Guest Post by Dr Vanessa Davies: Egyptology and Africana studies

Dr Vanessa Davies is the founding organizer of a new initiative named The Nile Valley Collective , here she shares her research and thoughts on the divide between Egyptology and Africana Studies.

There needs to be a marriage between Egyptology and Africana studies

In the US, there is a divide within the university system between white Egyptology and Africana studies. By white Egyptology, I mean the Egyptology programs in the US, which are largely staffed by white people, whose research questions and interests trickle into mainstream popular culture via television shows. I use this phrase “white Egyptology” out of respect for the people who work on Egypt and Nubia through the lens of Africana studies. In the US, most scholars of Egyptology are white. Most scholars of Africana studies are Black. This racial and scholarly divide reflects unstated or understated racisms that have underpinned white Egyptology since its inception in the US as part of the university curriculum. This divide must be bridged.Egyptology as a research discipline was established by white European, and later American, scholars to address the questions and perspectives that interested white audiences, scholarly and popular. The two earliest professors of Egyptology in the US, both white men, received their appointments at the turn of the twentieth century. Their graduate education in Germany and in the US was rooted in Semitic languages and cultures and followed Eurocentric interests of that time in looking for connections between ancient Egypt and the stories in the Bible. They separated Egypt from Africa.

As time went on, scholars of African descent studied Egyptology and engaged with white Egyptologists: W. E. B. Du Bois, Leo Hansberry, Cheikh Anta Diop, and Theophile Obenga, just to name a few. These scholars brought new perspectives and new research questions to white Egyptology. But they were ignored or pushed away from it. 

Spurred by the civil rights movement, universities in the US began establishing departments in the 1960s and ‘70s that were dedicated to the history and culture of Africa and the African diaspora. The establishment of those departments was vital to correct the false and dehumanizing claim prevalent in the US that Africa had no history and that by extension African-Americans and Africans elsewhere in the world did not share in the human experience of history.

With a few exceptions, as Africana studies grew and flourished, it did so largely without contact with white Egyptology. White Egyptology, as it moved from solely a graduate program to being a small part of the undergraduate curriculum, did so largely without contact with Africana studies.

This unfortunate divide reflects the longstanding and incorrect separation of ancient Egyptian culture, and to a lesser extent ancient Nubian culture, from its African context. White Egyptology programs in the US are typically found in departments centered on the Near East (the term denoting the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, the Levant, and related zones).

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most white Egyptologists had no knowledge of the other ancient cultures in Africa. Their ignorance about the wider cultural context of Africa and about connections between Nile Valley and other African cultures has largely been perpetuated with each subsequent generation of Egyptologists.

I received my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Besides one class on ancient Nubia and one on art historical theory, all my coursework was focused on Egypt. For language study, one could take Egyptian and Near Eastern languages, such as Akkadian or Sumerian, or Arabic, but there were no offerings on other ancient languages of Africa, such as Berber or Meroitic.

Imagine the fruitful work that white and Black Egyptologists could do if they were placed within Africana studies departments. Imagine the dialogue that could take place about ancient African cultures, the explorations of the widespread reception of ancient Egypt and Nubia in myriad cultural expressions over the decades.

W. E. B. Du Bois understood the race divide in academic pursuits (Davies, 2020). He wrote the histories of African people because he knew that to omit them is “scientifically unsound and also dangerous for logical social conclusions.”(Du Bois, 1946: vii):  Yet, despite the fact that he read widely on Egyptology and published on Nile River Valley history, he wrote this disclaimer in his 1939 preface to Black Folk, Then and Now, “I am no Egyptologist. That goes without saying.” He then proceeded to describe exactly what ideas and which Egyptologists he disputes. A few years later, when he published The World and Africa, his description of the Egyptologists he engages with reads like a who’s who of the field at that time. At what point does Du Bois “get” to become an Egyptologist? The same question must be asked about Leo Hansberry, the African-American professor never recognized by white Egyptology, whom Du Bois described as “the one modern scholar who has tried to study the Negro in Egypt and Ethiopia [i.e., Sudan]”(Du Bois, 1946: x).

The divide between white Egyptology and Africana studies must be bridged to open up Egyptology and to make it more inclusive. Going forward, Egyptologists must be better versed in other ancient cultures of Africa, must dialogue with communities of color, must understand the questions and viewpoints that abound in Africana studies, and must respect the reception of these ancient cultures by people of African descent today.

The divide between white Egyptology and Africana studies perpetuates the separation of Egypt from the rest of Africa. It privileges the people in Egyptology programs as “qualified” to speak about Egypt and, from the perspective of Egyptology, confers the opposite on people in Africana studies. That divide separated Du Bois, Hansberry, and other scholars from white Egyptology. We must not maintain that racist, divisive system.


Davies, Vanessa. “Egyptological Conversations on Race and Science.” Rockefeller Archive Center Research Reports, 2018. 

Davies, Vanessa. “W. E. B. Du Bois, a new voice in Egyptology’s disciplinary history / W. E. B. Du Bois, une nouvelle voix dans l’histoire de l’égyptologie.” ANKH: Revue d’égyptologie et des civilisations africaines 28/29: 2020.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The World and Africa. [1946] 2015.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The World and Africa. [1946] 2015.

Race theory, Racism and Egyptology

The role of Ancient Egypt in theories of ‘race’.

Many academic disciplines in the nineteenth century were embedded within the racist ideologies of the societies and academies where they developed. This is true of the sciences and humanities, including Egyptology, which was directly linked to the study of ‘race’. However, before we go any further to exploring the relationship between racism and Egyptology, it is worth considering the following definitions.

  • Race is a social construct that first appeared in the seventeenth century CE and it is biologically determined. It should not be confused with the term ethnicity.
  • Ethnicity, which is defined as a category of people who identify with each other on the basis of shared ancestral, social, cultural or national experiences.

‘On types of mankind’ Nott and Gliddon, 1854, figure 1

The drawing above appeared in the 1854 publication Types of Mankind by Josiah Clark Nott and George Robert Gliddon (1809-1857). It was taken from the Tomb of Seti I, where it was originally intended to show (from left to right) Libyan, Kushite, Asiatic and Egyptian/Kemite peoples. In their publications the pair copied the reliefs on Egyptian temples in order to claim that the ancient people were typically ‘Hellenic’ (of Greek descent), ‘Semitic’ and even ‘Jewish’.

Nott was an American physician and surgeon and he published on the theory of race. Gliddon was originally born in England but spent time in Alexandria, Egypt, which is possibly where he developed a fascination for the ancient culture. Both men were followers of the American physician Samuel George Morton, who advocated each ‘race’ of people had been created as a separate entity and were not from the same single source.

In 1844 Morton published a volume entitled Crania Aegyptiaca, for which he examined the remains of people from Kemet and concluded that they were not of African descent, but were somehow a “blend” of other races (p.4). A quick glance over the introduction instantly demonstrates how subjective and biased Morton was in his writing.

Racism and Egyptology

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942)

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie was appointed the first professor of Egyptology in the UK in 1892 at University College London (UCL). He was a prolific excavator of sites in Egypt, and wrote many publications on his work. Also at UCL during this period was Sir Francis Galton and Karl Pearson who were both pioneers of the eugenics movement. In fact Galton actually coined the term ‘eugenics’; a word taken from two ancient Greek words meaning ‘well/good’ and ‘group/kin’). His ideas are captured in a book entitled Hereditary Genius, published in 1869, where Galton wrote the following:

Let us do what we can to encourage the multiplication of the races best fitted to invent, and conform to, a high and generous civilisation, and not, out of mistaken instinct of giving support to the weak, prevent the incoming of strong and hearty individuals.

Galton, Pearson and Petrie worked closely together. Petrie provided the Anthropomorphic Laboratory at UCL with human skulls from Egypt for study. Thus, once again the ancient culture was used to illustrate theories of race. However, this time it was also directly influencing the newer field of Egyptology. Today these ‘theories of race’ are deemed to be racist, but Petrie fully embraced them in his work.

One of Petrie’s ‘racial types’ from Memphis, Egypt. Image copyright of the Petrie Museum, UCL

When I worked at the Petrie Museum as a research assistant, I was tasked with registering around 250 terracotta heads that had been collected by Petrie from the site of Memphis. Petrie became obsessed with identifying racial types, writing the following in 1909:

The discovery of portraits of the foreigners was not even thought of and only gradually was it realised that we had before us the figures of more than a dozen different races.

Such quotes show the extent to which Petrie was influenced by contemporary theories of race. If you are interested in further exploring the relationship between Petrie and Galton, it was the subject of a publication in 2013 by Debbie Challis entitled: The Archaeology of Race: The eugenic ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie. There are also a number of publications that were part of the Encounters with Ancient Egypt conference that critically explore how Egypt has been viewed in the past, and this includes a volume on Ancient Egypt in Africa.

How did the ancient people view themselves and others?

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

The ancient people of Kemet distinguished themselves in terms of their appearance and also their culture from their surrounding neighbours. It is worth noting that unlike the later European and North American theorists, these differences were not made solely on the grounds of physical appearance.

  • Libyan people were typically distinguished by their light brown skin, shoulder lock of hair and their headdresses.
  • Kushite people, from what is now Sudan, had black skin, short hair that was often coloured with henna and typically wore gold earrings, as a reference to their control of the gold mines.
  • Asiatic people were the only non-Africans to be depicted, and came from the countries that would now be referred to as the Middle East. People from this region were generally shown with yellow skin (to identify them as being different to those who were African) and later in Roman period they were shown with pink coloured skin. They wore beards and were also depicted in clothes that were different to African peoples.
  • Finally, Egyptian/Kemite people had a range of different skin colours from dark red to brown (see above) and were shown with many different types of clothing and hairstyles because artists depicted a greater range to represent their own people than for those who came from other cultures.

A final question

Given that the foundations of Egyptology are so closely connected to racist ideologies and theoretical frameworks, is there then, still evidence of this attitude within the discipline today? In my next few posts I will be highlighting how the remnants of past theories can permeate through to the present.