Topos and Mimesis – Ancient Egyptian perceptions of Ethnicity.

Prisoners, Medinet Habu

Prisoners, Medinet Habu. Photograph by Andrea Byrnes


Two recent books have included papers dealing with the topic of Ancient Egyptian perceptions of ethnicity:  Schneider, T. 2010,  Foreigners in Egypt:  Archaeological Evidence and Cultural Context (in Wendrich 2010, p. 143-164) and Smith, S. T., 2007, Ethnicity and Culture (in Wilkinson 2007, p. 218-241).  Both authors address the latest anthropological and archaeological literature on ethnicity and both use excavated frontier settlements as case studies.  Smith focuses on Nubia, whilst Schneider looks at the eastern Delta.  This comparison considers the approaches and findings provided by the two authors.

Ethnicity and Perception

The definition of ethnicity is the starting point in both papers.  Smith states that “[e]thnic identities are defined through real or perceived commodities of culture, history and language”.  He adds that some authors doubt that there was a perception of ethnicity in the past that equates directly to modern perecpetions, considering ethnicity to be a Colonial construct, but be argues that Egypt provides clear evidence for four basic ethnic groups.  He makes explicit distinctions between ethnicity and race, ethnicity and culture and he comments that ethnic identities are more visible and polarised at times of conflict.  Schneider’s view of ethnicity is one of groups of people “linked together by a belief in common origin, shared features of culture, history and current experience” who “possess a sense of identity and belonging together” (p.143), He emphasises the importance of multi-stage acculturation when foreigners settle in an area with a defined ethnic identity, the need to adopt a new ideological code in order to be accepted and included.  He distinguishes between individual and group acculturation. Both authors agree that there is the understanding that ethnicity is defined by commonality and that perceptions of foreigners include the idea that identity is a differentiator.

The Evidence

Schneider makes the point that iconographic data can be difficult to use as markers of ethnicity.  Not only does the state have its own politically-motivated message to impart but there are other problems.  For example, only those foreigners who have achieved or are approaching full acculturation are represented in texts.  Those less thoroughly adapted are almost invisible in both textual and archaeological evidence. Acculturation, Schneider believes, is likely to have been complex but is very difficult to observe.  Information about foreigners in Egypt is fragmentary and can be ambiguous.  Finally, lower strata of society are largely unrepresented, ethnc or otherwise.

Smith discusses the problem of the nature of the evidence itself, highlighting some of the problems of looking for ethnicity in archaeological remains.  Chief amongst these is the growing body of research that suggests that ethnic identities are much less clearly defined on the ground than they are in texts and iconography.  In addition, Smith points out that anthropology indicates, as one would expect, that ethnic identities are mutable where they come into close proximity with each other.

Schneider agrees that geographical proximity between groups is likely to cause greater interaction and reduce the impact of ethnic perception.  Schneider discusses the nature of borders and the results of recent studies which suggest that the dynamics of border living are highly complex and often result in conflicts between, on the one hand, people of different identities who lived and interacted together in these areas and, on the other, the institutions which impose regulations.  Schneider believes that archaeology can be less ambiguous and less ethnically specific than texts where immigrating groups are under discussion.

Topos and Mimesis

The two articles have taken Antonio Loprieno’s 1988 study of Egyptian ethnicity as their primary point of reference.   Loprieno describes two contrasting but often co-existing ideas of ethnicity which he calls topos and  mimesis.  Put simply, topos is the idea that foreigners are culturally  different and even alien.  Foreigners are usually depicted in a negative light and described and depicted using the language or iconography of extremes, often representing foreigners as simplistic and inferior beings, sometimes comparing them to animals and almost always imprisoning them or squashing them underfoot.  The term mimesis, on the other hand, is used to convey an idea  that foreigners are not aliens but neighbours, that they have a complex set of social traditions and values of their own and that they may be welcomed and accepted.  Both authors use the scheme to contrast state-managed messages with the perspective offered by more spontaneous forms of writing and archaeological evidence.

Discussing topos first, Smith provides easily found examples of state-managed messages about the inadequacy and sub-humanity of foreigners against whom Egypt was currently or had been in conflict. Smith quotes a Middle Kingdom boundary stela the prisoner scenes on the New Kingdom temples of Luxor and Abu Simbel and Tutankhamun’s footstool and walking sticks. Schneider gives the example of prisoners forming part of ritual and ideological scenes in both Djoser’s Old Kingdom complex in Saqqara and at 5th and 6th Dynasty mortuary temples.

Both authors find that there is plenty of evidence for mimesis in formal works.  Smith looks at how vast Egyptian fortified structures in Nubia indicate that the Egyptian state recognised that the Nubian opposition was not inadequate but was highly organized and represented a serious challenge.  He gives examples from the Tale of Sinuhe of encounters with foreigners in daily life, inscriptions on private monuments, highlighting how foreign deities were incorporated into the Egyptian religious scheme.  Schneider also offers examples of mimesis. He emphasises that recent research has challenged the nature of borders as strict delineators of exclusion and inclusion but instead engender “a system of communities, affiliation and identities” which include cultural negotiations, a scenario at odds with the polarised images of ethnicities promoted by the state.  He finds evidence of this in the Tale of Sinuhe and the tale of The Doomed Prince, and the portrayal of foreign mercenaries within the Egyptian army as insiders rather than foreigners.

A chronological overview of foreigners in Egypt

Schneider takes a diachronic approach to the material available, looking at the presence of foreigners in Egypt from the Archaic period to the first millennium BCE.  As you would expect, the available information increases over time as Egypt became both more expansionist and was in her turn a target for military incursions.  Schneider lists numerous examples of instances where foreigners were employed by Egyptians, where Egyptians have chance encounters with different groups including nomads from the Negev/Sinai and looks at the impacts of military campaigns on the introduction of foreign labour.  He suggests, interestingly, that contrary to the assumptions of past thinking demographic diversity in the Middle Kingdom within Egypt seems to have been comparable to that of the New Kingdom and that during the New Kingdom religious texts, documents and artistic expression seem to indicate a different perception of foreigners which is increasingly positive.  By the end of the Ramesside period foreign mercenaries were granted land in return for their service, another indication of acculturation.  The introduction of new technologies, military equipment and religious and literary innovations are all seen as indicators of the importance of foreigners.  The case of ethnicity under the Libyan and Kushite rules between the 21st and 25th Dynasties is clearly far more difficult to assess than many previous periods due to the complexity of Late Period culture in the context of Near Eastern political changes.

Case Studies from Nubia and the Eastern Delta

Smith moves away from the textual and iconographic information available within Egypt to look at the archaeology of frontier settlements.  Here one is more likely to detect the exchange of ideas and goods.  The focus shifts from contrasts between topos and mimesis within Egypt to places where Egyptians are occupying settlements in foreign lands where foreign traditions and ideas are dominant.  Smith’s first case study is Askut, a fortified settlement located just below the Second Cataract and established in the late 12th Dynasty.  He questions the degree to which they are a mere “transplant of Egyptian culture through colonization and/or as a complete assimilative acculturation of native groups” (p.233).  I was unconvinced by his detailed argument that Nubian women employed their ethnic cuisine and traditional cooking implements to “practice an ethnic counterpoint against political and cultural hegemony” (p.234).  It seems just as likely from the evidence he presents that Egyptian residents at the site simply adapted over long periods of time to local customs and cuisine as a matter of convenience and that Nubian residents had acclimatised, at least partially and reluctantly, to the Egyptian presence.  There is no doubt that Nubian pottery does increase over time, reaching a peak in the New Kingdom and this implies some degree of localized negotiation or at least mutual toleration between the two groups. Smith then moves on to look at funerary traditions in Nubia from the New Kingdom onwards.  Nubian traditions seem to vanish to be replaced by Egyptian monumental traditions. At the sites of Tombos (10km north of Kerma, the former capital of Kush) there is an exception to the dominant Egyptian method of burial in the form of four females buried in Nubian style.  A similar case was noted at Soleb.  Smith sees these as an assertion of ethnic identity in the face of the monumentality of the Egyptian tradition.

Schneider’s case study ilooks at the Hyksos frontier site of Tell el-Dabaa (Avaris) in the far eastern Delta, where he says that evidence indicates “not an apartheid of cultures but their amalgamation” (p.153).  He says that New Kingdom propaganda against the Hyksos, which portrayed the Hyksos as barbarians who destroyed temples has been generally believed in Egyptology.  Archaeological data from excavations that have taken place at Tell el-Dabbaa since the mid 1960s, together with other archaeological discoveries, have offered a rather different perspective on the matter.  Immigrations from Palestine during the 12th and 13th Dynasties seem to have been the result of a need for skilled specialists in for the army and navy.  In some parts of the settlement Levantine traditions dominate but in other areas there is a mixing of traditions.  An Asiatic official built himself an Egyptian tomb and tomb chapel.  The garden of a 13th Dynasty palatial precinct contained six Egyptian tombs, some of whose owners had Egyptian titles, but were of Asiatic origins. Schneider says that there is sufficient evidence to show that the Hyksos upheld Egyptian traditions of kingship and culture. He suggests that the expansion of the Hyksos into Egypt was not an invasion but “an indigenous phenomenon after the collapse of the 13th Dynasty’s central authority. . . occurring in regions of the Delta that incidentally had a population of partly Palestinian origin” (p.158).

Authors’ Conclusions

Smith concludes that although there is a clearly communicated ideology of ethnicity at state level, a generally negative one, evidence from other sources indicates a more inclusive and less rigid attitude.  The presence of mixed cultural features in frontier towns suggests to Smith that the frontier sites he describes are hybrids, the product of social interaction and negotiation which doesn’t require abandonment of ethnic identities, but does blur the boundaries.

Schneider does not provide a conclusion but it is clear from the chapter as a whole that the role of geography, or as he puts it “cultural distance” is important.  He says that Cultural contact, including the acceptance of technology, cultural and religious motifs and literature, “was intense and facilitated acculturation” (p.146).  The appropriation of foreign elements is seen as reducing the sense of difference between Egyptians and others.  The case study of Tell el-Dabaa reinforces the message, suggesting that the frontier mixture of Egyptian and Levantine elements seems to have formed the basis for Hyksos expansion.  The perceptions promoted after the re-unification of Egypt following the Hyksos are, in Schneider’s view, a deliberate alteration of the facts in the interests of political motivation.  The conclusion is again that where ethnic groups meet they mix at a functional operating level, but that ethnicity has a political role which ensures that most official communications are coloured by a negative view of foreigners.


I enjoyed both articles very much but I was left with a feeling that Loprieno’s scheme, clearly described in both books, seems to create a very restrictive framework for archaeologists discussing the nuts and bolts of ethnicity, confining them to an either/or scenario.  Smith’s paper stuck most closely to the concepts of topos and mimesis.  Schneider describes the scheme but avoids using it as a practical framework, whereas Smith largely frames his discussion within its confines.

Between the ideas of perception and communication and the actual artefacts in the ground there seems to be something of a gap, a missing bridge.  There is very little discussion of how Egyptians were managing operational issues, how they were physically handling the day to day negotiations, how diplomacy, trade and sequestration were handled at a local level and how these could give insights into the day to day relationships between Egyptians and their immediate neighbours.  The reader is shown two different possible realms of perception and introduced to the physical evidence of situations where ethnic identities meet and mingle but there is nothing to suggest how different groups actually operated in social and economic terms to engender or overturn perceptions.  Schneider’s idea of multi-ethnic living for political expansion comes closer than Smith’s anthropologically-based speculation of Nubian women introducing cultural change via the kitchen, but it is still a long way away from providing operational insights into the negotiations and interactions that might form a basis for mutual ethnic tolerance.

Similarly there is a slight tension between the ideas of perception and acculturation.  Perception is a view on how other ethnic groups are regarded.  Acculturation is a very real process set within a living and breathing society with all its needs and prejudices.  The two ideas were not separated out very clearly in either chapter, and the actual process of acculturation was not demonstrated very clearly, probably due to lack of information.

Next there is the matter of frontier settlements versus those living within mainstream Egypt.  Topos and mimesis are discussed within the centrally managed Egyptian social framework but the archaeological data is derived from frontier towns.  Both the perceptions and the lifestyles would have been very different in each case and are not really directly comparable.

These are however, minor observations.  Smith and Schneider have taken on the challenge of locating ethnicity in archaeology and have demonstrated that when researchers look beyond the official propaganda the boundaries between Egypt and the outside world are not as fixed and exclusive as they might at first seem. As a matter of random curiosity I noted that only two of Schneider’s previous publications are noted in Smith’s bibliography and that only one of Smith’s is noted in Schneider’s.  It struck me as slightly surprising given that there is so much overlap between their approaches and both have produced numerous papers on the subject.


The Egyptian state had a very specific agenda in mind and there are a number of examples where it is quite clear that royal propaganda and facts don’t agree.  The Battle of Qadesh is the most-quoted example but there are many others.   I was particularly struck by Darnell’s article about deserts in Wilkinson’s book.  Darnell challenges the impression conveyed by ancient Egyptian texts that the deserts were feared and avoided.  He gives an absolute plethora of examples for both regular and quite intensive use of the deserts.  In an idealised description of the Egyptian world the Egyptians might well see the deserts as the antithesis of the Nile valley, the sandy isfret versus the bountiful green and blue ma’at. But the practicalities of needing to get from A to B, to travel and trade, to mine and quarry, and to herd and hunt are perfectly visible in the archaeological record if you look hard enough.  In exactly the same way ethnicity in Egypt is certainly conveyed through texts, depictions and iconography but the problem is the same – how to move beyond the propaganda and see the underlying and less readily visible reality.  Both authors have tried to do this by reference to archaeological material and have produced some interesting and valuable results.


Darnell, J. C. 2007. The Deserts. In Wilkinson 2007 (p. 29-48).

Loprieno, A. 1988. Topus und Mimesis: Zum Auslander in der agyptischen Literatur.  Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz

Schneider, T. 2010. Foreigners in Egypt:  Archaeological Evidence and Cultural Context. In Wendrich 2010. (p. 143-164)

Smith, S. T., 2007. Ethnicity and Culture. In Wilkinson 2007. (p. 218-241)

Wendrich, W. 2010. Egyptian Archaeology. Wiley-Blackwell

Wilkinson, T., 2007. The Egyptian World. Routledge.


Image © Andrea Byrnes