Framing Cleopatra

The announcement in mid-October that Gal Gadot would play the last Cleopatra in a new film provoked responses of whitewashing and reports of a ‘backlash’ in both social and the mainstream media. There were those who commended the casting and those who found it inappropriate for two key reasons. The first objection related to Gadot’s nationality. Social media commentators felt that it was insensitive to cast as Israeli national as the ruler of an Arab nation (I will come back to this in due course). Second, was the question of Cleopatra’s racialized identity and the possibility that her mother and grandmother were indigenous Egyptians rather than Greeks. 

The issues with the casting therefore relate to Cleopatra’s ethnicized and racialized identities. I was interested to see if the responses (academic and general) could be categorised into frameworks in order to see which approach offered the most appropriate and inclusive response. 

Response categories 

Classical

The Classicist (used here to describe the adopted approach irrespective of training) responds by describing Cleopatra as a Macedonian Greek. This effectively restricts both identities to European and Hellenistic Greek. 

Historical

The Historian (used here to describe the adopted approach irrespective of training) uses texts to effectively remain impartial whilst acknowledging that there are questions relating to the identities of her mother/grandmother. The typical response is that we will likely never know what she looked like (or her racialised identity). This approach does not consider Cleopatra’s ethnicized identity. 

Egyptological

The Egyptologist (used here to describe the adopted approach irrespective of training) can situate the evidence of Egyptian material culture within a traditional framework. However, given the wider debate around the racialized identity of the people of ancient Kemet, the approach is largely concerned with Cleopatra’s ethicized identity. The Egyptological approach is essential because without understanding how Cleopatra was presented in her home country, it is impossible to fully understand her image overseas.   

Archaeological

The Archaeologist (used here to describe the adopted approach irrespective of training) has the ability to expand upon both identities through studying the material culture from Egypt and overseas. This approach can include the identification of human remains, which could answer the question of Cleopatra’s racialized identity. We do not know where the ruler was buried. However, the remains of (what is assumed to be) her sister in a tomb at Ephesus have supported that some members of the family were of mixed African and European ancestry. 

Model showing a hierarchy of approaches

Critical approaches

Two dominant critical approaches have also emerged from the recent responses to the announcement of the new film. The first seeks to decolonize more generally and it has been suggested that an actor of Arab descent should play the role of Cleopatra. A fundamental issue with this association of course is, as I have noted, that Cleopatra ruled in Egypt long before the Arab settlement in North Africa. If the maternal side of her family were indigenous women this should be reflected in any contemporary representations of Cleopatra. This brings me to the second approach, which is to consider the ethnicity of Cleopatra within an African centred context. The evidence from Egyptian archaeology and material culture supports this as a valid option; Cleopatra was only presented according to Egyptian (Kemite) traditions. This included her representation at the Temple of Isis in Alexandria (seen as a Hellenistic city), where she and her son are depicted in Egyptian-style statues.  

And the film?

Cleopatra (VII’s) father was referred to as nothos (illegitimate) and the identity of her mother has been questioned by historians. It has been suggested that both women may have been Egyptian and so African. With this in mind, at the very least, the film makers should have considered an actor of mixed ancestry to play the role of Cleopatra, and that this would have been a valid choice. Many institutions and industries are finally recognising the importance of correctly acknowledging the presence and achievements of people of African heritage. This would have been a perfect opportunity for the Film Industry to promote Cleopatra’s position as an African ruler of dual ancestry.  

Guest Post by Dr Vanessa Davies: Egyptology and Africana studies

Dr Vanessa Davies is the founding organizer of a new initiative named The Nile Valley Collective , here she shares her research and thoughts on the divide between Egyptology and Africana Studies.

There needs to be a marriage between Egyptology and Africana studies

In the US, there is a divide within the university system between white Egyptology and Africana studies. By white Egyptology, I mean the Egyptology programs in the US, which are largely staffed by white people, whose research questions and interests trickle into mainstream popular culture via television shows. I use this phrase “white Egyptology” out of respect for the people who work on Egypt and Nubia through the lens of Africana studies. In the US, most scholars of Egyptology are white. Most scholars of Africana studies are Black. This racial and scholarly divide reflects unstated or understated racisms that have underpinned white Egyptology since its inception in the US as part of the university curriculum. This divide must be bridged.Egyptology as a research discipline was established by white European, and later American, scholars to address the questions and perspectives that interested white audiences, scholarly and popular. The two earliest professors of Egyptology in the US, both white men, received their appointments at the turn of the twentieth century. Their graduate education in Germany and in the US was rooted in Semitic languages and cultures and followed Eurocentric interests of that time in looking for connections between ancient Egypt and the stories in the Bible. They separated Egypt from Africa.

As time went on, scholars of African descent studied Egyptology and engaged with white Egyptologists: W. E. B. Du Bois, Leo Hansberry, Cheikh Anta Diop, and Theophile Obenga, just to name a few. These scholars brought new perspectives and new research questions to white Egyptology. But they were ignored or pushed away from it. 

Spurred by the civil rights movement, universities in the US began establishing departments in the 1960s and ‘70s that were dedicated to the history and culture of Africa and the African diaspora. The establishment of those departments was vital to correct the false and dehumanizing claim prevalent in the US that Africa had no history and that by extension African-Americans and Africans elsewhere in the world did not share in the human experience of history.

With a few exceptions, as Africana studies grew and flourished, it did so largely without contact with white Egyptology. White Egyptology, as it moved from solely a graduate program to being a small part of the undergraduate curriculum, did so largely without contact with Africana studies.

This unfortunate divide reflects the longstanding and incorrect separation of ancient Egyptian culture, and to a lesser extent ancient Nubian culture, from its African context. White Egyptology programs in the US are typically found in departments centered on the Near East (the term denoting the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, the Levant, and related zones).

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most white Egyptologists had no knowledge of the other ancient cultures in Africa. Their ignorance about the wider cultural context of Africa and about connections between Nile Valley and other African cultures has largely been perpetuated with each subsequent generation of Egyptologists.

I received my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Besides one class on ancient Nubia and one on art historical theory, all my coursework was focused on Egypt. For language study, one could take Egyptian and Near Eastern languages, such as Akkadian or Sumerian, or Arabic, but there were no offerings on other ancient languages of Africa, such as Berber or Meroitic.

Imagine the fruitful work that white and Black Egyptologists could do if they were placed within Africana studies departments. Imagine the dialogue that could take place about ancient African cultures, the explorations of the widespread reception of ancient Egypt and Nubia in myriad cultural expressions over the decades.

W. E. B. Du Bois understood the race divide in academic pursuits (Davies, 2020). He wrote the histories of African people because he knew that to omit them is “scientifically unsound and also dangerous for logical social conclusions.”(Du Bois, 1946: vii):  Yet, despite the fact that he read widely on Egyptology and published on Nile River Valley history, he wrote this disclaimer in his 1939 preface to Black Folk, Then and Now, “I am no Egyptologist. That goes without saying.” He then proceeded to describe exactly what ideas and which Egyptologists he disputes. A few years later, when he published The World and Africa, his description of the Egyptologists he engages with reads like a who’s who of the field at that time. At what point does Du Bois “get” to become an Egyptologist? The same question must be asked about Leo Hansberry, the African-American professor never recognized by white Egyptology, whom Du Bois described as “the one modern scholar who has tried to study the Negro in Egypt and Ethiopia [i.e., Sudan]”(Du Bois, 1946: x).

The divide between white Egyptology and Africana studies must be bridged to open up Egyptology and to make it more inclusive. Going forward, Egyptologists must be better versed in other ancient cultures of Africa, must dialogue with communities of color, must understand the questions and viewpoints that abound in Africana studies, and must respect the reception of these ancient cultures by people of African descent today.

The divide between white Egyptology and Africana studies perpetuates the separation of Egypt from the rest of Africa. It privileges the people in Egyptology programs as “qualified” to speak about Egypt and, from the perspective of Egyptology, confers the opposite on people in Africana studies. That divide separated Du Bois, Hansberry, and other scholars from white Egyptology. We must not maintain that racist, divisive system.


References

Davies, Vanessa. “Egyptological Conversations on Race and Science.” Rockefeller Archive Center Research Reports, 2018. https://rockarch.issuelab.org/resource/egyptological-conversations-about-race-and-science.html. 

Davies, Vanessa. “W. E. B. Du Bois, a new voice in Egyptology’s disciplinary history / W. E. B. Du Bois, une nouvelle voix dans l’histoire de l’égyptologie.” ANKH: Revue d’égyptologie et des civilisations africaines 28/29: 2020.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The World and Africa. [1946] 2015.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The World and Africa. [1946] 2015.

Time for Egyptology to stop deciding who’s Black and who’s not

Twitter feed 3 June 2020

“Black” pharaohs again

The photograph (above) shows a panel of a Third Dynasty official named Hesy-Ra and was found at his mastaba (tomb) in Saqqara. Hesy-Ra was an important man and held a number of titles, including one that has subsequently been interpreted as dentist (Great ivory cutter). The panels are of considerable interest because they show Hesy-Ra aging over time and thus are cited as an attempt to represent the subject not only so that he is recognisable, but realistically so. I mention this because many Egyptologists often declare that ancient artists did not seek to represent the physical appearance of the subject in their portraits. This has become another way of denying pictorial representations to identify the racialised identity of the people of Kemet. Like the idea of designating the descriptor of Black Pharaoh to the Twenty Fifth dynasty rulers, this reaction has become the norm. 

However, I digress. The panel was used (extremely effectively in my opinion) by @TS_Afrikology to respond to the an earlier tweet: The pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty were not Egyptian but Kushite (from the region of the 4th cataract in what is now Sudan) and depicted by the Egyptians as having darker brown (black) skin, hence ‘black pharaoh’.

It is no secret that Egyptology is embedded in the racist ideologies of those who founded the discipline. I have written and spoken about this at length in the past. This blog has also discussed how problematic using the term “Black Pharaoh” for rulers from Sudan, while excluding those from Ancient Egypt, really is. And there have been guest posts on the subject by S.O. Keita. However, seeing this tweet yesterday (at a time when there is a growing a international pressure to address systematic racism and inequality and with a focus on people of African descent) made me wonder why an academic discipline that studies an African culture isn’t also reflecting on its interpretation of the construct of race.

Rather than responding in a manner that can appear defensive and authoritarian, Egyptologists today could open up a dialogue and perhaps review their stance on the use of a modern racialised term that most are simply not qualified to judge. Now would be the ideal time to start. And White academics need to understand that they are not qualified to tell people of African heritage and descent who is black and who is not.

The mummy study unwrapped: your thoughts

I haven’t posted in quite some time, but my second PhD is now completed and awarded and so I hope to get back to posting more regularly over the next few weeks. I’ll be travelling in the USA this summer as part of my current research in youth justice, but I hope to take any opportunities to look at museums with collections from Kemet. As ever, I’m interested to see how Kemet is represented.

In the meantime, following on from the last article I posted on the reporting of the mummy DNA and alerting you to a question by S.O. Keita in the comments:

This is addressed to the readers of this blog:  What do you find most problematic about the piece on mummy genomes by Schuenemann et al. published in the last two years? Please list one or two things. This will promote a great discussion.

Please share your thoughts…

“Science” Alert claim that Ancient Egypt is non-African

Science Alert’s Article

On 12 April 2018 Michelle Starr, a writer at Science Alert wrote an article on a new archaeological discovery in Sudan. Claiming that the find revealed “A Vast African City of the Dead” [article] . One of the finds, a stela (relief offering) adorned with a representation of the goddess Maat, is described by the writer as having “African features”.

It’s great to see Sudanese archaeology obtaining coverage

But…

When describing the Meroitic language the following passage appears:

[Meroitic] is the earliest known written language of sub-Saharan Africa, written in characters borrowed from the Ancient Egyptians- who were more closely related to the people of the Near East than middle Africa.

 The author then references a limited study examining the DNA of 90 (predominantly Late Period to Roman) mummies from a single site as evidence for this claim. I have contacted the magazine for clarification of why this evidence was prioritised over other research. I am waiting for a response.

At best this is lazy journalism, or someone who simply doesn’t understand the history, culture, and people of Kemet, or their close connections to those of the Nubian region. However, I have written about the intentional separation of these two cultures in previous posts and I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t another example of the whitewashing of Ancient Egypt.

I’m hoping that I’ll get a response to my enquiry and that the editor will consider amending the article. I have no idea why this sentence was even included; it certainly doesn’t add anything to the article other than maintaining a racist ideology, which is exacerbated by the fact that the author stresses the “African-ness” of one culture and totally denies its neighbour of this right.

 

Further Comments on ‘Black Pharaohs’. By S. O. 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 is more plausibly 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 S. O. 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.

 

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)

Userhat_Tomb_barbering
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.

Tomb_of_Usheret_01
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).

cleopatra_kom_ombo
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’.

Hatshepsut_templeface
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.