Book Review: A Companion to Ancient Egypt

Review by Andrea Byrnes.  Published in Magazine Reviews on Egyptological. 3rd April 2012.


A Companion to Ancient Egypt (in two volumes)
Edited by Alan B. Lloyd
Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2010
ISBN 9781405155984



It is not within the scope of this short article to review the entire two-volume edited collection of papers in A Companion to Ancient Egypt edited by Alan B. Lloyd, particularly as I have only read around 45% of the papers published within it.  On the other hand, I have been using the two volumes quite extensively recently and thought that an overview of the Companion might be useful to any readers who are considering splashing out the eye-watering sum to purchase this encyclopaedic work.  I have read at least two articles in every section, and hope that the following overview will help those contemplating a purchase.

The two volumes that make up A Companion to Ancient Egypt are each hefty tomes in their own right.  Volume I consists of 638 pages and includes 28 papers in four sections.  The sections are I) The Land of Egypt, II) State and Economic Structures and IV) the Social Order.  Volume II consists of 1276 pages with another 21 articles under three sections: V) Language and Literature, VI) The Visual Arts and VII) The Reception of Egyptian Culture.



Front cover – the Companion to Ancient Egypt

The Companion is an introductory guide to Egypt, clearly pitched at those with an academic background.

The papers are printed very clearly on good quality paper.  In most of the papers there are not many images to support the content, and those that do appear are in black and white and are not reproduced to a particularly high standard.

The authors are all well known specialists in their fields, and a list of contributors is accompanied by a paragraph stating the credentials of each.

The full Table Of Contents helpfully appears in both volumes. At the beginning of the book there is a full chronology over 12 pages, the first page of which explains the Dynastic system and offers a brief introduction as to how it works, pointing to the difficulties of agreeing firm calendar dates for periods; to reinforce this point the editor has included two sets of dates, provided by Grimal and Shaw, for each of the Dynasties. This is followed by two full-page maps, one for Pharaonic Egypt and one for Graeco-Roman Egypt. This only appears in Volume 1.

The two maps provide the reader with the scope of the Companion. There are articles on other periods, but the Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman periods dominate the Table of Contents.   This clearly shows the influence of the editor, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Classics, Ancient History and Egyptology at the University of Swansea in south Wales (U.K.).  As with the chronology, the maps only appear in Volume 1.

The final section of the two volumes, The Reception of Egyptian Culture, is another unusual aspect of a compilation of introductory pieces, with papers on how Egypt was perceived by other cultures – Classical Antiqiuty, Europe and Islam.

All papers are fully referenced using the Harvard system, and the format does not support foot notes or end notes.  There is a single bibliography at the end of the book for all references, but all papers conclude with a recommended paragraph with suggested Further Reading.

There is no index.

Each paper averages perhaps around 20 pages.  That does mean that whilst some writers with specialist topics have a generous amount of space in which to explore their topcis (for example, Old Kingdom Sculpture) other authors are trying to fit a much broader topic into a rather limited word count (for example Michael Baud’s The Old Kingdom).



Like all companion editions, of which there are an enormous amount on the market covering different topics, what you get out of it depends on the existing state of your knowledge on the subject, together with any expectations that you may have of something that describes itself as a “companion”.

The Preface to the two volumes, over two pages, indicates the target audience:  academics, students, and sophisticated amateurs.  Lloyd adds: “the level at which it is pitched is such at even professional Egyptologists will be able to find many chapters of value in areas where they do not have a major expertise” (p.xxi).   His target readership seems appropriate for the content.  It is not a light-hearted read and is more of a reference work than something that those new to Egyptology will pick up and read from end to end.  In that sense, it would be most suitable for those who already have a good grounding in the subject.

Unusually for a compilation of introductory of articles on Ancient Egypt, the topics covered in the thematic sections are divided into separate papers dealing with the Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman periods, highlighting that both are important but should be handled differently.    Each article stands on its own, although some are linked, so that the same themes are tackled differently for Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman periods.  For example, the economy is dealt with in two paired articles:  The Economy: Pharaonic by Christopher Eyre, and The Economy: Graeco-Roman by Dennis Kehoe. This is an attractive feature of the volumes, allowing readers to get a real sense of how Egypt changed under the Ptolemaic and Roman rulers.  Unfortunately, as usual is relatively little about the Predynastic/Early Dynastic  and the Late Period.  The prehistoric and Predynastic are bundled into one paper, and the Early Dynastic has two dedicated to it. There are three papers on Late Period topics. Coptic Egypt fares even more poorly, with one article on its language and literature.

Although the first section offers ten papers each charting a specific chronological period (from Prehistoric – which includes Predynastic – to Roman) the rest of the articles are divided under themes rather than chronological divisions, meaning that some of the narrative sense of history is lost.  That was the editor’s intention, encouraging authors to “lay more emphasis on thematic issues than deliver plain narratives” (p. xxii) but the thematic approach may not suit all readers, some of whom would find a chronological approach throughout easier to follow.  On the other hand, it is far easier to use as a reference book for specific topics as it stands.

One of the real benefits of the Companion is that some of the topics are often excluded from introductory works on Ancient Egypt.  Examples are chapters on the economy, mentioned above, military institutions and warfare, literacy (covered under Language, Scripts, and Literacy by James Allen), Late Period Literature (Kim Ryholt) and mosaics and paintings (Mosaics and Paintings in Graeco-Roman Egypt by Helen Whitehouse).

The inclusion of a section on how Egypt was perceived by foreigners at different time periods was a valuable inclusion, and is notable for how unusual it is in a compilation of this type.

The writing is generally of a high standard, and the articles that I read were clear, articulate, highly informative and useful for the areas that I was researching, a mixture of themes and periods.  I particularly enjoyed a number of articles that are considerably outside my temporal comfort zone, and learned a considerable amount from them, thereby perhaps supporting Lloyd’s hope that readers with expertise in one area will find much to learn from papers outside their field.

I thought it was a pity that the First Intermediate Period was lumped in with the Middle Kingdom and that the Second Intermediate Period was included in the New Kingdom chapter – the so-called intermediate periods do bear consideration on their own.  On the other hand, the Third Intermediate Period was given a chapter to itself (Libyans and Nubians by Christopher Naunton) and the Saites and Persians were given a chapter of their own (Saites and Persians 664-332, by Olivier Perdu).

For readers wanting photographs to illustrate articles this book is going to be a let-down, and I think that it is a flaw.  If this book is intended to introduce new topics it needs to provide the visual support that an object and architecture based discipline needs.  I found this a particular flaw in discussions about art and sculpture.  If you want to see discussions brought to life with photographs and illustrations this book will not be for you – the black and white images are not numerous and are of relatively poor quality.  To be fair, to support the chapters on more visual topics, there are seven colour images in the centre of Volume 1 and twenty four in Volume 2.  For a book with nearly 2000 pages this is a very small number to work with in a something positioning itself as a key work of refernce.

I was sad that there were no chapters at all in the book dedicated to much-needed debate about theory and methodology.  A small number of articles took the bull by the horns in the context of their own articles including Sarah Parcak in her opening article on landscape archaeology and Christopher Eyre in his article on Pharaonic economics.  But a chapter, for example, by Willeke Wendrich, who is an admirable champion of theory in Egyptology, would have been very welcome and would have filled a massive gap.



Spread over two volumes some expert names have contributed some excellent articles.  Whilst the focus is mainly on Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman topics under key themes, other periods and approaches are not forgotten.  The book would grace the shelves of most readers interested in Ancient Egypt, if they can accept the sparse approach to images, but at the price it seems more suitable for public and academic libraries than private homes.


A somewhat humourous note to end on.  Flicking through the book I saw a message of dedication at the end of one of the articles and paused to read it.  The author was David Frankfurter, his paper ‘Religion in Society: Graeco-Roman’:  “To the memory of Dominic Montserrat:  inspiring scholar, generous friend, abysmal driver.”  Needless to say, Frankfurter’s article was beautifully written.