As some readers will know, I was invited to present a talk at the British Museum for Black History Month in October of last year. This was the third lecture that I have given at the museum on African-centred approaches to Egyptology. All have been extremely well attended by enthusiastic audiences. Having spent some time talking to members of the audience at the last lecture I decided that it might be helpful to contact the British Museum to relay some of their thoughts and my own personal experiences of curating Kemet. I sent the following letter* on 12 November to the relevant department and have not yet received an acknowledgement.
As you may know, I presented a talk at the British Museum on 24 October on African-centred approaches to Egyptology. The talk was well-attended with quite a number of community members present. Such was their interest, that I spent over an hour talking to people after the lecture; this was also the case after the other two talks that I gave on African-centred perspectives…
I felt that in your capacity of Keeper, you would want to know how people responded. A number of people then, and subsequently, expressed a view that the British Museum was not really making any effort to present ancient Egypt as part of an African civilisation. The one room that references Africa in fact compounds this issue because it is associated with Nubia rather than the more northern region of Egypt.
A number of people asked me why if in Cambridge, Liverpool and at the Petrie, Egypt was contextualised within Africa, this was not the case at the British Museum. Naturally I don’t have the answers to their questions regarding the British Museum’s policy, and in fact suggested that people should write to the museum directly. However, I do note that the educational material for schools does directly refer to ancient Egypt as an African culture and often direct people to this. I believe that some visitors would just appreciate this information in the galleries as well.
In addition to relaying these responses I felt that I should also share one very simply change that I made at the Fitzwilliam Museum and which had a huge impact on our Black communities who visited the museum. It was simply putting up a panel that explained about African-centred interpretations and perspectives. A number of people wrote to thank the Department for doing this.
Anyway, I wanted to write to you directly to relay this information. It seems such a pity when the Departments of Ancient Egypt and Sudan and Africa Oceania and the Americas supported both of the African-centred exhibitions that I put on at the Fitzwilliam Museum with objects, that the British museum is obtaining a reputation for disengaging with this issue.
As of 27 January 2017 I am still waiting for a response…
* This is a slightly shorter edited version of the letter that was sent. Abbreviations that were used in the original have also been written in full.
For many cultures we have just begun a new year. In Kemet, however, the New Year and its celebrations were not fixed, because New Year’s day was on the first full moon after the appearance of Sothis (Greek Sirius), which we now refer to as the ‘Dog Star’. The first day of the new year was celebrated as the birth day of one of the sun gods: Ra Horakhty (below), who combined the powers of Ra and Horus of the Horizons. In this way the god was associated with rebirth and fertility, important factors relating to the Kemite New Year.
Celebrating the New Year
The new year commenced with the season of flood; the remainder of the year was divided into seasons of: sowing (crops) and a season of summer. Each month had a number of religious festivals. In addition to celebrating the birth of Ra Horakhty, the first month of the year included offerings to the god Hapy (who was the god of the inundation). The flood typically occurred between late June and late October. It was essential for the prosperity of Kemet.
Special New Year flasks from the Late Period (around 746-332 BCE) have survived. These were made out of faience (crushed quartz which was fired at very high temperatures with a finished glazed) and were dedicated on the first day of the New Year. They were filled with sacred water (below).
The people of Kemet believed that the flood represented the tears of Iset (Isis) when she mourned the death of her brother and husband Wsir (Osiris). During the annual flood the King of Kemet was forbidden to travel by boat on the River Nile. This tradition was still in place when the Roman Emperor Hadrian arrived in Egypt in 130 CE, he had to wait until the flood had ended before he was permitted to embark on his journey south on the Nile.
The first season of the new year was named Akhet and the first month Tekh or later Dhwt (Thoth). This is probably why on the handles of the flask above we see two baboons; this was one of the forms that the god Dhwt/Thoth took. The original calendar was closely connected to the natural phenomena that occurred in Kemet and which were so vital to everyone’s existence, from the King to the farmers.
The complexity of the calendar (which Europe adopted) and the ancient Kemite knowledge of the solar system were integral to the New Year. They are, of course, testimony to African knowledge and science.