Just a quick post to announce a great initiative this summer, which is free to take part and can be enjoyed in and with your local community. The Nswt Bity Experience is providing a simple way to celebrate the history of African hair in your local barber shop or beauty salon. The event will take place between 21 July and 7 August 2017.
The organisers have done all of the hard work by assembling images of Kemite objects and have provided all of the information ready for use. The idea is for barbershops and beauty salons to host a small photographic exhibition, to share knowledge, and to encourage families to learn more about the history of African hair. I fully endorse this project and hope that people will take part, share their experiences and keep the history of African hair and styling alive.
Further information on how to take part is available on the project’s Facebook page: Nswt Bity Experience
In Kemet there were both national and regional deities, sometimes with multiple forms. I thought it might be helpful to write a series of short posts looking at some of these gods and the functions that they served. Where better to start than the inventor of writing?
Probably better known as Thoth, his Greek name, Djehuty was the principal deity at a site called Khemenu in Middle Egypt. However, it is thought that he originated from the Delta because one of the administrative areas there had an ibis as its symbol, and Djehuty was depicted as an Ibis or with the head of an Ibis. One myth relating to his birth was that he sprung from the head of the god Set.
Djehuty played a key role amongst Kemite gods. He was the inventor of writing. He was ‘Lord of the Moon’ and in this capacity he was also seen as the ‘Lord of Time’ and ‘Reckoner of the Years’. This is why he is often depicted holding a scribal palette as seen on the relief below.
His links to the passage to the After Life can be found at the weighing of the heart scenes in tombs and on papyri. Djehuty was also seen as a protector of the god of the After Life: Wsir (Osiris), and this role would later be seized upon by the Greeks.
Djehuty as a Baboon
As noted Djehuty’s centre was at Khemenu, which was also home to a local deity Hedj-wer, who was depicted as a baboon. At some point in the New Kingdom the two deities seem to have merged and from this time we find Djehuty depicted as both an ibis and a baboon. The small faience figure above dates to the Late Period and shows the god holding the Eye of Horus.
Djehuty and the Greek Hermes
Later still, the Greeks saw Djehuty as an equivalent to their god Hermes and in fact the Greeks referred to the city of Khemenu as Hermopolis (the city of Hermes). It is thought that the link between these two deities was that Hermes was seen as a messenger, notably between the worlds of the gods and mortals, and that the Greeks also recognised this role for the more ancient Djehuty.
More commonly known by its Hellenic name of uraeus, the iaret or rearing cobra is synonymous with the goddess of Lower Egypt- Wadjet. The symbol was adopted by the Kemite kings and from the Middle Kingdom the rulers always wore this image on their brows. The iaret served two purposes: first, it referenced the King’s rule over the northern part of Kemet; second, it protected the royal representations and so the king.
On some royal representations from the New Kingdom, the cobra appears with the vulture, representing the goddess Nekhbet, who was the southern counterpart of Wadjet, together the goddesses were referred to as the Two Ladies (Nebet Tawy), which became the title for the Nebty name of rulers. Only one group of rulers wore the double cobra: those of Dynasty 25, who ruled Kemet and Kush simultaneously. It is thought that the dual iaret representing the two regions and that this is why it is only found on male rulers dating to this period.
Royal Women of Dynasty 18
Royal women generally wear a single cobra on their brows; however, when elevated to a goddess, they were awarded the vulture for protection and to recognise their status. This can be seen on the wall painting above where Ahmose Nefertari wears both a vulture and a cobra, representing her royal and divine status.
The first royal female to wear two cobras was Iset, who was the wife of Thutmose (II) Aakheperkare (1492-1479 BCE) and mother of Thutmose (III) Menkheperre (179-1425 BCE). On the statue above the Iset takes the title Mother of the King, and it is possible that the dual cobras were intended to distinguish her in this role as opposed to royal wife; unfortunately not enough statues survive to know whether she consistently wore the dual version of the royal motif.
Royal Wife of Amenhotep Nebmaatra (1388-1351 BCE)- Tiye- wore two cobras and a vulture on her representations. As you can see from the statue above, the cobra and vulture wear their appropriate geographical crowns thus representing the unification of the Two Lands of Kemet. The central figure of a vulture appears because the royal wife wears a full vulture headdress- if you look carefully on the statues above and below you can just seen the feathers of the vulture’s wings sitting on top of her hair.
Even the smallest of representations of this queen bore the same iconography, as illustrated by the small faience figure above. It is possible that Tiye adopted this iconography after the Thirty Year rule of her husband was celebrated- the Heb Sed festival. We know that she initially wore a single iaret and that the famous wooded statue of the royal wife (below) was adapted at some point and the single cobra replaced by two.
Possibly following on from Tiye, Nefertiti who was wife of Akhenaten Neferkheperure-waenre (1351-1334 BCE) in the early part of their reign also adopted the dual cobras, but not the vulture. And on the famous relief (below) the royal wife is shown with 3 cobras around her crown; and one of the royal children plays with one as if it were alive. This changed in the later years when the single cobra was used for her representations.
Royal Women of Dynasty 18
Nefertari, Principal Wife of Rameses Usermaatre-setpenre (1279-1213 BCE) in Dynasty 19 continued the tradition of wearing the double cobra, as seen on the colossal statue below and most of her other sculptures. During this period the double form seems to have been used to distinguish her as the Principal Wife.
Royal Women of Dynasty 25
As noted the Kings of Dynasty 25 wore two cobras on all of their representations, and were the first royal men to do so. The royal women during this period who were associated with the motif also had the elevated role of being the wife of the God Amun/Imen. On the tomb chapel of Amenirdis she and her successor Shepenwepet both wear the crown of the god (above). As goddesses on the relief the two women are shown with the divine vulture and headdress. However, on statuary they were shown with two cobras and a vulture. It seems likely during this later period that the double cobra and vulture were associated with title and role of God’s Wife of Amun/Imen.
Meaning of multiple representations of the iaret
For the male rulers of Dynasty 25 the dual iaret seems to be associated with the two kingdoms of Kemet and Kush, and this is certainly the conclusion that most Egyptologists draw, not least of all because it appears on sculptures in both kingdoms.
The dual iaret seems to have been reserved for royal women who fulfilled a particular role and is actually not at all commonly found. It can be associated with the roles of God’s Wife, Principal Wife of the King, and King’s Mother. Later in the Ptolemaic Period a triple form appeared. What this tradition shows is the careful consideration that went into representing members of the royal family and that this practice was ever-evolving, through until the last resident rulers, their wives and mothers.
My first degrees were in Classical (Greek and Roman) archaeology. I studied at King’s College, which is part of the University of London. Much of my undergraduate degree was spent in the British Museum looking at material culture from Greece and Rome, and this training played an important part in my subsequent decision to work in museums, to focus my research on archaeological material and what it could tell us about the past. Out of all of the categories of objects that I have studied, I have always had a preference for sculpture, irrespective of its culture of origin.
I was recently asked if early Greek statuary had been influenced by Kemite sculpture. My response, because I was taught this when I did those first degrees, was that yes- there was no question that that the Greeks had been influenced by the statues they had seen in Egypt.
Early Greek sculpture
Two types of figure are represented in early life-size Greek sculpture: Kouroi (singular kouros) and Korai (singular Kore). These words mean youth/boy and girl in ancient Greek, and these statues functioned as votive offerings or funerary markers. One of the earliest fully preserved is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (below). Believed to be from Attica, it dates from around 600-590 BCE and has a number of features in common with statuary from Kemet.
The statue strides forward onto its left leg.
The hands are clenched at the sides.
The proportions are similar to statues that were produced in Kemet during during the seventh century BCE.
Kemite sculpture of the seventh century BCE
The statue on the left represents an Kemite official named Mentuemhat, who lived around the time the Twenty-sixth and Twenty-fifth dynasties. He was a priest of Amun. The proportions of Kemite sculpture changed depending on the period that it was made. We know that artists used a grid system on a block of stone to ensure that the correct proportions were adhered to. You can see on this statue the striding stance and fists that early Greek sculptors copied. There were differences, as would be expected when one culture is influenced by another: Greek statues do not have a back pillar (see below) a feature of all striding Kemite statues, which was often inscribed. Also, the Greek statue is naked. This is not something that is found in Kemite sculpture. Mentuemhet, wears a kilt on the statue here.
Studies have shown that Greek sculpture was also created on a grid system, and that the proportions are similar to those on Kemite sculpture dating to the seventh century BCE. There is also the more practical question of contact and alternative influences. Prior to the appearance of the life-size kouros figures, Greek sculpture had only been produced on a much smaller scale. Some scholars (R.M. Cook for example) have tried to argue that the striding stance and clenched fists are coincidental. The transfer of artistic style from one culture to another is rarely coincidental and we have no evidence for this pose prior to the Greeks having contact with Egypt.
And when making associations it is of course essential that contact and influence was possible. There was considerable contact between the two cultures during the 26th Dynasty (664-525 BC) in the form of Greek mercenaries and later colonists, at sites such as Naukratis in the Delta. Around the same time that the new sculptural style emerged in Greece.
Some scholars have suggested that Greek sculptors were influenced by statues from the Ancient Near East. There is influence on some Greek art, from this region, perhaps most notably on pottery and small scale figures. However, there are no close parallels for the early statues.
Greek artists adopted and then adapted a style of Kemite sculpture for their own cultural needs. Even during the early phases of its development there were regional differences that were found throughout the Greek world. In many respects, and this was a conclusion that I made based on my doctoral thesis, Kemite artists were much more skilled at incorporating outside influences onto their sculpture, whether it was a portrait or costume. This is not something that Greek and Roman sculptors did. Perhaps because they didn’t have thousands of years of a sculptural tradition.
Today I received a statement from Dr Neal Spencer, Keeper of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, with regard to the British Museum’s policy on displaying Egypt as part of Africa:
The Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum has, in the last 15 years, focused much of its research on the relationship between Egypt and Nubia, from Prehistory through the Medieval Period. The geographic (Egypt and northern Sudan) and chronological scope of that research is of course a reflection of the collections material we hold that research can be undertaken on, and the research specialisms of staff within the museum. Surfacing that research in galleries is not always straightforward, as some of the material is fragmentary and difficult to display, but we publish widely (both online and in print) and run an extensive programme of lectures, gallery tours and conferences (seewww.britishmuseum.org with further links to online content and publication lists).
The present-day Egyptian galleries are arranged thematically – looking at life (and idealised life) in New Kingdom Egypt (Room 61, Nebamun), funerary beliefs in Egypt (Room 62-63), prehistoric Egypt (Room 64) and Egyptian temple/tomb sculpture (Room 4). Within those galleries and the chosen themes and space, there is limited scope to discuss how these themes relate to wider Africa, or indeed regions that Egypt was in contact with beyond Africa. A bioarchaeology section in Room 63 does highlight how future research might tell us about migration patterns within and beyond Africa, which would of course be relevant. The Room 4 display does feature some objects relating to Dynasty 25 and the Kushite state and culture.
Room 65 is the exception, as the chosen theme here expressly looks beyond Egypt to explore its relationship with areas further south, across a period spanning prehistory to the Medieval era. This gallery – entitled “Sudan, Egypt and Nubia” – looks at the distinct aspects of Nubian and Egyptian cultures, alongside shared elements, and how they were at times entangled, with ideas, iconography, art, craft, technologies and so on travelling in both directions. This gallery highlights Egypt in the context of another great and (importantly) contemporaneous African civilisation, using objects from the collection.
Research, collections and display on Africa at the British Museum are not limited to the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, but are ongoing across the Museum. Egyptian objects (principally of 19th and 20th century date) are also featured in the Living and Dying gallery, and the Africa galleries. Finally, we are currently in the process of creating a collection relating to 20th century Egypt, with associated research. This very much places Egypt in its global context, and an emerging story within that is around Egypt’s engagement with sub-Saharan Africa during the 20th century – something that is less often highlighted than its relationship to the Middle East, Europe, USSR and USA. The outputs of this project are still being defined, but might include small displays, a book and digital content.
We are very aware of different interpretative frameworks for how Egypt is part of Africa at different periods, and around the reception and interpretation of ancient Egypt, but none of our galleries focus on interpretative frameworks nor the historiography of research. This current situation in no way precludes future displays on such subjects, whether in permanent galleries or exhibitions.
We seek to be open to debate, new ideas and discussion. Public programming and online content is naturally quicker to reflect such things (for example, inviting Sally-Ann Ashton to give three lectures at the British Museum on the subject of African-centred approaches to Egyptology), as gallery interpretation can take time to change, for logistical reasons. The current displays and information vary in date from 1979 to 2015, depending on the individual gallery, but as we have opportunities to update those, we will of course consider new research and perspectives.
Neal Spencer, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum
Well for those people waiting for a response from the British Museum to my email, I received one but it was marked ‘confidential’. I have asked for a public statement that I can share, and as soon as I receive one I will post it. I have to say, I do wonder what aspect of a publicly-funded museum’s policies on the interpretation of displays could possible be confidential. And, I also believe that it is precisely this lack of transparency and communication that makes the relationship between some cultural institutions and their relevant communities worse than they need to be.
Kemet Expert is 1 year old
On Sunday 5 February Kemet Expert blog is 1 year old. The post that I am currently writing will look at the Kemite influence on Greek art. In the meantime I thought I would remind you how the Ancient Greek people represented the people of Ancient Kemet.
As some readers will know, I was invited to present a talk at the British Museum for Black History Month in October of last year. This was the third lecture that I have given at the museum on African-centred approaches to Egyptology. All have been extremely well attended by enthusiastic audiences. Having spent some time talking to members of the audience at the last lecture I decided that it might be helpful to contact the British Museum to relay some of their thoughts and my own personal experiences of curating Kemet. I sent the following letter* on 12 November to the relevant department and have not yet received an acknowledgement.
As you may know, I presented a talk at the British Museum on 24 October on African-centred approaches to Egyptology. The talk was well-attended with quite a number of community members present. Such was their interest, that I spent over an hour talking to people after the lecture; this was also the case after the other two talks that I gave on African-centred perspectives…
I felt that in your capacity of Keeper, you would want to know how people responded. A number of people then, and subsequently, expressed a view that the British Museum was not really making any effort to present ancient Egypt as part of an African civilisation. The one room that references Africa in fact compounds this issue because it is associated with Nubia rather than the more northern region of Egypt.
A number of people asked me why if in Cambridge, Liverpool and at the Petrie, Egypt was contextualised within Africa, this was not the case at the British Museum. Naturally I don’t have the answers to their questions regarding the British Museum’s policy, and in fact suggested that people should write to the museum directly. However, I do note that the educational material for schools does directly refer to ancient Egypt as an African culture and often direct people to this. I believe that some visitors would just appreciate this information in the galleries as well.
In addition to relaying these responses I felt that I should also share one very simple change that I made at the Fitzwilliam Museum and which had a huge impact on our Black communities who visited the museum. It was simply putting up a panel that explained about African-centred interpretations and perspectives. A number of people wrote to thank the Department for doing this.
Anyway, I wanted to write to you directly to relay this information. It seems such a pity when the Departments of Ancient Egypt and Sudan and Africa Oceania and the Americas supported both of the African-centred exhibitions that I put on at the Fitzwilliam Museum with objects, that the British museum is obtaining a reputation for disengaging with this issue.
As of 27 January 2017 I am still waiting for a response…
* This is a slightly shorter edited version of the letter that was sent. Abbreviations that were used in the original have also been written in full.
For many cultures we have just begun a new year. In Kemet, however, the New Year and its celebrations were not fixed, because New Year’s day was on the first full moon after the appearance of Sothis (Greek Sirius), which we now refer to as the ‘Dog Star’. The first day of the new year was celebrated as the birth day of one of the sun gods: Ra Horakhty (below), who combined the powers of Ra and Horus of the Horizons. In this way the god was associated with rebirth and fertility, important factors relating to the Kemite New Year.
Celebrating the New Year
The new year commenced with the season of flood; the remainder of the year was divided into seasons of: sowing (crops) and a season of summer. Each month had a number of religious festivals. In addition to celebrating the birth of Ra Horakhty, the first month of the year included offerings to the god Hapy (who was the god of the inundation). The flood typically occurred between late June and late October. It was essential for the prosperity of Kemet.
Special New Year flasks from the Late Period (around 746-332 BCE) have survived. These were made out of faience (crushed quartz which was fired at very high temperatures with a finished glazed) and were dedicated on the first day of the New Year. They were filled with sacred water (below).
The people of Kemet believed that the flood represented the tears of Iset (Isis) when she mourned the death of her brother and husband Wsir (Osiris). During the annual flood the King of Kemet was forbidden to travel by boat on the River Nile. This tradition was still in place when the Roman Emperor Hadrian arrived in Egypt in 130 CE, he had to wait until the flood had ended before he was permitted to embark on his journey south on the Nile.
The first season of the new year was named Akhet and the first month Tekh or later Dhwt (Thoth). This is probably why on the handles of the flask above we see two baboons; this was one of the forms that the god Dhwt/Thoth took. The original calendar was closely connected to the natural phenomena that occurred in Kemet and which were so vital to everyone’s existence, from the King to the farmers.
The complexity of the calendar (which Europe adopted) and the ancient Kemite knowledge of the solar system were integral to the New Year. They are, of course, testimony to African knowledge and science.
Imhotep lived over 4600 years ago and was the highest official in Egypt during the rule of King Netjerkhet (also known as Djoser). This King ruled Kemet from around 2686 BCE and was the first ruler of what we now call ‘Dynasty 3’. Imhotep was also said to be the architect of the King’s burial monument, which was in the form of a stepped pyramid. This was the world’s first monumental stone building and was situated at the site we now call Saqqara in northern Egypt/Kemet.
This particular statue of the King shows the dark brown pigment used to represent his skin and also the bulk of his African-type hair, over which he wears a headdress.
Imhotep the god
Imhotep was deified over 2000 years after his death. For a mortal to become a god was highly unusual in ancient Kemet. Kings were divine on account of their office and so were different to non-royal people. Most images of Imhotep as a god date to the Late period, around 600-30 BCE. He is shown wearing a cap and holding a papyrus role, on which the ancient Kemites wrote. It was the Greeks who identified Imhotep with their god of medicine and so many years after his death he took on this additional role.
Most of the small copper alloy figures that represent Imhotep were dedicated at sanctuaries by visitors. Imhotep was worshiped at the Ptolemaic period temple below, which is at the much earlier site of Deir el Medina, or the workman’s village. This was where the tomb builders on the West Bank of Thebes lived and were buried. The photo below shows the house foundations (right) and the mud-brick temple (centre-left).
In addition to Imhotep another, later, architect Amenhotep son of Hapu was also worshipped at the site, along with the two main deities Hathor and Maat.
A Late cult centre at Saqqara
Another cult centre developed at Saqqara, where Imhotep had designed his famous pyramid. Here, visitors would dedicate animal mummies in the form of an Ibis bird in honour of Imhotep the god. It has long been assumed that Imhotep himself was buried somewhere at Saqqara because of his position and status. His tomb has never been found in spite of archaeologists working all over this extensive site.
Imhotep the Kemite
I often hear Imhotep referred to as a ‘Nubian’, he was in fact a Kemite who lived in the northern region of the country. I have written before about the importance of acknowledging Kemet and its people as indigenous Africans. His achievement in designing and overseeing the construction of a monument such as the step pyramid is impressive and is testimony to the advanced skills of the people of Kemet.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.