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.


Ancient Egypt beyond a colonial past

Presenting Ancient Egypt

The special exhibition Gifts for the Gods, Manchester Museum 2016

The earliest religion in Kemet was animism. Like many traditional African religions, the Kemite version looked to nature in order to explain the world, and to provide spiritual support and protection. Animals played an important role within Kemite religion and were seen in two key capacities: (1) as representations of the gods on earth and (2) as symbolic guardians and protectors.

One particular aspect of this phenomenon was the subject of a special exhibition at Manchester Museum: Gifts for the Gods. Animal Mummies Revealed. As the title suggests, the exhibit explored the cultural context and composition of animal mummies, the latter through CT scans. Such technology has enabled museums to see what was inside the wrappings without damaging the actual item. In the Victorian period, when mummies (both human and animal) were first removed from their original contexts and placed in museums throughout the world, they would typically be unwrapped. The legacy of this practice can be seen in museums globally, especially in regard to the display of the remains of Kemite people.

Presenting the past

Any museum curator will tell you how difficult it is to balance the number of objects on display with the information that is presenting about them. Ultimately you are often left with a choice: do you display more objects or give people more information? Some museums have what are called open access displays. This is where all objects are accessible to the public in display cases but there are no explanations, dates or reference numbers accompanying them. I personally really like this type of display because you can see everything. However, such displays can cause frustration, especially if you want to know what something is or where it was excavated because you often can’t even find the registration number in order to write to the museum to ask them.

Detail of an information panel at the special exhibition Gifts for the Gods, Manchester Museum

In the Gifts for the Gods exhibition, however, there was plenty of room for information provision. A large information panel entitled British Archaeologists in Egypt included an archive photograph of the Egyptologist John Garstang sitting in front of a union flag (above). Egypt was, of course, occupied by British forces between 1882 and 1952; and although the country retained its autonomy as part of the Ottoman Empire until 1914, British archaeologists and Egyptologists often raised their national flag at excavation sites. The text accompanying the photographs reads:

John Garstang’s workroom inside a rock-cut tomb at Beni Hasan, showing him seated to the right, 1902-4

I was disappointed that the opportunity was not taken to comment further on the colonial nature of this photograph or indeed the history of Egyptology. For visitors, such images have the potential to reinforce and accept Britain’s colonial past rather than to question and consider the consequences.

Addressing Britain’s colonial past

The phantoms of Congo River. Photographs by Nyaba Ouedraogo, Manchester Museum, April 2016

Upstairs in the the Manchester Museum was another exhibition entitled The phantoms of Congo River. Photographs by Nyaba Ouedraogo. Here, a label that accompanies material culture from the Congo River includes the following text:

These objects were collected from places and people along the Congo River from the late 19th century. Such collections are the legacy of European commercial and colonial interests in this part of Africa, the same interests that drive Charles Marlow in the novella Heart of Darkness.

These objects were also collected during a similar time period to those in the exhibition on Kemet. Why then is there such a discrepancy in the way in which this practice is presented in two exhibitions in the same institution? Is it not timely and appropriate for Egyptologists to adopt a more critical approach to the history of their subject? I would suggest very strongly that it is.

Idealised and Romantic (and Racist?)

edwin_longsden _long_the_gods_and_their_makers
The Gods and their Makers by Edwin Longsden Long. Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Burnely

The painting above was used in the exhibition to illustrate a woman carving a statue of a cat. I was struck immediately by the appearance of the ‘Egyptians’ in the work, identified by the artefacts that they hold and who are clearly of European descent. The only African person to be represented in the painting is holding a cat, that is the model for the sculptor.The panel accompanying the painting read:

European paintings and literature of the 1800s portray an idealised, romantic version of ancient Egypt, inspired by impressive temple ruins. The vast numbers of animal mummies buried in catacombs were well know to travellers. This led to the mistaken belief, based on Western ideas about animals as pets, that the ancient Egyptians worshipped animals themselves rather than the gods they represented. The reality for many animals prepared as mummies was very different.

I am not suggesting that museums should not show such works, but they need to be presented through a critical lens, and the blatant racist ideologies that accompany such images need to be deconstructed. Otherwise there is a danger that visitors leave the space with a confirmation that this was a reality. By describing such works as ‘idealised’, ‘romantic’ museums are failing to address a colonial and racist past.


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.