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

DNA from Kemet

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

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

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

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

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

Key points to remember when thinking about DNA

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

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

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

But…

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

Simplification of ‘racial’ types

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

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

African biological variations  

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

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

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

In conclusion

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

 

Ancient Egypt beyond a colonial past

Presenting Ancient Egypt

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The special exhibition Gifts for the Gods, Manchester Museum 2016

The earliest religion in Kemet was animism. Like many traditional African religions, the Kemite version looked to nature in order to explain the world, and to provide spiritual support and protection. Animals played an important role within Kemite religion and were seen in two key capacities: (1) as representations of the gods on earth and (2) as symbolic guardians and protectors.

One particular aspect of this phenomenon was the subject of a special exhibition at Manchester Museum: Gifts for the Gods. Animal Mummies Revealed. As the title suggests, the exhibit explored the cultural context and composition of animal mummies, the latter through CT scans. Such technology has enabled museums to see what was inside the wrappings without damaging the actual item. In the Victorian period, when mummies (both human and animal) were first removed from their original contexts and placed in museums throughout the world, they would typically be unwrapped. The legacy of this practice can be seen in museums globally, especially in regard to the display of the remains of Kemite people.

Presenting the past

Any museum curator will tell you how difficult it is to balance the number of objects on display with the information that is presenting about them. Ultimately you are often left with a choice: do you display more objects or give people more information? Some museums have what are called open access displays. This is where all objects are accessible to the public in display cases but there are no explanations, dates or reference numbers accompanying them. I personally really like this type of display because you can see everything. However, such displays can cause frustration, especially if you want to know what something is or where it was excavated because you often can’t even find the registration number in order to write to the museum to ask them.

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Detail of an information panel at the special exhibition Gifts for the Gods, Manchester Museum

In the Gifts for the Gods exhibition, however, there was plenty of room for information provision. A large information panel entitled British Archaeologists in Egypt included an archive photograph of the Egyptologist John Garstang sitting in front of a union flag (above). Egypt was, of course, occupied by British forces between 1882 and 1952; and although the country retained its autonomy as part of the Ottoman Empire until 1914, British archaeologists and Egyptologists often raised their national flag at excavation sites. The text accompanying the photographs reads:

John Garstang’s workroom inside a rock-cut tomb at Beni Hasan, showing him seated to the right, 1902-4

I was disappointed that the opportunity was not taken to comment further on the colonial nature of this photograph or indeed the history of Egyptology. For visitors, such images have the potential to reinforce and accept Britain’s colonial past rather than to question and consider the consequences.

Addressing Britain’s colonial past

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The phantoms of Congo River. Photographs by Nyaba Ouedraogo, Manchester Museum, April 2016

Upstairs in the the Manchester Museum was another exhibition entitled The phantoms of Congo River. Photographs by Nyaba Ouedraogo. Here, a label that accompanies material culture from the Congo River includes the following text:

These objects were collected from places and people along the Congo River from the late 19th century. Such collections are the legacy of European commercial and colonial interests in this part of Africa, the same interests that drive Charles Marlow in the novella Heart of Darkness.

These objects were also collected during a similar time period to those in the exhibition on Kemet. Why then is there such a discrepancy in the way in which this practice is presented in two exhibitions in the same institution? Is it not timely and appropriate for Egyptologists to adopt a more critical approach to the history of their subject? I would suggest very strongly that it is.

Idealised and Romantic (and Racist?)

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The Gods and their Makers by Edwin Longsden Long. Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Burnely

The painting above was used in the exhibition to illustrate a woman carving a statue of a cat. I was struck immediately by the appearance of the ‘Egyptians’ in the work, identified by the artefacts that they hold and who are clearly of European descent. The only African person to be represented in the painting is holding a cat, that is the model for the sculptor.The panel accompanying the painting read:

European paintings and literature of the 1800s portray an idealised, romantic version of ancient Egypt, inspired by impressive temple ruins. The vast numbers of animal mummies buried in catacombs were well know to travellers. This led to the mistaken belief, based on Western ideas about animals as pets, that the ancient Egyptians worshipped animals themselves rather than the gods they represented. The reality for many animals prepared as mummies was very different.

I am not suggesting that museums should not show such works, but they need to be presented through a critical lens, and the blatant racist ideologies that accompany such images need to be deconstructed. Otherwise there is a danger that visitors leave the space with a confirmation that this was a reality. By describing such works as ‘idealised’, ‘romantic’ museums are failing to address a colonial and racist past.

 

Nubia versus Kush: which term is best?

Nubia and Kush

A few years ago I ran a small survey. I asked a group of adult students, who were culturally diverse, what the term Nubian meant to them. Out of a group of 40 people, only those with a connection to African, Black British or Caribbean heritage had heard of the term and these were their responses:

Black; a place in Africa; old Africans; a forgotten African culture; ancient word for Black people in general; oldest African culture; just a country; part of African people; a Black woman; ancient term for a Black race in Africa; a group of people that Black people evolved from; just a country.

Egyptologists use the term Nubian when referring to the Kingdom of Kush, which is south of Kemet/Ancient Egypt (see detail from the tomb of Sokehotep below). However, they also use the adjective Nubian to describe any representation that has the appearance of an indigenous African person. In doing so, they distinguish between the ancient Nubian people from Kemites (ancient Egyptians).

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

Since, as I have also previously noted, the majority of Egyptologists in European and North American institutions do not have a direct connection to Africa, I wanted to find out how contemporary Nubian people defined themselves, and if this was an appropriate term to use for the ancient people from this region. So, in 2011 I spent time recording the responses of Nubian colleagues, Elders and community members in both Egypt and Sudan. Many of the conversations were recorded and can be found on the Fitzwilliam Museum’s website.

Nubia as a geographical region

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Map showing the aproximate region of Nubia (in red)

The territory of Nubia runs from the first cataract of the river Nile in Aswan to the sixth cataract of the river, which is north of the city of Khartoum in Sudan. However, when the second Aswan dam was completed in 1970 Nubian people were forced to move further north in Egypt to the towns of Edfu and Kom Ombo, both of which are on the river Nile. Many Nubian people were also displaced even further away, to the desert in the east, in a town named Nasr al Nuba.

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The new town of Nasr al Nuba in Egypt

The building of the dam destroyed communities and archaeology alike. And although major monuments were moved to new locations away from the flooded land, the communities of Nubian people had to leave their traditional homes and were displaced. Not everyone who lives in this region is Nubian. In fact Nubian people form a minority group, who have had to fight to maintain their cultural identity.

Nubian people

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A Nubian family at their traditional house in Darrow, Egypt.

Nubian can also refer to a group of peoples who form a distinct cultural group who originate from this region. Today, the majority of Nubian people are Muslim, however, many of their traditions from the time before they adopted this religion remain. One such tradition amongst some Nubian people is to take a child to the river Nile when it is born. This is because the river has always been important within Nubian traditions.

Many of the people who I interviewed in Egypt made reference to the fact that Nubian people today are “mixed”. That their ancestors married other Islamic people who came to this region; religion being a common link between two groups that were originally culturally diverse. Perhaps because of this Nubian people have a range of different appearances, as can be seen from some of the photographs that were taken as part of the research project I mentioned. These can be viewed on the Fitzwilliam Museum’s website.

In North America the term Nubian can be used to refer to African American or African people.

Nubian as a language

Nubian is also a language that has at least three distinct dialects. However, as the Elders die so are some of these dialects. Preserving the Nubian language was such a concern that the Nubia Museum in Aswan began a programme of teaching it to young people, in order to preserve it. For the majority of Nubian people, their first language is now Arabic. Young people naturally feel that it is more useful to learn a European language in order to be better placed to find employment. Thus, Nubian, like many African languages, is literally dying out. When I spoke to Elders of Nubian communities in both Egypt and Sudan in 2011, the majority said they simply don’t use Nubian on a daily basis.

Nubian as an ancient culture?

Should we then be using Nubian when describing ancient people from this region? Or is the ancient term Kush or Kushite preferable?

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Granite sphinx with the head of King Taharqa from Temple ‘T’ at Kawa. British Museum (EA1770)

The adjective Kushite is generally used to describe rulers of Dynasty 25. These rulers originated from Kush and ruled their own country alongside Kemet. This dual rule was referenced on their statuary by the two cobras that they wore on their brows; most kings of Kemet only wore one cobra. The cobra symbolised protection for royalty and also gods. The phenomenon can be seen on the statue of King Taharqa above.

I would use the term Nubia in regard to the region, in the same way that I might use Egypt or Sudan. However, as with Egypt I feel it is important to make a distinction between the ancient peoples and those who live in this region today. The cultures, religions, languages, and also a large percentage of the population has changed considerably since ancient times.

There is, of course, no right or wrong answer to the question that I posed at the start of this post. For now, I feel happiest using the terms Kemet and Kush, but I would be interested to hear other people’s views on how they feel the term Nubian should be used.

The mystery of the Nubian pyramids

Nubian pyramids and the natural landscape

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Nubian landscape

By Nubian pyramids, I mean pyramids in the region of Nubia (today this is southern Egypt and northern Sudan). Because historically this area was home to a culture that was older than Kemet, people often assume that there are a greater number of older pyramids. This isn’t true of man-made structures. The earliest pyramids to survive date to 8th century BCE, whereas those in Kemet are much older. The pyramids at the site of Giza are traditionally dated to around 2560 BCE.

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Example of a natural rock formation in southern Egypt

There are, however, thousands of examples of natural rock formations in the Nubian Desert that have the appearance of pyramids. These mounds were formed by water that once flowed through the now desert. They would have been present when people from Kush moved north to settle in Kemet.  Their size and number is striking as you drive through this region.

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Example of the rock formations in the Nubian Desert

The landscape was extremely important to both Kemite and Kushite cultures and played an integral part in how the ancient people explained their existence, and also many of the divine stories that related to their religion. Today, in archaeology, we call this the phenomenology of landscapes, or how people experienced and interacted with their environment. These natural rock creations are striking even to a contemporary visitor to this region. I would suggest that they would have been equally so to someone from the ancient world. I also wonder, but have no direct evidence, if these shapes didn’t somehow inspire the development of the form of the pyramid.

Pyramids at Nuri

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Pyramids at the royal cemetery of Nuri, northern Sudan

The pyramids at the cemetery of Nuri include that of King Taharqa (690-664 BCE), one of the kings who ruled Kush and Kemet, as part of Dynasty 25. These pyramids were constructed from sandstone blocks, which are extremely vulnerable to the elements.

Pyramids at Meroe

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The cemetery of Meroe

There were 3 cemetery areas at Meroe, or Begarawiyah, in northern Sudan. These are divided into South, North and West and contain over 300 pyramid structures.

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The pyramids at Meroe, Sudan

The pyramids at Meroe range from the 8th century BCE to the 4th century CE. Many of these structures were damaged in 1834 by an Italian treasure hunter, who was searching for gold. Archaeologists are still trying to reconstruct and restore them today.

 

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Pyramid at Meroe, showing the tomb chapel at the entrance

The construction of these smaller pyramids included a small tomb chapel at the front. This created a small chamber in which to leave offerings for the deceased (see left).

Pyramids at Gebel Barkal

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Gebel Barkal (Sacred Rock) and temple
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The royal pyramids of Gebel Barkal, Sudan

The pyramids at Gebel Barkal housed the burials of rulers of the Meroitic Kingdom and date between the 3rd century BCE and the 1st century BCE. They were close to the sacred rock of Gebel Barkal (above), which again was an important part of the ancient landscape and is an example of a natural phenomenon being recognised and used as a sacred space. As with the other pyramids, these are constructed from sandstone.

Appropriation for a British monument

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A British war memorial in Northern Sudan inspired by the form of a pyramid

Finally, the form of a pyramid, like many Kushite and Kemetic structures has inspired designers of monuments from European cultures. This small memorial (above) commemorates fallen British forces, and is in the form of a small pyramidal structure. The inscription is damaged but reads:

To the memory of British officers and… who died… Anglo…

 

Portraiture, Kingship and Kemet

Portraiture, Kingship and Kemet: The case of Senusret Kakaure

It seems a little odd, when the majority of Egyptologists have no direct connection to Africa in regard to their own biological or cultural heritage, that they feel justified in deciding when a representation is or isn’t of a person of African descent.

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Granite statue of Senusret Kakaure. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge (E.37.1930)

The ruler illustrated in this post is a case in point. It represents Senusret Khakaure, who is now known as Senusret III. He was a fifth ruler of Dynasty 12, which belongs to a period now referred to as the Middle Kingdom, and ruled Kemet from around 3800 years ago (circa 1872-1853 BCE). His strong jawline, hooded eyelids and prominent cheek bones have led many people to recognise facial features that are typical of some indigenous African people, and people of African descent.

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Fragment of a statue of King Senusret Kakaure. Copyright the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (E.GA.3005.1943)

Now it should be the case that you don’t need a qualification to decide whether a statue represents someone of African descent, no? Well, that doesn’t seem to be the academic consensus in the case of Ancient Egyptian sculpture. Since the 1990s it has generally been assumed that images of kings are not true likenesses of the people they represent.

I should state from the off-set that I do not subscribe to this point of view and whilst I am prepared to concede that rulers, from any culture, are typically represented in an idealised way, I really do not understand why a portrait would look nothing remotely like the subject. Particularly when there is such a variety amongst Ancient Egyptian royal sculpture.

I adopted this point of view very early in my career as an Egyptologist.  My doctoral thesis was on Egyptian royal sculpture and I subsequently spent some years continuing to research this particular area. I am confident that I could correctly identify an image of any Ancient Egyptian ruler. I can do so, because each had a very specific ‘portrait’ type.

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Statue of Senusret Kakaure. The British Museum, London

There was a good reason for this phenomenon. Life-size stone statues, (such as those above) were often placed at the entrances to temples or palaces with the intention of promoting the King. Inscriptions were not always visible on statues and so the iconography (symbols) and the facial features needed to also play a part in assisting with identifying who the statue represented. How then are the features of Senusret III typically explained?

Realistic, symbolic or psychological portraits?

In 2015 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held an exhibition entitled: Ancient Egypt Transformed. The Middle Kingdom . The key issues relating to Middle Kingdom portraits are contextualised in an essay for the catalogue by Dorothea Arnold entitled: Pharaoh. Power and Performance (Ancient Egypt Transformed. The Middle Kingdom, edited by A. Oppenheim, D. Arnold, D. Arnold, and K. Yamamoto. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. pp. 68-72). They are as follows:

  1. Realistic– Egyptologists Cyril Aldred and Jacques Vandier who wrote, in the 1980s, on the subject of portraiture in Kemet dating to the so-called Middle Kingdom concluded that the portrait features on statues from this period were realistic representations of the kings.
  2. Non-realistic– in relation to non-idealised portraits on funerary representations dating to the earlier period of the so-called Old Kingdom, Bernard V. Bothmer concluded that no representations from Kemet should be called ‘portraits’.
  3. More recently, Egyptologists have interpreted features on the sculptures of Senusret as coded messages– for example the prominent eyes representing a vigilant king.
  4. In 1996 Egyptologist Jan Assmann, put forward the idea that these portraits represented the inner character of the kings and were psychological.

More recently, and as Arnold concludes in her essay, specialists in sculpture generally accept that these royal representations draw upon the actual appearance of the king, but within an acceptable framework so that he can be identified as such by people who looked at the statue. Arnold writes the following:

… it is very difficult to imagine that Senwosret III’s eyes in his official image did not reflect his own peculiarly shaped eyes in real life… The faces of Senwosret III… are best understood as recognizable images of these pharaohs with some realistic details formalised in the particular intellectual climate.  (p. 71)

I have included this quote because a number of friends and colleagues who have questioned professional Egyptologists have met with a response that suggests portraits from this period are to be dismissed as non-realistic representations. In other words when asked if Senusret really looked like his statues, they are told that this is not the case. The question often arises because people of African descent recognise the portrait features on these statues as similar to their own. Therefore, to deny that the statues look even remotely like their subject, is to deny their African origin.

There is one key issue that no-one seems to have addressed. Whether these ‘portraits’ are realistic or idealised representations, the overall appearance of these statues (their profiles, facial features, and also where hair is represented) suggests very strongly that they represent indigenous African people. Why would any sculptor show their kings in this way if they were anything other than African?

 

 

 

Curating Kemet: 5 things that museums could do

Curating Kemet

There are a number of very simple approaches that museums could utilise in order to reaffirm the African origins of Ancient Egypt. And if you find yourself in a position to impart knowledge to others and are tired of waiting for this to be be implemented in your local museum, you can, of course, quite easily do this yourself.

1. What’s in a name?

A simple technique that I used when writing the information for a virtual gallery was to refer to anything that dated before the Ptolemaic Period (332 BCE) as ‘Kemet’ rather than ‘Egypt’. Αίγυπτος/Aegyptus were the names used by the Ancient Greek and Roman writers for Kemet. By continuing to use it, we are effectively still looking at the culture through a European lens. By abandoning this name, it is also possible to remove many of the Eurocentric interpretations that have been place upon this ancient African culture. It encourages people to look at the culture from a fresh perspective.

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Statue of Senusret Kakaure. The British Museum, London

Many of the names that we use for rulers of Kemet are Hellenised (from the Greek versions). For example, Senusret Kakaure (left) a ruler of what we now refer to as the Twelfth Dynasty is sometimes referred to as Sesotris, which is the Greek version of his name. A similar issue arising the the use of Arabic names for ancient sites; Tell el-Amarna/Amarna, was named Akhet-Aten when it was occupied by the ancient people. By using the original African names we immediately resituate the ancient culture and its people.

A helpful site that lists all of the original names for the kings of Egypt and also gives the original names for sites is Digital Egypt.

2. Cultural context

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Fragment of a colossal statue of Rameses Usermaatre-Setpenre in the Sculpture gallery at the British Museum

When an object is removed from its original site, the context is lost. It is therefore essential that museums seek to present objects within the appropriate cultural context. In university and national museums in the UK the Ancient Egyptian galleries are rarely connected to other African cultures. One exception to this is the Africa gallery at the Horniman Museum in south London. Here, a Kemite coffin is displayed alongside more recent ethnographic materials (see below) from a number of cultures from Africa and the African Diaspora.

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Mami Wata Shrine in the Africa gallery at the Horniman Museum, London.

Kemite culture has much in common with other African cultures: from individual items such as hair combs, pottery, basketry, headrests; to concepts such as traditional religions, kingship and the role of women in societies. By referencing other African cultures that we know more about, curators can help visitors to obtain a better understanding of an ancient culture. In spite of this observation, you are more likely to find the Kemet collections next to the galleries that display Ancient Greece, Rome and the Ancient Near East than the African galleries. Adding ‘Africa’ to the name of a gallery that relates to ‘Ancient Egypt’ would be a good starting for many museums.

3. Illustrations

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Detail of a display of early grave goods at the Kerma Museum, Sudan

Illustrations and reconstructions are an important part of the presentation of cultures in museums, particularly when that culture is ancient. The photograph on the left shows a display in the Kerma Museum, Sudan and offers a powerful artistic interpretation to illustrate how the original owners of the grave goods would have worn these objects. The racialised identity of such reconstructions is important, because at an unconscious level we are likely to recall this when we think about the culture and its people in the future. Many people who have attended talks that I have given on Kemet have later said that they had simply never thought of Ancient Egypt as African. This is, in my opinion, largely the result of the media (for example films or documentaries that show reconstructions of the ancient people), museums, and the education system failing to differentiate between the ancient and more recent cultures in Egypt.

4. Historical timeline

Which brings me onto the fourth point: looking at this region’s historical timeline and acknowledging the changes in cultures and populations that have occurred over the past ten thousand years. I have summarised the key periods in a previous post under the heading From Kemet to Egypt to Misr. By recognising external cultural interactions and internal transitions, it is possible to obtain a better understanding of Kemet’s importance as an ancient indigenous African culture. Historical timelines also demonstrate the importance of this region and its people in the development of the Coptic church, and so Christianity more widely.

5. Connecting with Kush

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

In two recent posts I have observed that museums often differentiate between the people and cultures of Kemet and Kush. The result of this practice is that any representation from Kemet that is seen to represent an indigenous African person will be labelled as ‘Nubian‘. This practice continues to be standard, in spite of the fact that the majority of museums acknowledge the similarities between these two ancient cultures.

Egypt in Africa

Egypt in Africa at the British Museum

I recently had a couple of hours to kill and so decided to go and look again at the galleries that are curated by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum. I was interested to look in more detail at the ways in which the museum differentiated between the ancient peoples of Kemet and Kush. So I headed to Room 65, which is named ‘Sudan, Egypt and Nubia’. The objects in this gallery come mainly from the region now known as Nubia (which incorporates southern Egypt and northern Sudan).

Geography

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Information panel in the British Museum’s Sudan, Egypt and Nubia Gallery

The panel above states the following:

This gallery tells the story of Sudan, southern Egypt, Nubia and the river Nile. A corridor for trade and the movement of people and ideas, this region was home to major civilisations. For thousands of years it was a vital link between central Africa, Egypt and the Mediterranean world.

This is the only gallery that houses material from BCE (Before Common Era) Egypt in the museum that mentions Africa. The introductory panel above very firmly associates Egypt with the Mediterranean world rather than situating it within its own continent. In fact the ‘borders’ between Kemet and Kush were not fixed in antiquity and the two regions shared much in common.

A second panel also refers to the role of the region of Nubia within Africa, but again in doing so it also ‘removes’ Egypt and Nubia from central Africa with the following statement:

The unique position of Nubia as the only reliable land route between Egypt and the African interior made it a region of great economic importance…

People

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

The painting above depicts people from Kush, who are bringing offerings to King of Kemet. It is used in Gallery 65 to show people how ‘Nubians’ were depicted by Egyptian artists. The accompanying information panel states the following:

The ancient Nubians shared a broadly common ethnic background with the Egyptians, but their physical characteristics showed variations of skin colour, physiognomy, and skeletal proportion… In Egyptian art Nubians can easily be recognised by their dark skin, feathers worn in the hair, large earrings and leopard-skin kilts…

In actual fact some depictions of the people from Kush show them with the same skin colour as Kemites. An example of this can be seen on the relief above; if you look carefully behind the second man from the left is another worshipper, who has the same skin tone that was used by Egyptian artists to depict their own people. I showed another example of this in an earlier post. Thus, not all depictions of people from Kush show them with ‘black’ skin. Like the people from Kemet their skin tones vary.

Kemet

Historically, Egyptology has differentiated between ancient representations of people who meet an oversimplified test of whether they conform to being a ‘True African’. This fails to recognise the variety of skin tones, hair types and physical features that are found among indigenous African people today. Nowhere in the galleries at the British Museum is there any attempt to situate Egypt within an African context; the only exception is the small gallery on Egyptian Coptic culture, which also displays material from the Ethiopian church. The museum houses large collections of material from many African cultures and yet these collections are never displayed together.

Ancient Egypt is included among African civilisations on the museum’s webpages that contain education resources. In the teachers’ notes it states the following:

… Ancient Egypt is generally studied under the heading of ‘great Mediterranean civilisations’ and is often forgotten that it is equally a part of the history of Africa. Much of its trade, history, wars, politics and ethnicity are bound up with the continent, and it has every right to be considered African- a powerful counter argument to those who try to belittle the cultural and technological achievements of African civilisations…

Although the statement still does not fully place the ancient culture within its rightful continent it goes further than the gallery information panels in recognising that Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Egyptians were African.

Combs from Kemet: further thoughts on ancient Egyptian hair combs

Combs from Kemet (and Ghana)

I spent the best part of 3 years researching African hair combs. And just when I thought that I knew everything there was to know and had found every possible parallel for the combs from Ancient Egypt, I came accross a number of very interesting combs in the National Museum in Accra, Ghana (below).

combs_from_kemet_dawu_combs
Bone items from Dawu, Ghana, including two combs or hair adornments. The National Museum, Accra

The objects above were excavated by a British archaeologist Thurston Shaw at the site of Dawu. The rubbish dump where they were found was dated to between the mid-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries CE. This coincided with the time that the town was absorbed into the Akwapim Empire. The comb on the left is important because it is almost identical to the combs that were made by African people who had been enslaved and transported to the US. The comb, or decorative piece, in the middle on the right, struck me because it is almost identical to a comb that is housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The difference being that the Cambridge comb (below) is around 6000 years old and from Kemet.

combs_from_kenet_Fitzwilliam_Museum_E.59.1900
Ivory hair comb or hair decoration from a grave at the cemetery of Abydos, Egypt. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge (E.59.1900)

It isn’t possible to say that two combs that are 6000 years apart are directly connected. We can only make this assumption if we can show continuity through time. However, until I saw the Dawu comb I had failed to find any parallels for the comb above apart from those in Ancient Egypt. It is possible that the two combs were used as decoration for the hair, or that they served a particular purpose in styling.

 

 

 

A better understanding

By looking for parallels within other African cultures we are able to obtain a better understanding of how items that relate to hair were used in Kemet. Ethnographic photographs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries show that combs were used for multiple purposes.  This includes combs being used as status symbols, as decoration for the hair, and as tools; which accords with the evidence from Ancient Egyptian burials. There are also parallels in the decorative techniques that were used in both Kemet and West African cultures. The incised circular decoration on the teeth of the Dawu comb (below right) was also used in Ancient Egypt.

combs_from_kemet_fitzwilliam_museum_EGA.3204.1943 (1)
An ivory Predynastic comb from Ancient Egypt. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (E.GA.3204.1943)
combs_from_kemet_national_museum_Accra
A bone comb from Dawu. National Museum, Accra.

 

 

A good reminder of the variety of different types of comb used for African type hair

I started this post with an image that I took when the Origins of the Afro comb exhibition was on. Being a curator allows you to display objects that you have always wanted to see together and which are not typically shown in that way. For me one of the most exciting things about curating that exhibition was being able to display a 1970s Black power comb  next to an Ancient Egyptian comb that was found in a grave at the cemetery of Abydos.

combs_from_kemet_combs_eh_blackfist_ancient_comb
The iconic ‘fist’ comb from the 1970s and a 5500 year old comb from Abydos Egypt. Taken at the origins of the afro comb exhibition. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 2013
  • In Predynastic Kemet, combs were used as a status symbol and were also worn in the hair. This is a common practice in other African cultures.
  • The earliest combs were in the form of a ‘pik’.
  • The symbols on the handle are often in the form of an animal or part of an animal; perhaps suggesting a religious or power connection.

Once again we can’t make a direct connection between the two combs above, but in terms of their form they are the same. And it is worth noting that we do not find this type of hair pik in any ancient cultures outside of Africa. Even William Matthew Flinders Petrie, who I mentioned in a previous post, noted that there were no European parallels for this form of comb. He wrote the following in his 1927 publication Objects of Daily Use:

combs_from_kemet_plate_from_prehistoric_Egypt
Predynastic combs from Egypt as shown in Petrie publication: Prehistoric Egypt,1920

The early European combs, of bronze age and onward, differ entirely from the Egyptian examples, being always single edged and run backed

Combs with shorter teeth

I was pleased to be reminded, by the Dawu combs, that many African combs are not in the form of a ‘pik’. Of course combs with longer teeth are only appropriate for specific styles of hair and in the same way that not everyone with African type hair uses a ‘pik’ today, the same is true of earlier periods.

combs_from_kemet_Fitzwilliam_museum_E.1.2009
Wooden hair comb dating to around 1550 BCE. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum (E.1.2009)

From around 4000 years ago the form of comb illustrated above was commonly used in Ancient Egypt. The main difference between those from  Kemet and ancient European combs is the width of the gaps between the teeth. Those from Africa tend to have more space, presumably because the users and makers of combs were aware that African type hair can be fragile and prone to breakage.

*Please share your thoughts and comments below*

The Black Pharaohs

The ‘Black’ Pharaohs

On the one hand mainstream Egyptology does not like to enter into discussions about the racialised identity of the ancient people; and yet certain representations are seen to be ‘acceptable’ as ‘African’. Dynasty 25 is a case in point. As rulers of Kush and Kemet these kings are often referred to as ‘The Black Pharaohs’ by the popular press and academics alike.

egypt_versus_kemet_aognitive_dissonance_kushites
The Kushite rulers. Kerma Museum, Sudan.

In 1999 Robert Morkot published an academic book: The Black Pharaohs. Egypt’s Nubian Rulers. Then in 2007 a book entitled: The Nubian Pharaohs. Black Kings on the Nile was published by Charles Bonnet and Dominique Valbelle. It detailed the discovery of the group of statues now in the Kerma Museum (above).

I’d like to spend a moment deconstructing these titles and thinking about the implications for African centred approaches within Egyptology. Both books use the term Nubian to distinguish these rulers from any other Egyptian kings. A future post will consider this term in more detail, but my point at present is that both titles infer that there was an artificial point beyond which people were indigenous Africans, and that anyone further north was not.

For me, part of the problem lies in exactly how Egyptology defines indigenous African peoples. By adopting the stance of deciding what is and is not ‘acceptable’ as an African we are simply seeing a continuation of those early attempts to deny that Ancient Egypt was an African culture that I summarised in an earlier post.

Who’s Black and who’s not?

racism_and_egyptology_Nott_and_gliddon_figure1
‘Libyan’, ‘Nubian’, ‘Asiatic’ and ‘Egyptian’

In that post I explored the racist ideologies of Nott and Glidden, who used the figure above to illustrate racial types. Three out of the four figures above are, of course, African. However, which would we identify in the modern sense of the word as ‘Black’. For many people who are of non-African descent, skin colour alone would be the deciding factor. Some people would fail to take account of other physical features, for example hair type, when considering this point. The Libyan, Nubian and Egyptian all have African-type hair and yet they are someone seen to be different. Libyans are generally depicted by Egyptians artists as having light brown skin; the Egyptians themselves range between light and dark brown skin tone; and of course the Nubians (Kushites) are depicted with jet black skin.

This is partly because many people fail to see the variation amongst indigenous African populations. It is because of this mindset that we find the Ancient Egyptian population being described as ‘mediterranean’ or ‘mixed’. It is worth noting that the term ‘mixed’ in this context does not refer to the diversity of African peoples, it is used to suggest that the entire population was in part descended from non-Africans.

Occasionally Egyptologists did identify some representations being of Africans based on features alone. When George Reisner discovered the representation of a woman at Giza, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, he described her as a ‘negroid princess’. Not a term that we would use today; but in a modern sense she was ‘Black’. So what makes some representations ‘acceptable’ as representations of Africans and others not?

racism_and_ancient_egypt_relief
Detail from the Tomb of Ramose depicting Kemite/Ancient Egyptian people

I have spent some years trying to answer this question. For me the range of skin tones and hair types that we see when Kemites represent themselves (above) reflects a range of indigenous African peoples. Over time, as the country was occupied by people from outside then there is a wider variety in the population and also the dominant culture. A timeline of foreign contact illustrates this point well.

People who are from specific racialised groups are notoriously poor at recognising people who are from a different racialised background. This has consistently been found to be the case in eye witness identifications. This is probably because people focus more on the difference, for example skin colour, than other details. If we think again of the case of Ancient Egyptians, there are a number of factors that will influence whether someone identifies a representation as being of an African person:

  • If someone believes that the Ancient Egyptian people were European, they already show a bias. I discussed confirmation bias in my last post.
  • Some people do not understand the variety of skin colours and shades that are found amongst indigenous African people.
  • The ancient representations of the people from Kush present one type of African person. However, it seems today that unless an image matches this ‘type’ then it is not deemed to be ‘African’.

A few points to consider

Abydos Kushite
A representation of a bound captive from Kush. The pigment shows that the skin colour was the same as that used for the people of Kemet
  • Very few people of African descent have skin that is the colour of the Kushite representations. The ranges of skin tones of modern day indigenous African peoples are actually closer to those that we see on depictions of Kemites.
  • Ancient Egyptian artists sometimes depicted people from Kush with the same skin colour as those from Kemet (see left).
  • The hair type and hairstyles that are shown on Kushites are also found on depictions of Kemites.

 

 

 

 

Egypt versus Kemet: a case of cognitive dissonance?

A case of cognitive dissonance?

Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.

Frantz Fanon Black Skin, White Masks 1952

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance was further developed by American psychologist Leon Festinger and published in 1957. Festinger suggested that we all strive to maintain consistency in our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. That when there is an inconsistency we find this unpleasant and fall into a state of cognitive dissonance. In order to correct this tension we will automatically try to reduce or eliminate the inconsistencies. One way to do this is, as Fanon observed, to deny any evidence that does not fit with our existing belief or opinion.

Confirmation bias

We also know from experiments that people preference information that confirms an existing belief. This is known as confirmation bias and is the tendency to search, interpret and recall information that confirms a belief that we already hold. Of course academic work relies on evidence to support or dismiss theoretical interpretations. The problem when dealing with an ancient culture that no longer exists in its original form is that the evidence upon which we base our knowledge is extremely limited. Furthermore, we are influenced by our own identity, our view of the world, and how we learned about that culture. These issues can be magnified if that culture is studied in isolation, as is often the case with Egyptology.

Interpreting Ancient Egypt

I am often asked by people of both African and European descent why I view Ancient Egypt as an African culture. The inference being that as a White academic I must have a personal reason for choosing to undertake research from an African-focused perspective.

The answer is pretty simple. I view Egypt as African because this was how the ancient culture was first introduced to me: through the eyes of Greek and Roman artists, philosophers and writers. And more recently my work on other African cultures has presented further evidence that an African framework is the most sensible one in which to view Ancient Egypt prior to the first millennium BCE.

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Poster advertising the Egyptian galleries at the World Museum, Liverpool. Taken May 2014

I am certainly not unique amongst UK Egyptologists in seeing Ancient Egypt this way. A number of museums in the England promote Ancient Egypt as African in terms of its geography, and its indigenous population and culture. The World Museum, which is part of the National Museums Liverpool, used an actor of African descent to play the part of a King in its educational films (see above). As I write, their Egyptian galleries are currently closed for renovation. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology in London regularly holds events that explore Ancient Egypt alongside other African cultures. And the Fitzwilliam Museum has a dedicated on-line Virtual Kemet Gallery that I developed during my time there as a curator, as part of community-focused project.

From Kemet to Egypt to Misr

Looking at a basic timeline demonstrates the extent to which the population and culture of Kemet have changed over the past 5000 years. I use this time span because it includes the first identifiable cultures known as Pre-Dynastic through to the present day. In addition to trading with other cultures from early in its history, Kemet was also ruled by outside cultures. The earliest of these were the Hyksos (known by the Kemites as ‘rulers of foreign lands’) during Dynasty 13 (around 1700-1550 BCE). Culturally the Hyksos derived from the Palestinian Middle Bronze Age.

From the first millennium BCE, Kemet was ruled by a number of out cultures, two of which were also African:

  • Libyan– Dynasty 23 (818-715 BCE)
  • Kushite– Dynasty 25 (747-656 BCE)
egypt_versus_kemet_aognitive_dissonance_kushites
The Kushite rulers. Kerma Museum, Sudan.

Then from 525 BCE non-African rulers controlled Kemet, which became known as Egypt under the Macedonians and Ptolemaic rulers. Then in 642 CE Egypt became the Arabic Misr.

Gateway dating to the Ptolemaic Period, North Karnak
Gateway dating to the Ptolemaic Period, North Karnak
    • Achaemenid Iranian (525-404 BCE)
    • Second Persian (343-332 BCE)
    • Macedonian and Ptolemaic* (332-330 BCE)
    • Roman (30 BCE-395 CE)
    • Byzantine (395-668 CE)
    • Islamic Period  (642 CE)

 

*During the traditional periods of its history the Ptolemaic dynasty was the only non-indigenous to be resident. The other cultures continued to rule Egypt from their own states.

Remarkably the culture of Kemet continued in its traditional form until its population changed their religion. The Egyptian script continued to be used in religious contexts during the Ptolemaic and Roman occupations, in spite of the ‘official language’ changing to Greek. And Ptolemaic and Roman rulers were depicted on temple reliefs performing their duties as rulers of Egypt (see above).

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The minaret of the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo

Then, as more and more people began to convert to Christianity, the original religion and culture also began to change; temples were abandoned and there was no resident ruler to fulfil the religious or societal role of King. With the advent of the Islamic settlement in Egypt, around 642 CE, the culture, language and religion changed entirely. The new settlers often made reference to the past in their writings and architecture. The minaret of the Ibn Tulun mosque (above), and which dates to the ninth century CE was modelled on the famous Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Avoiding confirmation bias

The history of Kemet/Egypt/Misr spans well over 5000 years. If, when looking at this vast timespan, we limit ourselves to a single approach, and we fail to acknowledge the impact of outside cultural influences upon the indigenous, then we automatically limit the evidence base that we are able to utilise. If we also consider the origins of egyptology as a discipline then the potential for a biased viewpoint is further increased.