Review Article

Egyptian archaeology and Egyptology: help at hand

Kate Spence
Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3DZ, UK

Books Reviewed

WILLEKE WENDRICH (ed.). Egyptian archaeology. xvi+292 pages, 38 illustrations, 2 tables. 2010. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell; 978-1-4051-4987-7 hardback; 978-1-4051-4988-4 paperback £19.99.

MARC VAN DE MIEROOP. A history of ancient Egypt. xxiv+400 pages, 87 b&w & colour illustrations. 2011. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell; 978-1-4051-6071-1 paperback £22.99.

ALAN B. LLOYD (ed.). A companion to ancient Egypt. 2 volumes, lxx+1276 pages, 260 b&w & colour illustrations, 4 tables. 2010. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell; 978-1-4051-5598-4 hardback £235.

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There has been a surge in the production of textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopaedias and companion volumes of Egyptology and Egyptian archaeology over the last few years and these three recent volumes, all published by Wiley-Blackwell, broadly covering ancient Egyptian archaeology, history and culture, are just the tip of the spoil-heap, so to speak. Nonetheless, delving into this rich and fascinating pile, many happy hours can be spent investigating the culture in question as well as the multifaceted approaches of the authors. And before my spoil-heap line runs away with itself, I should state clearly that all three volumes constitute excellent additions to the bookshelf or library, each offering readers something quite different.

Willeke Wendrich's edited volume, Egyptian archaeology, is perhaps the most ambitious of the three on offer here in terms of its scope and I would strongly recommend it. It forms part of the Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology series explicitly aimed at the 'upper-division undergraduate' (p. xiii) and is intended to promote a theoretically sophisticated approach to the Egyptian past. The volume achieves its aims most successfully and should be widely used in teaching (indeed, many chapters have already found their way onto my undergraduate reading lists). It is particularly useful in that it effectively bridges the perceived divide between Egyptological and archaeological approaches. For traditional Egyptologists it provides a theoretically informed approach, drawing out themes of broader interest within the abundant material evidence and promoting rigorous assessment of sources within their geographical and chronological contexts. In many ways it serves as an important corrective to historical narratives of ancient Egypt, often emphasising regional variation and changing themes across time; it should, without question, be required reading for all Egyptology students. For those with a broader archaeological background it provides coverage of key themes of general interest to the archaeological community, such as gender, identity and belief, paving the way for ancient Egyptian material to be integrated more effectively within broader theoretical and comparative courses.

The editor provides an extended introduction which contextualises the project and a brief epilogue. Stan Hendrickx, Dirk Huyge and Willeke Wendrich address the issue of assessing belief in the prehistoric period (Chapter 2) while Christian Köhler covers theories of state formation in a balanced and broad-ranging overview (Chapter 3). Janet Richards discusses kingship and legitimation in the context of the Old Kingdom, drawing extensively on her work at Abydos but also providing a broader perspective (Chapter 4). Mark Lehner presents a fascinating study of urbanisation through discussion of villages in the Old Kingdom (Chapter 5); this draws heavily on his excavations at Giza but also on evidence as late as the New Kingdom in its discussion of comparative examples. David Jeffries addresses the issues of regionality, cultural and cultic landscapes in an essay with a broad chronological range from the Old to New Kingdoms (Chapter 6).

Joseph Wegner covers tradition and innovation in the Middle Kingdom with an emphasis on his excavations in the Middle Kingdom planned settlement of Wah-Sut at Abydos (Chapter 7). Thomas Schneider provides a theoretically astute and admirably succinct study of foreigners in Egypt (Chapter 8). Terry Wilfong addresses gender, Wolfram Grajetzki class and society and Willeke Wendrich identity and personhood in a series of chapters (9–11) drawing primarily, but not exclusively on New Kingdom evidence. John Taylor discusses changes in the afterlife following the New Kingdom (Chapter 12) and Penelope Wilson presents the theme of consolidation, innovation and renaissance in the Late Period (Chapter 13). Finally in Chapter 14, Fekri Hassan considers the position of Egypt in later tradition.

Although designed as a textbook, the volume deserves to be widely read. It has much to offer specialists as well as students and is a rich and thought-provoking account for those with some knowledge of the field. It is not designed to be an introduction to the subject nor does it attempt to provide an overview of Egyptian archaeology; it is thus not the best beginner's guide. The volume has been very carefully designed: it is arranged chronologically but each chapter is driven by a key theme. Each individual contribution is carefully crafted by authors who often draw on their own fieldwork or research to illustrate particular aspects of the discussion. There is thus much that is new here in terms of ideas as well as in the material presented. I found all the chapters stimulating and very informative. The provision of separate reading lists for each chapter and in-text references makes it relatively easy to pursue themes or evidence discussed in the wider literature.

The quality of the chapters is matched by the editor's ambitious vision of the volume's structure, which aims to combine chronological treatment with a theme pertinent to each period. One criticism that might be directed at the volume as a whole is that the chronological thread is not always easy to follow as some authors adhere more strictly than others to the underlying temporal framework. Often (but not always) it is the chapters on the earlier and later periods that maintain their temporal focus, usually because the themes they address are chronologically bounded. Thus the earlier chapters, which focus on the importance of interpreting from the archaeological evidence itself rather than projecting backwards themes and ideas found in later textual sources, inevitably stick to contemporary material. The later chapters similarly concentrate primarily on the nature of change and thus maintain a strong grasp on the periods they deal with. Many of the broader themes discussed in the core of the volume, on the other hand, draw on material from multiple periods. If the chronological structure is thus sometimes hard to follow, the element of diachronic comparison improves the thematic studies to a degree that more than compensates for this occasional loss of clarity. Themes such as villages, regionality and landscapes or foreigners simply cannot be adequately presented on the basis of a single period.

Marc van der Mieroop's History of ancient Egypt is a more straightforward presentation of Egyptian history, produced to complement the same author's History of the ancient Near East, both in the Blackwell History of the Ancient World series. Van der Mieroop is perhaps not the most obvious academic to produce a volume on Egyptian history as his grounding is in Mesopotamia, but his book turns out to be a well-written and impressively balanced account. The author shows fine judgement in navigating between the various competing versions of the past that exist in the academic literature. Van der Mieroop is strong on the nature of sources and makes some interesting observations on the subject.

This History will probably be most valuable to readers new to the subject or to non-specialists interested in aspects of Egyptian culture and in need of historical context. It is perhaps easier to read and more balanced in its coverage than its major competitors and there are useful reading lists for each chapter at the end of the volume; this is valuable to those unfamiliar with the material wishing to explore further. The volume is not aimed at the specialist: there is little new here and, on the odd occasion that someone familiar with the material does come across interesting facts or ideas, these are difficult to follow up because there are no precise references.

This volume may be useful for providing historical context for students starting their studies, but I suspect I will still be using Shaw's Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Oxford, OUP, 2000) for most of my introductory teaching. The latter volume, being multi-authored, is perhaps less uniform in its presentation than van der Mieroop's account and there are some gaps in coverage, but the sense of engagement with source material and key debates provided by the contributing period specialists is still hard to beat.

Alan Lloyd's edited two-volume Companion to ancient Egypt is a very impressive achievement. It is a substantial work of over 1200 pages and is beautifully produced, although—and this applies to all the books reviewed here—it could do with more illustrations. The chapters are all written by experts in their respective fields and are grouped into sections covering geographical context (I), historical narratives (II), state and economic structures (III) and social order (IV) in Volume I, while Volume II comprises language and literature (V), visual arts (VI) and the reception of Egyptian culture (VII). The essays provide up-to-date overviews of individual topics with careful consideration of source material and recent debates; many also achieve admirable depth in concise presentations.

The Companion is unusual within the field in that it gives approximately equal weight to the classic Pharaonic periods of the third and second millennia BC (the Early Dynastic Period to the New Kingdom) and the later periods of ancient Egyptian history from the first millennium BC to the Arab conquest of AD 642, with a particular focus on the Ptolemaic (Hellenistic/Greek) and Roman periods. For many of the themes covered, essays are arranged in pairs with one essay covering Pharaonic practice and a second essay covering the Graeco-Roman period. Given that most teachers, researchers and students in the field have a strong bias towards either the Pharaonic or the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, this is particularly useful as it allows reflection on contrasts and continuities as well as filling gaps in knowledge. The essays are substantial and are accompanied by lists of further reading as well as valuable in-text references allowing topics of interest to be explored further.

The depth of coverage of individual subjects varies according to the space allocated and there is a strong focus on history, political structures and elite culture. For example, sculpture is treated in great detail with five chapters covering different periods dedicated to the topic. Art in general features strongly but architecture is considerably less prominent (although the two chapters on mortuary and temple architecture and decorative systems are in themselves excellent overviews). Language and literature are also given prominence, with six fascinating chapters arranged chronologically providing very effective, concise treatment of the subject. Since I am writing this review for an archaeological journal, it is fair to point out that while many of the essays draw on archaeological sources, there is little explicit focus on archaeology. Coverage of social order and daily life, for example, is very limited in comparison with that of elite knowledge and institutions or art and prehistory is represented by a single chapter. For the Egyptologist or Classicist, however, it will prove a hugely valuable reference volume and I would recommend it as the first port of call for those outside the field looking for a reliable and concise introduction to a particular aspect of Pharaonic, Ptolemaic or Roman culture in Egypt.

Despite the observations above on the limited coverage of some subject areas, Lloyd's Companion is unrivalled as an up-to-date source for Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman Egyptian history and culture. I would strongly recommend it for teaching as well as for reference; but, at £235, it is a major outlay. These days, libraries as well as individuals may balk at the cost; it is, however, a very substantial work and, for 1200 pages, the price per page is certainly not out of line compared with other academic books. It is an excellent and exceptionally useful publication which will remain a standard reference volume for many years. Where possible, it is thus well worth the outlay.

When approached to write this review article, I was asked how these three publications would fare in a very crowded market and whether there was some truth in Andrew Wheatcroft's diagnosis of a decade ago that "The demand for 'Egyptological product' has never been greater, yet, paradoxically, professional Egyptologists are now less able to satisfy that demand than ever before [...] Even writing a textbook for students may be regarded with disapproval" ('Wonderful things': publishing Egypt in word and image, in S. MacDonald & M. Rice (ed.) Consuming ancient Egypt, London, UCL Press, 2003, p. 159). As can be seen from the reviews above, today's students, teachers and interested others are well served by the two, in many ways complementary volumes edited by Wendrich and Lloyd, while newcomers may benefit from Van De Mieroop's balanced introduction to the history of ancient Egypt. Wendrich and Lloyd have shown that text and reference books on ancient Egypt can be accessible and interesting and can serve to break traditional boundaries between Egyptology and the related disciplines of Archaeology and Classics, for which they should be heartily congratulated.