January 9th, 2012

never there

"The Concept of 'Kemet': Ancient Egypt in its African Context" Sally-Ann Ashton

Yesterday was the first Essex Egyptology Group meeting of the year, and the talk was given by Sally-Ann Ashton who works at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge both as a curator of their Egyptian collections and in their outreach education programme in prisons. The focus of her work for the last few years has been looking at Egypt from the perspective of its identity as an African country, and she opened her talk by discussing identity and how one's own identity shapes one's perceptions & assumptions. Ancient Egypt is a particularly striking example of this as despite being geographically within Africa it has traditionally been discussed from a very Euro-centric perspective. She provided quotes from books showing that especially in the 19th Century there was a tendency for European & US Egyptologists to assume that the Ancient Egyptians must've migrated in from the Middle East or were even "a branch of Caucasians" rather than African people, displaying the racist world-view of the archaeologists involved rather than reflecting the evidence available.

After showing us some examples of Egyptian art where the non-European features of people are highlighted she moved on to what I think is the meat of her current work - looking at the material culture of the Ancient Egyptians and drawing correspondences & correlations with other African cultures. Two types of items that she has looked at in particular are headrests & hair combs. I've always thought of headrests as a particularly Egyptian thing, but they are actually found in a variety of African cultures - even still used today in some places (she had a photo of an Ethiopian man using a headrest taken a couple of years ago). The work she was doing on hair combs involved both comparisons in styles etc to modern & ancient African combs and also investigating the changes in the combs as compared to the changing population of Egypt. In particular she is looking at the width of the gaps between the teeth of the comb, and what that suggests about the hair-types of the comb users - her initial findings are that the early combs (pre-Dynastic) are much like modern combs used for afro-type hair.

She told us that studying Egypt as part of Africa is still controversial today - although less so in the US than in Europe & Egypt itself (she mentioned in passing in answer to a question that one of her colleagues in Egypt had stopped speaking to her after learning the direction her studies were going). One example she gave was that she was involved in an imaging project to reconstruct Cleopatra's features, and after the resulting (brown-skinned) image was published in the Daily Mail in 2008 she is still receiving hate mail (she was fairly laid back about it - saying that she's gathering it up & plans to write an article about it). I think possibly this controversialness lead her to over-stress her point a bit - after all while Egypt is part of Africa (and that is important) it is also bordering the Middle East (& at the time Mesopotamia was the seat of other advanced civilisations), and it is also bordering the Mediterranean which brought it into contact with other peoples & civilisations. Nonetheless this was an interesting & thought-provoking talk, and I think it may be necessary to make the point so strongly to overcome the "default" perception of Ancient Egypt and the nuances can be more usefully discussed once it's become a part of the orthodoxy.