A statement from the British Museum concerning their policy on displaying Kemet

Today I received a statement from Dr Neal Spencer, Keeper of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, with regard to the British Museum’s policy on displaying Egypt as part of Africa:

The Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum has, in the last 15 years, focused much of its research on the relationship between Egypt and Nubia, from Prehistory through the Medieval Period. The geographic (Egypt and northern Sudan) and chronological scope of that research is of course a reflection of the collections material we hold that research can be undertaken on, and the research specialisms of staff within the museum. Surfacing that research in galleries is not always straightforward, as some of the material is fragmentary and difficult to display, but we publish widely (both online and in print) and run an extensive programme of lectures, gallery tours and conferences (seewww.britishmuseum.org with further links to online content and publication lists).

The present-day Egyptian galleries are arranged thematically – looking at life (and idealised life) in New Kingdom Egypt (Room 61, Nebamun), funerary beliefs in Egypt (Room 62-63), prehistoric Egypt (Room 64) and Egyptian temple/tomb sculpture (Room 4). Within those galleries and the chosen themes and space, there is limited scope to discuss how these themes relate to wider Africa, or indeed regions that Egypt was in contact with beyond Africa. A bioarchaeology section in Room 63 does highlight how future research might tell us about migration patterns within and beyond Africa, which would of course be relevant. The Room 4 display does feature some objects relating to Dynasty 25 and the Kushite state and culture.

Room 65 is the exception, as the chosen theme here expressly looks beyond Egypt to explore its relationship with areas further south, across a period spanning prehistory to the Medieval era. This gallery – entitled “Sudan, Egypt and Nubia” – looks at the distinct aspects of Nubian and Egyptian cultures, alongside shared elements, and how they were at times entangled, with ideas, iconography, art, craft, technologies and so on travelling in both directions. This gallery highlights Egypt in the context of another great and (importantly) contemporaneous African civilisation, using objects from the collection.

Research, collections and display on Africa at the British Museum are not limited to the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, but are ongoing across the Museum. Egyptian objects (principally of 19th and 20th century date) are also featured in the Living and Dying gallery, and the Africa galleries. Finally, we are currently in the process of creating a collection relating to 20th century Egypt, with associated research. This very much places Egypt in its global context, and an emerging story within that is around Egypt’s engagement with sub-Saharan Africa during the 20th century – something that is less often highlighted than its relationship to the Middle East, Europe, USSR and USA. The outputs of this project are still being defined, but might include small displays, a book and digital content.

We are very aware of different interpretative frameworks for how Egypt is part of Africa at different periods, and around the reception and interpretation of ancient Egypt, but none of our galleries focus on interpretative frameworks nor the historiography of research. This current situation in no way precludes future displays on such subjects, whether in permanent galleries or exhibitions.

We seek to be open to debate, new ideas and discussion. Public programming and online content is naturally quicker to reflect such things (for example, inviting Sally-Ann Ashton to give three lectures at the British Museum on the subject of African-centred approaches to Egyptology), as gallery interpretation can take time to change, for logistical reasons. The current displays and information vary in date from 1979 to 2015, depending on the individual gallery, but as we have opportunities to update those, we will of course consider new research and perspectives.

Neal Spencer, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum

 

A (confidential) response from the British Museum

A response from the British Museum

Well for those people waiting for a response from the British Museum to my email, I received one but it was marked ‘confidential’. I have asked for a public statement that I can share, and as soon as I receive one I will post it. I have to say, I do wonder what aspect of a publicly-funded museum’s policies on the interpretation of displays could possible be confidential. And, I also believe that it is precisely this lack of transparency and communication that makes the relationship between some cultural institutions and their relevant communities worse than they need to be.

Kemet Expert is 1 year old

On Sunday 5 February Kemet Expert blog is 1 year old. The post that I am currently writing will look at the Kemite influence on Greek art. In the meantime I thought I would remind you how the Ancient Greek people represented the people of Ancient Kemet.

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Rhyton dating to the Classical Period, circa 350 B.C. Photograph copyright of the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge.

And how they presented themselves

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Thutmose Menkheperura makes an offering to Amun

A letter to the British Museum

The British Museum

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.

 The Letter

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 simply 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.

Kemet: Understanding African-centred Egyptology Lecture

Understanding African-centred Egyptology Lecture 2016

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.

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Colossal granite statues of Ptolemy VIII and either Cleopatra II or III. Maritime Museum, Alexandria SCA 279 and 278.

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.

Conspiracy

Statue of Rameses II with a missing nose and damaged face
Statue of Rameses Usermaatre-setepenre with a missing nose and damaged face

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.

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J.C. Nott and G.R. Gliddon, Types of mankind or, ethnological researches based upon ancient monuments, paintings, sculptures, and crania of races, and upon their natural geographical, philological and biblical history 1854

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!

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Fragment of a colossal statue of Rameses Usermaatre-Setpenre in the Sculpture gallery at the British Museum
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J.C. Nott and G.R. Gliddon, Types of mankind or, ethnological researches based upon ancient monuments, paintings, sculptures, and crania of races, and upon their natural geographical, philological and biblical history 1854

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.

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The Egyptian gallery at Manchester Museum

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.

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

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.

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A detail of a relief showing royal wife Kawit having her hair styled

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.

 

Black History Month and Kemet

Black history month and Kemet

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.

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Thutmose Menkheperura makes an offering to Amun (detail)

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

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The Temple of Amun and Ra-Horakhty at Amada in Nubia

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.

Amenhotep_Re-Horakhty
Amenhotep Aakheperura and The god 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.

Amenhotep_Thoth_Re-Horakhty
Djehuti, Ra-Horakhty and Amenhotep Aakheperura

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.

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The King and priests carry the divine barque

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.

 

Black History Month 2016

Black History Month (UK) 2016

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

Original writing of Kmt
Original writing of Kmt

@kemetexpert

@kemetexpert will also be sharing images and information relating to Kemet on twitter throughout October.

Virtual Kemet: an on-line resource

Virtual Kemet

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.

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Virtual Kemet

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

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Middle and Old Kingdom cases in the Fitzwilliam Museum, as seen on Virtual Kemet

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.

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Information panel in Gallery 65 at the British Museum

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.

 

From tekhenu to obelisk: From Kemet to Rome

Tekhenu

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Tekhenu, Karnak

When you ask many people to describe something from Kemet they will often reference a tall thin structure, but not remember its name. What they are referring to is what the Greek’s called an obelisk (obelisks), but its original Kemite name was tekhenu. The earliest surviving tekhenu dates to what we now call the Middle Kingdom, and bears the names of the king Sensusret Kheperkare (Senusret I, as we call him). Senusret ruled from around 1956-1911 BCE, and commissioned two tekhenu to celebrate his 30 year jubilee, or Heb Sed festival. Only one survives and it stands today in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. However, the form dates back much earlier to the Old Kingdom (around 2686-2181 BCE).

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Tekhenu at Karnak

The largest tekhenu to survive can be found at the temple now known as Karnak. These gigantic monuments date to the reigns of Thutmose (I) Aakheperenre who ruled from 1504-1492 BCE and Hatshepsut Maatkare, the female pharaoh who ruled from around 1479-1458 BCE. Those that remain at the site are a fraction of the original number.

Meaning

Not all tekhenu were as large as the examples at Karnak. The people of ancient Kemet actually distinguished between small and large with the appropriate adjective. Larger tekhenu were placed at the entrances to temples, often in front of the pylon (gateway). Smaller scale examples were also found at the entrance to tomb chapels, and the smallest were in the form of amulets (charms). But what did they mean?

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Pyramid, Giza

A tekhenu is related to the benben, which was the sacred mound that the people if Kemet believed rose from the primeval waters from which creation arose. The benben stone was referenced at the top of a pyramid and the tekhenu was effectively an elevated version. In essence a tekhenu lifted this sacred stone to the sun and was closely associated with the sun god Ra. It is likely that the summits of both pyramids and tekhenu were covered with precious metals.

From Kemet to Rome

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Examples of stone carving at the Aswan ancient quarry

Many tekhenu that originated in Kemet were taken from their original locations. And in fact even in ancient times there are examples of kings of Kemet usurping a tekhenu by adding their own inscriptions to those of an earlier ruler. Why? Well because manufacturing a colossal tekhenu was not an easy task. In fact a failed attempt can still be seen at the Aswan quarries. You can see from the photograph above that quarry workers would use rock to pound out the form of the items the chief stone mason would then work upon. Why go through the labour and expense of manufacturing and then transporting such a monument when you could just as easily inscribe one belonging to someone else?

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Obelisk

The Roman emperor Augustus clearly saw the value of the earlier tekhenu. He transported the example above, which dates to the reigns of Seti (I) Menmaatre (1290-1279 BCE) and Rameses (II) Usermaatre-setpenre (1279-1213 BCE) from Iunu or Heliopolis in Kemet. The obelisk was initially placed in the circus maximus in Rome, where events such as chariot races were held. Augustus was so enthused by the monuments that he had two small versions placed in front of his own tomb; although this and the transportation of earlier tekhenu was probably for political reasons; he had defeated Cleopatra and gained control of Egypt.

A continuation of a Kemite tradition?

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The obelisk of Antinous, Rome

The last example of an inscribed obelisk dates to the reign of the emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE), who commissioned a monument to honour his dead lover Antinous. Antinous had accompanied the emperor to Egypt for an official visit. Hadrian, a keen devotee of Egyptian cults reportedly hired the services of a Kemite priest to act as a guide during the trip. Part way through the expedition, Antinous drowned in the Nile; Hadrian was inconsolable and in honour of his lover built a city that he named Antinoopolis (The city of Antinous) and initiated a cult to the dead youth.

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The river Nile near the ancient city of Antinoopolis, where Antinous drowned

As part of that cult the obelisk was commissioned and brought to Rome. Unlike many of the Roman period obelisks that have nonsense hieroglyphs inscribed on the sides, the obelisk of Antinous must have been carved by a Kemite artist under the supervision of a Kemite priest. It shows that in spite of over 500 years when colossal tekhenu were not produced, the skills and religious traditions had not been lost in Kemet.

 

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.

 

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).

egypt_versus_kemet_Ibn_Tulun_mosque
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.