The last indigenous King of Kemet

The last indigenous king of Kemet

Ruled from 360-342 BCE and was named Nakhthorhebyt, but is perhaps better known by his Greek name Nectanebo. He was the third and last ruler of what we now call the 30th Dynasty, and was the second king to be referred to as ‘Nectanebo’ by the Ancient Greeks.

Nakhthorhebyt. Bibliotheca Alexandrina Antiquities Museum SCA 168.

The statue above is part of an exhibition at the British Museum, London entitled Sunken cities. Egypt’s lost worlds, which runs from 19 May to the 27 November 2016, and represents King Nakhthorhebyt. I can say this with confidence on two counts. Firstly, the double loop of the uraeus (cobra) on his brow, has been associated with this particular ruler and is an unusual feature. Secondly, the “portrait” (a word that the curator who wrote the entry in the catalogue uses. Sunken cities. Egypt’s lost worlds. Edited by F. Goddio and A. Masson-Berghoff. 2016: p. 134) can be linked to Nakhthorhebyt. Many of the 30th Dynasty representation are similar to those of the early Ptolemaic period. And even to specialists, are impossible to tell apart (see below).

Sphinx with a royal portrait. Maritime Museum, Alexandria, SCA 282.

The similarities in the early Ptolemaic rulers’ Egyptian-style/Kemite portraits and those of the last indigenous dynasty were probably because of the Persian occupation that occurred in between. The Persian rulers were not resident in Kemet and so funding for large scale royal projects would not have been as forthcoming as under the last Kemite kings or the Macedonian Greeks who ultimately replaced them. Nakhthorhebyt spent much of his reign trying to prevent the Persian invasion.

So, who were the ancient Egyptians?

This is a question that the exhibition fails to answer. On numerous occasions in the exhibition the “native” Egyptians are referred to, and are distinguished from the arrival of Greeks, Macedonians and Romans. However, the only time that Africa is directly referenced is in regard to a group of amulets and moulds that were found at the city of Naukratis, where earlier Greeks settled. Images that are very similar to some of those that I have discussed in previous posts  are described in the catalogue as ‘Black Africans’ and are explained as “catering to Greek ideas of foreign and far-away Egypt” (Sunken cities. Egypt’s lost worlds. Edited by F. Goddio and A. Masson-Berghoff. 2016: p. 54). So, where does that leave the “portrait” of the last indigenous ruler? Was it an accurate representation of the people of Kemet at that time? This was, after all, how the ruler himself chose to be presented. There is no mention or discussion of his racialised identity in the exhibition or catalogue.

Once again we find the over-simplification of what is, and is not, “Black African”, a term that is, as noted, used in the catalogue. By continuing to make such distinctions, based on modern European ideals, Kemet is once again subtly removed from its African context and disassociated from indigenous African people. It is interesting that European scholars seem only to identify the depictions that the ancient Greeks and Romans produced to represent the people of Africa, as “African”. It is also notable that the ruler’s Greek name rather than his Kemite name is used by the museum. I have written before about the failure of museums to include the African names of Kemite rulers when describing them, and I will admit to having done so myself, on gallery labels often through lack of space. On reflection, however, I feel that these small points all add up and are subtle ways in which Ancient Egypt continues to be removed from its African context.

Is it worth visiting or buying the catalogue?

Colossal statue of a god of the inundation of the Nile. Maritime Museum, Alexandria, SCA 281

In general, the exhibition fails to explore, or explain, the often nuanced impact that Kemet had on ancient European cultures. Many of the identifications of rulers of the Ptolemaic period are, quite simply, incorrect and unexplained. However, the colossal sculptures that are displayed show Kemite sculptors at their best. Not only were they able to create colossal representations of their gods in a tradition that was thousands of years old, but they were able to adapt their skills and styles. Both the exhibition and catalogue acknowledge these achievements, but aren’t quite so forthcoming in presenting these accomplishments as part of an African culture.


Symbols of Kemet: the ankh

The ankh

The ankh in the claws of a vulture

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

Sacred water represented by the ankh symbol. Kalabsha.
The use of the ankh symbol on two columns at Medinat Habu

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 between a mirror image of the Kemite word for king. Hyperstyle Hall at Karnak Temple.

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

Isis and Nefertari

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.

Jackal-headed protectors hold the ankh symbol

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.

Solar symbolism

The rays of the Aten hold the ankh symbol

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.


akhetaten_tomb_ ankh
A ray from the sun holds an ankh on this tomb at Akhetaten

Later symbolism

The ankh on a Coptic textile

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.


The role of women in Kemet: representing power and divinity

The role of women in Kemet

For many years Egyptology was dominated by very traditional male academics who had little regard for women or their role in Kemite society. More recently, just as we have seen an increase in the numbers of scholars who approach this subject from a non-Eurocentric perspective, so too have we seen both male and female academics adopting feminist approaches to the study of women.

In Kemet, the role that a woman played and the degree of autonomy which she enjoyed was very much dependent on her status in society. On the few occasions when women traversed their traditional roles, artists often struggled to represent them. And at times, powerful women were presented in a secondary role according to the traditions of the time.

Detail of a relief representation of a Ptolemaic ruler and her consort. Museu Egipci de Barcelona. Photograph copyright and courtesy of Dr Runoko Rashidi

The photograph above is of a type of object that we call a stela (plural stelae). It is a dedicatory relief and these object were used in religious and funerary contexts. I hadn’t seen this particular example before, and so was very excited when Dr Runoko Rashidi sent me the photograph. Why? Well because of the female royal figure is standing in front of the male. This is highly unusual in Kemite art.

Cleopatra and her son make offerings to the gods on the Temple of Hathor at Denderah
Detail of the South Wall of the Temple of Hathor, showing Cleopatra and her son Caesarion

Even Cleopatra VII, arguably one of Kemet’s most powerful female rulers both at home and overseas, stands behind her son on the famous relief on the South Wall of the Temple of Hathor at Denderah (above). Inside the temple there are representations of the ruler by herself. However, the inner walls would only ever have been seen by the priests. The outer wall is much more of a public space to promote Cleopatra and her son as co-rulers fulfilling their royal and divine duties.

Representing power and divinity

Ptolemaic female ruler. Detail of a stela in the Museu Egipci de Barcelona. Photograph copyright and reproduced with permission Dr Runoko Rashidi

So what is different about the female figure on this particular stela? The relief can be dated on stylistic grounds to around 116 BCE to 30 BCE, and is  therefore Ptolemaic. The female figure has to represent either Cleopatra III or Cleopatra VII, who both ruled with their sons. What is unusual is that the female stands in front of her male consort. The answer, as always, is in the iconography (the symbols that identify individuals in Kemet). If you look closely at what she wears on her head in the detail above you will see that she wears a vulture headdress. I mentioned this in an earlier post, the vulture cap is only worn by goddesses. This figure represents a divine queen and whereas all members of the royal family were seen to be divine by association with their roles, this figure is a goddess and has cults in her own right.

Ptolemy II makes an offering to Isis and his sister Arsinoe II. Temple of Isis at Philae

Divinity outweighs gender when it comes to the hierarchy of representations in Kemet. On the relief above we see an earlier Ptolemaic ruler making an offering to Isis; behind Isis is the newer goddess Arsinoe. Arsinoe waited until her death to be defied. However, both Cleopatra III and Cleopatra VII declared themselves to be living embodiments of Isis and both women had their own cults. The relief that we began with has to represent one of these two queens. Both ruled with their sons. Both were goddesses in their own right. Both were extremely powerful. And although these royal women ruled late in Kemet’s history and their families were European, they embraced the traditions of the older culture and were keen to be presented  accordingly. And they had numerous role models to choose from.

Divine wives

Prior to the Ptolemaic period, Kings of Kemet had more than one wife. Principal Wife was a title that elevated the mother of the heir to the throne. In Dynasty 18 a new iconography appeared for royal women who were Principal Wives: two cobras on their brow rather than one.

Detail of a statuette of Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III. Louvre, Paris.

On the small faience statuette above, representing Tiye, the royal wife wears two cobras on her brow with a vulture head in the centre. If you look closely you can see the vulture’s wings on top of her braided hair. This distinguished her as the Principal Wife and also a goddess.

Wives of Amun

The same iconography can be found later in Dynasty 25. During this period a number of the Kushite royal women in Kemet were presented as the Wife of the god Amun. In this role they received political power and wealth and were designated as goddesses, and the Wife of Amun also chose her successor from the women of the royal family. This role is represented on the small chapel of Amenirdas at Medinat Habu, where the Divine Wife Amenirdas receives offerings from her successor Shepenwepet (below).

God’s Wife Shepenwepet makes an offering to Ra Horakhty, his consort, and the God’s Wife Amenirdas

By adopting specific roles, the royal women of Kemet elevated their status and power.  The Chapel of Amenirdas dates to around 747-656 BCE, over 600 years before the stela (relief) that I began this post with. It was, however, in Kush where royal women were presented as equals to their male consorts. On the pylon (gateway) of a temple to the lion god Apademak that was built in the first century BCE, the Kandake (Queen) Amanitore of Kush appears with a weapon, attacking the enemies of the state (below). This role is reserved for men in Kemet.

Detail of the Queen Amanitore from the pylon of the Temple of Apedemak, Kush

I would like to Dr Runoko Rashidi for suggesting the subject of this post and for providing me with the photograph of the stela. All views in the post are my own. 



Racism and Kemet, beyond a cognitive bias

Cognitive bias and dissonance

Earlier this week, I witnessed an extreme reaction that resulted from cognitive dissonance. I was delivering a workshop with a focus on the presence of people of African descent in the UK. We looked at evidence from the Roman period, Tudor England, and then referenced African, Black British and Caribbean political activists from the Industrial Revolution through to the twentieth century. We then went on to consider academic studies that showed how the media have distorted and demonised British people who are racialised as Black in contemporary Britain. And how Black British people are treated differently and less favourably in the Criminal Justice System. These contemporary issues came as no surprise to anyone of African descent in the audience. The workshop offered academic evidence that corroborated these experiences and the social psychology prejudice and racism.

A member of the audience left the workshop part way through. When I asked why, she said that it was “all lies”, that I was “anti-White” and that the workshop was subjective because it did not give examples of “Africans treating White people differently”. As she spoke, she was visibly upset and indeed described herself as such. Had she stayed until the end of the workshop, she would have realised, but probably denied, that she was suffering from cognitive dissonance.

The role of history in the formation of social identity

We each have two different types of self: 1. social identity, which relates to the groups we belong to; 2. personal identity, which not surprisingly is defined by our personal traits and relationships.

In a recent comment Nicole asked:

Why are we hated as a people? Is it fear?

Some groups we choose to belong to, for example political or social groups. However, when it comes to racialised groups, society determines where we are placed solely on the grounds of our appearance. ‘Race’ is a social construct and its advocates implemented a racial and social hierarchy to control and oppress entire groups of people. In doing so, members of the European societies who proposed the concept of ‘race’ elevated themselves and their own group.

Presenting history from a Eurocentric perspective is one means of distorting and maintaining hierarchal group identities. I have interviewed many people who state quite clearly that they feel history does not impact on who they are; but history is no different to any other influence on group identities, such the media.

View from Cape Coast Castle, Ghana

I’ll give an example. When I tell people that I research and teach ‘Black’ history they will often assume that I specialise in the history of the enslavement of African peoples (see image above). When I correct them and state that this is only a small part of African history and it is not the area that I specialise in, they often look confused and surprised. It’s not that they necessarily want this to be the only history, but it is the only one they are familiar with. This in turn has the potential not only to impact on people of the African Diaspora, who struggle to access a more balanced history of their cultures, but it will influence how people who are of non-African descent view them and also see their group identity.

In the case of Kemet, not only does introducing this as an African culture challenge the narrow definitions that some people have when it comes to African history, but it removes Egypt from European historical cultural achievement. By changing the historical identity of one ‘group’ it impacts on the other.


I have researched the impact of racism, with particular reference to people of African, Black British and Caribbean descent in the UK, for the past 10 years. For many people whose ethnic background forms the majority in the UK, it is shocking to accept that our society does not treat people equally. In some cases, like the example I started this post with, they do not wish to accept the results of academic research, or to hear individual experiences of injustice and unfair treatment solely on the grounds of a racialised identity. As a result of this, and because they belong to the majority group (again through no choice of their own), some people react defensively when they are presented with examples of inequality. This is an example of what social psychologists define as ‘new racism’.

Then there are those people, fortunately in a minority, who are openly racist and have a pejorative view of people from other racialised and cultural groups. Their responses to the idea to Egypt (Kemet) as an African culture are more subjective, extreme and dismissive.

Finally, institutional racism plays a key role. The definition given by Sir William Macpherson in his report: The inquiry into the matters arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence (1999) is, in my opinion, the best to date. He defined institutional racism as:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping.

If museums, educational providers, and the media fail to promote even the possibility that Ancient Egypt was African, they are failing to provide an appropriate and professional view of African heritage and cultures. The reticence of some key institutions to promote African cultures from an African perspective creates a distorted view of the past. This, potentially, supports a majority group hierarchy; risks promoting bias and dissonance; and enables racists to justify their distorted view of the world.

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


African Queens: The famous portrait of Nefertiti


This image has to be one of the most iconic to have survived from Ancient Kemet.  Nefertiti was the Great Royal Wife of Akhenaten. The Ancient Kemites didn’t actually have a word for ‘queen’, instead royal women took titles that described their position in the royal house. Both principal members of this royal family changed their names. Akhenaten, who ruled from 1352-1334 BCE changed his name from Amenhotep in the fifth year of his reign. Nefertiti, which means the Beautiful One is Here adopted the name Nefernefruaten, which translates as: Perfect One of Aten’s Perfection. The Aten being the divine sun disk, which was worshipped through the royal couple. It can been seen on the relief below, with rays that terminate in hands cascading down on the royal family.

A relief showing Akhenaten and Nefertiti with their family. Egyptian Museum, Berlin.

Presenting Nefernefruaten Nefertiti

In her initial portraits Nefertiti adopted the same features as her husband, but can be distinguished from him by wearing two cobras on her brow (a double uranus) as opposed to one. This portrait type is best illustrated by the colossal statues from Karnak (see below). However, in time a new portrait type emerged.

One of the colossal statues from Karnak representing Akhenaten.

There are still many questions remaining with regard to how long Nefertiti ruled for and whether she was replaced by her daughter as the principal Royal Wife. As a consequence, where statues were uninscribed it can be difficult to say with any certainty which royal female they represent. This problem is compounded by new artistic developments in the production of stone sculptures, whereby artists began to produce composite pieces; carved out of different pieces of stone rather than a single block.  The identification of the statue below is questionable. It is clearly from the so-called Amarna period and it could represent Nefertiti. Or it may represent one of the other royal daughters.

Egyptian head of Nefertiti or a royal princess from a statue
Limestone statue representing the principal royal wife, Nefertiti, or a princess. Copyright: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

You will notice the elongated head, which was characteristic of the early royal representations during this period. A natural comparison with the practice of head binding amongst for example the Mangbetu people is often made. However, I would urge caution because we cannot show a direct continuum from one culture to the other. What we can deduce is that this feature was an important enough to include in the early representations of this Kemite royal family.

The portrait

Painted limestone bust representing the Royal Wife Nefertiti. Egyptian Museum, Berlin

The famous portrait of Nefertiti depicts a more mature woman, wearing an unusual crown that became synonymous with her and which is found on other representations of the royal wife. It was found in the workshop of an artist named Thutmose at the royal city of Akhetaten. This city was the capital of Kemet during the reign of Akhenaten, but was later abandoned by King Tutankhamen.

The sculpture is 48 cm high and is made from limestone covered in layers of plaster and was then painted. The sculpture was, however, unfinished. A striking feature of the piece is that only one inlay for the eye is present. No adhesive has been found in the second socket, suggesting that this is how the sculpture was left by the artist Thutmose. It has been suggested, therefore, that it was in fact a sculptor’s model rather than a representation that would be used as a finished piece.

We don’t have sculptors’ models for all periods of Kemet’s history; although this is possibly due to lack of survival of artist workshops. The two periods where we have examples of such models are during the reign of Akhenaten, and then much later during the reigns of the early Ptolemaic rulers in the third century BCE.

Another unfinished piece representing Nefertiti that was also found in Thutmose’s workshop shows the artist’s guidelines on the surface (below). The features on this particular piece are a cross between the Cambridge statue (above) and the famous bust.

An unfinished sculpture representing Nefertiti from the workshop of Thutmose

Such sculptures enable us to understand the complexities of defining and disseminating the royal image. They explain how, in such an expansive country, the King and his consort were able to control how they were represented. And they are also testimony to the skills of the artists of Kemet. As an archaeologist, I generally refrain from viewing material culture as ‘art’. However, there can be no doubt that not only is the famous portrait of Nefertiti part of an important artistic process, and the product of a master artist of the time, but it is also an artistic masterpiece that rivals anything that has since been produced.


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.


Gods of Kemet: Anukhet

The goddess in Kemet

Like many traditional African religions, women played a key role in the Kemite pantheon. Perhaps the best known is Isis, the mother of Horus and wife and sister of Osiris, who can be identified by the throne hieroglyph on her head, which spells out her name Iset or Aset (see below).

The goddess Isis, who was called Iset by the Ancient Kemites. She appears with King Seti on a relief at his temple at Abydos

The role that gods played was often flexible and varied, depending on region for example. In the case of Isis, the goddess’ roles expanded to such an extent that in the Roman period she was given a second name to define which characteristic was being worshipped, for example Isis Pelagia was associated with seafaring by association with the lighthouse at Alexandria.   Even in traditional temples in Egypt, the goddess’ crown was adapted during the Ptolemaic period (332-30 BCE); she wore a sun disk and cow’s horns (see below).

Ptolemy II makes an offering to Isis and his sister Arsinoe II. Temple of Isis at Philae

The last Cleopatra took the title ‘New Isis’, presenting herself as a living embodiment of the goddess from the middle of her reign, and appearing in the image of the goddess at a temple in Rome (below). Goddesses, and divine royal women, often wore a vulture headdress. You can see this on the relief above and on the statue below.

Statue representing Cleopatra as Isis. Capitoline Museums Rome


The goddess Anukhet makes an offering on a relief from the temple at Dakka in Nubia

Many people have heard of Isis. However, there are a number of less well known deities. One of these is Anukhet (above). Anukhet was the daughter of Khnum and Satet, who were gods from the region we now call Nubia. Khnum, who was from the New Kingdom presented as a ram-headed god, was seen to be the guardian of the source of the River Nile at Elephantine. He was also powerful creator god; the potter’s wheel that represented him is a reference to the idea that he created children from the clay of the river. It was this aspect of Khnum that was celebrated at his cult centre in Esna. Satet, her mother, appeared in the form of a human and was identified as the giver of water, which she presented to the deceased as purification. Her cult centre was Elephantine, in modern Aswan.

gods_of_Kemet_anukhet_Dakka_ temple
Anukhet, left receives an offering from the King

Anukhet, therefore, was the offspring of two powerful parents. Like her mother she appeared in the form of a human, but can be distinguished from other goddesses by the headdress she wore, which was made of feathers. Although human in form, she was associated with the gazelle. A reminder that many of the animals of Kemet, that are no longer found there, are those that we associated with other African countries further south.

Anukhet was primarily associated with the River Nile, and the annual festival that celebrated her powers involved worshippers dedicating precious items by placing them in the river. The cult centres for Anukhet were on the Islands of Seheil and Elephantine, which are in the modern city of Aswan (below).

Map showing Aswan and the Island of Seheil

On the Island of Seheil, the goddess appears on a number of rock cut inscriptions, left by Kemite officials from the New Kingdom who were travelling further south (below) and who made offerings for protection. She also appears on temples further south, including a number in Kush.


The goddess Anukhet (left)


An ancient Greek view of the people of Kemet

How the Greeks depicted the people of Kemet

Rhyton, crocodile and black male. Red-figured, height 0.222 m, width 0.14 m, depth 0.10 m. Classical Period, circa 350 B.C.


Rhyton, crocodile and black male. Red-figured, height 0.222 m, width 0.14 m, depth 0.10 m. Classical Period, circa 350 B.C.

For the ancient Greeks and Romans their contemporaries in Egypt were different. This is evidenced through descriptions of people from Kemet and also how both Greek and Roman artists depicted people from Africa. The rhyton above is a case in point. This drinking cup was manufactured in the Italian region of Apulia (below highlighted in red), which was home to colonies of Greek people.

Map showing the region of Apulia in Italy

The cup above shows a figure of a man, who by the colour of his skin and hair can be identified as being of indigenous African descent, who is being attacked by an animal. The scales on the back of the beast, its tail and its snout identify it as a crocodile; although it would appear as often seems to have been the case that the artist had never actually seen a crocodile but was perhaps basing the representation on descriptions or other works of art. What is remarkable about this particular crocodile is that it wears anklets. This is perhaps a practice that was referenced in a passage in Herodotus’ Histories:

For some of the Egyptians the crocodiles are sacred animals, and for others not so, but they treat them on the contrary as enemies: those however who dwell about Thebes and about the lake of Moiris hold them to be most sacred, and each of these two peoples keeps one crocodile selected from the whole number, which has been trained to tameness, and they put hanging ornaments of molten stone and of gold into the ears of these and anklets round the front feet, and they give them food appointed and victims of sacrifices and treat them as well as possible while they live, and after they are dead they bury them in sacred tombs, embalming them: but those who dwell about the city of Elephantine even eat them, not holding them to be sacred. They are called not crocodiles but champsai, and the Ionians gave them the name of crocodile, comparing their form to that of the crocodiles (lizards) which appear in their country in the stone walls.

(Herodotus Histories 2:69)

The crocodile became synonymous with Egypt for Greek and later Roman artists and there are both vases and stone sculptures that depict humans who look very similar to the one illustrated here, accompanied by crocodiles. It is also true if we look at text references to Egypt or Egyptians, that Greek writers saw no real difference between those people from Egypt and those from Ethiopia. In fact the Greek word Aethiops, from which Ethiopian derives, means ‘burnt face‘, presumably because the Greeks who encountered African people saw them as different to themselves.

Many readers will be familiar with another quote from Herodotus (Histories 2:104) that makes reference to  the appearance of the people of Kemet having dark skin (melanchroes) and curly (often translated as ‘woolly‘ on account of the word ‘oleos’. 

A survey of commentaries on the use of these words and their suggested translations reveals some degree of subjectivity on behalf of many authors. In his 1988 commentary on Herodotus Book 2, Alan Lloyd writes the following about the use of the word melanchroes:

There is no linguistic justification for relating this description to negroes [sic.]*. Melanchroes could denote colour from bronzed to black and negroes [sic.]* are not the only physical type to show curly hair

* this is the term that is used in the commentary, it is not one that I condone or would choose to use.

Once again we find ourselves back to the supposition that every person of African descent has (literally) skin that is black in colour, rather than acknowledging that African peoples have, and are today described as, light skinned, dark skinned, and in the case of the Caribbean red skinned (although this means very light). See an earlier post where I discuss how Egyptologists are keen to differentiate between Egyptian/Kemite and Nubian/Kushite people.

The use of a term to describe the hair that includes the word for wool would suggest that the hair of the ancient Egyptian people was textured and different from that of the Greeks. The reference to dark skin also accords with representations such as the vase above.

The artists’ representations for me speak for themselves. I would not classify myself as a philologist but I did study Ancient Greek for my first degree. The fact that the term melanchroes covers a variety of dark skin colours as pointed out by Lloyd, supports that argument that the people of ancient Kemet were indigenous African people, and that they represented the variance that we find amongst African peoples today.



DNA from Kemet: does it really have all of the answers?

DNA from Kemet

Thanks to Charles B for raising the following question last week:

What do you say to Eurocentrics who claim that the ancient Egyptians were European Caucasians and they have DNA evidence to to back it up?

I will start by saying that I am not an evolutionary biologist or a biological anthropologist, and I do not undertake research in this very specialised field. It is perhaps worth noting that many people do seem to feel qualified to comment on this subject, when they themselves are equally placed. For this reason, I would urge caution when reading and referencing even academic articles when using DNA to identify ‘race’. Here are some pointers:

  1. If you can access them*, read academic papers that are peer-reviewed by specialists within a particular field. This process is meant to ensure a certain quality control and involves the process of academic research being checked by two or three other scholars within that field before it is accepted for publication. In the Social Sciences and Sciences, the source of evidence and methodologies are rigorously checked. Egyptological research, unfortunately rarely utilises theoretical frameworks, models, or tested methods of investigation in the same way that other fields do.
  2. If you are struggling with the technical terms used in these papers then I would recommend that you look at the following workshop presented by Dr Shomarka Keita. Dr Keita is well qualified to write on both Kemite culture and biological genealogy. Has studied medicine, biological anthropology and Egyptology. I defer to his research because it is clearly evidenced, and when he presents it he explains any issues of interpretation that many other academics either assume non-specialists understand, or choose to disregard.

*Many of these papers can be found by a using google scholar search and accessed for free because the authors have loaded PDFs onto their academic profiles or websites.

Key points to remember when thinking about DNA

Like many people I once assumed that DNA had all of the answers when it came to the genealogical ancestry of the people from Kemet. However, having attended workshops and conference papers by Shomarka Keita, and having had the privilege of discussing this subject with him in person, I now accept that this is not necessarily the case.

Biological genealogy is one of a number of types of evidence that can be used to understand more about the people of Kemet. Others include: the physical and cultural geography of the land, the language, and the culture. In the workshop that is referenced above Dr Keita is keen to stress that these lines of evidence do not necessarily run parallel; and he is right to do so.

My reasons for initially believing that science had the answers is that the other types of evidence listed above are restricted by the knowledge of the people who interpret them. I have noted previously that if cultural parallels are restricted then those who are investigating them are ignoring potential links to other groups simply because they are not aware that they exist. Similarly, in regard to language, very few people have the language skills that range from Ancient Kemite to other African regions. It is only in recent years that scholars such as Dr Abdul Salau have started to fully explore similarities between Yoruba and the language of Ancient Kemet.


DNA testing also relies on comparison. This is a key point in answer to Charles’ question above. If, when you compare DNA samples, you do not have a large enough dataset, and if the model that you use is not rooted in African diversity then the results can be misleading.

Simplification of ‘racial’ types

There are other methods rooted in the biological sciences to compare groups of people. Cranial and limb ratio studies are also used to determine shared physiological traits of groups of people. Models of ‘racial’ types work on the assumption that people who belong to the same group share well-defined sets of physical traits. Many people assume that if people look the same they must be connected, and by the same argument any difference is appearance is often explained through mixture.

In his lecture Dr Keita uses the Berber people of North Africa as an example of how this approach can be misleading. Many people who belong to this cultural group have light skin, blue eyes and blonde hair. It is therefore often assumed that they have some kind of European ancestry. However, when their genealogy is compared to African and European groups they cluster with the former as Africans.

African biological variations  

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

I have noted in previous posts that people often work from the premise that in order to be categorised as ‘African’ an individual has to meet discreet criteria. This has led to the acceptance within Egyptology of ‘Nubians’ (see above) as African people but as Kemites as somehow mixed in terms of their racialised identity. In doing this, people fail to take account of biological variations of African people. Whereas those who understand that there is variation in skin colour, physical features and hair types amongst people of African descent will make reference to the fact that Kemite artists showed this when they represented their people; others use an over-simplified interpretation of this variation to claim that the ancient people of Kemet were descended from Europeans.

It is for this reason that the term Mediterranean is often used as a descriptor of the people of Ancient Kemet. In fact, I once heard a colleague who is a forensic anthropologist who works on human remains from Egypt insist that the term was a valid one. When I asked her to explain to me what she meant by the term Mediterranean she responded by stating that Egypt was on the Mediterranean coast. So she was using a geographical term to denote racial identity. I pointed out that more of Egypt is on the continent of Africa and asked why we could not use that term as a descriptor instead. I did not get an answer. The conversation was a public one during a lecture that I presented in Cambridge in 2014.

In conclusion

I would urge people to look at the lecture I link to above, in which Shomarka Keita explains many of the pitfalls of categorising humans. It is also important to consider the historical and cultural links between groups of people as well as their genealogy. As I have previously noted, through archaeology and the study of Kemite material culture we can make many connections between the people of Kemet, and other cultural groups on the African continent. DNA offers one way to consider ancestry, but like other methods it can distorted.


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.