Modern Scholarly Illusion

I found Ward’s (1992) article particularly interesting since I am among those who believed that the chronology of ancient Egypt was firmly established and exact.  In particular, I found his argument about precision to be very compelling.  There really is no reason to think that ancient Egyptians were as precise about their dates, times, and calendars as we are today.

In reference to modern interpretations of astronomical data from ancient Egypt, Ward states that “modern scholarship frequently imposes a precision on ancient science that was never there” (p. 54).  He continues by noting that the insistence on one location for astronomical observations is “no more than a desire to impose our own need for uniformity; in other words, it is a modern scholarly illusion” (p. 61).  The ancient Egyptians did not have a need to be precise about certain aspects of their political, economic, temporal, or ideological world; rather, they were comfortable with the fact that their civil and lunar calendars were disparate.  These calendars served different purposes in ancient times, but for modern (Western) societies, this idea is foreign.

I think the notion of imposing modern concepts–whether it be time, religion, cultural practices, mortuary practices, etc.–on past populations is problematic in both archaeological and bioarchaeological contexts.  Difficult as it may be, it is important to analyze and interpret past cultures from an unbiased perspective.  There is no reason to assume that modern lifeways were present in the past or had any meaning to ancient cultures.

I found Ward’s argument to be relevant for me since I often forget to take an unbiased or critical approach to interpreting past societies.  It was an important reminder to think critically about research that has already been published, and to avoid modern impositions on past cultures.  Especially for ancient Egyptian society, which has been extremely well researched, it is still necessary to question previous findings and assumptions and to push our knowledge forward.

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About Julie Fleischman

I am a doctoral student in Physical Anthropology and also completed my Masters degree in Forensic Science at MSU in 2011.  My primary research interest is skeletal trauma, in both bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology.  To date, my research has focused on forensic anthropology methods and trauma analysis.

3 thoughts on “Modern Scholarly Illusion

  1. Pingback: Presenting the material: textbook vs. journal articles | ARCHAEOLOGY OF ANCIENT EGYPT

  2. I would have to agree with the points you bring up. It is very easy for archaeologists to fall into the trap of believing that how we live our lives now is similar to how ancient societies lived their lives. We have to remember that, just as you say, ancient Egyptians may have been perfectly content with having a vague calendar, and that the reason archaeologists have such a hard time matching precise dates to event that happened thousands of years ago, is simply because the Egyptians themselves didn’t have a precise date. I’ve noticed that calendars are one of the concepts that we seem to impose more on ancient societies than other practices. We are perfectly content with accepting different religious or cultural practices, but when we start to think about time, we automatically assume they had the same level as organization as we do now. There is frustration within the archaeology community because we don’t have enough remnants to explain the Egyptian calendar. However, maybe that evidence never existed. It is very possible that there was never a precise calendar. I agree with your comment that Ward gives us an important reminder to avoid the assumption that ancient societies have similar characteristics to modern societies.

  3. The issue of an anthropologist (or any scientist) interpreting data through their own personal cultural lens can be a huge problem, but we can never fully remove ourselves and our lenses from such research. The example of the Egyptian lunar calendar and the civil calendar being used concurrently and independently in your post is an example of this. It’s difficult for me to pull myself away from my planner and google calendar long enough to think about having such a fluid lunar calendar which transitions based on the level of the Nile.

    That is one reason why the use of ethnohistorical data to interpret bioarchaeological and archaeological data is incredibly important. However, the interpretation of any human behavior is difficult whether it is based on an artifact of a past society or if you are trying to figure out why that guy just cut you off in traffic. The complexity of human behavior can not be subjected to the same level of precision achievable in a standard scientific laboratory where variables can be controlled. It makes sense that the lunar and civil calendars will not be able to give precise information on chronology since they were not designed for precision, but this does not mean that those chronologies are not accurate, especially in the eyes of the ancient Egyptians that created them.

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