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.
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‘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

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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.

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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?

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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.

Why are the noses missing from Egyptian statues?

The mystery of the missing noses

One of the most common questions that I have been asked over the years by community members is: ‘Why are the noses missing from Egyptian statues?’. I learned early on that there is a subtext to this question and that what the person is really asking is: ‘Were the noses deliberately removed in order to disguise the appearance of the people of Ancient Kemet?’.

Statue of Rameses II with a missing nose and damaged face
Statue of Rameses II with a missing nose and damaged face

Possible reasons for damage

Before answering the question of the missing noses, it is necessary to look at all of the possible causes of damage, and there are a number of these:

  • Statues were re-used in antiquity. Temples became obsolete during the later Roman period and onwards, because people changed their religion. When people wanted building materials they would simply take them from the nearest free source. A sort of recycling. There is evidence of this right through until the 20th century.
  • Statues covered by sand in Egypt
    Statues covered by sand at the Temple of Rameses II in Nubia

    Natural erosion. Many statues were made from sandstone or limestone, both of which are soft stones that are liable to erode very easily when exposed to sand or weather conditions. You can see from the above photograph how quickly statues can be covered by sand, and sand erodes (damages) the surface. Hard stones such as granite and basalt survive much better.

Coptic inscription on a temple relief
Coptic (Christian) inscription on an earlier temple relief. The face of the king has been damaged deliberately.
Later inscription on a statue of Rameses II detail o
Detail of the later inscription and cross
  • Deliberate damage to change the appearance of the statue. Yes this did happen both soon after statues were made, often when a new ruler or dynasty came to power, and also for religious reasons. The images above show a depiction of Rameses II, who ruled Egypt from around 1279-1213 BCE (before common era and so over 3000 years ago). Between the King’s legs is a much later inscription that can be identified culturally as Coptic (Christian) by the cross. The face and eyes of the king have been chiselled away.
  • Washington obelisk
    The Washington obelisk

    The appropriation (unauthorized theft) of Ancient Egyptian culture by non-African cultures. The Washington Monument is in the form of an ancient Egyptian obelisk and was built to commemorate George Washington. More will be written about obelisks in a future post; it is used here to illustrate how easily an Egyptian symbol can be used out of its original context and by a culture that had no direct link to the original. Many cultures that had no connection to Ancient Egypt have used Kemetic symbols for their own purposes, in order to try to connect to a powerful ancient civilisation.

How do we know who damaged the noses of statues?

why are the noses missing from Egyptian statues. The sphinx at Giza
Detail of the Sphinx at Giza

For many, we will never know. We can assume in the case of the Christian writing next to the damaged representation of Rameses II (above) that the two acts may be related.

Still on the subject of appropriation, many people have suggested that non-African cultures have been keen to disguise the African origins of Ancient Egyptian or Kemetic culture in order to claim them as their own. Stories of Napolean’s army firing at the Sphinx in Giza in order to destroy the nose have circulated for a  number of years. However, I have been unable to find any documented evidence for this prior to the 20th century; and I have looked in detail.

What we do have evidence for, in the form of Arabic manuscripts, is the damage of the face of the sphinx by an 14th century extremist named Mohammed Salim al-Dahr. For further references to the original texts see: Haarmann, U., 1980. Regional sentiment in Medieval Islamic Egypt, in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. vol. 43: 55-66.

why are the noses missing from egyptian statues. The mosque of Abu Haggag, Luxor
The Mosque of Abu Haggag in the grounds of Luxor Temple

Egyptian statues represented gods, kings, other members of the royal family or officials. When people in Egypt converted to Christianity in the form of the Coptic religion, or later Islam they no longer wished to have what they deemed to be ‘pagan’ images surrounding their new places of worship. Many of the old temple sites became churches, monasteries and later the sites of mosques, as seen in the image above at Luxor temple. As mentioned above, the new builders often re-used building materials, that to the modern observer contained beautiful images of a past culture, simply as ballast. In short they did not wish to preserve these images, and the available materials saved them time and money.

A conspiracy in Egyptology?

Yes there was, but it was not as simple as damaging the facial features on statues and reliefs to disguise their identity. There was a deliberate attempt by early Egyptologists to deny that Ancient Egypt was an African culture. It was embedded within the discipline from the start and will form the subject of my next post.