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Ancient Egypt Magazine -- No. 130 (Vol 22.4) March/April 2022

Book Reviews

Book Reviews Index


Dealing with the Dead in Ancient Egypt: The Funerary Business of Petebaste

 by Koenraad Donker van Heel.

 AUC Press, 2021

ISBN 978-1-617-97996-5

Hardback, £29.95.

Following on from his previous volumes, which each focus on the business activities of a particular individual or family (such as Mrs. Naunakhte & Family – reviewed in AE103), Koenraad Donker van Heel now turns his attention to Petebaste the choachyte (‘water pourer’), a mortuary priest who lived in Thebes during the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. Responsible for making libations for souls of his deceased clients, Petebaste also carried out a range of mortuary tasks including providing a tomb, managing funerary arrangements, preparing the body of the deceased, and taking care of all the necessary paperwork. And it is this paperwork that is the focus of Koenraad Donker van Heel’s latest volume: a fascinating interrogation of a complete archive of eight papyri texts held in the Louvre, allowing us a glimpse of the practical day-to-day aspects of mortuary priests and funerary practices in ancient Egypt.

The eight texts are legal documents recording the various transactions between Petebaste and one particular family of clients, and cover the sale or lease of slaves, inheritance, payments for funerary services and loans.

Written in ‘abnormal hieratic’ – a highly cursive business script in use in the South at a time when demotic was developing in the North – they are notoriously difficult to read, but fascinating insights can be gleaned by looking at the tiniest details, and the author is happy to give himself the luxury of speculation with many interesting digressions.

For example, the chapter dealing with the first text – recording a transaction where a slave from Gaza is given to Petebaste – discusses whether or not the slave was sold to Petebaste or was on loan, to be returned to his owner after the embalming. But the discussion then ranges further afield: comparisons are made between abnormal hieratic and demotic legal documents in terms of how they were structured and witnessed; the social status of witnesses are elucidated from the texts; the involvement of the Divine Oracle is discussed, which leads to the events surrounding the ‘Saite Oracle Papyrus’, the marriage of Mayor Montemhat to the Kushite princess Wedjarenes, and how her shabti ended up in a Bournemouth garden.

Throughout this interrogation of the texts, snippets of the life and work of Petebastet are slowly revealed. For instance we are told the singers he employed to perform the final rituals for the deceased would have been “the kind of singers you find in bars, not someone working for the divine adoratrice”, while a discussion of why he acquired a quarter of the house wanders into an exploration of ancient Egyptian building regulations and examples of NIMBY (‘Not In My Back Yard’), showing that even in ancient Egypt, neighbours “could suddenly decide to put up a garden wall that would block out your sun”.

Written for a wide general audience, Koenraad Donker van Heel hopes the book will also be of interest to specialists and act as a companion to the simultaneous publication of his more academic text on the same subject: The Archive of the Theban Choachyte Petebaste Son of Peteamunip (Brill, 2021).


The Rise And Development Of The Solar Cult And Architecture In Ancient Egypt

edited by Massimiliano Nuzzolo & Jaromír Krejčí


Harrassowitz Verlag, 2021

ISBN 978-3-447-11677-0

Hardback, €68.

Over the years, my interest and research into the Sphinx has led me to ask questions about the origins of the solar cult in ancient Egypt. When I learned of the publication of this book, naturally I was intrigued and keen to add it to my library. The eleven papers in this volume are taken from a series of three workshops that were held between December 2017 and June 2019, and present some of the latest findings from fieldwork in Egypt, together with the most recent thinking on Egypt’s ancient solar cult and its origins.

As you would perhaps expect, the volume highlights the latest findings from sites that feature prominently in our understanding of religion in Egypt. So, we are treated to summaries of the latest fieldwork at Heliopolis, Elephantine, Dahshur and Abusir, with the authors’ interpretations of what these excavations have revealed. There are also papers that focus on key sources of textual evidence such as the pyramid texts, together with an intriguing teaser into on-going research into the Palermo Stone and the other Royal Annals fragments. Remarkably, one paper compares Hatshepsut’s Punt reliefs with reliefs from the reign of Sahura, providing a revelation for me at least, that Punt had a significance for Egypt which long predated the New Kingdom.

A number of papers address subjects that at first appear to have little connection with the solar cult, such as the role of beer in temple activities, the strategies behind royal succession and the role played by Apis. The rightful inclusion of these papers however, illustrates that the solar cult was part of a rich and diverse ancient theology.

For me, a sign of a good read is that it provides lots of references to other papers and publications that I can then use in my on-going research. But this volume has done far more than simply provide new research material.

One unexpected aspect that came across in almost all the papers was how little hard evidence we have from the Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom in Egypt. I am not sure if it was an intended theme of the original workshops, but the one simple fact that comes across strongly is the extent to which research into Egypt’s earliest periods requires scholars to draw inference from evidence obtained for later times. Although this requires us to proceed extremely carefully, it raises the prospect that the answers we seek when pursuing a particular avenue of research, might be found in the most unlikely of places.

If you have an interest in the development of religion in ancient Egypt or in the origins of the pharaonic state in general, I really do feel the book deserves your attention. My only regret? That I wasn’t at the workshops!

Colin Reader

Religious Practice and Cultural Construction of Animal Worship in Egypt from the Early Dynastic to the New Kingdom: Ritual Forms, Material Display, Historical Development

by Angelo Colonna.


Archaeopress, 2021

ISBN 978-1-789698-21-3

Paperback, £35; e-book £16.

Animal ‘worship’ in Egypt is chiefly associated with the Late and Graeco- Roman Periods of Egyptian history, and is often viewed as an eccentricity of later Pharaonic religious belief.

Here the author presents a fascinating and extensive body of evidence for the role of animals in Egyptian religion up to and including the New Kingdom.

Much of the dismissive attitude towards ‘animal worship’ is seen through the lens of Classical authors and Biblical sources that viewed the Egyptians – though otherwise venerable – as strange and unpleasant in their idolatrous attitude to animals.

Further, ‘animal worship’ is also used to characterise some evidence from the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods, making the perceived practice an outlier to ‘proper’ pharaonic attitudes.

This perspective is, of course, nonsense.

Starting with the Predynastic Period through to the Ramesside Period, the first part of the book examines evidence for the role of animals in preserved objects, texts and monuments.

Particularly interesting is discussion of the role of royal princes in establishing bull cults, and the origin of structures like the Serapeum. This is a really excellent reassessment of wellknown material, and introduces much that may be unfamiliar to the reader.

This reviewer is in total agreement with the author in his assertion that what we are measuring is more often than not display (regulated by rules of decorum), not reality. This is an important point for anyone looking at Egyptian ‘art’ and imagining it is a snapshot of what ‘actually went on’.

Religious iconography is much more complex.

The second part of the book attempts an interpretation of what has gone before, drawing on various theoretical approaches. The major punchline is that far from certain animals being intrinsically sacred (as external commentators believed), animals could be sacralised depending on context (ritual playing an important part), whether in the installation of an Apis bull or the dedication or burial of tens of thousands of mummified ibis birds.

There is much that is fairly densely argued here, and French and German sources are quoted in their original languages without translation (the author’s native Italian is, however, translated into English); the book is a complex read, fairly image-light and in need of a final English proofread but – honestly – is one of the most important and compelling books about Egyptian religious practice and expression that this reviewer has ever read. For anyone seriously interested in how Egyptian religion actually operated, this volume repays concentrated study.

Campbell Price

King Seneb-Kay’s Tomb and the Necropolis of a Lost Dynasty at Abydos

by Josef Wegner and Kevin Cahail.


Penn Museum Press, 2021

ISBN 978-1-949057-09-6

Hardback, £96.

The Second Intermediate Period is one of the most obscure sections of Egyptian history, but the discoveries outlined in this volume bring a huge leap forward in our understanding of this often neglected era.

The hastily constructed tomb of Seneb-Kay (CS9) was discovered in 2014 by the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum team, part of a group of eight similar tombs at South Abydos. These date to a time of contemporaneous rule by the Thirteenth, Fifteenth (Hyksos) and Sixteenth (Theban) Dynasties, but represent the burials of a separate group: the ‘lost’ Abydos dynasty.

Seneb-Kay’s tomb is the first known royal tomb since the Predynastic tomb at Hierakonpolis to include painted scenes in its burial chamber, but is also testament to the “severe political discord” that characterised this period (c.

1650-1600 BC). The burial chamber

was constructed from the blocks of a chapel belonging to a powerful Thirteenth Dynasty family who suffered a vicious act of damnatio memorae and items of burial equipment had beenplundered from Thirteenth Dynasty elite and royal tombs.

Seneb-Kay’s largely intact skeleton is the earliest substantially surviving skeleton of an ancient Egyptian king to be found so far. Analysis shows the king died at around 35-45 years of age, and spent most of his life practising martial activities and riding on horseback. His body was covered in a large number of traumatic bone-penetrating wounds, suggesting death in battle: ambushed while on horseback by a number of assailants, brought to the ground and then ceremoniously killed by a victorious enemy in typical smiting tradition.

Wegner and Cahail present a highly readable account of the work of the Penn Museum team, beginning with the excavation and architecture of the tomb and the osteobiography of Seneb-Kay’s skeleton, followed by chapters on the conservation and restoration of the tomb, the analysis of the reused materials (bringing to life the history of the Thirteenth Dynasty family of Dedtu), and the excavation and analysis of the other contemporary tombs, all beautifully illustrated with colour photographs and line drawings. The authors then attempt to reconstruct the events surrounding the death of Seneb-Kay and the emergence of the Seventeenth Dynasty at Thebes, with a number of plausible ideas that include a Hyksos invasion of Upper Egypt, Nubian incursions from the south, and territorial conflicts between the competing Upper Egyptian powers of the Thinite- Abydos Dynasty and the Theban kingdom. While an initial reading suggests that the death of Seneb-Kay signalled the collapse of his Thinite kingdom, there is also evidence to support the idea that the Thinite kings expanded southwards. Alternatively, there may have been a consolidation of kingdoms through inter-marriage of the elite. Either way, the “Head of the South” was eventually reunited, allowing the Seventeenth Dynasty (ending with Ahmose) to defeat the Hyksos and reunify Egypt and inaugurating the golden age of the New Kingdom.


His Good Name: Essays on Identity and Self- Presentation in Ancient Egypt in Honor of Ronald J.  Leprohon

edited by Christina Geisen, Jean Li et al.


Lockwood, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-948488-37-2

Hardback, £95.

This volume is the latest in a huge glut of celebratory volumes for retiring Egyptologists – the members of what one might call the ‘Boomer Generation’. Inevitably, these books often end up being rather a miscellany and it requires some creative editorial vision to make them appear coherent or intentional. The present collection achieves this better than most.

Because of the honoree’s well-established interest in the royal titulary in particular, and in aspects of elite self-presentation more broadly, it is possible to gather studies that genuinely hold together. No one ever picked up a Festschrift for light bedtime reading – except, perhaps, the honoree – and these books are not targeted at the general market. That said, even for the interested amateur, there is much of value here and it was a real pleasure to read each contribution.

The book is broken down into fairly arbitrary sections – Afterlife, Gender, Literature and Text, Material Culture, the Natural World, and the Royal Name – yet these headings belie a broader thematic interest in aspects of self-presentation, which is caught by the volume’s title. There are reflections here on well-known material such as the Ramesseum Tomb Group in Manchester Museum (Geisen), the Brooklyn ‘cryptographic’ statue of the official Senenmut (Bleiberg), and a fascinating reinterpretation of the wellknown Berlin stela-sculpture of the ‘sculptor’ Bak (Angenot). But there are also new publications of previously little- known Middle Kingdom monuments (Allen, Bard, Yamamoto, Oppenheim) – a subject with which Leprohon is closely associated. Among the other highlights are studies of some female deities in the Netherworld books (Zago), a social reading of those involved in the Late New Kingdom Theban tomb robberies (Strudwick), interpreting tomb chapel scenes of ‘fishing and fowling’ (Maitland) and a discussion of a Late Period female title relating to nursing children (Ayad).

There are also several very useful collections and reassessments of disparate groups of objects (e.g.

Mumford) which will also be of use for future researchers, and will hopefully mean that this volume is referred to alongside other recent studies dedicated to ‘biography’ and ‘self-presentation’.

Often underestimated (but hard work to produce) is an extensive index, which makes the volume’s content accessible to use in terms of specific subjects, for even the casual reader.

Campbell Price



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