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Ancient Egypt Magazine -- No. 120 (Vol 20.6) July/August 2020

Book Reviews

Book Reviews Index


The Amasis Collection: Shabtis and Other Artefacts from Ancient Egypt

 by Glenn Janes


Olicar House Publications, 2020
ISBN 978-0-9566-2717-9

Hardback, £120.

Glenn Janes is perhaps the world’s leading authority on shabti figures – that most ubiquitous item of ancient Egyptian funerary material. Over the last ten years he has authored lavish full-colour catalogues of six significant UK museum shabti collections (see reviews in AE 63, 67 and 80). With this volume, Janes reaches the apogee of his shabti achievements by making available a considerable number held in private hands.

The volume opens with a colourfully vivid, charmingly personal introduction by Jean Thomassen, who knows well the Dutch collection under discussion, and is the painter of the eye-poppingly fantastical illustrations that appear incidentally. Thomassen records several important reminiscences here on Egyptologists and on collecting practices, many of which now seem rather old fashioned or even startling, and which rarely get recorded.

The catalogue itself proceeds chronologically, as far as that is possible, and concludes with a small number of Egyptian and other antiquities.

As usual for Janes, normalised hieroglyphs are given for each inscription.

Despite the generally standard nature of such shabti texts, they frequently contain interesting filiation and title information, which has a number of uses in Egyptology and which is welcomed here. Photography is – without exception – exemplary. Even if the reader has no real research interest in the material, the illustrations are sumptuous and a testament to the quality of minor arts in funerary production.

There are also a number of excurses here of the type Janes does not usually allow himself in his museum volumes.

These focus on specimens of the Third Intermediate Period and are of great interest to anyone researching shabtis as an object type or that period more generally. The sections on the Deir el-Bahri Royal and Priestly caches are of particular value, and offer the best summary of those finds this reviewer has seen.

It is difficult to overstate the meticulous amount of research that has gone into the production of this volume. Janes is well known for citing extensive parallels for individual pieces, many deriving from detailed knowledge of private collections. The whole point of catalogues is to get a serious handle on the material presented. For breadth and depth, brilliant photography and full contextualisation, this is about as good as it gets for shabtis.

Campbell Price


Ancient Egyptian Magic: A Hands-on Guide

by Christina Riggs


Thames & Hudson, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-500-05212-9

Hardback, £14.95.

This little book makes some powerful claims if one is to believe the back cover. You can “learn how to summon spirits and speak to ghosts, craft an amulet to keep demons at bay, read the future in the stars, travel to the land of the dead and survive it.” The author calls this a ‘hands on guide’ but she does point out early on that it is “a light-hearted look at a serious subject.” Certainly the Egyptians were firm believers in magic and its powers and would not have treated the subjects covered as anything but deadly serious. Magic affected every aspect of life and death. Medicine and magic were interwoven and no distinction was made between them.

This small volume is crammed with information on a wide range of magical lore and practice starting with the discovery of a box containing what appears to have been a magician’s kit of magical and mysterious objects and scrolls. The book then looks at the power of the word, including spells to be recited in case of illness or to protect from demons or evil occurrences, the complex realm of the dead and how to deal with them, through to the apotropaic use of amulets and the medical uses of herbs. Between its pages the reader encounters a huge collection of deities and animals, both real and mythical. Each had their magical role in Egyptian life. Lesser deities such as Bes and Taweret played an important role in the daily life of the ordinary people who were generally illiterate but would be very aware of the occult heka around them.

Several of the animals represented in art were shown as partly human, usually with an animal head. Some were good and protective, others were to be feared. Some deities such as Sekhmet had dual personalities, while a creature known to Egyptologists as the Seth animal was generally evil in behaviour, and yet at certain periods, such as the Nineteenth Dynasty, and at certain locations such as the Delta, this dangerous animal became a respected deity. Supernatural beings oversaw many milestones in life from childbirth to death and the hazardous journey through the afterworld.

Light-hearted the approach may be but the book contains a vast amount of information, bringing together an impressive array of sources. Use it as a mine of information – practical use of the spells and incantations, however, is not recommended!


Hilary Forrest

Orientalist Lives: Western Artists in the Middle East 1830-1920

by James Parry


American University in Cairo Press, 2018

ISBN 978-977-416-835-2

Hardback, £45.

The publication in 1809 of Description de l’Egypte started a wave of Egyptomania that never stopped. By the 1830s dozens of artists made pilgrimages East, intending to capitalize on interest in the Orient. They would evoke emotions, pander to Western fantasies of the harem (with veiled beauties languishing on cushions) or depict scenes evocative of Biblical times. I have a very long shelf in my library devoted to the lives of Orientalists such as such as David Roberts, John Frederick Lewis and Jean-Leon Gerome. In addition, we have their diaries, letters and even autobiographies. So what’s new to say? Plenty! James Parry’s new book is a carefully researched, wonderful new take on the subject. He presents the nuts and bolts of what the artists had to do to make the trip East, carry out their sketches and paintings, and return home with enough material to gain fame and fortune. The fun of this book is in the detail – for example, how these artists obtained their dragomen, those colourful fixer/guides who could find you a house in Constantinople for an extended stay or procure a dahabiyeh in Cairo for the trip up the Nile.

Most of the artists wanted outdoor scenes of bazaars, temples, slave markets and camel caravans, but oil is not a good medium to use in a desert country: it dries slowly and sand and dust stick to the paint. So artists relied on sketches and watercolours to record the details, and later they would complete the (hopefully saleable) oil painting; often, ‘later’ was back in London, Paris or Munich.

Parry supplies an interesting discussion of the difficulties Europeans had in obtaining local models in the Middle East. Here female artists were more fortunate than their male counterparts; women might even be invited into the harems for a first-hand look.

There is a hilarious quote from Amelia Edwards about how flies at Abu Simbel attacked her watercolours as she was painting. Other artists were surrounded by curious and sometimes hostile locals as they painted outdoors.

Some artists stayed for prolonged periods. John Frederick Lewis lived in Cairo for nearly ten years. He was relatively well off and did not have to sell his paintings to survive. Parry contrasts him with the lesser-known Gustav Bauernfeind who was living hand to mouth. And there are plenty of new faces in the cast of characters.

Parry does not dwell on the ‘big guns’ – he has more about the ‘lesser lights’ such as Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann, which is a bonus.

Orientalist Lives is an encyclopaedia with a theme: how did they do that? But it is an encyclopaedia that you will want to read again and again.

Bob Brier

Development of Royal Funeral Traditions along the Middle Nile Valley during the Napatan Period (in the 7th century BC)

by Brigitte Balanda

J. H. Röll verlag, 2020

ISBN: 978-3-89754-550-2

Hardback, €149.

In past studies, it has been common to see ancient Nubian and Sudanese culture presented through a pharaonic, ‘Egyptocentric’ lens which does not always allow this rich material culture to speak for itself. Contemporary works have begun to place greater emphasis on a holistic approach, to gain a better understanding of the development of these ancient cultures in relation to each other, and this fascinating volume builds upon this trend impressively.

Balanda takes the reader on a journey through the Middle Nile Valley – the area between the First Cataract and the confluence of the Blue and White Niles at Khartoum, just south of the Sixth Cataract – presenting the story of royal funerary traditions in this region during the Napatan Period (c. 700–300BC). She states that “…Egypt and Nubia did not exist in isolation, but were part of a supra-regional network, where ideas, customs, and material culture were exchanged over wide areas”. Such nuances are addressed throughout this detailed and compelling assessment of archaeological, textual and art historical evidence.

An accessible introduction to the geography and historical background effectively sets the scene for the more focussed discussions in the following chapters. Importantly, this introduction also raises issues relating to the biases in the development of Nubian archaeology, for example exploring aspects of the historical disconnect between ‘Nubiology’ and ‘Egyptology’ in the region, and the implications of these biases on our knowledge and interpretation of Nubian and Sudanese material culture. The inclusion of an introductory section raising questions about the ethnicity of the peoples of the Lower and Middle Nile is especially welcome, highlighting the problems inherent in ascribing ethnicity to ancient non-literate societies.

The core of this study is the exploration of the evidence for royal funerary traditions, including detailed analyses of ancient Napatan funerary architecture at key sites, including Nuri and el-Kurru in the Fourth Cataract region. Object types representing royal material culture during the Napatan Period are also described and analysed in detail, including shabti figures from Napatan royal tombs which exemplify the adoption of pharaonic Egyptian symbolism in ancient Napatan funerary customs.

Beautifully illustrated with colour plates and tables, and accompanied by a comprehensive bibliography, this volume is an essential read for all those wishing to develop their understanding of this absorbing and understudied historical period.

Anna Garnett




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