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Ancient Egypt Magazine -- No. 131 (Vol 22.5) May/June 2022

Book Reviews

Book Reviews Index



Pharmacy and Medicine in Ancient Egypt: Proceedings of the conference held in Barcelona (2018)


edited by Rosa Dinarès Solà et al.


Archaeopress 2021

ISBN 978-1-78969-770-4

Paperback, £30.


This volume presents the proceedings of the Third International Conference on Pharmacy and Medicine in Ancient Egypt (Barcelona, 2018). The twelve papers in the publication comprise new studies on a range of topics including experimental mummification, palaeopathology, and discussions on textual and iconographic sources related to pharmacy and healing practices in ancient Egypt.

Roger Lichtenberg is a member of the team of researchers who conducted a comprehensive field survey of Graeco-Roman mummies found at three sites in the Kharga Oasis. In all, some 1500 persons were examined and x-rayed in situ. Rather than inspecting single elite mummies – the subject of a number of museum studies – these investigations focussed on farmers, craftsmen, priests and general populace. The results present a fascinating picture of the general health of the inhabitants: bone fractures, growth arrest lines and arthritis are the most frequent observations, suggestive of the harsh living conditions at the Oasis during that period.

Rosalie David reviews the available evidence for epidemics and pandemics in ancient Egypt and concludes that the extent of such diseases and their role in pharaonic history remains unclear. She suggests that new insights could be provided by a reassessment of the medical papyri together with further examinations of the human remains, particularly with respect to the latest molecular techniques.

Two papers discuss experimental mummification, with a study of the identification and methods of application of various oils and resins by Laura García-Jiménez, and a sevenyear long-term experiment conducted by Andreas Nerlich and his co-workers.

The latter involved the re-analysis of a human-sized pig (with a skin surface similar to humans) which had been mummified some six years previously using the elite method described by Herodotus. This mummified pig was re-examined utilising non-invasive techniques and tissue biopsies, revealing a well-preserved body with tissue structures intact – confirmation of the description provided by Herodotus of a ‘perfect process’. The experiment is still ongoing so further updates can be expected.

Rosalind Park proposes an alternative theory for the depiction of captive hyenas in Old Kingdom tomb scenes.

While the traditionally held interpretation is that these animals were being fattened for human consumption, her proposal is that saliva is being collected and administered to other animals in an attempt at veterinary medicine.

This well illustrated volume comprises a number of interesting papers probably relating more to medicine than pharmacy. A wide range of topics are included, incorporating recent research and some alternative interpretations of traditional opinions. The publication would perhaps have benefited from short author biographies.

Roger Forshaw


The Goddess Nut and the Wisdom of the Sky

by Lesley Jackson.


Avalonia, 2021

ISBN 978-1-910191-25-5

Paperback, £17.99.


Lesley Jackson’s sixth volume in her series on ancient Egyptian deities focusses on the sky goddess Nut, but is set within a larger exploration of the ancient Egyptian concepts of creation, cosmos and afterlife. Nut, the ‘lady of the sky’ and mother of gods (including Ra and Osiris), is associated with many of the earliest creation myths.

Before the beginning, there was nun, the “chaotic non-place of non-being”, from which “a tiny bubble of being burst into existence”. At the centre of this created universe was the Earth, and above this lay the realm of Nut, the sky goddess, who held back the chaotic waters of the nun. The Heliopolitan tradition describes how Nut’s father Shu (the god of the air) lifted her up above her brother-lover, the earth god Geb, to create the air and space that life needs. This myth gives rise to many of the more famous depictions of the goddess arching her body over the earth. Nut also played a vital role in the night sky, allowing the sun god and stars to journey through the netherworld through her body, being reborn from her womb. Nut as the “Great Encloser” also brought about the rebirth of the deceased, protecting them and providing a womb-like space (the coffin) in which they could regenerate. And as a tree goddess, she welcomed them into the garden of paradise, offering food and water in the afterlife.

Having described Nut’s attributes, depictions, sacred animals and the various funerary texts associated with her, the author then explores the ancient Egyptian cosmos: the five “stars that know no rest” (the wandering planets) and their associations with the Egyptian pantheon; the decan stars used to mark the hours of the night; and the Egyptian constellations in astronomical ceilings (including the hippo, the crocodile, and the scorpion goddess). A large section of the book is devoted to the moon and lunar cycles, describing lunar gods such as Khonsu, and Thoth, and exploring lunar texts, clocks and calendars.

At the end of the book, the author considers the feelings of awe inspired by the night sky. The stars were believed to hold the bas of the deities and the deceased. Perhaps our modern longing is an echo of the ba’s yearning to wander the cosmos.



Olga Tufnell’s ‘Perfect Journey’ -
 Letters and Photographs of an Archaeologist in the Levant and Mediterranean

edited by John D.M. Green and Ros Henry.


UCL Press, 2021

ISBN 978-1-78735-905-5

Paperback, £30.


Olga Tufnell (1905-85) was a British archaeologist working in Egypt, Cyprus and the Levant; her letters and many of the photographs in this volume are from the archive of the Palestine Exploration Fund. This selection of her letters home from 1927 to 1938, when she worked on five expeditions, traces her transition from amateur to experienced archaeologist.

Her correspondence features archaeologists and sites while providing background to ‘dig-life’ and contemporary perspectives on excavation, supplemented by personal viewpoints.

Through her mother’s friendship with Hilda Petrie, in 1922 Olga began secretarial work for the Petries at UCL. In 1927 Flinders Petrie invited her to join his work at Qau el-Kebir and his expedition to Tell Fara in Palestine. Privileged to become a ‘Petrie Pup’, Olga learned skills from the renowned archaeologist and his students. She described her travel to Egypt with Myrtle Broome as “a perfect journey” and was excited to be lodged in a tomb. In 1932, by then an accomplished excavator and supervisor, she joined James Starkey’s expedition at Tell ed-Duweir (ancient Lachish) for six seasons. Tragically, Starkey was murdered by a group of Arab rebels in 1938. This, plus the outbreak of World War II, ended the expedition. Olga returned to London and worked on the Lachish excavation reports, which are considered “an exemplar of archaeological publication for the time”.

Olga loved travel, which was one theme of her letters. Travel included local tourism at every opportunity and trips further afield. In 1933 her adventurous overland journey home with colleagues in the vehicle dubbed ‘Diabolical Strength’ was another “perfect journey”, resulting in a substantial amount of photography of sites and monuments.

Olga’s account offers new insights into the history of travel and archaeology during the interwar period, the latter including British colonialist attitudes to Palestine during the Mandate.

Olga has not been recognised as highly as other contemporary female Levantine archaeologists, such as Kathleen Kenyon. The editors argue that the story of Olga Tufnell adds to the growing literature about women archaeologists who made significant contributions to the field.

The introduction provides valuable biographical, archaeological, historical, cultural and political context for the edited letters, and an introduction precedes each fieldwork chapter.

Eighty-eight photographs and drawings, with five maps, accompany the text. The book is recommended for all interested in the history of British archaeology in Egypt and the Levant during the interwar period.

Cathie Bryan


The Treasures of Tutankhamun

Introduced by Garry J. Shaw.


Thames and Hudson, 2021

ISBN 978-0-500-05218-1

Hardback, £12.99.

This small but beautifully presented volume is an ideal visual souvenir of the remarkable finds made a century ago. The text is relatively brief, and includes an outline of what is known of the life and times of its subject. An introductory section asks the question, “Who was Tutankhamun?”. The book is then divided into two sections, the first dealing with the treasures of the tomb and what they tell us about the owner’s daily life, death and burial.

The second part records the discovery of the tomb, the centenary of which is celebrated this year, 2022.

The text is illustrated throughout with sumptuous photographs – many of items familiar to the reader, some less well-known – interspersed with quotations from Howard Carter’s account of their discovery, with some descriptions of the objects and discussion of their purpose or significance.

The high quality illustrations present a selection of artefacts arranged in groups, ranging from beautifully crafted ritual objects to items of personal adornment, things which may have been used in life, and shabti figures to help the king in his afterlife. One pectoral has lunar and solar motifs, with a central scarab with wings and talons holding up a barque containing the sacred eye of Horus; above this is a silver moon disc on which are the figures of Ra-Horakhty and Thoth on either side of the king. Another remarkable find was a corselet found scattered in pieces on the floor. This has three similar figures flanking the king, and was probably worn by him on state occasions to impress his people.

Many objects were found which would have had a practical use, including boxes, cups, mirror cases, unguent jars and walking canes. A selection of ceremonial fans was found, one of which even retained its ostrich feathers. The golden shrines containing the burial itself, protected by Isis and Nepthys, are described in detail, as is the series of coffins which provided the king’s body with magical protection. No one seeing the beauty and impressive craftsmanship of this collection of objects could fail to be impressed by the quality of care and work which went into their manufacture.

This book can only cover a small selection of the contents of the tomb, but those items that are included are showcased by beautiful individual photographs, with close-ups showing the craftsmanship in detail, presenting a vivid picture of this astounding discovery.

Hilary Forrest


Book Reviews Index


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