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Ancient Egypt Magazine -- No. 127 (Vol 22.1) September/October 2021

Book Reviews

Book Reviews Index


Before the Pharaohs: Exploring the Archaeology of Stone Age Egypt

by Julian Heath.

Pen & Sword, 2021

ISBN 978-1-52679-041-5

Hardback, £19.99.

When I first saw this book, I couldn’t help thinking I had seen the title somewhere before. There are in fact a few other publications which either use the same title or in the case of Michael A Hoffman’s Egypt Before the Pharaohs, very similar titles. Judging from comments in Julian Maxwell Heath’s book, his choice of title may well be an homage to Hoffman’s extremely readable account of the pre-pharaonic archaeology and ecology of Egypt. Hoffman’s book was published in 1979, however, and there have been many important discoveries since. More recent publications on the formation of civilisation in ancient Egypt tend to be aimed at academia and in some cases are quite challenging reads. If Maxwell Heath was hoping to provide an easily digestible successor to Hoffman’s publication, he has in many respects achieved what he set out to do and on that basis alone, I heartily recommend this book.

Unlike Hoffman, who included separate chapters addressing the changing ecology of Egypt, Maxwell Heath focusses on the archaeological evidence, weaving the changing environment into his narrative as appropriate.

The introduction reads more like a summary of the entire book and is so comprehensive that it left me wondering whether I needed to continue reading. I am glad that I did.

Appropriately, Maxwell Heath treats the subject matter generally in chronological order, beginning with a precis of evidence for hominid activity in Egypt. Throughout, the author provides a summary of the exploration and research that has been undertaken to date, together with a number of chapters on specific themes, such as rock-art, evidence for conflict and the development of agriculture in Stone Age Egypt. The book concludes with a substantial chapter addressing the terminal phases of the Predynastic period, ending at the threshold of the First Dynasty.

Throughout, the narrative focusses on key sites and artefacts. Where firm conclusions cannot currently be reached, we are presented with various interpretations that have emerged, and the many unanswered questions that remain. Refreshingly, the better known sites, such as Nabta Playa and the Gilf Kebir, are presented on an equal footing with less well known locations – sites with prosaic names such as Site 269 (in Dakhla Oasis). By adopting this even-handed approach, the author is able to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the pre-history of ancient Egypt than would otherwise be the case.

My only possible gripe is that I felt the book stopped rather abruptly. I couldn’t help feeling the book would benefit from a closing chapter which gathered together some of the main threads for the reader to reflect on.

Throughout the book, we are reminded that notwithstanding the glories of what I will call ‘pharaonic archaeology’, there are many significant features of ‘pre-pharaonic archaeology’ that Egypt should be equally proud of ... and all from a branch of archaeology that has been largely overlooked in Egypt until relatively recently. We can only imagine what further, more intensive, fieldwork will reveal about Egypt in the time ‘Before the Pharaohs’.

If you have an interest in the periods that preceded pharaonic Egypt, you should certainly consider adding this to your reading list. If you have never really considered what came before the pharaohs, this is a good place to start!

Colin Reader


The Precinct of Mut at South Karnak: An Archaeological guide

by Richard A. Fazzini and Betsy M. Bryan

American University in Cairo Press, 2021

ISBN: 978-977-416-973-1

Paperback, £19.95.

The Mut precinct at Karnak was a major independent religious centre for some two thousand years, particularly from the Eighteenth Dynasty through to the Roman Period, but with evidence of an earlier temple on the site dating to the Middle Kingdom.

A team from the Brooklyn Museum has systematically explored and documented the precinct since 1976, joined in the early 2000s by Johns Hopkins University – working independently and collaborating on certain projects. In this beautifully illustrated book, Fazzini (from the Brooklyn team) and Bryan (from the Johns Hopkins team) have provided a handy archaeological guide to bring the goddess and her temple precinct to a wider audience.

The authors begin with the mythology and importance of the goddess herself; she is of course the consort of Amun-Ra and mother of Khonsu, but she is also independently the daughter of the Sun God and Eye of Ra. In her Sekhmet form (the site is famous for the huge number of seated Sekhmet statues found there) she is the protector of kings and fierce protector of Egypt who must be appeased by rituals to prevent her taking on her more destructive persona.

After a brief overview of the 20- acre precinct there is a short summary of the early exploration of the site, beginning with Napoleon’s scientists and including the first official excavations in 1895-7 by Margaret Johnson and Janet Gourlay (the first women to direct excavation work in Egypt), illustrated with archive drawings and photographs.

The authors then take the reader on a guided tour of the precinct, beginning at the propylon stone gateway inscribed for Ptolemies II and VI, past rows of restored sphinxes and rams and a small magical healing chapel, to the Temple of Mut itself, surrounded on three sides by a large crescent sacred lake known as the Isheru. We walk across the first and second courts with their remaining Sekhmet statues, visit Hatshepsut’s ‘Porch of Drunkenness’ and Montuemhat’s Contra Temple and pass through the open air museum containing blocks from the early Hatshepsut/Thutmose III temple.

The tour also takes in a larger separate ‘Temple A’ in the north-east corner and the Temple of Ramesses III to the southwest – both of which were originally outside the precinct, but enclosed as part of the site in the fourth century BC. Other highlights include a Seventeenth Dynasty cemetery, a stand-alone ‘Chapel B’ which may have been used for preparing divine offerings, and the remains of a monumental gateway built by Taharqo (Twenty-fifth Dynasty).

On the way, we are given a short commentary on the architectural structures and reliefs, and a fascinating insight into the historical development of each feature and the work carried out there in modern times.

Colour photographs are inserted at the appropriate points of the tour, but I would like to have seen separate, more detailed captions for clarity. The price is quite high for such a slim volume (94 pages), but it is still highly recommended as an illustrated guide to such a fascinating site.



A History of World Egyptology

edited by Andrew Bednarski, Aidan Dodson and Salima Ikram.

Cambridge University Press, 2021

ISBN 978-1-107-06283-2

Hardback, £135; E-book £97.

Increasingly, researchers (and interested amateur scholars) are taking time to examine the foundations of our knowledge of ‘ancient Egypt’ – and an important aspect of that examination is better understanding the historiography of ‘Egyptology’ itself. While other (both more narrative, but also overtly critical) histories of the discipline have appeared recently, for breadth and detail of coverage this sizeable volume is difficult to rival.

After an introduction (on the ‘Prehistory’ of the discipline) that shows an awareness of more actively critical approaches, the editors set out the need for such a mammoth volume.

It should be noted that despite initial appearances this is not simply a ‘celebration’, but an attempt to account for the ‘who, what, where, and when’ of the study of ancient Egypt around the world – although the ‘why’ is largely (deliberately?) left for others. Nor, for that matter, is it an account of the history of ancient Egypt itself – a trap that the uninitiated might fall into, were they simply to judge the book based on the cover.

The volume is divided into geographical sections, starting with Egypt – although many of the players even in this chapter are, tellingly, non- Egyptian – and proceeding through Europe and then progressively further afield from the territory under study.

This expands discussion beyond the (self-perceived) ‘great powers’ of France, Germany, Britain and the US, to smaller regions authored by prominent Egyptologists and historians from those areas, adding a further sense of heft. Illustrations are limited to a small number of black-and-white images, although many of these the reviewer had not previously encountered.

The book concludes with a short chapter on ancient Egypt in the cinema, which cuts across nations but feels rather superfluous compared to the focus of the rest. As a reference work, the tabulated lists of holders of a variety of positions in a wide range of institutions are particularly useful; the sort of information that sometimes appears semi-reliably online, but which has added value here when gathered with more confidence.

While much of the information in this book was to be found squirreled away in a variety of other publications – and languages – it marks something of a landmark to marshal this material into one relatively easy-to-use source. An extensive bibliography and index are both genuinely helpful.

This impressively weighty (and yes, steeply priced) tome has been in production for some time, but not nearly as long as many others of its ilk – so the editors must be congratulated for producing a volume with such disparate and dense coverage, in a relatively short period of time.

Campbell Price


Egyptian Personal Correspondence

by Susan Thorpe.

Archaeopress Egyptology 32 Archaeopress, 2021

ISBN 978-1-78969-507-6

Paperback & e-book, £20.

We may glean insights into the lives of the ancient Egyptians from their tomb walls and stelae inscriptions, but reading their private letters offers what Susan Thorpe describes as the “extra dimension” – revealing real people dealing with events that actually happened, a vital additional source of evidence for the study of ancient Egyptian society. Study of such nonroyal correspondence is not new, but has mainly focussed on specific collections of letters (such as the Hekanakhte Papyri), particular types of letter (such as Letters to the Dead) or letters from a particular time period (eg. the Amarna letters) – all of which are detailed in the appendix to this volume. Thorpe’s approach here is to select a range of individual letters dating from the Old Kingdom up to the Twenty-first Dynasty, grouped under the topics of ‘problems and issues’, ‘daily life’, ‘religious matters’ and ‘military and police matters’. She analyses each letter to uncover clues to the relationships between the sender and recipient, teasing out information about the structure of society, religious beliefs and the historical context.

So, for example, from a few lines in a letter from general Nehsi, berating a man called Kay for failing to deliver provisions to his household, Thorpe manages to tease out a vast amount of information, including: that the general is writing from Thebes in the early Twelfth Dynasty (from the style of greeting which mentions the god Montu); the urgency of the writing suggests this is a time of famine and that the delivery is critical to his family’s survival; derogatory comments about Kay’s wife suggest Kay is in fact Nehsi’s father, but his wife has been persuaded by Kay to ignore Nehsi’s orders, putting his own daughter in danger. The letter highlights how family friction can result from the problems providing for a household – a key insight into ancient Egyptian society.

In a final chapter, the author pulls evidence from across the range of letters to provide information on further topics, including agricultural organisation and the role of women. For example, a letter from a high-ranking military officer to a tenant farmer reveals that, while he holds high status, in matters of agriculture he takes direction from his wife.

This is a fascinating read that really brings ancient Egyptian people to life – from the standard-bearer Maiseti threatening a man with death while also asking him to provide more rope, to the horrified Khay sent a jar of fat instead of honey. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in Egyptology, with plenty of background notes and references to keep the academics happy.



Hair and Death in Ancient Egypt: Mourning Rites in the Pharaonic Period

by Maria Rosa Valdesogo.

Blikvelduitgevers/Oxbow, 2019

ISBN 978-949-294-008-7

Paperback, £36.

It has long been observed that representations of funerary rites often include mourners taking part in the rituals – shown with dishevelled hair or making active gestures with their hair. This 90-page volume presents a wealth of evidence relating to this aspect of the Egyptian approach to death and rebirth. Sources which can illustrate this aspect include, amongst many, papyri, coffin texts and the Books of the Dead. Mourners, usually women, are shown pulling a lock of hair forward or shaking their hair over their faces in the nwn gesture. In many examples, two main mourners, one at each end of the body, represent Isis and Nepthys. There are also actual portions of hair found in tombs.

The significance of hair can be divided into two aspects: its symbolic meaning and its place in ritual.

Suggestions put forward by various scholars are that hair symbolises the primordial water and chaos or the inundation, and therefore the regeneration of life. It was associated with the Sed festival which renewed the power of Pharaoh. Representations of women with flowing locks held to the ground are shown in this context.

Dancing women shaking their hair forward in the nwn gesture are also shown in representations of the Festival of the Valley associated with Hathor, who promoted abundance and fertility. Hair can also represent chaos and darkness, so that mourners covering their faces with their hair make themselves symbolically as blind as the deceased. Hair can also symbolise vegetation and by association the regeneration of life.

The representation of Isis and Nepthys as mourners ties in with the Osiris myth. The two figures, identified here as kites, link up with the regeneration of the dead Osiris as they cover his body with their wings (which can also be identified as hair) in order to facilitate the birth of Horus. Thus the shaking of the hair represents the sex act and procreation.

Hair can also be connected to motherhood; the connection is made in references made to the goddess Nut shaking her hair as she bends when she meets her son.

The narrative is detailed, containing many quotations from original sources, and requires concentration as befits a dissertation for a doctorate (on which the book is based). It includes much analysis which has to be speculative.

Some conclusions are of necessity based on tenuous evidence but there is a wealth of information here to provide food for thought.

Hilary Forrest


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