Ancient Egypt beyond a colonial past

Presenting Ancient Egypt

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.

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

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?)

edwin_longsden _long_the_gods_and_their_makers
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.

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)
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).

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.

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.

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.