By Andrea Byrnes. Published on Journal Reviews, Egyptological. May 31st 2012
Study Day. Ancient Egypt – Myth and History with John Romer. Organized by the Bloomsbury Summer School. Venue: Cruciform Lecture Theatre 1, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT.
John Romer delivered an ambitious set of lectures looking at the history of Egyptology, explaining how ideas about the past first that first developed in the nineteenth century have influenced how Egyptology is researched and understood today.
This review considers Romer’s lectures in their own right, puts them into the context of some of the published material to which Romer’s work relates, and considers some of the feedback that his lectures produced.
I had never seen John Romer lecture before. I therefore had very few preconceptions. From the moment he started speaking he came across very well. Romer is an articulate and entertaining speaker who communicates openly and with considerable directness. He is an engaging presenter, speaking without notes, using photographs to illustrate his points. His enthusiasm for his subject matter is appealing and his willingness to engage with themes that are not usually presented to a an audience of mixed interests and levels of expertise was impressive.
The running theme of Romer’s four lectures was his concern with how Egyptology is conducted today. There are essentially two parts to his argument that Egyptology needs to be more conscious of how it approaches the past.
The first is that there are clear indications that Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century research and writing about Ancient Egypt has influenced modern Egyptology to the point that the latter has failed to take into account the assumptions, bias and failings of past texts, promoting a construct of Egypt that may be substantially flawed. As a result, much of Romer’s first two lectures focused on historiography – the history of how Egyptology evolved out of earlier thinking, and the extent to which earlier approaches and ideologies have formed today’s understanding of Egypt’s past. Historiography has a long and honourable tradition. A subset of history, it looks not at historical events but at how those events have been interpreted and why, explicitly accepting that the relationship between the available evidence and what we think of as facts are often rarely transparent. It also accepts that data can be subjected to different interpretations, and that older traditions and cultural beliefs can colour newer interpretations. It has had a very useful role in challenging students to assess the value of materials upon which they are basing their own research, encouraging them to question how ideas of the past evolve and mutate and are influenced by the times during which they were written.
Romer’s second argument is that some Egyptologists, not all, fail to ask questions about validity of the material with which they work. Dependence on Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century work is part of the problem, but Romer also argues that matters are not helped, even today, by publications that favour interpretations of what has been found without publishing the source data itself. This means some publications rely upon and reference secondary data, which may compound any previous errors in judgement. This is in turn aggravated by the failure of some missions to publicize fully, and in a timely manner, everything that they have excavated.
The four lectures were as follows:
Views of Egypt: An overview of the histories of ‘ancient Egypt’ from the volumes of Rector Rollins (Paris 1730) to the modern Oxford History (2000). Attitudes and preoccupations; continuities and disconnections.
Pharaonic Plots: The popular image of ‘Egypt of the Pharaohs’; classical ideas of history and the origins of the modern concepts of myth.
Darwin’s Plots: Tales of savagery and progress from Flinders Petrie to the ‘New Archaeology’, that underlie current visions of Egyptian prehistory.
Voyages on an Unknown River: Fitting it all back together, new approaches to the history of ancient Egypt. Seeing afresh, the ancient Egyptians’ astonishing originality and the extraordinary impact that they have had upon the modern world.
Romer began by introducing his subject to his audience – how the Egyptian past is interpreted. He explained his beliefs that a lot of our knowledge of Ancient Egypt is still caught up in the Nineteenth Century view of matters, that there is a lot more yet to be discovered about Egypt from the existing data and that a lot of basic assumptions that needed challenging.
Lecture 1. Views of Egypt: An overview of the histories of ‘ancient Egypt’ from the volumes of Rector Rollins (Paris 1730) to the modern Oxford History (2000). Attitudes and preoccupations; continuities and disconnections.
Romer put up a photograph of a library shelf – his own library – showing a collection of histories of Egypt. Book by book, he looked at how some of these histories were written, what they offered in terms of both benefits and difficulties. He began with Gibbon who “speaks with one clear voice,” a voice that most modern historians have lost.
One of the earliest books to include a history of Egypt was that of the French rector Rollin, writing in Paris in the Eighteenth Century, emphasizing (as many histories do today) chronologies and orders of events – an approach quite unlike those of the Egyptians themselves who kept records and made propaganda statements, but were more interested in recurrent events than sequences of history.
The discovery of the Turin Papyrus supported Manetho’s chronology, tying Egypt in to universal history. This enabled German diplomat and scholar Christian Bunsen, twenty years after Champollion, to impose a framework on Egypt’s history – the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms – within which he placed Egypt’s rulers. The establishment of a chronology provided biblical scholars with a new route into their own field of interest, only researching Egypt with a view to understanding the bible in terms of its historical context.
Romer took us through the Twentieth Century, looking at different approaches to Egypt’s heritage, contrasting, for example, the methods and ideas of Mariette and Maspero, characterizing these differences as a fundamental reflection of the changing nature of Egyptology with its growing emphasis on sponsorship and the making of names. He talked about some of the key writers and their differing approaches – for example John Gardiner Wilkinson and his almost ethnographic focus on every day life, customs, manners and domestic objects. James Breasted’s work Ancient Times (1916 and 1935) presented one of the first modern histories of Egypt, based on a very accurate translation of six volumes of translated text, translation work that continues to be carried out by the Oriental Institute’s Epigraphic Survey. In particular, Breasted presented a more in-depth view of Egyptian religions than had hitherto been attempted by a largely Christian authorship who saw Egyptian religion as gibberish, writing it off as “mythology”.
As Romer said, no-one after Gardiner had time to spend 70 years in undiluted study thanks to teaching responsibilities and the need to earn a wage. Accepting that reality, the Cambridge Ancient History was written by multiple authors which, Romer believes and the contemporary reviewers agreed, suffered from the lack of an overall vision, the absence of a consistent style and the loss of a single voice. Romer likes Ian Shaw’s edited volume of papers that make up the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (2000) but says that it too suffers from a lack of a single voice, with no continuity of ideas from one chapter to another, and the exclusive focus on sociology and literature at the expense of art history. Something is always lost in compilations of articles by different writers, no matter how skilled the editor. The demands on people’s time, restricting their ability to write histories, means that today the easiest solution is to publish compilations by multiple writers, not for individual writers to write breeze-block histories.
Romer’s introductory lecture provided a good insight into the development of the writing of Ancient Egyptian histories. A number of points stand out as particularly interesting.
The creation of the three-kingdom system by Bunsen is very reminiscent of prehistory’s three-age system (invented by C.J Thomsen in the Nineteenth Century), and both have imposed various expectations of and constraints on how Egypt’s past has been analyzed. Frameworks are useful for organizing data, but they can influence, sometimes unhelpfully, the way in which that data is interpreted. As Romer said, it is an imposition on the data from an earlier era but one that has become core to the way in which Ancient Egypt is described, discussed and written about. That’s certainly not a new thought, but it is one that is worth revisiting from time to time.
In the last few years there have been several histories of Ancient Egypt. For example Barry Kemp’s excellent Ancient Egypt, anatomy of A Civilization (1989, 1991), Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt (2010) and Kathryn Bard’s An Introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt (2008) cover the entire range of the Ancient Egyptian past. David Wengrow’s The Archaeology of Early Egypt covers 10,000BC to the Early Dynastic. Robert Wenke’s excellent Ancient Egyptian State (2009) covers, like Romer’s own new book, the period from early prehistory to the Old Kingdom. But, on the whole, Romer is right. Wilkinson’s vast The Egyptian World, Wendrich’s terrific Egyptian Archaeology and Alan Lloyd’s A Companion to Ancient Egypt all bring together work by different specialists, arranged by theme or period, all offering insights, but none of them representing the “one clear voice” mourned by Romer. Like Romer, although I see the value of edited compilations, I find that even a really good editor is challenged to make papers written by numerous writers with different styles and interests feel like a coherent and fluid experience. Consistent threads rarely flow throughout the chapters, linking them to form a lucid narrative. All too often the onus is placed on the reader to make the connections and piece together a somewhat fragmented (albeit intellectually impressive) offering.
Lecture 2. Pharaonic Plots: The popular image of ‘Egypt of the Pharaohs’; classical ideas of history and the origins of the modern concepts of myth.
In this lecture, Romer developed his argument, opening with the statement that the vision of Ancient Egypt provided by some history books has a very specific Nineteenth Century pedigree. He focused more closely on how past historical fact, derived mainly from the study of Greece and Rome, influenced how Egyptian history was studied and written about.
Before the publication of Napoleon’s great Description de l’Egypte the main histories consulted were the Classics, which were largely accepted as the solid truth. When Description arrived, published between 1809 and 1829, a new vision was launched on the West, in all its rich and exotic glory. Science, in Napoleon’s era, was not what it is today, and reflected a love of romanticism in Europe, “sanitized, Europeanized.” Description was partly a product of that trend, capturing on paper the wonders of the Egyptian heritage and improved upon it, tidying it up, fixing the ruins and populating it with priests. It was selling a view of Egypt that might be right or wrong, but which fascinated and engaged. The accurately reproduced hieroglyphs could not be understood, but held the promise of the wisdom of the Ancients, a potential repository of wonderful knowledge and ideas. In 1822 Champollion burst that particular bubble by deciphering hieroglyphs, leading to “twenty years of disappointment and disillusion.” There was no wisdom, no magical knowledge, nothing that could be clearly valued by a western world looking for enlightenment. It took some time for his discovery to be truly appreciated.
At the same time, “old time science” was beginning to evolve. Romer described its early inception in the University of Göttingen in the Eighteenth Century. The growth of universities and the organization of seminars, where intellectual topics were discussed, led to new approaches and ideas, carried forward by historians like Leopold von Ranke. Renke realized and communicated the importance of using primary resources, rather than basing new histories on earlier works where the assumptions could be faulty, or at least questionable. Romer described how the use of extensive footnote citations grew from hard, quantitative sciences like medicine to softer, qualitative subjects like history and Egyptology. He is sceptical that the practice has value in Egyptology.
Next, Romer discussed how the history of how the Egyptian language itself was analyzed following Champollion. So often, the topic of Egyptian translation begins and ends with Champollion, but Romer looked beyond him, at how the language was treated and interpreted over time. One pioneer in Ancient Egyptian, Erman, divided the language chronologically, observing distinctions in his grammar. Modern transliteration is still based on the system that Erman invented. He created an Ancient Egyptian dictionary (a computerized version of which is still in use), which Romer believes might be responsible for some of the problems in later translations and interpretation. The trouble with early translations, in Romer’s view, is twofold: that it was not good at tackling abstract concepts and that the accumulated misinterpretations of Egyptian history are fed back into dictionaries. Translators, trying to find ways of representing these concepts, interpreted them in a very contemporary, Nineteenth Century way, in some cases over-interpreting terms with translations that we now accept as the Ancient Egyptian reality. Romer gave the example of the Ancient Egyptian word kmt (black land), which is universally translated as “Egypt.” But there was no word for Egypt in the Ancient Egyptian lexicon, no conception of a political entity as the Nineteenth century conceived it. The translation of kmt is an invention, an overlay, intruding on how we understand what the word actually means. Romer went on to say, extrapolating from this, that the concept of “unification” is nullified, if there is no concept of a politically defined single body of nationhood.
The main thrust of this lecture was that we carry with us many assumptions about what we do and don’t actually know and understand about Ancient Egypt based on earlier interpretations of its past. Many Nineteenth Century approaches to the writing of history were driven by ideas influenced by colonialism and featured a lot of mock science, but are very much a part of the story of how our understanding of Ancient Egypt has been reached, and what we still accept from those former histories. The points were well made.
Romer’s historiographical approach, with convincing and interesting case studies, made his points about the Nineteenth Century impact on how Ancient Egypt is interpreted today very clear. His view that the way in which the language is translated influences how we understand Egypt’s past was particularly well made.
Historiography is fundamental to all disciplines that use past interpretations to inform present research. It forms a core part of the undergraduate curriculum of historians and archaeologists, partly because it leads into what David Clarke, in his article Archaeology: The Loss of Innocence famously called “critical self consciousness” (Clarke 1973), the exploration of theoretical and methodological issues that underlie a discipline. In history and archaeology there are dozens of names to juggle with (see the bibliography for some selected examples). The implication, set out in academic lectures and books, is that self-analysis should be at the heart of any discipline.
Egyptology, sitting somewhere between history and archaeology, has been rather more behind the times than either of those disciplines in the writing of historiography. Richard Wilkinson, writing as recently as 2008, made the surprising observation in his Introduction to Egyptology Today that “until the present volume there has been no single-volume introduction covering the present state of Egypt as a modern field of study” (p. 2). Donald Redford, in the same volume, highlighted that “[t]he historiographical genre has always been somewhat poorly presented in Egyptological writing” (p.23).
Romer is not the first person in Egyptology to question how history is written in Egyptology today, but Egyptology has only recently attracted its own handful of historiographers. Rosalie David, David Jeffreys, Peter Ucko, Lindsay Ambridge, Brian Fagan, Donald Reid, Jill Kamil and Dominic Montserrat, have all looked at the fabric of past Egyptology with usefully analytical and sometimes critical eyes (see the bibliography for titles). Authors of “alternative” Egyptology books have seized upon some of the inconsistencies in orthodox Egyptology. While their more fanciful propositions lack credibility, their sceptical questioning demonstrates a need for more academic historiography of Egyptology.
Trigger (1984), who has written a lot about both Egyptological topics and archaeological theory has explored the influences of ideas of imperialism, Catholicism and nationalism on archaeologies and histories produced in different political realms. More recently, in his chapter “History and Egyptology” in Richard Wilkinson’s edited volume of papers Egyptology Today (2008), Donald Redford discusses how histories of Egypt are written. He also ponders the lack of modern narrative histories, proposing that one of the problems in writing histories of Ancient Egypt is that there is still insufficient evidence to enable Egyptologists to write definitive histories and that it is perhaps “the prospect of being forever condemned to provisional statements that deters the would-be historian from attempting a formal ‘history’ of Egypt”.
Egyptologist Rosalie David says in her book about past research into Egypt, The Experience of Egypt, that “it is a widely held view that the archaeologist can deliver the absolute truth about the past, based on clear cut evidence and indisputable facts” and goes on to point out that the reality is that archaeology does not support absolute truths (2000, p.xix). John Romer, looking back and questioning the absolute truths that are accepted, is following through. He has done a considerable amount of research into past histories of Egypt and how they colour modern Egyptological thinking. Presenting these findings to a largely non-academic audience, Romer was extending that tradition towards a wider forum.
Romer’s comments come at a time, therefore, when a number of leading Egyptologists are questioning how histories should be written and what influence those histories.
Lecture 3. Darwin’s Plots: Tales of savagery and progress from Flinders Petrie to the ‘New Archaeology’, that underlie current visions of Egyptian prehistory.
In this lecture, Romer concentrated on the theme of his new book, the transition from prehistoric subsistence farmers to the civilization the produced the Giza pyramids. He introduced the topic by looking back at how prehistoric Egypt was discovered and interpreted.
He began in an unlikely place – with Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers in the UK. Pitt-Rivers was obsessed with recording data both vertically and horizontally, forming sequences of object development. He was intent on representing reality in the order in which it had been deposited. His organization of lithics into specific sequences would be familiar to anyone acquainted with Petrie’s Sequence Dates, and that is no coincidence. In the absence of a formal discipline of archaeology, Petrie, eager to learn, went to Pitt-Rivers to learn the newly invented approaches. The best of Victorian curiosity, translated into a systematic approach, found its way via Petrie to Egypt. Petrie initially failed to recognize what he had found when he uncovered some of Egypt’s pre-Pharaonic past in the form of cemetery remains, but he eventually came to understand that he had discovered something that predated the Old Kingdom. His technique of Sequence Dating put pottery into sequences, allowing the creation of a relative chronology, placing some graves in which those pots were deposited earlier in the sequence than others.
Pitt Rivers was one unexpected influence covered by Romer’s lecture but there were others, in particular Sigmund Freud and Sir James George Frazer, whose ideas of a primitive version of humanity and its iconography were postulated, differentiated from modern ideas and thought processes, which were thought to be far more sophisticated. Romer pointed out that whilst Wittgenstein’s critique of Frazer’s Golden Bough questioned the concept of primitive man, none of the prehistories of the period coped with the idea of how social complexity developed out of earlier cultural forms.
From there Romer proceeded to look at which resources made the difference, in Egypt, between the prehistoric subsistence society and a world that was held together by boats that were capable of acquiring and transporting goods to establish the foundations of Dynastic Egypt. He described a combination of copper, boats and pottery as essential to the rise of a leadership capable of extracting goods with menaces and, perhaps, a legitimizing religious component, before developing into a more formal system of control.
Moving into the Old Kingdom, Romer challenged the naming of elements in Old Kingdom life where the true meaning is actually unknown. His main illustration of this point was our understanding of Djoser’s Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara, and in particular the celebration of the heb sed festival, an understanding strongly influenced by Frazer. This harks back to his point about understanding the meaning of Ancient Egyptian terms in general. He is certain that no-one really understands what the heb sed festival was, or how it was performed, but various picturesque and speculative interpretations of it, which have become part of our standard understanding of Ancient Egypt, have filtered into the standard literature and become the standard version, right or wrong.
Moving on, Romer took a brief look at how the interpretation of archaeology evolved. His main focus was Lewis Binford, the poster-boy of the New Archaeology (or Processualism). He found Binford’s way of explaining the world in exclusively economic and operational terms flawed, an approach that failed to take cultural data into account.
Romer next tackled the conceptualization of early deities, proposing that before Djoser there were very few images of kings as gods and precious few of gods as gods. He proposed that symbols present in the Old Kingdom, and later associated with certain deities, were not necessarily around when the signs originated. The ideas involved in the conceptual expressions may have been similar, but the association with specific deities may not have happened at this stage.
Finally, he presented a view of the establishment of large estates in the Old Kingdom, mentioned in the texts (for example, those of Sneferu), as a system of colonization by local rulers. This follows on from the view that he expressed earlier in the lecture that rule was achieved by extraction of resources with menaces.
This lecture was clearly something of a challenge for some of the audience, judging by the tea-break discussions. One person I spoke to said that it was dull. Other simply didn’t understand it. The main problem, I would guess, is that Romer’s presentation of an alternative model of the earliest form of kingship was not preceded by a clear description of the existing model. He perhaps assumed a greater level of knowledge than some of the audience had.
Romer’s brief mention of Lewis Binford was both unappreciative and lacking the context of other work carried out at the same time and immediately afterwards. A view of Binford’s processualism without the balance of the post-processualism characterized by Ian Hodder and many others, is quite simply incomplete. I found Romer’s antipathy for Binford very odd. Binford was one of the key people who challenged how prehistory was practiced, and generated a discussion that is still ongoing today about what archaeology can achieve and how it should go about interpreting and writing up the past. I would have thought that Binford, whether one supports or argues against his ideas, would have been right up Romer’s street because he pushed the boundaries, challenging existing ideas, opening up avenues for new generations of archaeologists to develop new approaches.
Lecture 4. Voyages on an Unknown River: Fitting it all back together, new approaches to the history of ancient Egypt. Seeing afresh, the ancient Egyptians’ astonishing originality and the extraordinary impact that they have had upon the modern world.
I rather lost the thread of the study day during the first half of this lecture, struggling to find its relationship to the previous lectures. We were introduced to the tomb of Ramesses XI, where Romer and his team carried out survey and excavation work, and we travelled through various other tombs – but I had no idea what we were doing there and why we were visiting these sites. I was looking for the new approaches, which I think was the obvious conclusion to Romer’s criticisms of earlier approaches, but for the first half of the lecture I was unable to find them.
In the second half of the lecture Romer put forward some different slants on how we might look at periods of the Ancient Egyptian past. He emphasized the value of looking interpreting archaeology’s primary sources, in situ without the filter of previous interpretations. Specifically, and I guess that this is the connection with Ramesses XI, Romer presented some thoughts on the character of the Ramesside period in Luxor, suggesting that how it has been portrayed in the past in popular histories makes Luxor seem rather more important than it actually was. Instead he looked at various aspects of evidence from Luxor, combining different forms of data to provide something of a holistic view of the Ramesside town, fitting various discoveries into a bigger picture.
Romer described a quay next to the Avenue of Sphinxes that links the Temples of Karnak and Luxor, a processional way parallel to the Nile, and showed images from the temple of Karnak showing processional boats being pulled along on ropes, apparently a depiction of what we now see in the ground – a canal along which ceremonial boats were pulled, connecting the two temples and two parts of the town. He sees the absence of tells (settlement mounds) as indicating that the Luxor of the period was a place with limited housing. His research has led him to believe that perhaps 100 families lived in Luxor, which is much fewer than usually assumed, at a time when Deir el Medineh was abandoned and Medinet Habu and Deir el Bahri was used as fortified settlements, with their the occupants bringing formerly buried mummies with them. Luxor inhabitants also went into the mountains surrounding Thebes, where Howard Carter made maps of some of the pathways that were used. The surrounding wadis, connected to the mountains by an elaborate network of paths, tombs and camps, had 100s of inscriptions. Romer envisaged a situation of rival factions much like that of Medieval England. In this sort of context, the ideas of state and kingship are not terms that we would necessarily employ in translation today for the situation along the Nile and in the Delta. He concluded with the observation that the reign of Ramesses III was a point of transition, with Luxor representing the world of burial and the afterlife, whilst the Delta, where he sees 50% of all Ramesside life taking place, was the realm of reality and the living. Thebes was a sacred outpost, in this model, but not where the life of Ancient Egypt was carried out. He believes that 50% of Ramesside Egypt remains buried in the Delta.
This was, at first, Romer’s most difficult lecture, because it did not flow obviously from his previous three. It was only considerably after the event, when I had had the chance to think it through, that I concluded that Romer’s last lecture was all about taking a new, pristine look at the evidence, piecing together all sorts of primary data to form a view of a particular period of Egypt.
His approach has a lot in common with a growing number of projects, including the EES Theban Harbours and Waterscapes Project (Marchant 2012), Sarah Parcak’s emphasis on landscape scale projects (Parcak 2010) and Bietak’s work in the Delta (e.g. Bietak 2007). This type of landscape archaeology which, as Parcak points out (2010), has been mainstream in Anglo-American archaeology for a long time, is helping to assemble a more integrated view of the rich data. This approach is helpful, not merely for pulling the archaeology together to form a coherent view of what is happening at a given time in a given place, but helps the non-academic to understand the story of a particular area. Although Romer does not mention it, the fragmented effect created by the allocation of different missions to different sites inevitably influences how the past is recorded, written up and perceived. Broader landscape-based approaches are helpful for putting all those fragments together.
Finally, it was by no means obvious where the “extraordinary impact” mentioned in the title for the fourth lecture was to be found in the body of the lecture itself.
Romer is not the first to observe that much of what the public understand of Ancient Egypt is based on the Nineteenth Century work, itself heavily influenced by Hellenistic classicism.. It is, however, well worth revisiting as Nineteenth Century narrative histories still influence modern audiences, either directly or indirectly. Romer’s argument that modern Egyptologists have not done enough to correct this oversight will be unpopular with those who have written or compiled really good modern histories of Ancient Egypt, but his conclusion that Egyptology should reconsider its assumptions is a perfectly valid one. He illustrated this well by both explaining the historiographical background to modern Egyptology and giving concrete examples of how some of the most popular versions of history that are sometimes still repeated can be challenged by other interpretations. Romer’s topic is entirely in keeping with interests in Egyptological thinking that have, perhaps, only been explored properly in the last decade or so.
David Jeffreys makes a similar point in his book Views of Ancient Egypt since Napoleon Bonaparte: “One curious feature of the development of Egyptology within Egypt itself since independence is how little it actually differs from the traditional-colonial model. Comparatively few new insights have been provided, with the exception of comparisons between ancient and contemporary ethnographic phenomena . . . . and the scholarly preoccupations are broadly those of the early to mid 20th Century” (2003, p.14).
In a recent article Lindsay Ambridge emphasizes the important role that historical narratives have in informing a popular audience, but adds “[S]uch works have found little critical examination in the Egyptological literature” (2012, p.13). Although the phrases “popular histories” and “popular audience” seem to play down the value of such publications, they are what formed school-room and public understanding, and were the types of worked that bridged academic and non-academic worlds.
Similarly, in 2008 Donald Redford highlighted some of the points that were causing concern to Wendrich and Romer. Starting with the statement that “[t]he historiographical genre has always been somewhat poorly represented in Egyptological writing,” he worries that even though Egyptology has only a 200 year old history of its own, it is possible to “sense the inauguration of a traditional approach that, if allowed to grow, will be as confining as the classical.” And he is, if anything, far more critical of modern writers than Romer was: “The question of what kind of history to write does not often plague Egyptologists. They are little concerned with theory of the debate between the traditional academic approach of the 1960s and postmodern world.” It’s a short chapter but well worth reading if you are interested in how histories of Egypt are currently written (or not written).
Without wishing to labour the point, in the same volume, Kent Weeks as also concerned about the way in which Egyptology is evolving, describing Egyptology as a series of “microspecialities,” leading to a situation in which “scholars who can claim both wide-ranging and deep knowledge of their field are long gone. In one way, this is a promising development, for it brings unrivalled detail to our knowledge of Egypt. But it has also Egyptologists unwilling, and even unable, to write the kinds of syntheses that were popular a century ago” (2008 p.21).
In spite of the importance of the topic, I thought that by focusing exclusively on the Nineteenth Century Romer bypassed some of the other influences on how Egyptology is understood, actioned and interpreted today, giving the impression that Nineteenth Century approaches are uniquely to blame for some of the oddities to be found in Egyptology. Whilst Romer was eager to look at how different intellectual and political interests impacted the development of Egyptology he does not consider, for example, the way in which an Islamic view of Ancient Egypt has rarely been aired since the western domination of Egyptology. He does not consider, for example, the influence of the concession system that determines how archaeological missions are allocated pieces of the landscape jigsaw that, whilst encouraging microscopic attention to detail, does not encourage much cross-pollination and in fact, probably encourages fragmentation. He also ignores the impacts of Egyptomania, which has had a lot to say about the sort of books and documentaries that are produced because they are pandering to how many consumers of popular Egypt want their histories to be written, what they expect and require from them in terms of glamour, intrigue and beauty. In a different way, the lack of theory in approaches to Egyptology’s past has resulted in a situation where “[e]ven today some Egyptologists question how archaeological theory would improve our understanding of the ancient Egyptian culture, while the question should of course be turned around: how flawed is our understanding without theory?” (Wendrich 2012, p.1). Even the lack of settlement data, particularly at the subsistence end of the economic spectrum, has placed Egyptian research in a much more difficult place than areas where such data has been preserved. Finally, the fact that Egypt is usually excluded from general syntheses of the Mediterranean and Near East, and is often treated in isolation, impacts how it is understood and contextualized (Weeks 2008, p.20, Jeffreys 2003, p.5). See Jeffreys (2003) for more discussion on the subject of the various factors that have influenced how Egyptology has evolved.
Within 24 hours of the lecture, at least two conversations were taking place on Facebook, with various participants in the discussion expressing extremes of enthusiasm and outrage. It seems clear that for at least some members of the audience, Romer’s overall message was lost in shadow of some of his introductory statements, his pithier sound-bites and humourous asides. Being told that a lot of Egyptology was stuck in the Nineteenth Century won’t, I suppose, have won him many friends with some of his audience, although he is not the first to have said it.
But one comment in particular upset people. Romer said that today some Egyptologists still push the sand around to find inscriptions rather than doing “proper archaeology” of the sort carried out by Manfred Bietak. The response to that remark was heartfelt and, for these attendees actively involved in excavations in Egyptology today, largely eclipsed all the other statements that Romer made. It was an unfortunate statement. It should be made very clear that out of the total number of people who attended the study day (perhaps 400 people), only a handful of those in attendance initiated the Facebook conversations, and these were academics. Of the respondents, a mixture of academics and non-academics, the greater majority had not actually attended the study day to see what else Romer had had to say. This is therefore a very tiny and biased sample. Still, the conversation was out there in the public domain, available for anyone to see and share, and it therefore needs to be addressed. Some of those commenting on Facebook seem to have taken Romer’s lectures as an attack on modern Egyptology. Some said that his viewpoints were out of date, implying that they were redundant in the modern world of Egyptology. Others stated that because he was outside the academic community, or just “not an archaeologist,” as one contributor said, his opinion was somehow invalid. Somewhat alarmingly, most of them hadn’t actually been at the study day. The sad thing in all of this is that the outcome was not a useful and engaging discussion – it was a chorus of disapproval.
Feedback from some other attendees suggests that many did not understand that Romer was looking at how the past writing of histories has impacted modern views of Ancient Egypt. Many seemed disappointed that Romer was simply talking about the past writing of history without understanding that Romer’s point was the extent to which it was an ongoing influence in the present.
Still others found some of his proposals somewhat long-winded and confusing. A number of people became confused by the state formation component of Lecture 3, and a couple of us were somewhat bewildered by the connection between the first three lectures and the last one.
Having said that, many more people reported that they enjoyed the liveliness and wit of John Romer’s lectures and were impressed at Romer’s enthusiasm for challenging present approaches by reference to the past ideas that influence them. There was a lot to take in, but an awful lot of people took in a great deal of it, and seem to have taken away something very positive from the study day.
I enjoyed John Romer’s study day. I found it entertaining and informative, and I very much liked the fact that Romer set out to examine his chosen discipline critically, in the spirit of David Clarke’s “critical self consciousness” (Clarke 1973).
Romer’s two principal points, that much of modern Egyptology relies on earlier and possibly dubious interpretations and that there is not enough consideration or publication of primary resources, were both well made.
Overall, I thought that challenging writers to produce less stereotyped and more lucid popular histories of Ancient Egypt, based on re-examining primary sources, was a good direction. I viewed Romer’s study day in the same light as I see those writers who usefully put archaeology and history under the magnifying glass and ask questions about their roles and functions. What came across to me is that Romer is committed to Egyptology and wants to improve it. He doesn’t think that most Egyptologists are bad archaeologists – just that some of them are. He doesn’t believe that all Egyptology is bad Egyptology – just that it makes far too many assumptions about the validity of older work without questioning where that older work comes from, and without challenging the assumptions that it carries with it. He doesn’t dismiss the work of all academics – he just thinks that they should work harder to be more diligent and to challenge the raw data. He wants Egyptology to be better than it is, and he has the commitment to stand up and say so.
What Romer wants is what, I would think, most people who are serious about their discipline would want – a discussion about how that discipline can be improved. That’s not a controversial stand to take – most disciplines accept that they could do with a substantial bit of self-improvement.
Lucia Gahlin, organizer of the Bloomsbury Summer School, deserves considerable credit for giving Romer the platform to present such challenging ideas, as well as for an exceptionally well organized event. My thanks to her and to John Romer for an enjoyable day.
Lindsay Ambridge 2012, Imperialism and Racial Geography in Names Henry Breasted’s Ancient Times, A History of the Early World. Journal of Egyptian History 5 (2012), p.12-33.
Kathryn Bard 2008, The Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, Blackwell
Manfred Bietak 2007, Geophysical Survey and its Archaeological Verification. Discovery of a new palatial complex in Tell el-Dabca in the Delta. In Z. Hawas, J. Richards (eds.), The Archaeology and Art of Ancient Egypt: Essays in Honor of David. B. O’Connor, Cairo, 141-147
Lewis Binford and Sally Binford (eds) 1968, New Perspectives in Archaeology, Chicago.
See appreciations for Lewis Binford’s work on the Antiquity website:
J. Bintliff, and M. Pearce (eds) 2011, The Death of Archaeological Theory? Oxbow Books
James Breasted 1916, Ancient Times — A History of the Early World, The Athenæum Press
David Cannandine 2002, What is History Now? Palgrave-Macmillan
M-P Caire-Jabinet 2008 2010, Introduction a L’historiographie, 2e Edition. Armand Colin
Eileen Ka-May Cheng, Historiography. An Introductory Guide, Continuum
David Clarke 1973, Archaeology: The Loss of Innocence, Antiquity Volume: 47 Number: 185, 6–18
Rosalie David 2000, The Experience of Ancient Egypt, Routledge
Richard J. Evans 1997, 2000, In Defence of History, Granta Publications
Brian Fagan 2004, The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists and Archaeologists in Egypt, Westview Press
Ian Hodder 1999, The Archaeological Process. An introduction, Wiley-Hodder
David Jeffreys, ed. 2003, Views of Ancient Egypt since Napoleon Bonaparte: Imperialism, Colonialism and Modern Appropriation, UCL Press
Matthew Johnson 2010, Archaeological Theory. An Introduction, Wiley-Blackwell
L. Jordanova 2006, 2nd Edition, History in Practice, Hodder Arnold
Jill Kamil 2007, Labib Habachi. The Life and Legacy of an Egyptologist, American University in Cairo Press
Marchant, J. 2012, Searching for the Venice of the Nile, New Scientist, 27 March 2012
Lynn Meskell 2002, Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt, Princeton University Press
Lynn Meskell 2004, Object Works in Ancient Egypt. Material Biographies of the Past and Present, Berg
Dominic Monsterrat 2000, 2003, Akhenaten. History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt. Routledge
Donald B. Redford 2008, Archaeology and Egyptology. In Wilkinson, R.H., Egyptology Today, Cambridge University Press
Donald Malcolm Reid 2003, Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I. University of California Press
John Romer 2012, A History of Ancient Egypt. From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid, Allen Lane
Ian Shaw (ed.) 2000, The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press
John Tosh 1984, 2010, The Pursuit of History, Pearson Education
Bruce G. Trigger, B.J. Kemp, D. O’Connor and A.B. Lloyd 1983, Ancient Egypt: A Social History. Cambridge University Press
Bruce G. Trigger 1984, Alternative archaeologies: Nationalist, colonialist, imperialist, Man 19, p.355-370 (Also reprinted in Trigger 2003 Artifacts and Ideas. Essays in Archaeology, Transaction Publishers)
Bruce G. Trigger 1996, A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge University Press
Kent R. Weeks 2008, Archaeology and Egyptology, In Wilkinson, R.H., Egyptology Today, Cambridge University Press
Willeke Wendrich (ed.) 2010, Egyptian Archaeology. Wiley-Blackwell
Robert Wenke 2009, The Ancient Egyptian State. Cambridge University Press
David Wengrow 2006, The Archaeology of Early Egypt, Cambridge University Press
Richard H. Wilkinson (ed) 2008, Egyptology Today, Cambridge University Press
Toby Wilkinson (ed.) 2007, 2010, The Egyptian World, Routledge
Toby Wilkinson 2010, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. The History of a Civilization from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Bloomsbury