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.
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.