Egyptology Snark: In which I talk about talking about ancient Egypt

Before we get started talking about the Predynastic period in Egypt, I think I need to cover a bit of background first. The biggest thing to keep in mind when looking at the Predynastic or any other prehistoric culture is that this is before writing. Duh, you say, we knew that, gahhh. Well, yes, duh, but it's important to bear in mind because it means that a hell of a lot more is inferred. Excavation and artifacts and knowing their precise context is much more important. Being able to translate hieroglyphs, maybe not so much. From the American perspective of the place of prehistory and archaeology and Egyptology in academia, the Predynastic frequently is more the purview of people trained as anthropological archaeologists rather than Egyptologists. Not always the case, and obviously anyone working on Predynastic stuff better have a familiarity with all of Egyptian history, but it definitely makes for a different flavor or interpretation and writing. The anthropological perspective also tends to lend itself more to the application and discussion of archaeological theory than later periods (Egyptologists are frequently criticized for their “lack of theory” which is an essay for a different time and probably a different audience because once I start down that road, madness lies ahead and I'm perfectly willing to blame at least some of the damaged spots visible on my brain MRI on reading waaaaaaay too much theory as both an undergrad and grad student).

Because the Predynastic is in large part prehistoric, it often gets short shrift in popular histories, which is kind of sad. I understand it though. It's difficult to write a history of people when you don't know names or language or have a more concrete historical framework and have gaps and things that don't make sense and not a hell of a lot of representational art to draw on for additional information. It's really cool, though. The pottery is beautiful, some of the most beautiful in Egyptian history. (Seriously, Egyptian pottery from most periods is ugly as hell – crumbly, coarse, rough utilitarian stuff.) The chipped stone stuff – tools like arrowheads, spear points and knife blades made from flint or chert – nice glass-like rocks that flake off into beautiful, sharp pieces when you hit them with another rock – is amazing both technically and aesthetically. And you can see the very beginnings of traditions that would last for thousands of years of Egyptian culture. Sometimes I think it might be fun to teach the Predynastic after surveys of later Egyptian history and play the “so, what does this remind you of?” game. Plus, most of what we know of the Predynastic comes from graves and I love cemeteries. Not sure why I do, I just do. Yes, settlements are important and I wish there were more extant to be excavated in Egypt, but I like cemeteries better. In part, I think, because they are what we do have a ton of and there's a lot of information to be gained from careful examination of them. You can squeeze a hell of a lot of data out of cemetery – age/sex profiles, pathology, broader demographic data, cultural practices, diet, industry (based on grave goods), gender and age differences and distinctions, points of contact with outside cultures in the form of trade or other relationships. You can look at robbery patterns and figure out when people were robbing the tombs, what they were taking (based on what seems to be a typical set of objects from unrobbed tombs), etc., etc.

Ahem. Enough about cemeteries. Before we go further, I should probably set the stage a little better. So, we're talking about Egypt. (Yes, thank you, totally missed that bit...) Nicely enough, the boundaries of modern Egypt are more or less the same as ancient Egypt. There were occasional expansions to the south into Nubia (modern Sudan) and northeast (Sinai, Israel/Palestine, etc.), but Egypt was usually everything from the Delta up at the Mediterranean south to the first cataract of the Nile (modern Aswan). While that is a huge tract of land, most of it is desert. The majority of settlement and other activity was and is concentrated on the river banks right up against the Nile through most of the valley and in whatever higher ground there is in the swampy bits of the Delta. The long term settlement and use of cultivable land makes archaeology a bit challenging. People are still living on and working a lot of the settlement and farming areas and turfing them out just to see if there's cool old stuff under them is typically discouraged. The Nile itself has also changed course over time, taking with it stuff that was at one point on the river bank. That's another reason why cemetery remains are so much more common – they tend to be in the desert near, but not in, the cultivation. And, being in the desert, they also take advantage of hot, dry conditions that are so lovely for preservation. Also, a lot of tombs include stone elements or are entirely constructed of stone, which tends to last longer than unbaked mudbrick, which was the preferred building material for houses from everyone from the lowliest peasant to the king himself.

Much is often made about “Egypt was never isolated because of natural borders, blah, blah, deserts, blah, little outside influence, blah...” Well, sort of. It is a bit challenging to march an army across the little strip of land up by the Sinai (and thus fairly easy to defend that bit of land), naval landings were challenging until at the development of better boats (and even Napoleon had problems), and moving north from Sudan would have been challenging given how rugged the landscape is, how little there is in the way of natural resources their to maintain a supply line, plus the problem of the cataracts. And then there's desert on the west and east. So, invasion was, yes, a challenge. That doesn't mean there wasn't contact though and people moving through, some of them staying, from all over the place. From very early there is evidence of trade with Nubia to the south and West Asia to the north and east. In later periods there is evidence of people who have names that aren't of Egyptian linguistic origin, plus depictions of them as not typically “Egyptian” living in Egypt, often with apparently Egyptian spouses and children given Egyptian names. (Names are a complicated thing for determining ethnicity. Think about most Americans, for example, and look up their given names – how many of us are actually of the ethnic origin our given names come from? And then think about African Americans descended from former slaves, many of whom just took their former master's surnames. Or immigrants whose names were either changed by immigration authorities or “normalized” or “Anglicized” to make them easier to pronounce or make it easier to “fit in.” But if you have names, plus other evidence, like artistic depictions or a text that says “yeah, I was a Nubian mercenary, but Egypt seemed cool, so I stuck around...” it can be done.)
So there were clearly people coming north from Nubia in addition to trade goods like gold, incense (from even further south in Africa), ivory, etc., and people coming west and south from West Asia, particularly what is now southern Israel, in addition to wine and olive oil. This is part of what makes discussing Egyptian race or ethnicity so challenging – how do you define race? Do you use modern terms? If you do, isn't that anachronistic? And what modern terms or definitions do you use? Egyptians thought they were “Egyptian” and idealized their depictions to typically show men as red-brown and women and older people as yellow-ish. Did they all look like that? Probably not. They probably weren't universally muscular and vigorous and not balding or slim and graceful with no love-handles or cellulite either. And I'm pretty sure that despite depictions of Osiris with a green face or Ahmose-Nefertari with a blue face no one was actually green or blue. It's a complicated issue and fraught with problems and is something I'm not really going to get into much more because, frankly I find it distracting from talking about the Egyptians themselves, which is what I'm supposed to be doing here.

So, with most of the background set, (hopefully), next time I will actually get to the Predynastic.

ETA:  In re:  the map - burial on the west bank of the Nile was preferred, but every burials and cemeteries appear on the east bank, too.

ETA2:  Again in re:  the map - the actual outlines of the colored areas don't mean anything.  It's just my hands were shaky today and this wouldn't have been posted until next week if I'd waited until the lines were all nice and clean.  :P  

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Yay! Egyptology stuff starts. Nice map. I love maps.