Kemet: Understanding African-centred Egyptology Lecture

Understanding African-centred Egyptology Lecture 2016

It was great to see so many friends at my recent London lecture for Black History Month, which had been organised by the Equiano Society and the British Museum. Some people who were not able to attend asked me if I would summarise the talk, so that is what this post will do.

Colossal granite statues of Ptolemy VIII and either Cleopatra II or III. Maritime Museum, Alexandria SCA 279 and 278.

I began by talking about the lack of theoretical frameworks within Egyptology and illustrated this point later in answer to a question with the dating of the sculpture in the current exhibition: Sunken Cities. Egypt’s Lost Worlds. The statues above form part of this exhibition and are dating the Early Ptolemaic Period by the curators. However, I would suggest, based on parallels, that this in fact represents Ptolemy VIII and one of his wives. I’m not suggesting that my interpretation should be taken over that of the curators of the exhibition. However, I used it to demonstrate that if we had solid frameworks on which to date and interpret the material culture of Kemet, of Egypt at this time, then there would be no such debate.

Of equal importance is the extent to which the lack of academic frameworks  increases the likelihood of confirmation and cognitive bias.


Statue of Rameses II with a missing nose and damaged face
Statue of Rameses Usermaatre-setepenre with a missing nose and damaged face

I then when on to consider popular conspiracy theories relating to the the ‘Whitewashing’ of Kemite culture; one of the most common is that European travellers deliberately removed the noses of statues in order to alter their appearance. I wrote my first post on this subject; debunking this particular myth, which risks distracting from embedded racist ideologies within the foundations of Egyptology as an academic discipline. The conspiracy to maintain an erroneous connection between ancient Egypt and non-African civilisations is much deeper than damaging statues.

J.C. Nott and G.R. Gliddon, Types of mankind or, ethnological researches based upon ancient monuments, paintings, sculptures, and crania of races, and upon their natural geographical, philological and biblical history 1854

The illustrations above are from Nott and Gliddon’s 1854 publication on ancient Egyptian monuments. In it, they argue on the basis of nothing but their own prejudice and supremacist ideologies that the people of Ancient Kemet were non African. Here rulers are described as “entirely Jewish” and the caption that accompanies the drawing of a statue of Rameses Usermaatre-setepenre reads:

His features are superbly European as Napoleon’s, whom he resembles.

I have taken the liberty of including an actual statue of the King below!

Fragment of a colossal statue of Rameses Usermaatre-Setpenre in the Sculpture gallery at the British Museum
J.C. Nott and G.R. Gliddon, Types of mankind or, ethnological researches based upon ancient monuments, paintings, sculptures, and crania of races, and upon their natural geographical, philological and biblical history 1854

They continue with their racist ideologies throughout the book. And a summary of 3 out of 15 points in the book of their colleague Samuel Morton goes some way to explaining why these early authors were so keen to remove Egypt from Africa:

1.The valley of the Nile, both in Egypt and in Nubia, was originally peopled by a branch of the Caucasian race.

7.The Copts, in part at least, are a mixture of the Caucasian and the Negro in extremely variable proportions.

8.Negroes were numerous in Egypt but their social position in ancient times was the same that it now is, that of servants and slaves.

S.G. Morton, Crania Aegyptiaca, or, observations on Egyptian Ethnography, derived from anatomy, history and the monuments 1844: 65-66

Quite simply these writers were projecting their own distorted sense of the world upon the past.

Keeping up appearances…

Museums have a choice. They can either perpetuate the myths that were peddled by past scholars who belonged to a racist imperial past. Or, they forge ahead with a more appropriate presentation that shows the African origins of this ancient culture as well as the cultural diversity in the region across time. In actual fact in order to understand the history of Egypt you have to do just this.

The Egyptian gallery at Manchester Museum

This can be as simple as including a map of Africa and reminding people that Egypt is an African culture with indigenous African people as a population. The screen at Manchester Museum achieves this by situating Egypt in Africa.

I went on to discuss how identifying only certain figures from ancient Kemet as African was really no different to the categorisations of Nott, Gliddon and Morton above. At the British Museum only one room is explicitly linked to Africa; this is the room that contains material from the region of Nubia and which includes images like the tomb painting below that depict people from this region.

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

By making a distinction between people from the region of Nubia (ancient Kush) and Kemet, Egyptology erroneously implies that there is one ‘type’ of African person. Could the figure below not also be seen as a representation of an indigenous African person? I would suggest so on the grounds that her hair is textured and is a style that is not found outside of African cultures.

A detail of a relief showing royal wife Kawit having her hair styled

I have discussed possible solutions elsewhere on this blog. However, as I concluded in my lecture, until those who study Egyptology look more widely for cultural parallels and frameworks, it will continue to perpetuate a myth that engenders a divisive interpretation of the past. It feels odd to have to defend this culture as African, and yet in 2016 we are still having to do so.


From tekhenu to obelisk: From Kemet to Rome


Tekhenu, Karnak

When you ask many people to describe something from Kemet they will often reference a tall thin structure, but not remember its name. What they are referring to is what the Greek’s called an obelisk (obelisks), but its original Kemite name was tekhenu. The earliest surviving tekhenu dates to what we now call the Middle Kingdom, and bears the names of the king Sensusret Kheperkare (Senusret I, as we call him). Senusret ruled from around 1956-1911 BCE, and commissioned two tekhenu to celebrate his 30 year jubilee, or Heb Sed festival. Only one survives and it stands today in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. However, the form dates back much earlier to the Old Kingdom (around 2686-2181 BCE).

Tekhenu at Karnak

The largest tekhenu to survive can be found at the temple now known as Karnak. These gigantic monuments date to the reigns of Thutmose (I) Aakheperenre who ruled from 1504-1492 BCE and Hatshepsut Maatkare, the female pharaoh who ruled from around 1479-1458 BCE. Those that remain at the site are a fraction of the original number.


Not all tekhenu were as large as the examples at Karnak. The people of ancient Kemet actually distinguished between small and large with the appropriate adjective. Larger tekhenu were placed at the entrances to temples, often in front of the pylon (gateway). Smaller scale examples were also found at the entrance to tomb chapels, and the smallest were in the form of amulets (charms). But what did they mean?

Pyramid, Giza

A tekhenu is related to the benben, which was the sacred mound that the people if Kemet believed rose from the primeval waters from which creation arose. The benben stone was referenced at the top of a pyramid and the tekhenu was effectively an elevated version. In essence a tekhenu lifted this sacred stone to the sun and was closely associated with the sun god Ra. It is likely that the summits of both pyramids and tekhenu were covered with precious metals.

From Kemet to Rome

Examples of stone carving at the Aswan ancient quarry

Many tekhenu that originated in Kemet were taken from their original locations. And in fact even in ancient times there are examples of kings of Kemet usurping a tekhenu by adding their own inscriptions to those of an earlier ruler. Why? Well because manufacturing a colossal tekhenu was not an easy task. In fact a failed attempt can still be seen at the Aswan quarries. You can see from the photograph above that quarry workers would use rock to pound out the form of the items the chief stone mason would then work upon. Why go through the labour and expense of manufacturing and then transporting such a monument when you could just as easily inscribe one belonging to someone else?


The Roman emperor Augustus clearly saw the value of the earlier tekhenu. He transported the example above, which dates to the reigns of Seti (I) Menmaatre (1290-1279 BCE) and Rameses (II) Usermaatre-setpenre (1279-1213 BCE) from Iunu or Heliopolis in Kemet. The obelisk was initially placed in the circus maximus in Rome, where events such as chariot races were held. Augustus was so enthused by the monuments that he had two small versions placed in front of his own tomb; although this and the transportation of earlier tekhenu was probably for political reasons; he had defeated Cleopatra and gained control of Egypt.

A continuation of a Kemite tradition?

The obelisk of Antinous, Rome

The last example of an inscribed obelisk dates to the reign of the emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE), who commissioned a monument to honour his dead lover Antinous. Antinous had accompanied the emperor to Egypt for an official visit. Hadrian, a keen devotee of Egyptian cults reportedly hired the services of a Kemite priest to act as a guide during the trip. Part way through the expedition, Antinous drowned in the Nile; Hadrian was inconsolable and in honour of his lover built a city that he named Antinoopolis (The city of Antinous) and initiated a cult to the dead youth.

The river Nile near the ancient city of Antinoopolis, where Antinous drowned

As part of that cult the obelisk was commissioned and brought to Rome. Unlike many of the Roman period obelisks that have nonsense hieroglyphs inscribed on the sides, the obelisk of Antinous must have been carved by a Kemite artist under the supervision of a Kemite priest. It shows that in spite of over 500 years when colossal tekhenu were not produced, the skills and religious traditions had not been lost in Kemet.