Ancient Egypt Magazine -- No. 118 (Vol 20.4) February/March 2020
Gilded Flesh: Coffins and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt
edited by Rogério Sousa
Oxbow books, 2019
This publication is an examination of eight non-royal tombs that were originally discovered relatively intact in a region extending from Saqqara to the Theban hills. The study discusses how each tomb was arranged as a sacred space according to theological conceptions and funerary beliefs prevalent at that particular period in ancient Egypt. In addition, each site is assessed in an attempt to determine the relationship between mummification practices, coffin decoration, burial equipment, tomb decoration and ritual landscapes.
Funerary material culture and its development from the Neolithic Period to the end of the Twenty-first Dynasty are explored and the author emphasises the importance of integrating funerary contexts in the understanding of the individual artefacts.
The earliest tomb evaluated is the Predynastic grave of Gebelein Man A (popularly known as ‘Ginger’, now in the British Museum), considered to be a high-status individual within his community. Various features and objects found within the graves in Gebelein reveal that a sophisticated vision of the afterlife was already taking shape in Predynastic settlements.
The systematic clearance of the mid-Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of Kha and Merit by Ernesto Schiaparelli and Arthur Weigall, and the subsequent transferral of the entire burial assemblage to the Museo Egizio in Turin, have provided Egyptology with one of the great finds from ancient Egypt.
One of the many highlights is the discovery of one of earliest intact assemblages of the Book of the Dead.
The magnificent family tomb of Sennedjem (TT1) was undisturbed when it was originally discovered in 1886, and is probably one of the finest at Deir el-Medina.
Unfortunately, the poor excavation procedures resulted in considerable damage to the mummies and the huge number of funerary objects found inside the tomb. The author reflects on the stunning scenes within the burial chamber and the pictorial narrative that they evoke. The burial equipment located within the tomb spanned several generations and provides an unrivalled corpus for understanding the concept of the afterlife as it was perceived in the Nineteenth Dynasty. The family of Sennedjem seemed to have played an important role in the evolving visual culture of coffin and burial chamber decoration during the Ramesside Period.
One poignant burial assemblage is that of the Twenty-first Dynasty priestess, Tabasety. A forensic examination of her mummy revealed that although she had a relatively long life, she was severely disabled due to a traumatic event occurring early in her life, resulting in severe fractures to the pelvic region which never healed. Her longevity is suggested to be due to the high level of social support provided for her.
This well-illustrated publication is a stimulating read and contains a wealth of information relating to funerary practices and their development throughout the Pharaonic age. One minor criticism is the lack of an index, but this does not detract from what is a very useful addition to any Egyptology bookshelf.
The State in Ancient Egypt: Power, Challenges and Dynamics
by Juan Carlos Moreno García
This latest volume in Bloomsbury’s ‘Debates in Archaeology’ series begins with a discussion of the definition of a state. This word is often applied to the pharaonic civilisation and yet Egypt, one of the longest-lived and most stable of political entities, rarely features in comparative social science research in spite of the richness of its historical and archaeological record. The author’s aim is to demonstrate whether the social, cultural and political structure of ancient Egypt, which changed over time and from region to region, fits the modern concept of a state. He sets out to show Egypt as a dynamic political entity, rather than the conventional image – derived mainly from monumental art – of an absolutist, highly centralised monarchy.
Marked differences in ecology and settlement patterns, between Upper and Lower Egypt, led to varying degrees of centralisation of control over agriculture, the exploitation of natural resources and administrative institutions. The power bases of the Old Kingdom – commonly royal pyramid complexes – gave way to a loose network of Hwt centres acting as agricultural production and storage units for surrounding fields.
Administration of Egypt’s agricultural wealth was delegated to local nobility, and urbanisation began with the concentration of the population around such regional centres – nascent cities where trade and commerce flourished with the prosperity of the agricultural economy.
At the same time, temples became key institutions of authority, promoting the Egyptians’ unique relationship with their gods, though the only cult that came close to the concept of a universal or national religion, accessible to the non-élite, was that of Osiris.
Through the agency of royally-appointed priest-administrators, temples managed much of the country’s wealth, especially the agricultural land spread throughout Egypt. The role of local chiefs, town elders and provincial nobles in running these estates was crucial to that most important of state functions: the imposition and collection of taxation. Nominally overseeing all these practical activities, the king was deemed responsible for maintaining social and economic order, for mediating between humanity and the gods, and for the protection of the land and its people, by military means if necessary.
The author’s conclusion is that by demonstrating territorial control, the implementation and administration of a tax system and the creation of distinctive cultural values, pharaonic Egypt fulfils all the criteria for statehood even though this may not fit the Western, predominantly Eurocentric, concept of a state.
Apart from a few minor deficiencies, such as the lack of comprehensive references, the indifferent and unacknowledged photos and an overuse of brackets and inverted commas, this fascinating discussion provides much food for thought.
Five Egyptian Goddesses: Their Possible Beginnings, Actions, and Relationships in the Third Millennium BCE
by Susan Hollis
This is the latest volume in the excellent Bloomsbury Egyptology series and offers the first detailed exploration the earliest appearances and functions of the major goddesses of Egypt: Neith, Hathor, Nut, Isis and Nephthys. With the exception of Isis, the subject of a relatively large amount research (at least in her New Kingdom and Ptolemaic forms), studies of the pre-Middle Kingdom roles of these important female deities have been few. Based on some thirty years of research, Susan Tower Hollis seeks the ‘back-story’ for each goddess to build a more thorough understanding of the deities themselves and shed light on the ancient Egyptians’ understanding of their pantheon.
Hollis dedicates a chapter to each of the five goddesses, exploring their earliest origins, the signs and symbols associated with them, their activities and roles in daily life and in mortuary contexts, their cult centres, and their relationships with royalty and other deities. She also includes a ‘too short’ discussion of the cow goddess Bat within the section on Hathor, together with a discussion of the links between cattle and the two cow-goddesses.
The author’s research is based on a wide range of archaeological material (including reliefs, seals and sculptures, as well as a study of priestly titles connected with each goddess) and texts, the most important being the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts. Neith and Hathor make only minimal appearances in these texts but are often associated with artefacts, suggesting a more earthly importance. Nut, Isis and Nephthys. however. are very prominent in these texts, while rarely appearing in non-funerary settings up to the end of the Old Kingdom.
Neith, probably the least known of the goddesses, was a powerful entity from the Protodynastic Period onwards. The symbols of arrows and bow suggest a warrior or hunting goddess, although Hollis adds a note briefly referencing new work that questions this. Her pre-eminence appears to have waned by the Middle Kingdom, but she enjoyed a renaissance in the Late and Graeco-Roman periods following her resurrection by the Twenty-sixth Dynasty kings who based their capital at her home, Sais.
The first appearance of Nut the sky goddess appears to predate the Pyramid Texts. Unlike Neith, she remained a key figure throughout the pharaonic period, associated with both the sky and the sarcophagus or coffin of the deceased; the cult of Isis long outlived the last of the pharaohs.
Hollis shows that each of these goddesses, originating at different times and for different reasons, played significant roles in the Egyptian pantheon and were defined by their earliest activities and functions.
The text is accompanied by only a small number of key black-and-white illustrations, and the book comes with a rather heavy price tag, even in digital form. But it is an important work for any scholar of Egypt’s religious tradition – with extensive notes and bibliography taking up at least one third of the volume – while at the same time offering an enjoyable read for anyone with an interest in Egypt’s great goddesses.
Nubian Gold: Ancient Jewelry from Sudan and Egypt
by Peter Lacovara & Yvonne J. Markowitz
AUC Press, 2019
The origin of the word ‘Nubia’ has been linked by some scholars to the ancient Egyptian word for ‘gold’ (nub), a term commonly used to describe this region since the Roman Period.
Nubia is well known as a rich source of gold, exploited over thousands of years to supply this precious material in the production of high-status objects in Egypt and Sudan.
This beautifully-illustrated volume documents the wide variety of fine items of personal adornment produced in Nubia from the Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods (c. 8000-3000 BC) through to the post-Meroitic Period in Sudan (c. 30 BC - AD 641).
The objects featured in this catalogue are not made only from gold, but also other precious materials and ornamental stones including carnelian, amethyst, rock crystal and mica. The different pieces are presented chronologically and are usefully placed within the wider contexts of iconographic representation, excavation and collection.
Stunning new photography also helps the reader to fully appreciate the fine details of each object.
Especially useful are several shorter introductory ‘scene-setting’ chapters on related themes. Readers can learn more about the nature of adornment, as well as the history and archaeology of ancient Nubia. Perhaps most interesting is the chapter on the ‘Art of Jewelry Making’ where clear technical diagrams and contextual images highlight the intricacies of how these objects were made. Different techniques of metal and stone production are presented in an accessible format, for example ‘soldering’ and ‘gilding’, which will serve to assist readers’ general understanding of ancient and modern metalworking and stoneworking technologies.
This comprehensive, full-colour volume will prove valuable for those new to the subject, particularly students, due to the inclusion of relevant contextual material including maps and a chronological table that sets the timelines of Lower and Upper Nubia against that of ancient Egypt.
Importantly, the holistic approach taken by the authors to the diverse and highly sophisticated material culture of Nubia will encourage readers to see this region in a completely new light. As the authors note, ‘[gold objects] were not only signifiers of status but also testaments to the civilisations that produced them’.
Abu Simbel and the Nubian Temples: A New Traveller’s Companion
by Nigel Fletcher-Jones
The author’s avowed aim is to explain the Abu Simbel temples within the context of the time of their construction and the life of their creator, Ramesses II, using as little technical jargon as possible. He has largely succeeded, producing a well-illustrated accessible book which fills the gap in popular Egyptological literature left by MacQuitty’s out-of-print Abu Simbel.
The history of the rediscovery of Abu Simbel includes accounts by Burckhardt, Belzoni and Champollion, and its rise as a tourist attraction charted from the establishment of Thomas Cook’s passenger steamer service from Aswan to Wadi Halfa (1875), to the travels of Amelia Edwards and Agatha Christie. The temples are described in some detail with useful plans and explanations of the imagery and hieroglyphic texts.
The chapter on the ‘Gods of Abu Simbel’ neatly lists the deities alphabetically, explaining where in the temples each might be found.
The next two chapters deal with Ramesses himself, his family and military exploits, and this is where the book strays from its principal subject to cover other Ramesside sites.
Chapter seven covers the 1960s salvage project. The final chapter is left for the Nubian Temples promised in the title and this is where I felt rather short-changed. The temples on the regular trail around Lake Nasser, such as Philae, Kalabsha and Beit el-Wali, receive very cursory treatments and the book finishes with a list of the shrines gifted to museums worldwide.
A readable book with some interesting comments on the attitude of modern Egyptians towards their ancient heritage but, on the whole, there is nothing here that could not be found in Richard Wilkinson’s Complete Temples.
Domesticating Empire: Egyptian Landscapes in Pompeian Gardens
by Caitlín Eilís Barrett
Oxford University Press, 2019
After the conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, ‘Egyptomania’ swept the early Roman Empire. While emperors collected obelisks, lesser Romans enjoyed reclining in the garden surrounded by Nilotic riverbank scenes featuring dwarfs or pygmies feasting by the river, worshipping Egypt’s exotic animal gods or battling crocodiles.
In this volume, Caitlín Eilís Barrett investigates these images and their impact on Roman visual and material culture and conceptions of identity.
Previous research has focussed on iconography, but here the author considers these scenes as “three-dimensional installations designed for viewer participation”, to be understood within the context of their “multimedia” environments (the permanent built structures of a room, the objects displayed there) and the movements and interactions of the people using those spaces. Rather than art-history, this is ‘archaeology of the senses’.
Incorporating Egyptian imagery into the daily life of the household brought a familiarity with the foreign and exotic, turning the home into a microcosm of the Empire.
It is a shame that the illustrations are minimal and mostly black-and-white – a few colour plates would have been most welcome. While aimed at classics scholars, this book offers Egyptophiles the opportunity to explore the Egyptian landscape through the eyes of the Romans, as depicted in scenes in their Pompeian villa gardens.
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