As I noted in my last post, October is Black History Month in the UK. I knew that I would be busy travelling around the country giving talks, so I decided to tweet information and images relating to Kemet, rather than writing posts. I thought that I would write a little more about the image that received the most shares and responses.
On 11 October I tweeted the above image along with the name and date of the king and the simple statement:
The pigment and skin colours are original
The image comes from a temple at the site of Amada, in southern Egypt/Nubia. The temple was built in the 18th dynasty by King Thutmose Menkheperura, who ruled from around 1479-1425 BCE, and is one of the oldest surviving temples in this region. Further decorative reliefs were added by Thutmose’s successor: Amenhotep Aakheperure; and some restoration was carried out later by kings of the next dynasty. The temple is dedicated to two gods: Amun and Ra-Horakhty.
In the relief above, the king (right) is shown in a dynamic running pose, in his hands are wine jars. On his head he wears the crown of Lower Egypt/Kemet.
On the relief above the king stands in the centre and Djehuti (left) and Ra-Horakhty (right) pouring liquid in the form of the ankh sign over him, demonstrating his right to rule and his status and power as king. There are other ritual scenes on the walls of the temple. Below is a representation of the King in his role as head priest. He is accompanied by other priests who carry the barque that contained the image of the god. Note the animal skin garment that the head priest wears, he stands behind the king.
This small temple may not be impressive as some of the larger complexes in the southern parts of Kemet, however, the scenes enable us to understand more about the role of the king and his relationship to the gods. The pigment (colour) is incredibly well preserved in parts of the temple and show very clearly that the people represented had dark brown skin. There are scenes, such as the relief showing the later king Rameses Usermaatra-Setepenra, who presents an offering to a figure of Amun. The skin of Amun is painted black, and is used symbolically to represent fertility, and his consort is shown with gold-coloured skin representing her divinity. The king’s skin is dark brown, which we must conclude was close to its actual colour, as it was for other rulers on the temple’s reliefs.
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.
The statue above is part of an exhibition at the British Museum, London entitled Sunken cities. Egypt’s lost worlds, which runsfrom 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).
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?
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.
So, October and Black History Month is almost approaching in the UK. It’s the one month where those of us who are interested in African, Black British and Caribbean heritage get to go access the history that we would like to see all year round!
As always, I will be giving lectures in a number of prisons, and one public lecture in London at the invitation of a friend and a much respected community Elder Mr Arthur Torrington CBE, (The Equiano Society).
Arthur has done a great deal of work for many years now to encourage museums in the UK to present Ancient Egypt as an African culture. This will be the third talk that I have given at the British Museum as a direct result of his efforts, and it is the fifth that he has organised in collaboration with the museum.
On Monday 24 October 2016 at 1.30pm I will be presenting a lecture at the British Museum: Kemet: African-centred approaches to Egyptology
The event is free but booking in necessary and can be made here
@kemetexpert will also be sharing images and information relating to Kemet on twitter throughout October.
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
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was a curator in the Department of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge from 2002 to 2015. During this time I worked on a number of special exhibitions, including one that traced the history of the head rest in East Africa from Kemet through to the early 20th century CE; another that explored how the Romans interpreted the culture of Kemet; and the final one that I worked on in 2013, which explored the history of the hair comb in Africa and amongst the African Diaspora. A number of resources relating to Kemet can be found on the museum’s website. The idea for the Afro combs exhibition came from Black British community groups and to ensure that the communities maintained a degree of control over the final exhibit, a community committee was set up to guide the whole process.
However, I also work with community members who cannot physically visit the museum. For the past 13 years I have worked in a number of English prisons. Following my first ever lecture in a prison the men, who were serving long term sentences, asked if there was any way of creating a virtual museum so that people who could not visit in person could still access the collections.
The result of nearly 4 years work was Virtual Kemet, an on-line resource that presented Ancient Egypt from an African-centred perspective.
The site is divided into 4 parts: People of Kemet; Daily Life and Religion; Funerary; and FAQ’s. You can navigate around the galleries on line and then obtain more information about any object by clicking on a magnifying glass. This opens a new section with a close up of the object (see above).
The benefits of a virtual gallery
Many museums have on-line resources. However, when I showed the standard searches and catalogues to the men who came up with the idea for the virtual gallery they felt that accessing the past should be more interesting. There was an added problem of not being able to access the internet, and this has also been an issue for some people overseas who only have access to slower speeds. The virtual gallery can be downloaded and used remotely.
There is another benefit of presenting museums on-line. If you speak to any curator they will tell you how limited they are in terms of sharing information. Every object needs to have basic information such as its accession number, material, date, culture, place of origin and how it got to the museum. This takes up quite a bit of space on a label even before any other information is shared.
When community members have asked some museums why they fail to situate Ancient Egypt in Africa as Kemet, they are often told that this is due to lack of space, or the cost implications of replacing or designing additional information panels like those above. A virtual gallery removes these obstacles and means that curators can directly share their knowledge with the public. It also means that alternative interpretations and cultural links that are physically impossible to make in the museum building can easily be presented on-line.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Jebel Barkal means sacred mountain in Arabic. The fact that this large natural feature, which lies around 200 miles north of Khartoum, has been recognised for thousands of years is testimony to its power. Priests who accompanied the Kemite King Thutmose (I) Aakheperkare and his army, who entered Kush in 1504-03 BCE, identified the feature as “Pure Mountain” and “Thrones of the Two Lands”. These titles were a reference to the god Amun; the priests believed that this was the place where he lived.
The ancient people were very responsive to their natural landscape. A temple, which was cut out of the mountain’s rock, offers a clue as to what prompted the priests to come to their conclusions. The ancient people saw the profile of a uraeus or cobra when they viewed the rock (above) and this was depicted on a relief representation inside temple B 300 (below). Here the cobra wears a sun-disk on its head.
To the right of the depiction of the mountain King Taharqo who also ruled Kemet (690-664 BCE) makes an offering to the gods Amun and Mut. The divine pair are represented in front of the the sacred mountain. You can just about make out the crown of Amun on the photograph above. The reliefs are badly damaged. Taharqo, who was also accompanied by his consort, can be seen below.
A sacred complex
The earliest sacred archaeological remains at the site date to the reign of the Kemite King Thutmose Menkheperre (usually referred to as Thutmose III) who ruled Kemet from 1479-1425 BCE. This king laid the foundations for the temple to Amun, which was later completed by Ramesses Usermaatre-setpenre, better known to us as Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE). The early temple, which was constructed out of mud brick has been replaced by a succession of later buildings. The majority of those standing today date to the reigns of the Kushite rulers who formed Kemet’s Dynasty 25 (around 746-664 BCE).
Temples were positioned in front of the sacred mountain. Today, only scant remains can be found. The photo below shows the dromos (processional walkway) flagged on either side with statues of the god Amun in the form of a ram. The sandstone bricks on either side once formed part of the pylon (gateway).
Home of Amun
The reason that the Kemites were so interested in this site was because they believed that it was the dwelling place of Amun, a god who originated in Kush but who had one of the most powerful priesthoods in Kemet, and indeed one of the largest temple complexes at the site now known as Karnak (below).
Both complexes had temples and shrines dedicated to other deities. At Jebel Barkal these included Hathor (below) and the Cobra goddess.
Continuity of a sacred space
When the Pure Mountain became known as the Sacred Mountain with the advent of Islam, the space retained its religious importance. Since the nineteenth century CE there has been a the tomb of a Sheikh and a Muslim cemetery at the site.
However, perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this blog, the site is evidence of the cultural connections between Kemet and Kush. Politically the two cultures were divided in ancient times. However, it is clear that the priests who accompanied Thutmose I recognised the site as one of the most important to their cult: the dwelling place of Amun.
The natural landscape also consistently played an important role in Kemite and Kushite religious practice, and this is common in other traditional African religions.
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.
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.
I asked my friend Dr Runoko Rashidi for some inspiration for a blog post and he very kindly sent me a copy of a photograph of the Royal Wife and Mother Ahmose Nefertari. She was the wife of the first ruler of Dynasty 18- King Ahmose Nebpehtire, who ruled from 1550 to 1525 BCE. She was also the mother of Amenhotep (I) Djeserkare, who ruled from 1525 to 1504 BCE. It was in the latter capacity as the King’s Mother that she was made a goddess. The relief is of interest of course because her skin is painted black rather than the usual brown.
The word Kemet literally means the Black land. The hieroglyphs above spell out the word and are accompanied by what we call a determinative (the circle and cross to the lower right of the word). In this case the determinative represents roads crossing and so a land.
In Kemet, black was associated with the night, with the Afterlife, and also with resurrection and rebirth. Black was also associated with fertility, we believe because it was the colour of the fertile soil that was deposited after the annual flooding of the River Nile.
Since the building of the Aswan dams the river no longer floods. However, even today it is possible to see how the river impacts on the terrain around it and how different this is compared to the surrounding desert escarpment. The annual inundation of the Nile was closely associated with the King of Kemet, and there were strict rules about when the ruler could and could not travel on the river.
Black and Divine
The relief above was found in a tomb at the workman’s village of Deir el-Medina. This was where the men who created and decorated the royal tombs in the so-called Valley of the Kings and Queens lived, and were also buried. These were highly skilled craftsmen and artists and when the elite in their own society died they were given elaborately decorated tombs. The tomb where the relief was found is now known as TT359 (TT being a shorter reference for Theban Tomb). It belonged to a man who held the position of Chief of Works named Inherkhau. He lived long after Ahmose Nefertari had ruled and commissioned two tombs; the second is now referred to as TT299. The tombs and the painting of Ahmose Nefertari were produced over 350 years after the Royal Wife and Mother’s death. Indicating that her role of goddess continued long after it was awarded.
If we look in detail at the painting we can immediately see that this is a representation of a goddess. If you look carefully at the cap which she wears you can see a wing stretching over the hair; and at the front, over the forehead, is the head of a vulture. Only goddesses wear this vulture cap. Royal women are depicted with a cobra on their brow, which is called a uraeus and effectively protects, as well as identifies the subject as royalty. The style of dress that she wears is typical of those found in Dynasty 20, when the scene was painted, rather than the period when Ahmose Nefertari actually lived. Her hair is braided and held in position by what appear to be gold thread or beads at the ends. This is, of course, common in many African societies and amongst the African Diaspora. The bulk and proportions of the hair that is represented here also suggests that its type is African.
But what about the colour of her skin?
Here, I am going to suggest that the colour is symbolic rather than simply a realistic representation of Ahmose’s skin colour. In the same way that on Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom statuary and statuettes women are often depicted with very pale and white skin. This does NOT reflect their true complexions. In fact this suggestion by Eurocentrics makes no sense at all, particularly when we consider that the consorts or male equivalents have the more typical dark brown skin colours, which is no doubt closer to that of the population at the time. I suggest this because by the New Kingdom both men and women are depicted with the same range of complexions.
By suggesting that white = racialised White then this means that women were of non-African descent but the men were! Of course this is completely ludicrous. I would imagine that Ahmose Nefertari’s skin colour was similar to that of her son’s, who is depicted with brown skin, and who also clearly has African type hair.
There are other posthumous representations of Ahmose Nefertari that show her with black skin. There is also a statue that now has a dark blue appearance, due to the original black pigment having been damaged by light. Using this powerful and potent colour to represent a goddess makes reference to her fertility and rebirth, which is why she was a popular goddess in tombs that were made substantially later than her lifetime.
I find that when people start to explore ‘Egypt’ in its African context (Kemet) they focus on the more obvious references to people of African descent. The paintings of Ahmose Nefertari are a case in point. However, as their knowledge expands, they find that ALL aspects of this complex ancient culture are African and it makes no sense to try and remove it from other traditional African cultures. The complexions that depict mortals, as opposed to gods or the deceased, show them with a range of brown-coloured skins (below), as you find amongst people of indigenous African descent people today. It is these depictions that are probably a truer representation of the people of Kemet and also Kush. But let’s not forget what an advanced and complex society Kemet was, nor how this is demonstrated by their development and use of symbolism.
I would like to thank Dr Runoko Rashidi for inspiring this post. The views expressed are my own.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.