideas about Egyptian ‘theology’, the moon has received very little attention – but was evidently of importance in Pharaonic Egypt. It features in royal names, especially of the early Eighteenth Dynasty, such as Ahmose (‘born of the moon’).

Some of the content of the spells appears pretty esoteric to us today, and the elucidation of these given in the commentary is useful not only to those familiar with Egyptian religious concepts, but could be used comparatively by specialists in other fields. The detailed index at the back helps with this. The only slight criticism one could level at the book is that there are no images of the texts on the coffins themselves, as the volume is completely lacking in illustrations (doubtless the fault of museum image costs rather than the author). The rather artistic front cover may potentially attract ‘new agers’ – which would be no bad thing, as they might actually learn something about ancient Egypt.

Although not a hefty book, there is a lot of information densely packed in here. For once, £30 seems a reasonable price.

Campbell Price

Sethy I King of Egypt: His Life and Afterlife

by Aidan Dodson

AUC Press, 2019

ISBN 978-977-416-886-4

Hardback, £29.95.

Sethy ruled Egypt during a highpoint in Egyptian history, controlling a country rich and powerful from trade and conquest, a power player in the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean. But as Dodson points out from the start, this golden era was approaching its end; the Nineteenth Dynasty would collapse just a few generations after his rule – a sobering thought for an introduction to the achievements of one of Egypt’s great kings.

This well-illustrated book, aimed at a wide readership, presents a summary of what we know so far of the life and reign of Sethy I (c.1294-1279 BC). Beginning with his family and their rise to power following the end of the Amarna Period, Dodson explores the king’s main building projects, including the impressive Abydos temple (illustrated with plenty of colour photographs) and the Karnak hypostyle hall. Here the author highlights images of the king that were reworked to show him bowing humbly towards the gods. These images were later usurped by his son Ramesses II and changed back to the more usual upright royal stance.

The author also points out how far Sethy went to restore many of the monuments mutilated by Akhenaten, including the ‘re-restoration’ of those repaired by Tutankhamun, who was not worthy of the task being himself tainted by the Amarna heresy.

On the exterior walls of the hypostyle court Sethy documented his military ‘victories’ in Syria-Palestine, including his battle against the Hittites at Qadesh. The large colour photographs of these wall scenes are clear enough to allow the reader to pick out almost every detail.

Dodson devotes a whole chapter to Sethy’s Mansion of Millions of Years at Qurna and his tomb (KV17) in the Valley of the Kings, including many colour photographs of the temple rooms and stunning tomb reliefs.

Sethy’s burial was unusual for its absence of a hardstone sarcophagus, possibly due to the lack of space in the steeply sloping lower galleries.

Instead the king was buried in a calcite coffin, the base of which now lies in the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. Dodson provides two pages of drawings detailing the scenes decorating the coffin, scenes which are difficult to see on the coffin itself as they are now greatly degraded.

The story of Sethy’s rule, building projects and military exploits, however, only takes us as far as chapter three. The final third of the book covers Sethy’s ‘afterlife’: the decline of the dynasty following the conflict between Sethy II and the usurper Amenmesses (who Dodson refers to as the young son of Sethy II – for a different theory see the article by Richard Geary in AE94!); the fate of his mummy after the looting of his tomb; how his Heliopolitan obelisk ended up in Rome; the discovery of his tomb by Belzoni and recreation of the antechamber for an exhibition in London in 1821. He ends with a survey of more recent attempts to preserve and scan the tomb and create a 3D-printed replica of the calcite coffin.


Current Research in Egyptology 2018

edited by Marie Peterková Hlouchová,
Dana Belohoubková,
Jirí Honzl and Vera Nováková

Archaeopress 2019

ISBN 978-1-78969-214-3

Paperback, £55; Open Access Free Download (e-Pdf).

The nineteenth annual Current Research in Egyptology (CRE) conference was held in Prague in June 2018, at the Czech Institute of Egyptology, and coincided with the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Institute. The symposium hosted more than a hundred students and young scholars from a number of countries and institutions, each presenting their latest research. The sixteen papers selected for the this volume focus on different topics from the fields of religion, society, material culture, archaeology, epigraphy, tomb reuse, kingship, Coptic, and the protection of Egyptian monuments.

The subject of the integration of Nubians within the existing population in the Gebelein region during the First Intermediate Period is addressed in a paper by Wojciech Ejsmond. His study suggests a complex situation with Nubians bearing Egyptian names, but clearly depicted as Nubian on their stelae, indicating that the names of the deceased on the stelae do not always reflect their ethnicity.

The stelae also reveal inter-marriage and close cross-cultural contact between Egyptians and Nubians, with the conclusion of his research being that both races can be regarded as indigenous populations in the Gebelein region.

Reuse of Late Period tombs in the Theban necropolis is addressed by Marta Kaczanowicz, who analysed the manipulation of the sacred space of the older tombs by their new occupants.

It is notable that all parts of the necropolis were subject to reuse, and that it was not only the lower strata of Theban society who (for reasons of expense) might be expected to resort to this practice. There are examples of reuse of earlier tombs by the élite and even members of the royal family.

An interesting paper by Marek Wozniak discusses recent excavations at the Red Sea port of Berenike, founded primarily for the transhipment of east African elephants for use in the Ptolemaic army. Among issues discussed are the previously unknown Hellenistic fortification system and the unique method for rainwater collection at the site.

The proceedings volume comprises a number of interesting papers relating to a wide range of recent Egyptological research topics. The publication may have benefitted from a more thematical or chronological arrangement of the papers, although due to the wide-ranging nature of the topics discussed this may have been difficult to achieve in practice.

Roger Forshaw

Securing Eternity: Ancient Egyptian Tomb Protection from Prehistory to the Pyramids

by Reg Clark

AUC Press, 2019

ISBN 978-977-416902-1

Hardback, £39.95.

For any culture which believed in accompanying their dead with grave goods, the hazard was that such offerings would become the target of tomb robbers. It is clear from archaeological evidence that the ancient Egyptians were acutely aware of the danger from grave robbers and that from the earliest times they took precautions to prevent it. Reg Clark’s detailed study begins in the Predynastic period and identifies simple use of materials such as sticks and matting possibly used to protect the body and grave contents from interference by human or animal activity. The author traces the development of increasingly sophisticated attempts to increase the security of the deceased, driven by changes in the social structure and the emergence of a more prominent class structure.

Tomb designs varied according to location and local custom. Some only have one or two rooms, either below the level of the rest of the structure or on the same level. The process of development is traced through the reigns of the early kings until the incredibly complex multi-chambered Saqqara rock-cut tombs like that of King Ninetjer. The varied types of design are described in detail and accompanied by generous illustrations in the text. Despite the difficulties presented by tombs damaged by robbers, by sebakhim [the use of organic material in mud bricks for fertiliser] and the normal processes of aging and weathering, the author has assembled an impressive collection of material which reveals the incredible ingenuity and planning which the builders employed.

The methods which attempted to hide or block entrance-ways are described in detail. Sometimes burial chambers were offset and disguised by other chambers. others buried more deeply. Over time the use of superstructures to disguise the tomb itself became more common. This process which began in the First Dynasty became fully developed in the evolution of the pyramid, from the Step Pyramid to the pyramids of Dahshur.  The author traces these developments at different periods and locations.

It is impossible in a brief review like this to mention all the examples discussed in the book. What emerges clearly is that despite the enormous efforts of the tomb builders, and the apparently impregnable nature of the structures, the tomb robbers managed to circumvent the precautions employed to protect the dead. These marauders must have spent many hours tunnelling, moving huge amounts of material and planning their strategies. Occasionally they left physical traces of their presence, such as the piece of equipment used to prop open the sarcophagus in Mastaba 17 at Meidum, a favourite destination for modern visitors.

This volume is a reworking of the author’s original Archaeopress publication [reviewed in AE96, which also includes an article written by the author] but this time aimed at a wider audience, and taking a chronological perspective in contrast to the earlier thematic approach. Either volume will fascinate anyone interested in the thought processes of both those responsible for constructing early tombs and those whose preoccupation was how to circumvent the precautions installed in them. It may well be that in some instances they were the same people!


Hilary Forrest

Understanding Hieroglyphs:
A Quick and Simple Guide

by Hilary Wilson


Michael O’Mara Books, 2019 [First published 1993]

ISBN 978-1-7892-9107-0

Hardback, £16.99.

This book – re-issued now after some 26 years – holds a very special place in this reviewer’s heart because it was one of the first I encountered that offered a way to understand hieroglyphs.

The book was one I acquired from the Ancient and Medieval Bookclub (remember this?) in the mid-1990s. I remember the excitement of the book arriving – and this re-issue does justice to the first edition.

The key here is to ‘understand hieroglyphs’ – not to read them, per se.

Thus the book covers general topics such as the priesthood, Deir el- Medina and gods and their regional associations (there is a very useful list of districts or ‘nomes’ with associated hieroglyphic names/signs). Wilson offers simple break-downs of some of the more common sign groupings, allowing the reader to become familiar with how they appear in texts on monuments. The emphasis is thus on visual recognition of signs and groups of signs – drawn by Wilson herself – and this was something that inspired me as a kid to draw out my own first hieroglyphs. Wilson makes no attempt to provide transliteration (a phonetic rendering) as a control on the texts, a key tool to fuller comprehension. For this, interested readers are best to seek out Mark Collier and Bill Manley’s How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs or Manley’s newer, more basic introduction.

In practice as an Egyptologist, I find that sign recognition tends to skip over the transliteration stage, as ancient Egyptian is not really a spoken language that needs to be enunciated.

Although not an academic book (there are no in-text references, and only a single page of further general reading – although updated since the first edition), Wilson’s book is a very accessible introduction to ancient Egypt in general and to the hieroglyphic writing system in particular, if not to its actual nuts-and-bolts phonetical workings.

This book stoked my interest in the subject at just the right time; something more grammatically intimidating might have put me off. I therefore hope that this new edition will help introduce the hieroglyphic system to a fresh generation of readers, and even for those proficient in glyphs there is something new in Wilson’s well-informed prose.

Campbell Price

Hilary Wilson is of course the author or our regular Per Mesut feature – see page 56.

You can win a copy of this book in the next issue of the magazine

Durham University's Oriental Museum Mummies

by Barbara A. Atkinson

UK Book Publishing, 2019

ISBN 978-1-9121-8383-8

Paperback, £13.50.

This slim volume is written by an independent scholar who exhibits huge enthusiasm for her subject.

The first part of the book is a simple introduction for someone new to the subject of mummification, describing the various methods and the religious beliefs behind it. The main focus comes in chapter four with the mummy generally referred to as ‘The Unknown Lady’. This mummy has been subject to several studies but sadly has lost its identity, a serious matter for any ancient Egyptian. The most unusual feature is the presence of an artificial lower arm and hand, probably fitted during the embalming process in order to make the individual complete for the afterlife.

It is not entirely clear whether the arm suffered amputation or whether it was a congenital malformation. The presence of Harris lines on the lower limbs suggests periods of ill health in childhood.

The Museum has two further human mummies: the Roman Period teenaged boy known as ‘the Brighton mummy’ (because of its history after arrival in England) who sadly lacks a face mask and the mummy of a baby (not on display) very carefully wrapped but with no personal details.

The author also includes a brief look at a selection of the museum’s animal mummies.

Hilary Forrest

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