October is Black History Month in the UK and Kemet remains a popular subject choice when I am asked to present lectures. In fact this year I will presenting 4 lectures on Kush.
Kemet has inspired many people of African heritage, with many from the Diaspora making a cultural journey the Giza plateau; this included Malcom X during his 1964 trip to Africa.
Six years later the artist Jack Whitten produced an extraordinary piece of art entitled Homage to Malcom (above). The piece was recently displayed in the exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Tate Modern in London. The connection to Kemet was immediately apparent but on closer inspection of the piece and the accompanying information I learned that the surface was created by using an afro comb over the painted surface. Thus drawing on another shared history between African and its Diaspora of the comb.
Since the turn of the 20th century eminent African American scholars, artists and activists had made the connection between Kemet and the rest of the African continent, including the artist and print maker Charles C. Dawson and the scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. Some people may be surprised to hear that Du Bois was in direct contact with early Egyptologist W.M.F.Petrie. Egyptologist Dr Vanessa Davies has been researching communications between the two; her early findings were reported here in a lecture and are well worth exploring and a good reminder of the long history of African American activism, which (of course) reaches back to when the first people were forcibly removed from their home land.
It’s just a pity that in the 21st century museums are still neglecting to even reference the connections between Kemet, African and people of African descent. In 2017 there should not still be a need to have Black History ‘Month’. African cultural heritage should be available to everyone all of the year round. Nor should the connection between Kemet and other African cultures be restricted to special exhibitions or projects; it should be made automatically and as a matter of course.
Notes on Black Abstraction Mark Godfrey in Soul of a Nation. Art in then Age of Black Power edited by M. Godfrey and Z. Whitley 2017.
Kemet Expert is now nearly 18 months old. It has been great to make new contacts, and to receive some really interesting questions and thoughts on matters relating to African-centered approaches to the study of Ancient Egypt. However, some readers who get in touch clearly do not share this viewpoint. I’m not sure how much clearer I could be about the purpose of this blog. So I’m re-posting below.
‘Kemet Expert’ is a blog dedicated to African-centred Egyptology. ‘Kemet’ was one of the ancient names given to the country that later became known as ‘Egypt’. However, more recently ‘Kemet’ implies an African-focused approach to the study of the ancient culture.
The blog is based on the premise that Ancient Egypt shares commonalities with other African cultures; and that in order to fully understand this ancient culture, it is necessary to draw parallels from other indigenous African cultures.
This blog is intended as a source of information for those who wish to view Ancient Egypt from an African-focused perspective. It is not intended as a forum for questioning this approach; many of these already exist.
Eurocentrics have been doctoring images since the advent of photoshop in order to support their view of ancient Kemet. However, I have noticed an increasing trend of people wishing to demonstrate support for an African origin for Kemet doing the same to prove their point. This is entirely unnecessary given the strength of cultural, visual and linguistic evidence to demonstrate that Kemet was an indigenous African culture in every sense. And in producing doctored memes, those who seek to support an African origin do the opposite, because they undermine the solid evidence that exists without their adaptations. In light of this phenomenon, I have been asked recently how I would suggest beginners should go about exploring Kemet within its rightful African context. This is what I would suggest. Other readers may have other ideas and it would be great if you could share these for novices.
Exhibitions usually follow a theme (there is supposed to be some rationale behind assembly objects in a temporary space). The catalogues or on-line exhibition websites are often a good way to obtain an introduction to a subject. On the Brooklyn Museum of Art website for example is information dating to 2006 , which explores Western interest in Ancient Egypt, and the contribution of African American scholars on Egyptology. Such places and also old catalogues can be a good place to start and second hand copies are often cheap and easy to find. But remember to look at the text critically. Statements should be backed up with evidence to support them. Do not mistake opinion for documented evidence.
Museum on-line catalogues
These are a great source, often with good images and an increasing number of museums are happy for people to download and use high resolution photographs for non-profit activities. Generally, the dates and identification of material is correct. Here is an example.
First thing to note is that the statue does not have a provenance (excavation site). It was purchased on the art market with a museum fund (Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund). This means that it could of course be a forgery. Next is the date, which is Ptolemaic and around 50 BCE. This is perfectly reasonable; I would probably date it the the century before because of the style of hair, which has parallels during the reign of Ptolemy VI but the period is certainly correct.
The material, here a stone known as Diorite is listed. Museums sometimes get the exact stone incorrect, because some of the Kemite stones look very similar to the eye.
The description. These vary and can be subjective and are often outside of a wider African context. Here, you will note the author makes a distinction between indigenous Egyptians and Greeks. They often include information about the condition of the object and if there are any restorations that may not be noticeable from the photograph.
References. Finally, this head has been in 3 exhibitions, which are listed alongside links to their pages. So, if you were interested in similar material this they would be a good place to go. Some on-line catalogues also contain a bibliography or reference list of publications that have included an object.
An African context
There are some on-line resources that combine material from Kemet and the rest of the African context. Triumph, Protection & Dreams was an exhibition that I co-curated a number of years ago. It explored similarities in use and design of headrests in East Africa and there remains a dedicated site showing the items that were on display. If museums don’t offer this facility then you can undertake the research yourself, by using the on-line resources for contemporary African cultures. Rather than selecting a department or culture you could search generically for ‘head rest’ and obtain a range of different dates and cultures, which you can then compare.
Most museums will not stress the African origin of material from Kemet, or offer an interpretation within a African-centered framework. However, having access to material that is not even displayed through the digitisation of collections is an invaluable resource for those wishing to explore Kemite material culture. You just need to be able to work around the framework and build up your own library of parallels from elsewhere in Africa.
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.