Monday, September 1, 2008

2008.09.02

Version at BMCR home site
Kasia Szpakowska, Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. Recreating Lahun. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Pp. xii, 244; ills. 50. ISBN 978-1-4051-1856-9. $34.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Danijela Stefanovic, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade

This book recreates the daily life of the middle-class inhabitants of Lahun, the settlement of the builders of the nearby pyramid of Senusret II, and one of the most important ancient Egyptian towns, through the reconstruction of the life of the young girl Hedjerit, and her family in the town in the Late Middle Kingdom.

Szpakowska has based her work on written sources and archaeological finds from the settlement of Lahun, as well as from other contemporary settlements and mortuary sites; finds from Lahun are often illustrated with line-drawings or photographs (some published here for the first time). Many of the objects found in Lahun are scattered around museums worldwide, but a large proportion is now in the Petrie Museum in London and in the Manchester Museum.

The book starts with an informative introduction (The Settings), which discusses the geographical and historical setting of Lahun.

Chapter two (Birth) deals with childbirth. As the author notes, "the delivery process itself is an area of life that is generally not documented in detail by any culture, and Ancient Egypt is no exception". However, Szpakowska points out that it is reasonable to suggest that Egyptian women gave birth squatting, or kneeling over a hole, with the feet on two or four birth bricks. Within the same chapter, the issues of infant and maternal mortality, as well as of family size, are also discussed.

In chapter three, Szpakowska focuses on different aspects of daily life of infant: breastfeeding, childcare, play and pets. Chapter four is devoted to the Stuff of Life and focuses on domestic items that would help the child to learn about the parents' culture, customs and norms. Personal preparation for daily activities (cosmetics, jewelry, clothes, hairstyle) in ancient Egypt was, as in other societies, an instance of "external articulation of current status, gender, age, role, class, and ethnicity, that are transparent to those sharing the common cultural code."

Crafts and trades, as well as food and drink production, attested in written and archaeological records from Lahun are discussed in chapter five. Textile production and various crafts (carpentry, basketry, stone-masonry, etc.) enabled the manufacturing of artifacts for all spheres of daily life in Lahun.

"Learning, Earning and Leisure" are discussed in chapter six. The extensive corpora of the written records discovered in Lahun attest to the widespread presence of the scribes, and teachers. Female literacy, i.e. 'how women attained reading and writing skills' is unknown. However, the corpora of the feminine titles of the Middle Kingdom suggest that women could have had administrative duties but in a significantly reduced extent compared with the Old Kingdom. The author states that some of the titles seem to have been held by married women and, consequently, acquired on the basis of their husband's rank. Szpakowska points out that the most common feminine title of the Middle Kingdom, nebet per 'lady of the house', also seems to be associated with married women 'whose husbands held higher rank'. The scope of activities of nebet per, according to Szpakowska's translation 'lady of estate', would have included the important duties of administering large households with scores of servants, workshops for weaving, preparing food supplies, and making clothes, fruit and vegetable gardens. The 'lady of the house' was therefore often in charge of a substantial community and it was her job to see that it functioned effectively. However, it is important to note that, according to the almost three hundred Middle Kingdom attestations of the title in question (collected by the reviewer), almost 80% of them were of a very modest background. Chapter ends with an extensive overview on the 'brighter side of the life' of Hedjerit and her family in Lahun --music, dance and games, but also swimming and listening to stories and tales.

Chapter seven is devoted to religion. Szpakowska focuses on the personal piety of inhabitants of Lahun. Using the written and archaeological sources, she presents a unique image of local religious practices during the Late Middle Kingdom. Official cults at Lahun and the pilgrimages are discussed as well. As the author points out, "gods of the villagers of Lahun were not distant and aloof, but were immanent, and their presence was felt in many daily activities".

Chapter eight deals with a sickness (various aspects of health care, health problems caused by illness, injuries and old age; medical practice and medical text). Information concerning the illnesses and injuries, including animal assault, experienced by Hedjerit's family and other people of Lahun come from the archaeological data and texts that discuss health care. For example, papyrus Edwin Smith provides graphic descriptions of some injuries and their treatment. However, for certain body problems (especially the head and the gastro-intestinal systems) invisible entities were responsible. These were demons and dead entities that were believed to be attacking the living. In case of such a health problem, the remedy would have been a spell.

The remaining chapters are devoted to Death (nine) and Love (ten). Through the death of Hedjerit's mother (preparation of body, coffin and coffin text, place of burial and burial goods, ceremonies and rituals), Szpakowska outlines the burial customs of a member of the middle class of the Late Middle Kingdom. There is no doubt that for Egyptians death was an integral part of everyday life. However, it is not hard to imagine that Hedjerit mourned the loss of her mother hoping to rejoin her in the afterlife. Opposed to death is the joy of love. However, reaching adulthood means a significant set of changes for a young girl: menstruation, sexuality, marriage, and conception.

Szpakowska's book is well-written, and a valuable addition to books on the topic of daily life in ancient Egypt. It tells a wonderful story of life in an ancient Egyptian town. The author managed to give us a good view of Egyptian society describing the main issues of everyday life of Hedjerit and her family in Lahun: birth, childhood, education, work, religious life, health care, growing up and death. This study aims to make Lahun material accessible not only to Egyptologists and anthropologists but to any interested reader as well, so that we may attempt, in the words of the author, "to follow the life of one individual and her family to help us understand Ancient Egypt."

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