Further Comments on ‘Black Pharaohs’ by Dr Shomarka Keita

Further comments on ‘Black Pharaohs’ By Dr Shomarka Keita

The error of affirming the consequent must be acknowledged. Dislike has many causes.

It can be argued that familial ties are stronger than all others even in difficult circumstances, and that when there is a conflict between family ties versus group ties that family pre-empts all.  However, there are too many instances in the recent western experience where this is simply not the case. One example is that during the antebellum period in the USA, Euroamerican males routinely sold their children by enslaved [powerless] African and Afro-descendant women into slavery (how about that for a #metoo moment).  (There were exceptions of course.) All of this is rooted in a notion of racism, specifically anti-“black” racism. This is mentioned since the PBS presentation “Black Pharaohs” expressed various interpretations in a “white”-“black” dichotomy that even European crusaders looking for allies in a black Prestor John would not have understood. Of course the televised piece is not the only place this has been done. There are books and magazine articles that speak of the “black” experience in Egypt which is problematic on various levels as stated before.

Details are interesting when one is discussing racism and interpreting the past in terms of it.  It is not clear that those who invented racism as we understand it and then structured human society around it for their benefit fully understand it. Their various descendants participate in the world view generated by racialism (and/or racism) and perhaps maintain it but cannot be blamed for creating it: their bias may be unconcious, not deliberately theorized and operationalized but only by studying each situation can this be known.  Racism in its visceral form as understood in the USA is not amenable to monetary or spiritual negotiation. This will influence how many interpret a situation of conflict.

An idiographic approach to the question of Egyptian shame about being associated with Kushites might be useful.  Let us drill down on something that would have been personal but also public, on the “national” stage.  We note that in her tomb chapel Piankhi’s daughter, Amenirdis, was installed as “God’s Wife” of Amun (an important title) by being adopted by her non-Kushite predecessor, the usual way this was done.  Her name and images are intact and obvious. Only Pharaoh Piankhi’s cartouche has been removed. The 26th dynasty’s king’s daughter was in turn adopted by the last of the Kushite “Gods’ Wives” and thus there was seamless succession in this role.  If there was shame at being associated with or ruled by specific folk with darker skin at the family level—assuming this to be the case— or folk usually associated with darker skin at the group level, then how could this seamless transition have occurred between Kushite and others?  There is no evidence of shame here. There is no hiding this succession. There is no apparent conceptualization that there is taint associated with taking on the Kushite as successor, and then receiving from a Kushite the same honor via adoption—which in theory should be more susceptible to prejudice than having to deal with actual kin.

The damnato memorae was directed at a king over what is more plausibly interpreted as some personal angst than an attitude about a group based on color. Of course there are other possible explanations that have to do with the cultural intricacies and etiquette of those times that we will possibly never know.

The error of affirming the consequent must be acknowledged. Dislike has many causes.

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.