So, October and Black History Month is almost approaching in the UK. It’s the one month where those of us who are interested in African, Black British and Caribbean heritage get to go access the history that we would like to see all year round!
As always, I will be giving lectures in a number of prisons, and one public lecture in London at the invitation of a friend and a much respected community Elder Mr Arthur Torrington CBE, (The Equiano Society).
Arthur has done a great deal of work for many years now to encourage museums in the UK to present Ancient Egypt as an African culture. This will be the third talk that I have given at the British Museum as a direct result of his efforts, and it is the fifth that he has organised in collaboration with the museum.
On Monday 24 October 2016 at 1.30pm I will be presenting a lecture at the British Museum: Kemet: African-centred approaches to Egyptology
The event is free but booking in necessary and can be made here
@kemetexpert will also be sharing images and information relating to Kemet on twitter throughout October.
Along with the bust of Nefertiti the ankh has to be one of the most common symbols to be worn (or tattooed) by people of African heritage wishing to assert their connection to Kemet. But what exactly does the ankh represent? Like many Kemite symbols, the ankh remains somewhat enigmatic. In Gardiner’s book on Egyptian Grammar the ankh is categorised under the heading of ‘Crowns, dress, staves etc.’ and is described as a tie or strap. It is listed as sign S 34.
In 1925 Hastings suggested that the symbol was in fact a sandal strap. However, not all Egyptologists agree with this interpretation. In 1982 Schwabe, Adams and Hodge wrote a paper where they associated the ankh symbol with the thoracic vertebra of a large mammal. In their paper they argue that the ancient Kemite people believed that sperm was produced in the thoracic spine and thus the the ankh’s association with life, through fertility, was represented in this way.
Irrespective of what the actual symbol represents, it is possible to understand what the ankh meant symbolically to the ancient Kemites by exploring its imagery.
Symbol of Life
Essentially, the ankh symbolised life. This can be seen by its use on temple and tomb reliefs from Kemet. The photograph at the top of this section and directly below (on the left-hand column) show gods pouring sacred, life-giving liquid over the king of Kemet. These two reliefs were carved over 1000 years apart, and show continuity in symbolism and the preservation of Kemite culture.
The ankh was a divine, and by association royal, symbol. On the columns in the Hyperstyle Hall at Karnak temple the ankh appears between a mirror image of the Kemite word for ‘king’ and the cartouche of Rameses (II) Usermaatre-setpenre. Cartouche is in fact a modern French word that we use to describe royal names, which were typically written inside a shenu or shen ring, which protected the name.
Breath of life
There are also numerous examples of another scene, in which a god or goddess touches a member of the royal family with an ankh, representing the giving of life. The scene above is from the tomb of Nefertari, who was the Principal Royal Wife of Rameses (II) Usermaatre-setpenre. Many of the scenes associated with the Afterlife in Kemet allude to life or rebirth because this was the process that the people believed their spirit would undertake. In this way the ankh was linked to fertility.
In the tomb of the artist Pashedu at Deir el Medina, which dates to around 3300 year ago (above) protectors of the gateway between life and the Afterlife hold the ankh symbol. These two jackal-headed figures joined a line of such figures and appear at the top of the decorated walls of the tomb.
On this detail of a relief showing Akhenaten and his family, two of the rays from the Aten (sun disk) hold an ankh and touch the Principle Wife Nefertiti. The same symbolism occurs in one of the, now damaged, tomb reliefs at Akhetaten (below). On some reliefs from this period the sun disk replaces the loop at the top of the ankh. In these instances the Aten and the ankh merge to show the power of the sun disk in giving life.
The ankh also appeared on oil lamps and textiles that date to the post-Roman period, and are linked to the form of Christianity that was developed in East Africa- the Coptic Church. There are many links between ancient Kemite religion and early African Christianity, and we know that many people in Egypt still made reference to the traditional animistic religion after converting to Christianity.
For many people of African heritage, especially amongst the Diaspora, the ankh remains an important symbol and is worn with pride. It connects people with their past and also shows a level of consciousness of claiming back an African cultural heritage.
I was a curator in the Department of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge from 2002 to 2015. During this time I worked on a number of special exhibitions, including one that traced the history of the head rest in East Africa from Kemet through to the early 20th century CE; another that explored how the Romans interpreted the culture of Kemet; and the final one that I worked on in 2013, which explored the history of the hair comb in Africa and amongst the African Diaspora. A number of resources relating to Kemet can be found on the museum’s website. The idea for the Afro combs exhibition came from Black British community groups and to ensure that the communities maintained a degree of control over the final exhibit, a community committee was set up to guide the whole process.
However, I also work with community members who cannot physically visit the museum. For the past 13 years I have worked in a number of English prisons. Following my first ever lecture in a prison the men, who were serving long term sentences, asked if there was any way of creating a virtual museum so that people who could not visit in person could still access the collections.
The result of nearly 4 years work was Virtual Kemet, an on-line resource that presented Ancient Egypt from an African-centred perspective.
The site is divided into 4 parts: People of Kemet; Daily Life and Religion; Funerary; and FAQ’s. You can navigate around the galleries on line and then obtain more information about any object by clicking on a magnifying glass. This opens a new section with a close up of the object (see above).
The benefits of a virtual gallery
Many museums have on-line resources. However, when I showed the standard searches and catalogues to the men who came up with the idea for the virtual gallery they felt that accessing the past should be more interesting. There was an added problem of not being able to access the internet, and this has also been an issue for some people overseas who only have access to slower speeds. The virtual gallery can be downloaded and used remotely.
There is another benefit of presenting museums on-line. If you speak to any curator they will tell you how limited they are in terms of sharing information. Every object needs to have basic information such as its accession number, material, date, culture, place of origin and how it got to the museum. This takes up quite a bit of space on a label even before any other information is shared.
When community members have asked some museums why they fail to situate Ancient Egypt in Africa as Kemet, they are often told that this is due to lack of space, or the cost implications of replacing or designing additional information panels like those above. A virtual gallery removes these obstacles and means that curators can directly share their knowledge with the public. It also means that alternative interpretations and cultural links that are physically impossible to make in the museum building can easily be presented on-line.