Further Comments on ‘Black Pharaohs’ by Dr Shomarka Keita

Further comments on ‘Black Pharaohs’ By Dr Shomarka Keita

The error of affirming the consequent must be acknowledged. Dislike has many causes.

It can be argued that familial ties are stronger than all others even in difficult circumstances, and that when there is a conflict between family ties versus group ties that family pre-empts all.  However, there are too many instances in the recent western experience where this is simply not the case. One example is that during the antebellum period in the USA, Euroamerican males routinely sold their children by enslaved [powerless] African and Afro-descendant women into slavery (how about that for a #metoo moment).  (There were exceptions of course.) All of this is rooted in a notion of racism, specifically anti-“black” racism. This is mentioned since the PBS presentation “Black Pharaohs” expressed various interpretations in a “white”-“black” dichotomy that even European crusaders looking for allies in a black Prestor John would not have understood. Of course the televised piece is not the only place this has been done. There are books and magazine articles that speak of the “black” experience in Egypt which is problematic on various levels as stated before.

Details are interesting when one is discussing racism and interpreting the past in terms of it.  It is not clear that those who invented racism as we understand it and then structured human society around it for their benefit fully understand it. Their various descendants participate in the world view generated by racialism (and/or racism) and perhaps maintain it but cannot be blamed for creating it: their bias may be unconcious, not deliberately theorized and operationalized but only by studying each situation can this be known.  Racism in its visceral form as understood in the USA is not amenable to monetary or spiritual negotiation. This will influence how many interpret a situation of conflict.

An idiographic approach to the question of Egyptian shame about being associated with Kushites might be useful.  Let us drill down on something that would have been personal but also public, on the “national” stage.  We note that in her tomb chapel Piankhi’s daughter, Amenirdis, was installed as “God’s Wife” of Amun (an important title) by being adopted by her non-Kushite predecessor, the usual way this was done.  Her name and images are intact and obvious. Only Pharaoh Piankhi’s cartouche has been removed. The 26th dynasty’s king’s daughter was in turn adopted by the last of the Kushite “Gods’ Wives” and thus there was seamless succession in this role.  If there was shame at being associated with or ruled by specific folk with darker skin at the family level—assuming this to be the case— or folk usually associated with darker skin at the group level, then how could this seamless transition have occurred between Kushite and others?  There is no evidence of shame here. There is no hiding this succession. There is no apparent conceptualization that there is taint associated with taking on the Kushite as successor, and then receiving from a Kushite the same honor via adoption—which in theory should be more susceptible to prejudice than having to deal with actual kin.

The damnato memorae was directed at a king over what was more plausibly is interpreted as some personal angst than an attitude about a group based on color. Of course there are other possible explanations that have to do with the cultural intricacies and etiquette of those times that we will possibly never know.

The error of affirming the consequent must be acknowledged. Dislike has many causes.

Comments on the National Geographic Televised Program “Black Pharaohs” By Dr Shomarka Keita

Comments on the National Geographic Televised Program: “Black Pharaohs”.

A guest post by Dr Shomarka Keita

The National Geographic film feature on the 25th Dynasty deserves to be reviewed critically due to the ongoing interest in Egypt.  It is important to say at the outset that it is not clear whether the producers/programmers or the academics had the most to do with final production. Nor is it clear what role PBS played in content decisions, or which outside scholars were invited to make comments before release. The ultimate responsibility in a public academic project like this belongs to both the contributors and producers.  One would hope that there would have been more diversity in those involved in the production, diversity in representatives from a number of fields that have something to say about historiography—including the philosophy of science. Diversity  would have been beneficial from fields that have something to say about concepts of identity as well and the flaws in reading back into the past certain kinds of attitudes and perspectives by giving ancient peoples the voices of the living.  Posted here will be some initial comments about the program that will be followed at various times in the future by posts that tie various issues together. (National Geographic also published an issue of its magazine with “Black Pharaohs” as the cover story. The magazine piece has not been reviewed sufficiently by the range of anthropologists and critical scholars in various fields, and many of the comments made here would apply to that piece.)

The title from the outset is problematic.  It “racializes” the identity of some ancient peoples in line with some older scholastic thinking which itself was the product of a colonialist and blatantly racist era.  One famous Egyptologist spoke of the “Nigger Kings” in reference to the 25th Dynasty.  The title of the program implies an absolute dichotomy between Egyptians and Nubians that even certain biased Egyptologists from the past would have questioned.  Note that even Petrie, father of the Dynastic Race construct, spoke of various Egyptian dynasties other than the 25th as having Sudanese or Nubian ancestry. The issue is not whether Petrie (and others) were right or wrong, but whether or not the film’s authors/producers have ignored the variation in Egyptological opinion about what some would call the “racial” “make-up” of the Egyptians—a northern Nilotic people. We can ask what or whose concept of “race” is being used? And we can most certainly say that one notion of race has to do with the social reaction to phenotype, be it in statuary, wall paintings, or folks standing in front of you.  Some populations—and families– are highly variable in the phenotypic traits that we react to so much.  Egyptological opinion aside the authors did not consider the variation in anthropological and anatomical reports in anthropological studies over the last 100 years. These reports when read critically and cross-checked against each other and current understanding of variability and models of evolution are quite interesting. The producers cannot get around the fact that they have done something that ignores the data that indicates that the notion of race does not apply to modern humans.  They have imposed some ideas onto the past in a particular way.  When one critically examines the linguistic, archaeological and biological data from numerous sources in a form of meta-analysis, the emergence of the ancient Egyptians in northeastern Africa becomes clear.

The authors have done something else, something that is clearly problematic. They have suggested that the Egyptians saw themselves as “white” in some biocultural or political sense akin to some contemporary Europeans and Americans,  and were ashamed that they had been “conquered” by “black Africans”—a term which no Egyptian or Kushite would know or have used, and which was invented by European colonialists. (And it does not matter who uses it, or that its use has persisted, even sometimes being used by those who know better.) They have psychologized the ancient Egyptian attitude as seeing all Nubians (and by extension all dark-skinned folk, including some Egyptian individuals and communities) as obligatorily separate from themselves—like certain elements in western societies today.  It cannot be shown that there was a term in Egyptian that could be judged commensurate with that phrase literally or in concept.  It cannot be shown, according to reputable Egyptologists, that the Egyptians described human variation in terms of color terminology. Various wall paintings that depict various peoples and color ranges in Egyptians—when these are reliable–are doing just that and should not be alleged to be presenting an Egyptian visual textbook on “race” in anticipation of being discovered by later people. The authors have imposed onto the Egyptians what is clearly a “White” Western mindset replete with a particular racialist background. They have projected a “white” mentality back into a world that had no background for the sociocultural notion of race propounded by Westerners, and did not have in their science something commensurate with the Western science that produced “races” and racialism.

History will not justify their statements, nor will the attitudes of modern Egyptians towards Nubians or Sudanese to the degree that these are negative—presentism in this context would be so ahistorical. What would the authors state as evidence for their claim of Egyptian shame?  The authors might point to the “damnatio memoria”—the erasure of the 25th Dynasty or some of it being remembered via the chiseling out of names. However, the Egyptians did this to Akhenaton, other Amarna elites and Hatshepsut—who were not Kushites. The historical specifics of this are likely relatable to a certain 26th delta based king who felt bereaved against the Kushites because of how they had treated his father.  Perhaps it was about legitimacy—erase the memory of the previous kings. It would be inappropriate to commit the logical error of affirming the consequent and generalize to all Egyptians.  It would be illogical to suggest that the Egyptians as a nation and culture had this attitude towards all dark-skinned Egyptians and Nubians/Kushites, or had it built into their culture and laws such that they would be ashamed.  The authors might also claim that the Kushites were resented due to their ascendancy in Thebes—an ascendancy that some might want to read as naked brutal conquest, for which there is no evidence. The Thebans allied themselves with the Kushites.  Piankhi’s campaign of 727 BC was the put down of rebellion in the delta region some 20 years or so after his coronation as King of Upper and Lower Egypt—which clearly had Egyptian support. Is there evidence that the Kushites had no core Egyptian support because of their average darker colour? Is there evidence of guerilla warfare against the Kushite dynasty by mass numbers of Egyptians or the elites in general? Is there any evidence that the Kushites were viewed as appropriating Egyptian culture with which it shared some deep roots at some level?

The imposition of certain western identities as reified with notions of whiteness with correlated assumptions onto the ancient Egyptians can be seen in various interpretations of how the Egyptians behaved towards Nubians and others. One example is that the Egyptians colonists in Nubia withdrew from border regions after the Kushites gained ascendancy at the end of the New Kingdom.  Archaeology and history clearly would seem to be best interpreted as indicating that the colony separated from Egypt and wanted to be affiliated with Kush.  There was an entanglement of cultures and peoples, even as there had been in the earliest days of Egyptian origins in what David Wengrow calls the “primary pastoral community” an endogenous phenomenon that includes the Badarian predynastic culture, whose identity is rooted in an African agency, synthesis and emergence irrespective of the ultimate source of some its elements.  Later developments at Hierakonpolis, Naqada and Abydos emerged from this source, as did likely the language that would be the basis of dynastic Egyptian if Satzinger is correct.

Of course none of this to say that the Egyptians never had conflicts with or attitudes about some fellow Nilotic and other neighbors—especially those deemed to be rivals, but what was its cause?  Was it “racial” in all that this means in the social history of the US and the West? Was it constructed around a notion of color? Does a careful reading of various sources perhaps suggest that there were various groups of more southern Nilotics and Saharans some of whom had better relations with Egyptians.

An opportunity was lost with this particular National Geographic project, an opportunity to examine the 25th Dynasty from different levels of analysis, to see Egyptian history from different perspectives, and to examine ideas about how current notions of identity mixed up with ancestry and physical traits in the context of racism should not be imposed upon the past. There are so many more interesting things about the 25th Dynasty and the Nilotic world that could have been used to anchor the PBS offering than the title “Black Pharaohs”… From the perspective of micro-history they could have attempted to contrast a perspective of the world through the eyes of not only the 25th, but other dynasties that were foreign.  For example how many of the other dynasties took on the role of revivalists to any serious degree (as did the 25th)?

In their defense maybe the authors thought they needed to say “Black Pharaohs” in order to get an audience, and maybe PBS just went along—even if this were so they could have used the piece to argue against their own title—assuming that what they seemingly conveyed is just an error.

Dr Shomarka Keita

Kemite Complexions

Black History Month 2018 (and Nefertiti)

February is Black History Month in North America and the Caribbean. Appropriate then, to launch a reconstruction of a member of the Kemite royal family during the New Kingdom? Well that depends. Many readers will be aware of the most recent reconstruction claiming to be of Nefertiti. For those who missed it there is a summary here. This was launched early in Black History Month, and naturally caused questions regarding the queens complexion, which was more akin so someone from northern Europe than Africa. The Egyptologist involved in the reconstruction, Dr Aidan Dodson at Bristol University has publicly responded by stating that:

The sculptor used images of modern Egyptian women as her reference point for skin-colour- but under studio lights it looked lighter than in real life in which the bust is consistent with many of my Egyptian friends

Source CNN website. Accessed 28 February 2018.

Lighting aside he is clearly missing the point, which is that the modern people in Egypt are not the same people as those who lived there several thousands of years ago. This is a basic fact, because we can chart the changes in population and culture through key events over the past 2000 years.

There are many problems with the identification, process and reconstruction, and I don’t particularly wish to dwell on them, because they detract from reality. I cannot help but wonder why another whitewashing of Kemet was scheduled to coincide with a month that celebrates African cultural heritage. However, I did want to post something to counteract this approach before Black History came to an end, and to remind us of the reality of how people really looked during the 18th Dynasty.

The Tomb of Userhat (TT56)

A barbering scene from the tomb of Userhat

A friend recently sent me a photograph of the above scene from an old publication and I felt that it would serve both culturally and in terms of the population who are represented to re-situate Kemet where it rightly belongs. A facsimile painting by Nina de Garis Davies, who was a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian expedition was produced during the 1925-1926 season, and offers a clearer impression of the scene than the original.

Nina de Garis Davies Facs. Metropolitan Museum of Art
Nina de Garis Davies Facsimile. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rogers Fund, 1930; 30.4.40

Userhat was an official during the reign of Amenhotep (II) Aakheperrure who ruled from around 1428-1397 BCE. He was a scribe and overseer, who was brought up in the royal nursery. His tomb is number 56 in the Sheikh Abd el-Qurna necropolis, and shows depictions of Userhat and his wife Mutnefret making and receiving offerings. The above scene is, however, unusual. It appears to depict some of the workers, who Userhat was overseer of, resting and having their hair barbered. On the facsimile, the individual twists of hair can more clearly seen. The barber uses a razor and has a bowl of water at his feet.

Theban Tomb 56. Hunting scene showing the tomb owner Userhat with his daughters.

Perhaps next time Egyptologists want to reproduce the complexions of the Kemite people of the New Kingdom, they should use the original depictions from the period. Just a thought…

mdw ntchr: The face sign

mdw ntchr

Or hieroglyphs as the writing of ancient Kemet is now better known. In fact the translation of the two words means the same thing: sacred writing or script. The Kemite script was versatile in that it can be read from right to left, vice versa, or from top to bottom. Many signs are in profile, but out of all of the signs, the one that I am asked the most about is the frontal face (above).

A detail from the Temple of Sobek showing Cleopatra II or III presenting offerings

The face sign

If you look at the column on the left side of the photograph above, you can see a version of the sign towards the bottom of the relief, with a line underneath it. When the face appears with the line, it spells the preposition ‘upon’, which is why it is so common on reliefs. It can be used in the writing of ‘upper’.

The face sign: hr

It’s sound is ‘hr’, which is the Kemite word for face, as confirmed by its similarity to the much later Coptic version of the word. The sound value can appear in other words too.

The example above is from the funerary temple of Hatshepsut, and so dates to what we now call the 18th Dynasty. If you look carefully you can see how much the original pigment has faded; there are traces of the original and darker colour on each side of the nose.

In Gardiner’s sign list this sign is listed as D2, a part of the human body.

Kemite symbols: The Was sceptre

The Was Sceptre

Many people will recognise the somewhat unusual Was sceptre, which has an animal head with a long snout and prominent ears. It is thought that the animal is a form of canine or canid, for example a fox and that originally the sceptre was a type of fetish- containing the spirit and power of the animal. The bottom of the sceptre, unlike other kemite staffs, is forked.

Sobek holding a was sceptre

The Was staff became synonymous with power and was often the sceptre held by a variety of gods and the king. It was thus a sacred emblem.

Depiction of Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra II Kom Ombo Temple

A giant Was sceptre

was sceptre copyright victoria and albert museum
Glazed was sceptre. Copyright the V&A Museum

This remarkable object stands over 2 meters tall (over 7 feet) and weighs 65 kilos (143.3 pounds). It is made from glazed crushed quartz, from a mould. We now erroneously refer to this material as faience, because when it was seen for the first time scholars believed it was the same as an Islamic material, which is a glaze over pottery. The Kemite version is not, however, made of clay. I’ll write more about this in a future post.

The object was found by the Egyptologist Petrie in an inner chamber of a temple dedicated by Thutmose (I) Aakheperkare to the deity Seth in the Naqada region. Thutmose ruled from 1504 to 1492 BCE. However, the sceptre is inscribed with the names of a later king, also from the Dynasty 18: Amenhotep (II) Aakheperrure, who ruled from 1428-1397 BCE.

The object was in fragments when it was discovered and has been restored. It was originally made in sections from a mould which were then joined by the artist.


I first saw the object as part of an exhibition Gifts of the Nile. Ancient Egyptian Faience in mid-1990’s. Many visitors were drawn towards it because of its unusual appearance and its size. It was hard to comprehend that ancient people were capable of making something of these proportions out of a material that is difficult to work with and which has to be fired at exact and high temperatures. For me, it remains one of the most intriguing objects to have survived from the ancient world, not least of all because it was made over 3400 years ago. In this respect it is a testimony to the Kemite artisans.

The Festival of Min

The Festival of Min

A few people have commented on the photograph that I recently uploaded for the blog on the homepage and asked what it represents. It comes from a procession, which forms part of the festival scenes of Ramesses (III) Usermaatre-meryamun at his funerary temple on the West Bank, which is now best known as Medinat Habu. This is actually my favourite temple from Kemet, both for the decorations and because it also contains the chapels of the God’s Wives of Amun.

Scene from the royal procession

The pigment on the walls is extremely well preserved when compared to most other temples, and presents an idea of how colourful the temples of ancient Kemet once were. It also gives a clear indication of the complexion of the people.

Part of a procession of royal attendants, Medinat Habu

The men features in the relief are royal attendants, in the section that I chose for the blog (shown above) they appear to be carrying the parts of a staircase- you can see the steps that are carried by the men in the middle section. This is a reference to the festival that we see depicted: The Festival of the Staircase. It was on his staircase that the god Min was presented with the first ears of corn from the harvest by the King.

Ramesses Usermaatre-meryamun

To the right of the first scene is the scene above, which shows the King being carried as part of a procession; the colours used for the this scene were identical to those of the previous section, but as you can see from when I took this photograph, the sunlight falls directly on the wall and has almost erased the pigment.


Min, Medinat Habu

Min was a fertility god, initially of animals but later of vegetation. He is often depicted with lettuce, which was believed to be an aphrodisiac by the people of Kemet. The final section of the procession (above) shows the god standing on a raised area. The procession carrying the King can just be seen to the left, as if walking at the side of the god’s platform ready to present him with offerings at the front. You can just about see their heads and the standards that they are carrying.

Kemet and the Black Power Movement

Kemet and the Black Power Movement

October is Black History Month in the UK and Kemet remains a popular subject choice when I am asked to present lectures. In fact this year I will presenting 4 lectures on Kush.

Kemet has inspired many people of African heritage, with many from the Diaspora making a cultural journey the Giza plateau; this included Malcom X during his 1964 trip to Africa.


Homage to Malcom Acrylic paint on canvas 1970
Homage to Malcom. Acrylic paint on canvas 1970 by Jack Whitten

Six years later the artist Jack Whitten produced an extraordinary piece of art entitled Homage to Malcom (above). The piece was recently displayed in the exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Tate Modern in London. The connection to Kemet was immediately apparent but on closer inspection of the piece and the accompanying information I learned that the surface was created by using an afro comb over the painted surface. Thus drawing on another shared history between African and its Diaspora of the comb.

Homage to Malcom
Detail of Homage to Malcom, Acrylic paint on canvas 1970.

Since the turn of the 20th century eminent African American scholars, artists and activists had made the connection between Kemet and the rest of the African continent, including the artist and print maker Charles C. Dawson and the scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. Some people may be surprised to hear that Du Bois was in direct contact with early Egyptologist W.M.F.Petrie. Egyptologist Dr Vanessa Davies has been researching communications between the two; her early findings were reported here in a lecture and are well worth exploring and a good reminder of the long history of African American activism, which (of course) reaches back to when the first people were forcibly removed from their home land.

It’s just a pity that in the 21st century museums are still neglecting to even reference the connections between Kemet, African and people of African descent. In 2017 there should not still be a need to have Black History ‘Month’. African cultural heritage should be available to everyone all of the year round. Nor should the connection between Kemet and other African cultures be restricted to special exhibitions or projects; it should be made automatically and as a matter of course.

The iconic ‘fist’ comb from the 1970s and a 5500 year old comb from Abydos Egypt. Taken at the origins of the afro comb exhibition. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 2013


Notes on Black Abstraction Mark Godfrey in Soul of a Nation. Art in then Age of Black Power edited by M. Godfrey and Z. Whitley 2017.

A reminder about the Kemet Expert blog

About this blog

Kemet Expert is now nearly 18 months old. It has been great to make new contacts, and to receive some really interesting questions and thoughts on matters relating to African-centered approaches to the study of Ancient Egypt. However, some readers who get in touch clearly do not share this viewpoint. I’m not sure how much clearer I could be about the purpose of this blog. So I’m re-posting below.

‘Kemet Expert’ is a blog dedicated to African-centred Egyptology. ‘Kemet’ was one of the ancient names given to the country that later became known as ‘Egypt’. However, more recently ‘Kemet’ implies an African-focused approach to the study of the ancient culture.

The blog is based on the premise that Ancient Egypt shares commonalities with other African cultures; and that in order to fully understand this ancient culture, it is necessary to draw parallels from other indigenous African cultures.

This blog is intended as a source of information for those who wish to view Ancient Egypt from an African-focused perspective. It is not intended as a forum for questioning this approach; many of these already exist.

Thank you!

Researching Kemet

Researching Kemet

Eurocentrics have been doctoring images since the advent of photoshop in order to support their view of ancient Kemet. However, I have noticed an increasing trend of people wishing to demonstrate support for an African origin for Kemet doing the same to prove their point. This is entirely unnecessary given the strength of cultural, visual and linguistic evidence to demonstrate that Kemet was an indigenous African culture in every sense. And in producing doctored memes, those who seek to support an African origin do the opposite, because they undermine the solid evidence that exists without their adaptations. In light of this phenomenon, I have been asked recently how I would suggest beginners should go about exploring Kemet within its rightful African context. This is what I would suggest. Other readers may have other ideas and it would be great if you could share these for novices.


Exhibitions usually follow a theme (there is supposed to be some rationale behind assembly objects in a temporary space). The catalogues or on-line exhibition websites are often a good way to obtain an introduction to a subject. On the Brooklyn Museum of Art website for example is information dating to 2006 , which explores Western interest in Ancient Egypt, and the contribution of African American scholars on Egyptology. Such places and also old catalogues can be a good place to start and second hand copies are often cheap and easy to find. But remember to look at the text critically. Statements should be backed up with evidence to support them. Do not mistake opinion for documented evidence.

Museum on-line catalogues

These are a great source, often with good images and an increasing number of museums are happy for people to download and use high resolution photographs for non-profit activities. Generally, the dates and identification of material is correct. Here is an example.

Example of the on-line catalogue from The Brooklyn Museum of Art

First thing to note is that the statue does not have a provenance (excavation site). It was purchased on the art market with a museum fund (Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund). This means that it could of course be a forgery. Next is the date, which is Ptolemaic and around 50 BCE. This is perfectly reasonable; I would probably date it the the century before because of the style of hair, which has parallels during the reign of Ptolemy VI but the period is certainly correct.

The material, here a stone known as Diorite is listed. Museums sometimes get the exact stone incorrect, because some of the Kemite stones look very similar to the eye.

The description. These vary and can be subjective and are often outside of a wider African context. Here, you will note the author makes a distinction between indigenous Egyptians and Greeks. They often include information about the condition of the object and if there are any restorations that may not be noticeable from the photograph.

References. Finally, this head has been in 3 exhibitions, which are listed alongside links to their pages. So, if you were interested in similar material this they would be a good place to go. Some on-line catalogues also contain a bibliography or reference list of publications that have included an object.

An African context

There are some on-line resources that combine material from Kemet and the rest of the African context. Triumph, Protection & Dreams  was an exhibition that I co-curated a number of years ago. It explored similarities in use and design of headrests in East Africa and there remains a dedicated site showing the items that were on display. If museums don’t offer this facility then you can undertake the research yourself, by using the on-line resources for contemporary African cultures. Rather than selecting a department or culture you could search generically for ‘head rest’ and obtain a range of different dates and cultures, which you can then compare.

Most museums will not stress the African origin of material from Kemet, or offer an interpretation within a African-centered framework. However, having access to material that is not even displayed through the digitisation of collections is an invaluable resource for those wishing to explore Kemite material culture. You just need to be able to work around the framework and build up your own library of parallels from elsewhere in Africa.

Community Kemet: a summer initiative

Community Kemet

Just a quick post to announce a great initiative this summer, which is free to take part and can be enjoyed in and with your local community. The Nswt Bity Experience is providing a simple way to celebrate the history of African hair in your local barber shop or beauty salon. The event will take place between 21 July and 7 August 2017.

An installation of a traditional barbershop by the artist Michael McMillan. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge. July-November 2013. Part of the Origins of the Afro Comb Exhibition.

The organisers have done all of the hard work by assembling images of  Kemite objects and have provided all of the information ready for use. The idea is for barbershops and beauty salons to host a small photographic exhibition, to share knowledge, and to encourage families to learn more about the history of African hair. I fully endorse this project and hope that people will take part, share their experiences and keep the history of African hair and styling alive.

The iconic ‘fist’ comb from the 1970s and a 5500 year old comb from Abydos Egypt. Taken at the origins of the afro comb exhibition. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 2013


Further information on how to take part is available on the project’s Facebook page: Nswt Bity Experience