Portraiture, Kingship and Kemet

Portraiture, Kingship and Kemet: The case of Senusret Kakaure

It seems a little odd, when the majority of Egyptologists have no direct connection to Africa in regard to their own biological or cultural heritage, that they feel justified in deciding when a representation is or isn’t of a person of African descent.

Granite statue of Senusret Kakaure. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge (E.37.1930)

The ruler illustrated in this post is a case in point. It represents Senusret Khakaure, who is now known as Senusret III. He was a fifth ruler of Dynasty 12, which belongs to a period now referred to as the Middle Kingdom, and ruled Kemet from around 3800 years ago (circa 1872-1853 BCE). His strong jawline, hooded eyelids and prominent cheek bones have led many people to recognise facial features that are typical of some indigenous African people, and people of African descent.

Fragment of a statue of King Senusret Kakaure. Copyright the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (E.GA.3005.1943)

Now it should be the case that you don’t need a qualification to decide whether a statue represents someone of African descent, no? Well, that doesn’t seem to be the academic consensus in the case of Ancient Egyptian sculpture. Since the 1990s it has generally been assumed that images of kings are not true likenesses of the people they represent.

I should state from the off-set that I do not subscribe to this point of view and whilst I am prepared to concede that rulers, from any culture, are typically represented in an idealised way, I really do not understand why a portrait would look nothing remotely like the subject. Particularly when there is such a variety amongst Ancient Egyptian royal sculpture.

I adopted this point of view very early in my career as an Egyptologist.  My doctoral thesis was on Egyptian royal sculpture and I subsequently spent some years continuing to research this particular area. I am confident that I could correctly identify an image of any Ancient Egyptian ruler. I can do so, because each had a very specific ‘portrait’ type.

Statue of Senusret Kakaure. The British Museum, London

There was a good reason for this phenomenon. Life-size stone statues, (such as those above) were often placed at the entrances to temples or palaces with the intention of promoting the King. Inscriptions were not always visible on statues and so the iconography (symbols) and the facial features needed to also play a part in assisting with identifying who the statue represented. How then are the features of Senusret III typically explained?

Realistic, symbolic or psychological portraits?

In 2015 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held an exhibition entitled: Ancient Egypt Transformed. The Middle Kingdom . The key issues relating to Middle Kingdom portraits are contextualised in an essay for the catalogue by Dorothea Arnold entitled: Pharaoh. Power and Performance (Ancient Egypt Transformed. The Middle Kingdom, edited by A. Oppenheim, D. Arnold, D. Arnold, and K. Yamamoto. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. pp. 68-72). They are as follows:

  1. Realistic– Egyptologists Cyril Aldred and Jacques Vandier who wrote, in the 1980s, on the subject of portraiture in Kemet dating to the so-called Middle Kingdom concluded that the portrait features on statues from this period were realistic representations of the kings.
  2. Non-realistic– in relation to non-idealised portraits on funerary representations dating to the earlier period of the so-called Old Kingdom, Bernard V. Bothmer concluded that no representations from Kemet should be called ‘portraits’.
  3. More recently, Egyptologists have interpreted features on the sculptures of Senusret as coded messages– for example the prominent eyes representing a vigilant king.
  4. In 1996 Egyptologist Jan Assmann, put forward the idea that these portraits represented the inner character of the kings and were psychological.

More recently, and as Arnold concludes in her essay, specialists in sculpture generally accept that these royal representations draw upon the actual appearance of the king, but within an acceptable framework so that he can be identified as such by people who looked at the statue. Arnold writes the following:

… it is very difficult to imagine that Senwosret III’s eyes in his official image did not reflect his own peculiarly shaped eyes in real life… The faces of Senwosret III… are best understood as recognizable images of these pharaohs with some realistic details formalised in the particular intellectual climate.  (p. 71)

I have included this quote because a number of friends and colleagues who have questioned professional Egyptologists have met with a response that suggests portraits from this period are to be dismissed as non-realistic representations. In other words when asked if Senusret really looked like his statues, they are told that this is not the case. The question often arises because people of African descent recognise the portrait features on these statues as similar to their own. Therefore, to deny that the statues look even remotely like their subject, is to deny their African origin.

There is one key issue that no-one seems to have addressed. Whether these ‘portraits’ are realistic or idealised representations, the overall appearance of these statues (their profiles, facial features, and also where hair is represented) suggests very strongly that they represent indigenous African people. Why would any sculptor show their kings in this way if they were anything other than African?




Curating Kemet: 5 things that museums could do

Curating Kemet

There are a number of very simple approaches that museums could utilise in order to reaffirm the African origins of Ancient Egypt. And if you find yourself in a position to impart knowledge to others and are tired of waiting for this to be be implemented in your local museum, you can, of course, quite easily do this yourself.

1. What’s in a name?

A simple technique that I used when writing the information for a virtual gallery was to refer to anything that dated before the Ptolemaic Period (332 BCE) as ‘Kemet’ rather than ‘Egypt’. Αίγυπτος/Aegyptus were the names used by the Ancient Greek and Roman writers for Kemet. By continuing to use it, we are effectively still looking at the culture through a European lens. By abandoning this name, it is also possible to remove many of the Eurocentric interpretations that have been place upon this ancient African culture. It encourages people to look at the culture from a fresh perspective.

Statue of Senusret Kakaure. The British Museum, London

Many of the names that we use for rulers of Kemet are Hellenised (from the Greek versions). For example, Senusret Kakaure (left) a ruler of what we now refer to as the Twelfth Dynasty is sometimes referred to as Sesotris, which is the Greek version of his name. A similar issue arising the the use of Arabic names for ancient sites; Tell el-Amarna/Amarna, was named Akhet-Aten when it was occupied by the ancient people. By using the original African names we immediately resituate the ancient culture and its people.

A helpful site that lists all of the original names for the kings of Egypt and also gives the original names for sites is Digital Egypt.

2. Cultural context

Fragment of a colossal statue of Rameses Usermaatre-Setpenre in the Sculpture gallery at the British Museum

When an object is removed from its original site, the context is lost. It is therefore essential that museums seek to present objects within the appropriate cultural context. In university and national museums in the UK the Ancient Egyptian galleries are rarely connected to other African cultures. One exception to this is the Africa gallery at the Horniman Museum in south London. Here, a Kemite coffin is displayed alongside more recent ethnographic materials (see below) from a number of cultures from Africa and the African Diaspora.

Mami Wata Shrine in the Africa gallery at the Horniman Museum, London.

Kemite culture has much in common with other African cultures: from individual items such as hair combs, pottery, basketry, headrests; to concepts such as traditional religions, kingship and the role of women in societies. By referencing other African cultures that we know more about, curators can help visitors to obtain a better understanding of an ancient culture. In spite of this observation, you are more likely to find the Kemet collections next to the galleries that display Ancient Greece, Rome and the Ancient Near East than the African galleries. Adding ‘Africa’ to the name of a gallery that relates to ‘Ancient Egypt’ would be a good starting for many museums.

3. Illustrations

Detail of a display of early grave goods at the Kerma Museum, Sudan

Illustrations and reconstructions are an important part of the presentation of cultures in museums, particularly when that culture is ancient. The photograph on the left shows a display in the Kerma Museum, Sudan and offers a powerful artistic interpretation to illustrate how the original owners of the grave goods would have worn these objects. The racialised identity of such reconstructions is important, because at an unconscious level we are likely to recall this when we think about the culture and its people in the future. Many people who have attended talks that I have given on Kemet have later said that they had simply never thought of Ancient Egypt as African. This is, in my opinion, largely the result of the media (for example films or documentaries that show reconstructions of the ancient people), museums, and the education system failing to differentiate between the ancient and more recent cultures in Egypt.

4. Historical timeline

Which brings me onto the fourth point: looking at this region’s historical timeline and acknowledging the changes in cultures and populations that have occurred over the past ten thousand years. I have summarised the key periods in a previous post under the heading From Kemet to Egypt to Misr. By recognising external cultural interactions and internal transitions, it is possible to obtain a better understanding of Kemet’s importance as an ancient indigenous African culture. Historical timelines also demonstrate the importance of this region and its people in the development of the Coptic church, and so Christianity more widely.

5. Connecting with Kush

Detail from the wall paintings from the Tomb of Sobekhotep. Around 1400 BCE. Gallery 65 The British Museum

In two recent posts I have observed that museums often differentiate between the people and cultures of Kemet and Kush. The result of this practice is that any representation from Kemet that is seen to represent an indigenous African person will be labelled as ‘Nubian‘. This practice continues to be standard, in spite of the fact that the majority of museums acknowledge the similarities between these two ancient cultures.

Egypt in Africa

Egypt in Africa at the British Museum

I recently had a couple of hours to kill and so decided to go and look again at the galleries that are curated by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum. I was interested to look in more detail at the ways in which the museum differentiated between the ancient peoples of Kemet and Kush. So I headed to Room 65, which is named ‘Sudan, Egypt and Nubia’. The objects in this gallery come mainly from the region now known as Nubia (which incorporates southern Egypt and northern Sudan).


Information panel in the British Museum’s Sudan, Egypt and Nubia Gallery

The panel above states the following:

This gallery tells the story of Sudan, southern Egypt, Nubia and the river Nile. A corridor for trade and the movement of people and ideas, this region was home to major civilisations. For thousands of years it was a vital link between central Africa, Egypt and the Mediterranean world.

This is the only gallery that houses material from BCE (Before Common Era) Egypt in the museum that mentions Africa. The introductory panel above very firmly associates Egypt with the Mediterranean world rather than situating it within its own continent. In fact the ‘borders’ between Kemet and Kush were not fixed in antiquity and the two regions shared much in common.

A second panel also refers to the role of the region of Nubia within Africa, but again in doing so it also ‘removes’ Egypt and Nubia from central Africa with the following statement:

The unique position of Nubia as the only reliable land route between Egypt and the African interior made it a region of great economic importance…


Detail from the wall paintings from the Tomb of Sobekhotep, Thebes, Egypt. Around 1400 BCE. Gallery 65 The British Museum

The painting above depicts people from Kush, who are bringing offerings to King of Kemet. It is used in Gallery 65 to show people how ‘Nubians’ were depicted by Egyptian artists. The accompanying information panel states the following:

The ancient Nubians shared a broadly common ethnic background with the Egyptians, but their physical characteristics showed variations of skin colour, physiognomy, and skeletal proportion… In Egyptian art Nubians can easily be recognised by their dark skin, feathers worn in the hair, large earrings and leopard-skin kilts…

In actual fact some depictions of the people from Kush show them with the same skin colour as Kemites. An example of this can be seen on the relief above; if you look carefully behind the second man from the left is another worshipper, who has the same skin tone that was used by Egyptian artists to depict their own people. I showed another example of this in an earlier post. Thus, not all depictions of people from Kush show them with ‘black’ skin. Like the people from Kemet their skin tones vary.


Historically, Egyptology has differentiated between ancient representations of people who meet an oversimplified test of whether they conform to being a ‘True African’. This fails to recognise the variety of skin tones, hair types and physical features that are found among indigenous African people today. Nowhere in the galleries at the British Museum is there any attempt to situate Egypt within an African context; the only exception is the small gallery on Egyptian Coptic culture, which also displays material from the Ethiopian church. The museum houses large collections of material from many African cultures and yet these collections are never displayed together.

Ancient Egypt is included among African civilisations on the museum’s webpages that contain education resources. In the teachers’ notes it states the following:

… Ancient Egypt is generally studied under the heading of ‘great Mediterranean civilisations’ and is often forgotten that it is equally a part of the history of Africa. Much of its trade, history, wars, politics and ethnicity are bound up with the continent, and it has every right to be considered African- a powerful counter argument to those who try to belittle the cultural and technological achievements of African civilisations…

Although the statement still does not fully place the ancient culture within its rightful continent it goes further than the gallery information panels in recognising that Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Egyptians were African.

Combs from Kemet: further thoughts on ancient Egyptian hair combs

Combs from Kemet (and Ghana)

I spent the best part of 3 years researching African hair combs. And just when I thought that I knew everything there was to know and had found every possible parallel for the combs from Ancient Egypt, I came accross a number of very interesting combs in the National Museum in Accra, Ghana (below).

Bone items from Dawu, Ghana, including two combs or hair adornments. The National Museum, Accra

The objects above were excavated by a British archaeologist Thurston Shaw at the site of Dawu. The rubbish dump where they were found was dated to between the mid-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries CE. This coincided with the time that the town was absorbed into the Akwapim Empire. The comb on the left is important because it is almost identical to the combs that were made by African people who had been enslaved and transported to the US. The comb, or decorative piece, in the middle on the right, struck me because it is almost identical to a comb that is housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The difference being that the Cambridge comb (below) is around 6000 years old and from Kemet.

Ivory hair comb or hair decoration from a grave at the cemetery of Abydos, Egypt. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge (E.59.1900)

It isn’t possible to say that two combs that are 6000 years apart are directly connected. We can only make this assumption if we can show continuity through time. However, until I saw the Dawu comb I had failed to find any parallels for the comb above apart from those in Ancient Egypt. It is possible that the two combs were used as decoration for the hair, or that they served a particular purpose in styling.




A better understanding

By looking for parallels within other African cultures we are able to obtain a better understanding of how items that relate to hair were used in Kemet. Ethnographic photographs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries show that combs were used for multiple purposes.  This includes combs being used as status symbols, as decoration for the hair, and as tools; which accords with the evidence from Ancient Egyptian burials. There are also parallels in the decorative techniques that were used in both Kemet and West African cultures. The incised circular decoration on the teeth of the Dawu comb (below right) was also used in Ancient Egypt.

combs_from_kemet_fitzwilliam_museum_EGA.3204.1943 (1)
An ivory Predynastic comb from Ancient Egypt. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (E.GA.3204.1943)
A bone comb from Dawu. National Museum, Accra.



A good reminder of the variety of different types of comb used for African type hair

I started this post with an image that I took when the Origins of the Afro comb exhibition was on. Being a curator allows you to display objects that you have always wanted to see together and which are not typically shown in that way. For me one of the most exciting things about curating that exhibition was being able to display a 1970s Black power comb  next to an Ancient Egyptian comb that was found in a grave at the cemetery of Abydos.

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
  • In Predynastic Kemet, combs were used as a status symbol and were also worn in the hair. This is a common practice in other African cultures.
  • The earliest combs were in the form of a ‘pik’.
  • The symbols on the handle are often in the form of an animal or part of an animal; perhaps suggesting a religious or power connection.

Once again we can’t make a direct connection between the two combs above, but in terms of their form they are the same. And it is worth noting that we do not find this type of hair pik in any ancient cultures outside of Africa. Even William Matthew Flinders Petrie, who I mentioned in a previous post, noted that there were no European parallels for this form of comb. He wrote the following in his 1927 publication Objects of Daily Use:

Predynastic combs from Egypt as shown in Petrie publication: Prehistoric Egypt,1920

The early European combs, of bronze age and onward, differ entirely from the Egyptian examples, being always single edged and run backed

Combs with shorter teeth

I was pleased to be reminded, by the Dawu combs, that many African combs are not in the form of a ‘pik’. Of course combs with longer teeth are only appropriate for specific styles of hair and in the same way that not everyone with African type hair uses a ‘pik’ today, the same is true of earlier periods.

Wooden hair comb dating to around 1550 BCE. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum (E.1.2009)

From around 4000 years ago the form of comb illustrated above was commonly used in Ancient Egypt. The main difference between those from  Kemet and ancient European combs is the width of the gaps between the teeth. Those from Africa tend to have more space, presumably because the users and makers of combs were aware that African type hair can be fragile and prone to breakage.

*Please share your thoughts and comments below*

The Black Pharaohs

The ‘Black’ Pharaohs

On the one hand mainstream Egyptology does not like to enter into discussions about the racialised identity of the ancient people; and yet certain representations are seen to be ‘acceptable’ as ‘African’. Dynasty 25 is a case in point. As rulers of Kush and Kemet these kings are often referred to as ‘The Black Pharaohs’ by the popular press and academics alike.

The Kushite rulers. Kerma Museum, Sudan.

In 1999 Robert Morkot published an academic book: The Black Pharaohs. Egypt’s Nubian Rulers. Then in 2007 a book entitled: The Nubian Pharaohs. Black Kings on the Nile was published by Charles Bonnet and Dominique Valbelle. It detailed the discovery of the group of statues now in the Kerma Museum (above).

I’d like to spend a moment deconstructing these titles and thinking about the implications for African centred approaches within Egyptology. Both books use the term Nubian to distinguish these rulers from any other Egyptian kings. A future post will consider this term in more detail, but my point at present is that both titles infer that there was an artificial point beyond which people were indigenous Africans, and that anyone further north was not.

For me, part of the problem lies in exactly how Egyptology defines indigenous African peoples. By adopting the stance of deciding what is and is not ‘acceptable’ as an African we are simply seeing a continuation of those early attempts to deny that Ancient Egypt was an African culture that I summarised in an earlier post.

Who’s Black and who’s not?

‘Libyan’, ‘Nubian’, ‘Asiatic’ and ‘Egyptian’

In that post I explored the racist ideologies of Nott and Glidden, who used the figure above to illustrate racial types. Three out of the four figures above are, of course, African. However, which would we identify in the modern sense of the word as ‘Black’. For many people who are of non-African descent, skin colour alone would be the deciding factor. Some people would fail to take account of other physical features, for example hair type, when considering this point. The Libyan, Nubian and Egyptian all have African-type hair and yet they are someone seen to be different. Libyans are generally depicted by Egyptians artists as having light brown skin; the Egyptians themselves range between light and dark brown skin tone; and of course the Nubians (Kushites) are depicted with jet black skin.

This is partly because many people fail to see the variation amongst indigenous African populations. It is because of this mindset that we find the Ancient Egyptian population being described as ‘mediterranean’ or ‘mixed’. It is worth noting that the term ‘mixed’ in this context does not refer to the diversity of African peoples, it is used to suggest that the entire population was in part descended from non-Africans.

Occasionally Egyptologists did identify some representations being of Africans based on features alone. When George Reisner discovered the representation of a woman at Giza, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, he described her as a ‘negroid princess’. Not a term that we would use today; but in a modern sense she was ‘Black’. So what makes some representations ‘acceptable’ as representations of Africans and others not?

Detail from the Tomb of Ramose depicting Kemite/Ancient Egyptian people

I have spent some years trying to answer this question. For me the range of skin tones and hair types that we see when Kemites represent themselves (above) reflects a range of indigenous African peoples. Over time, as the country was occupied by people from outside then there is a wider variety in the population and also the dominant culture. A timeline of foreign contact illustrates this point well.

People who are from specific racialised groups are notoriously poor at recognising people who are from a different racialised background. This has consistently been found to be the case in eye witness identifications. This is probably because people focus more on the difference, for example skin colour, than other details. If we think again of the case of Ancient Egyptians, there are a number of factors that will influence whether someone identifies a representation as being of an African person:

  • If someone believes that the Ancient Egyptian people were European, they already show a bias. I discussed confirmation bias in my last post.
  • Some people do not understand the variety of skin colours and shades that are found amongst indigenous African people.
  • The ancient representations of the people from Kush present one type of African person. However, it seems today that unless an image matches this ‘type’ then it is not deemed to be ‘African’.

A few points to consider

Abydos Kushite
A representation of a bound captive from Kush. The pigment shows that the skin colour was the same as that used for the people of Kemet
  • Very few people of African descent have skin that is the colour of the Kushite representations. The ranges of skin tones of modern day indigenous African peoples are actually closer to those that we see on depictions of Kemites.
  • Ancient Egyptian artists sometimes depicted people from Kush with the same skin colour as those from Kemet (see left).
  • The hair type and hairstyles that are shown on Kushites are also found on depictions of Kemites.





Egypt versus Kemet: a case of cognitive dissonance?

A case of cognitive dissonance?

Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.

Frantz Fanon Black Skin, White Masks 1952

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance was further developed by American psychologist Leon Festinger and published in 1957. Festinger suggested that we all strive to maintain consistency in our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. That when there is an inconsistency we find this unpleasant and fall into a state of cognitive dissonance. In order to correct this tension we will automatically try to reduce or eliminate the inconsistencies. One way to do this is, as Fanon observed, to deny any evidence that does not fit with our existing belief or opinion.

Confirmation bias

We also know from experiments that people preference information that confirms an existing belief. This is known as confirmation bias and is the tendency to search, interpret and recall information that confirms a belief that we already hold. Of course academic work relies on evidence to support or dismiss theoretical interpretations. The problem when dealing with an ancient culture that no longer exists in its original form is that the evidence upon which we base our knowledge is extremely limited. Furthermore, we are influenced by our own identity, our view of the world, and how we learned about that culture. These issues can be magnified if that culture is studied in isolation, as is often the case with Egyptology.

Interpreting Ancient Egypt

I am often asked by people of both African and European descent why I view Ancient Egypt as an African culture. The inference being that as a White academic I must have a personal reason for choosing to undertake research from an African-focused perspective.

The answer is pretty simple. I view Egypt as African because this was how the ancient culture was first introduced to me: through the eyes of Greek and Roman artists, philosophers and writers. And more recently my work on other African cultures has presented further evidence that an African framework is the most sensible one in which to view Ancient Egypt prior to the first millennium BCE.

Poster advertising the Egyptian galleries at the World Museum, Liverpool. Taken May 2014

I am certainly not unique amongst UK Egyptologists in seeing Ancient Egypt this way. A number of museums in the England promote Ancient Egypt as African in terms of its geography, and its indigenous population and culture. The World Museum, which is part of the National Museums Liverpool, used an actor of African descent to play the part of a King in its educational films (see above). As I write, their Egyptian galleries are currently closed for renovation. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology in London regularly holds events that explore Ancient Egypt alongside other African cultures. And the Fitzwilliam Museum has a dedicated on-line Virtual Kemet Gallery that I developed during my time there as a curator, as part of community-focused project.

From Kemet to Egypt to Misr

Looking at a basic timeline demonstrates the extent to which the population and culture of Kemet have changed over the past 5000 years. I use this time span because it includes the first identifiable cultures known as Pre-Dynastic through to the present day. In addition to trading with other cultures from early in its history, Kemet was also ruled by outside cultures. The earliest of these were the Hyksos (known by the Kemites as ‘rulers of foreign lands’) during Dynasty 13 (around 1700-1550 BCE). Culturally the Hyksos derived from the Palestinian Middle Bronze Age.

From the first millennium BCE, Kemet was ruled by a number of out cultures, two of which were also African:

  • Libyan– Dynasty 23 (818-715 BCE)
  • Kushite– Dynasty 25 (747-656 BCE)
The Kushite rulers. Kerma Museum, Sudan.

Then from 525 BCE non-African rulers controlled Kemet, which became known as Egypt under the Macedonians and Ptolemaic rulers. Then in 642 CE Egypt became the Arabic Misr.

Gateway dating to the Ptolemaic Period, North Karnak
Gateway dating to the Ptolemaic Period, North Karnak
    • Achaemenid Iranian (525-404 BCE)
    • Second Persian (343-332 BCE)
    • Macedonian and Ptolemaic* (332-330 BCE)
    • Roman (30 BCE-395 CE)
    • Byzantine (395-668 CE)
    • Islamic Period  (642 CE)


*During the traditional periods of its history the Ptolemaic dynasty was the only non-indigenous to be resident. The other cultures continued to rule Egypt from their own states.

Remarkably the culture of Kemet continued in its traditional form until its population changed their religion. The Egyptian script continued to be used in religious contexts during the Ptolemaic and Roman occupations, in spite of the ‘official language’ changing to Greek. And Ptolemaic and Roman rulers were depicted on temple reliefs performing their duties as rulers of Egypt (see above).

The minaret of the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo

Then, as more and more people began to convert to Christianity, the original religion and culture also began to change; temples were abandoned and there was no resident ruler to fulfil the religious or societal role of King. With the advent of the Islamic settlement in Egypt, around 642 CE, the culture, language and religion changed entirely. The new settlers often made reference to the past in their writings and architecture. The minaret of the Ibn Tulun mosque (above), and which dates to the ninth century CE was modelled on the famous Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Avoiding confirmation bias

The history of Kemet/Egypt/Misr spans well over 5000 years. If, when looking at this vast timespan, we limit ourselves to a single approach, and we fail to acknowledge the impact of outside cultural influences upon the indigenous, then we automatically limit the evidence base that we are able to utilise. If we also consider the origins of egyptology as a discipline then the potential for a biased viewpoint is further increased.

Race theory, Racism and Egyptology

The role of Ancient Egypt in theories of ‘race’.

Many academic disciplines in the nineteenth century were embedded within the racist ideologies of the societies and academies where they developed. This is true of the sciences and humanities, including Egyptology, which was directly linked to the study of ‘race’. However, before we go any further to exploring the relationship between racism and Egyptology, it is worth considering the following definitions.

  • Race is a social construct that first appeared in the seventeenth century CE and it is biologically determined. It should not be confused with the term ethnicity.
  • Ethnicity, which is defined as a category of people who identify with each other on the basis of shared ancestral, social, cultural or national experiences.
‘On types of mankind’ Nott and Gliddon, 1854, figure 1

The drawing above appeared in the 1854 publication Types of Mankind by Josiah Clark Nott and George Robert Gliddon (1809-1857). It was taken from the Tomb of Seti I, where it was originally intended to show (from left to right) Libyan, Kushite, Asiatic and Egyptian/Kemite peoples. In their publications the pair copied the reliefs on Egyptian temples in order to claim that the ancient people were typically ‘Hellenic’ (of Greek descent), ‘Semitic’ and even ‘Jewish’.

Nott was an American physician and surgeon and he published on the theory of race. Gliddon was originally born in England but spent time in Alexandria, Egypt, which is possibly where he developed a fascination for the ancient culture. Both men were followers of the American physician Samuel George Morton, who advocated each ‘race’ of people had been created as a separate entity and were not from the same single source.

In 1844 Morton published a volume entitled Crania Aegyptiaca, for which he examined the remains of people from Kemet and concluded that they were not of African descent, but were somehow a “blend” of other races (p.4). A quick glance over the introduction instantly demonstrates how subjective and biased Morton was in his writing.

Racism and Egyptology

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942)

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie was appointed the first professor of Egyptology in the UK in 1892 at University College London (UCL). He was a prolific excavator of sites in Egypt, and wrote many publications on his work. Also at UCL during this period was Sir Francis Galton and Karl Pearson who were both pioneers of the eugenics movement. In fact Galton actually coined the term ‘eugenics’; a word taken from two ancient Greek words meaning ‘well/good’ and ‘group/kin’). His ideas are captured in a book entitled Hereditary Genius, published in 1869, where Galton wrote the following:

Let us do what we can to encourage the multiplication of the races best fitted to invent, and conform to, a high and generous civilisation, and not, out of mistaken instinct of giving support to the weak, prevent the incoming of strong and hearty individuals.

Galton, Pearson and Petrie worked closely together. Petrie provided the Anthropomorphic Laboratory at UCL with human skulls from Egypt for study. Thus, once again the ancient culture was used to illustrate theories of race. However, this time it was also directly influencing the newer field of Egyptology. Today these ‘theories of race’ are deemed to be racist, but Petrie fully embraced them in his work.

One of Petrie’s ‘racial types’ from Memphis, Egypt. Image copyright of the Petrie Museum, UCL

When I worked at the Petrie Museum as a research assistant, I was tasked with registering around 250 terracotta heads that had been collected by Petrie from the site of Memphis. Petrie became obsessed with identifying racial types, writing the following in 1909:

The discovery of portraits of the foreigners was not even thought of and only gradually was it realised that we had before us the figures of more than a dozen different races.

Such quotes show the extent to which Petrie was influenced by contemporary theories of race. If you are interested in further exploring the relationship between Petrie and Galton, it was the subject of a publication in 2013 by Debbie Challis entitled: The Archaeology of Race: The eugenic ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie. There are also a number of publications that were part of the Encounters with Ancient Egypt conference that critically explore how Egypt has been viewed in the past, and this includes a volume on Ancient Egypt in Africa.

How did the ancient people view themselves and others?

Detail from the Tomb of Ramose depicting Kemite/Ancient Egyptian people

The ancient people of Kemet distinguished themselves in terms of their appearance and also their culture from their surrounding neighbours. It is worth noting that unlike the later European and North American theorists, these differences were not made solely on the grounds of physical appearance.

  • Libyan people were typically distinguished by their light brown skin, shoulder lock of hair and their headdresses.
  • Kushite people, from what is now Sudan, had black skin, short hair that was often coloured with henna and typically wore gold earrings, as a reference to their control of the gold mines.
  • Asiatic people were the only non-Africans to be depicted, and came from the countries that would now be referred to as the Middle East. People from this region were generally shown with yellow skin (to identify them as being different to those who were African) and later in Roman period they were shown with pink coloured skin. They wore beards and were also depicted in clothes that were different to African peoples.
  • Finally, Egyptian/Kemite people had a range of different skin colours from dark red to brown (see above) and were shown with many different types of clothing and hairstyles because artists depicted a greater range to represent their own people than for those who came from other cultures.

A final question

Given that the foundations of Egyptology are so closely connected to racist ideologies and theoretical frameworks, is there then, still evidence of this attitude within the discipline today? In my next few posts I will be highlighting how the remnants of past theories can permeate through to the present.

Why are the noses missing from Egyptian statues?

The mystery of the missing noses

One of the most common questions that I have been asked over the years by community members is: ‘Why are the noses missing from Egyptian statues?’. I learned early on that there is a subtext to this question and that what the person is really asking is: ‘Were the noses deliberately removed in order to disguise the appearance of the people of Ancient Kemet?’.

Statue of Rameses II with a missing nose and damaged face
Statue of Rameses II with a missing nose and damaged face

Possible reasons for damage

Before answering the question of the missing noses, it is necessary to look at all of the possible causes of damage, and there are a number of these:

  • Statues were re-used in antiquity. Temples became obsolete during the later Roman period and onwards, because people changed their religion. When people wanted building materials they would simply take them from the nearest free source. A sort of recycling. There is evidence of this right through until the 20th century.
  • Statues covered by sand in Egypt
    Statues covered by sand at the Temple of Rameses II in Nubia

    Natural erosion. Many statues were made from sandstone or limestone, both of which are soft stones that are liable to erode very easily when exposed to sand or weather conditions. You can see from the above photograph how quickly statues can be covered by sand, and sand erodes (damages) the surface. Hard stones such as granite and basalt survive much better.

Coptic inscription on a temple relief
Coptic (Christian) inscription on an earlier temple relief. The face of the king has been damaged deliberately.
Later inscription on a statue of Rameses II detail o
Detail of the later inscription and cross
  • Deliberate damage to change the appearance of the statue. Yes this did happen both soon after statues were made, often when a new ruler or dynasty came to power, and also for religious reasons. The images above show a depiction of Rameses II, who ruled Egypt from around 1279-1213 BCE (before common era and so over 3000 years ago). Between the King’s legs is a much later inscription that can be identified culturally as Coptic (Christian) by the cross. The face and eyes of the king have been chiselled away.
  • Washington obelisk
    The Washington obelisk

    The appropriation (unauthorized theft) of Ancient Egyptian culture by non-African cultures. The Washington Monument is in the form of an ancient Egyptian obelisk and was built to commemorate George Washington. More will be written about obelisks in a future post; it is used here to illustrate how easily an Egyptian symbol can be used out of its original context and by a culture that had no direct link to the original. Many cultures that had no connection to Ancient Egypt have used Kemetic symbols for their own purposes, in order to try to connect to a powerful ancient civilisation.

How do we know who damaged the noses of statues?

why are the noses missing from Egyptian statues. The sphinx at Giza
Detail of the Sphinx at Giza

For many, we will never know. We can assume in the case of the Christian writing next to the damaged representation of Rameses II (above) that the two acts may be related.

Still on the subject of appropriation, many people have suggested that non-African cultures have been keen to disguise the African origins of Ancient Egyptian or Kemetic culture in order to claim them as their own. Stories of Napolean’s army firing at the Sphinx in Giza in order to destroy the nose have circulated for a  number of years. However, I have been unable to find any documented evidence for this prior to the 20th century; and I have looked in detail.

What we do have evidence for, in the form of Arabic manuscripts, is the damage of the face of the sphinx by an 14th century extremist named Mohammed Salim al-Dahr. For further references to the original texts see: Haarmann, U., 1980. Regional sentiment in Medieval Islamic Egypt, in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. vol. 43: 55-66.

why are the noses missing from egyptian statues. The mosque of Abu Haggag, Luxor
The Mosque of Abu Haggag in the grounds of Luxor Temple

Egyptian statues represented gods, kings, other members of the royal family or officials. When people in Egypt converted to Christianity in the form of the Coptic religion, or later Islam they no longer wished to have what they deemed to be ‘pagan’ images surrounding their new places of worship. Many of the old temple sites became churches, monasteries and later the sites of mosques, as seen in the image above at Luxor temple. As mentioned above, the new builders often re-used building materials, that to the modern observer contained beautiful images of a past culture, simply as ballast. In short they did not wish to preserve these images, and the available materials saved them time and money.

A conspiracy in Egyptology?

Yes there was, but it was not as simple as damaging the facial features on statues and reliefs to disguise their identity. There was a deliberate attempt by early Egyptologists to deny that Ancient Egypt was an African culture. It was embedded within the discipline from the start and will form the subject of my next post.