Monday, November 10, 2008

2008.11.09

Richard H. Wilkinson, Egyptology Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xiv, 283. $29.99 (pb). ISBN 978-0-521-68226-8.

Reviewed by L. R. Siddall, School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of London (luis.siddall@gmail.com)

Table of Contents

This is a superb book. Wilkinson has brought together some of the current leading Egyptologists to produce a single volume work that introduces the reader to the methods and theories used in the study of ancient Egypt. All aspects of Egyptology are covered from the Egyptian language and medical research to the way archaeologists survey sites and the conservation of artefacts. The book is organized thematically into four parts (approaches, monuments, art and artifacts, and texts), with each part comprising three chapters. Wonderfully illustrated, this book will make excellent reading for students of the ancient world and the interested public.

The volume opens and closes with succinct essays by the editor on the past, current, and future status of Egyptological research. Wilkinson introduces the reader to the reality of modern Egyptological practice and research, pointing out that the latter part of the twentieth century has seen the study of Egyptology benefit from broader methods of scholarship taken from the arts and humanities, and the natural and medical sciences. Egyptology is now very much an interdisciplinary field.

The first part, “Methods: Paths to the Past,” concerns the three main approaches to the study of ancient Egypt: archaeology, history and medical science. Kent R. Weeks’ chapter “Archaeology and Egyptology” treats the reader to a survey of the phases in archaeological thought up to the contemporary use of technical and scientific investigations in the study of material culture. Donald B. Redford’s contribution, “History and Egyptology” explores some of the practical and theoretical problems the historical researcher of ancient Egypt encounters, such as the provisional nature of their work. Because of the amount of archaeological work being conducted an historical analysis can become out of date within a matter of months. In addition to the practical problems, Redford discusses some of the theoretical issues that confront the modern Egyptologist, for instance the use of other disciplines, terminology, the problems of oral tradition and the relevance of the study of Egyptian history to the modern world. The last chapter of the first part is A. Rosalie David’s “Medical Science and Egyptology”, which discusses the current scientific practices for examining mummies. David presents the challenges faced when balancing the destructive process of investigating human remains against preserving the finite data. Since autopsy is a particularly destructive method with ethical implications, the study of Egyptian mummies has moved towards less damaging forms of investigation, such as radiology and endoscopy. For further tissue analysis, the University of Manchester is now home to the International Ancient Egyptian Mummy Tissue Bank, which provides small samples of tissue for forensic examination.

The second part, “Monuments: Structures for This Life and the Next”, introduces the reader to methods of field archaeologists, with a focus on the larger artifacts from Egypt. Sarah H. Parcak’s chapter, “Site Survey in Egyptology” introduces the methods of survey techniques currently used in archaeology such as satellite and land survey. Parcak frames the importance of site surveying in the light of the ever expanding urban sprawl in modern Egypt and changing environmental conditions. The chapter focuses on the particular methods of satellite remote sensing and differential GPS surveys with specific reference to their use at Tell el-Amarna and the Delta region. Peter F. Dorman’s contribution, “Epigraphy and Recording”, discusses the major developments in recording monumental inscriptions. Fundamental to Dorman’s approach is the idea that monumental inscriptions should not be read simply as texts, but must be considered in their archaeological context. Dorman also outlines the various methods of epigraphy, both old and new such as direct tracing, squeezes, photography, and the new, but imperfect, role of computers. Michael Jones’ chapter, “Monument and Site Conservation”, outlines the major dangers to site conservation and the measures being taken to counter these threats. Jones outlines the environmental hazards (both natural and manmade) with which archaeologists have to contend. In response archaeologists are making efforts to extend the interest of Egypt’s antiquity among its modern population, as well as adapting their own methods.

The third part, “Art and Artifacts: Objects as Subject,” follows the theme of the second part, but focuses on the study of the smaller artifacts from Egypt. Rita E. Freed’s chapter, “Art of Ancient Egypt”, surveys the developments in Egyptian art from the Pre-Dynastic Period through to the Third Intermediate Period. Each phase of Egyptian art is discussed in light of the contemporary socio-political and religious developments. Arielle P. Kozloff’s contribution, “Ancient Egypt in Museums Today”, focuses on how museums present their Egyptian antiquities collections. Kozloff discusses the major museums in Egypt, Europe and North America, outlining some of the legal issues, and current political problems associated with Egyptian antiquities. She devotes space to the new fashions in museum exhibitions, the importance of presentation, and the didactic role that museums play as centers for research and teaching. Susanna Ga+nsicke’s chapter, “Artifact Conservation and Egyptology”, looks at the development of the methods of conservation. Conservation has become far more assiduous, as practitioners now favour less invasive techniques and ‘reversible’ conservation. Ga+nsicke also outlines how scientific analysis is used to study artifacts, determine the best method of repair, and even assess potential acquisitions.

The fourth part, “Texts: Words of Gods and Men,” is concerned with the cultural aspects of Egypt. Here the reader is introduced to the languages of ancient Egypt, Egyptian belle lettres and religious texts. James P. Allen provides a basic overview of the Egyptian language. The reader is treated to an outline of Egyptian philology, phonology, lexicography, and grammar. An important aspect of this chapter is the discussion of the language of the hieroglyphs in its linguistic context with the Semitic, Hamitic, and, in particular, Coptic languages.

John L. Foster’s and Ann L. Foster’s chapter covers ancient Egypt’s literary production. The Fosters outline what has been recovered of the literature from the Old to New Kingdoms. The writers also discuss the stylistic and literary techniques used in Egyptian literature such as verse and meter, symbolism and parallelism. Finally, the Fosters discuss how scholars draw together parallel fragments of literary texts in order to reconstruct poorly preserved sections. Ronald J. Leprohorn’s chapter, “Egyptian Religious Texts,” outlines the major types of documents that reflect the official and local religious beliefs in ancient Egypt. Leprohon divides the material into myths, official cult, personal worship and funerary texts, and outlines the functions, main themes, and conceptual gaps between the ancients and modern readers.

There are a number of aspects of this book that will set it apart for other introductions to ancient Egypt and the study of other ancient civilizations. One such feature is the recurring theme in a number of chapters that attempts to link the practices of the modern researcher to those of the ancient Egyptian, creating a sense of continuity in the antiquarian interest of human society. Examples of this are Weeks’ brief history of archaeological interest in the Nile valley begins with the New Kingdom priest, Khaemese, who attempted to preserve monuments at Giza and Saqqara; and Jones’ account of Tutankhamun’s conservationist attitude in the “restoration stela”.

Another commendable feature of this book, which might come as a surprise to many non-specialist readers, is the discussions of the politics of Egyptology and academia. For example Weeks’ insight into how archaeologists chose a site and the methods of excavation in line with current aims and objectives of the Supreme Council for Antiquities. Another is Redford’s discussion of anthropology’s hegemony over the arts and humanities at the committee level. Egyptology, like many disciplines, now suffers from the increasing narrow attitude of funding bodies, which prioritizes smaller scale research, and that this outcome based climate has caused many problems for the study of regions where data (archaeological and textual) are sporadic. It is perhaps these sections of the book that will have the greatest relevance for postgraduate and early career Egyptologists.

Each chapter also makes the reader well aware of the limitations of the respective areas. It is important to understand what cannot be determined from the evidence as it is to know what can be ascertained. The various authors do the reader a service by pointing out the limits of their methods and the gaps in current knowledge.

The only quibble the reviewer has is the relative lack of discussion of some of the scholarly debates associated with the respective topics. Indeed, the more contemporary socio-political debates, such as the discussion about ownership of Egypt’s antiquities (Kozloff) and the problems arising from the local Egyptian population’s disinterest with, or reject of, antiquity (Jones), are presented. As an introduction to Egyptology, with an emphasis on methodology, one can understand the authors sparing the reader of some of the more advanced academic disputes. The bibliographies for each chapter provided at the end of the book will fill this gap for those interested in a particular topic. However, it would have been of benefit for readers to be made aware of the existing academic debates and to see how the methodologies are put into practice. For example, in the Fosters’ chapter on literature, a presentation of the views on whether Egyptian literature was intended as propaganda would have been a useful follow up to Redford’s discussion of propaganda and admonition.

This is an extremely useful book. The all-encompassing and balanced approach means that it should be recommended reading for students of all levels. The reviewer can only wish that such an introduction was available when he undertook his studies in Egyptology.

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