Bonus Blog: Roman Egypt

I’m sure most people won’t immediately think this, but I would have to say one of the most important topics we covered in class, and unfortunately didn’t get to spend that much time on, is Roman Egypt, and how Rome impacted Egypt. I definitely have a biased opinion; I studied abroad in Rome over the summer and took an ancient Roman history class, so it was interesting to me to apply what I had already learned about Rome’s interaction with Egypt with what we learned about in class. This is one of my favorite things about education, taking what you learn in one class and applying it to another, and eventually getting the bigger picture.

I think it is very crucial to understand how one society takes over another, so that we can take this knowledge and apply it to our lives now. There is no better way to do this than look at past societies, and analyze what happened. That way, depending on the conclusions we come to, we can promote or avoid future events that might hinder or benefit our own societies. As they say, history repeats itself, and I know it’s a cliché thing to say, but human beings need to learn from the past to better the future. Spending time learning about Roman Egypt in this class in ANP 455 has contributed to this. For example, we learned how Egyptian worship was altered by what the Roman’s believed. Religious conflicts have repeated themselves over and over again, and learning about them can perhaps change the ways humans solve conflict. Ideally, anyway.

And of course, like I said, I am extremely interested in Roman history. When combined with ancient Egyptian history, of course I’m going to say that this is an important topic. However, I do stand by what I said; our knowledge of the undertakings of past societies will help us avoid unwanted events in our own societies.

Differences in Afterlife Views

I know I’ve blogged on the afterlife once already, but the reading for this week triggered many more thoughts to write about. I guess one of the things I never realized was how much afterlife beliefs and practices varied. I suppose it makes sense; humans are the same way today. For example, our beliefs on religion, even for those who belong to the same church, differ even if in the smallest ways. I guess this is just one more kick I’ll have to give myself for automatically assuming things about a culture.

Anyway, going back to what I was saying: I find it interesting that their beliefs varied. Some saw death as a “threatening enemy,” while others viewed it as a “welcome homecoming.” I always assumed their society as a whole welcomed the passing on to a new phase of being, but just like today, some were more comfortable with the idea of death, while others seemed to fear it. I also found it interesting that there were different methods of providing sustenance to the dead. Some of the dead were provided offerings by means of a cult who visited regularly and replenished, while other buried Egyptians were given sustenance through “magical” models and images. I wonder if this difference had to do with social status? Or perhaps it had to do with the region they were buried? The chapter doesn’t seem to answer the question and it left me wondering why the difference.

There were also variations between the burial practices, but as the chapter states, this was due to the differences in social class. The elite obviously had more resources to work with, therefore their dead were buried with grander items and material, while the non-elite had a “miniaturized version of the grand sepulcher of a high official.” Like I said, however, there are many other areas of the afterlife that had varying beliefs about them, and it is fascinating to me to read about this subject, and understand the differences between our views today and their views years ago, not to mention their own views that differed from one another.

The Value of Identity in Ancient Egypt

This week, I was really interested in the online reading about identity and personhood in ancient Egyptians. The author states on the first page that, “To tease out concepts of identity and personhood from these traces is a difficult task, and we should be well aware that our interpretation likely reflects our own concerns, rather than those of ancient society and individuals.” And to be quite honest, it was kind of embarrassing to realize that while I was reading those first couple of paragraphs, that’s exactly what I was doing. It is so easy to form biases, and to base ancient culture off of our own society’s cultures and our own experiences. When I read the sentence, “At the same time there are indications that in ancient Egypt persons were considered individuals, and understood themselves as such.” I immediately thought, “well of course they were considered individuals, what else would they be considered?” Just as I’m sure other people do, I immediately assumed something about their culture that isn’t necessarily true, simply because that’s how it is in our modern day culture.

That being said, it is clear there are some differences in the ways Ancient Egyptian society viewed individuals. Just like today, the name of a person was very important, but perhaps not for the same reasons as our own. A name of a person today is used to document basically everything that happens to that individual; it is used on birth certificates, marriage documents, identification cards, passports, etc. However, in Eygpt’s past society, the name was only used to position a child in a social network and to identify the person before and after death. On the state level, as the author states, the name was less important. This is a perfect example of why it is important not to reflect our own culture on other cultures, past or present. Values and beliefs, and even the importance of a name, varies for each culture, and losing sight of this will only set us much farther back when trying to truly learn about a culture.

Beautification Processes in Ancient Egypt

For my research paper, I intend to examine the beautification process of Ancient Egyptians, what it meant, and how it impacted them. This has always interested me – while many aspects of human culture have changed in the thousands of years since the time of Ancient Egypt, the idea of altering our appearances to beautify ourselves has remained the same. I plan on focusing on three different main types of beautification steps: makeup (eye paints and face paints), perfume, and oils. I don’t plan on focusing on a specific time period, but instead I will discuss how the application of these cosmetics differed throughout the years. I will also talk about the materials that they used to make the different substances, and where they came from. For example, oils made during the second millennium BC usually came from sesame, horseradish and almond, while malachite and galena made up some of the eye makeup during the predynastic time period. Pertaining to the eye paints, I will narrow in on the use of kohl, because through my research so far I have found that this was a major aspect of eye makeup for the Ancient Egyptians (for example, how it was made, who used it, etc).

How individuals present themselves is a huge way to better understand the culture in question. Archaeology is the study of human societies in the past, and since beautification was such a large part of their culture, it can help us to learn more about what distinguished the elite from the poor, who presented themselves in “beautiful” ways and who was not able to, and what it meant to them. Just as straight teeth and tan skin means beauty to our culture, dark eyes and strong smelling perfumes meant beauty to them.

Surprisingly to me, finding sources for this paper was harder than expected. However, with the use of the MSU library, I have found enough resources to help me research this topic. Among the sources I have found so far, an article titled “Cosmetics, Perfume and Incense in Ancient Egypt,” will help me quite a bit. I have also found another article from the American Journal of Archaeology, titled “The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity: The Cases of Delos and Pasetum,” and while it focuses on ancient perfume in general, it specifically talks about Egyptian perfume quite often, because, as the article states, “ancient perfume is well attested in texts from the Egyptian Old Kingdom…” I have also found an article from the New York Times titled, “Ancient Egypt’s Toxic Makeup Fought Infection, Researchers Say.” It gives some valuable information on the background of their makeup, and it also discusses the health benefits it may have served (the low dosage of lead fought off the eye infections that bacteria from the Nile might have caused). This is just one example of how beautification was an important part of Egyptians lives. While these sources will be my main sources, I have also found some other ones that will help to further my research.

Sources:
The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity: The Cases of Delos and Paestum Jean-Pierre Brun American Journal of Archaeology , Vol. 104, No. 2 (Apr., 2000), pp. 277-308 Published by: Archaeological Institute of America Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/507452

Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt A. Lucas The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology , Vol. 16, No. 1/2 (May, 1930), pp. 41-53 Published by: Egypt Exploration Society Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3854332

Bhanoo, Sindya. “Ancient Egypt’s Toxic Makeup Fought Infection, Researchers Say.” New York Time. N.p., 18 Jan. 2010. Web. .

Afterlife Rituals

As a member of a society who puts much emphasis on life itself, and how we spend our limited time on this earth, it is extremely interesting to me to read about a society that focused so much on the dead, and what happened to individuals after their mortal time limit was up. In lecture today, Dr. Watrall talked about Duat, where the dead go to be judged by Osiris. This reminded me of some religions that are practiced today, such as Christianity, where one is immediately judged after death, and are then sent to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. It’s interesting to see how completely different cultures/societies have some similar basis in their beliefs.

I also came across some information about the Egyptian afterlife while I was reading the assigned chapters for this week. The author described the three different elements of a person’s existence in the afterlife – ba, ka, and akh. Ka is the living person’s personality, ba is the soul of the person, and akh, if I’m understanding this correctly, helps with the transition between life and death. This, however, and as the author also states, is very different than Judeo/Christian and Muslim beliefs. I think it is so interesting to me that a majority of the cultures, past and present, of our world’s population have many of the same basic beliefs, but specifics of the beliefs are quite different.

It is fascinating to me just how much work the Egyptians put into their afterlife rituals. To some people, it may seem crazy that brains were supposedly pulled out of the body’s nose. To the Egyptians, however, each practice they performed meant something very specific. I very much wish I could travel back in time to see one of these rituals performed and to really understand what everything meant. However, until the time comes when someone invents a time machine, I guess I’ll have to make do with what pyramid texts and other archaeological discoveries tell us.

Alien or Not?

Humans are notorious for relying on the supernatural and other mythical or other-worldly phenomena to explain simple events that should otherwise be explained by science and reason. Some people who hear the natural creaks of an old house are ready to believe that ghosts and spirits are haunting the rooms above them. In the late 1600s, women in Salem, Massachusetts were accused of being witches simply because young girls were acting out of sorts. And of course, some people like to claim that aliens visited Ancient Egypt, and are the reasons why the Pyramids, among other structures, were built.

Honestly, I’ve never given much thought to the idea that aliens may have beamed down from the skies above to influence the humans living on our planet. I’ve heard rumors here and there, but nothing has ever convinced me that we haven’t always been the only creatures of advanced thought processes here on Earth. The masks that Dr. Watrall showed in class, the ones that had very narrow and pointed chins and larger, broader foreheads, caught my attention, because he reported that some people might see this as evidence towards alien life on earth. However, this doesn’t prove anything. Every culture has designed and produced masks, from ancient times through modern times. These masks are all different shapes, sizes, colors and materials, and just because one culture’s mask seems to fit our society’s description of extra terrestrial beings doesn’t mean that when they were made thousands of years ago, aliens were influencing their design.

I’ll admit, some of the “evidence” that people have found for aliens on earth is intriguing. The Ancient Egyptian drawings and sculptures of humans with elongated skulls definitely don’t look like what a normal human head looks like. The hieroglyphs that look like spaceships descending on the population definitely help an imagination to run wild. But in reality, that’s it. There is no concrete proof for the “evidence” for aliens, and everything that has the potential to be evidence for aliens can also be proven by more realistic explanations. It’s fun to ponder the existence of extra terrestrial beings but unless we uncover more facts, that’s as far as we can go.

Beautification In Ancient Egypt and Beyond

Of all the things I could chose to write about this week, I ended up thinking about makeup. Even though men tend to stay away from the little containers of colored powder and tubes of lipstick, women at least tend to put a little something on their faces before leaving the house. When Dr. Watrall mentioned in lecture that the earliest Predynastic people in Upper Egypt, those who lived during the Badarian phase, used ground up minerals for eye paint, it got me thinking about beautification, and how even now, humans use eye paint and much more to say something about themselves.

There are so many things about human civilizations that have changed over the thousands of years. We’ve gone from huts to mansions, donkeys to jets, and wood fires to microwaves and that is of course just to name a few of the incredible changes that humans have seen throughout their time on this planet.

It’s interesting, however, to look at the things that have remained the same, even after about 6,000 years. In 4,000 BC, Egyptians were using black powder to make their eyes into different shapes. In 2012, women, and even some men, are still doing it. Ancient Mayans filed their teeth into different shapes, and attached boards to babies’ foreheads to alter the growth of their skulls and shape them into more “beautiful” positions. It seems like a lot of pain and work for results that aren’t worth it, but thousands of years from now, people might dig our own bones up and shake their heads at the bits of metal attached to our teeth, or the silicone gel inserted into women’s breasts. Even now, one culture might view another’s efforts for beauty as strange, but when it all comes down to it, this is one aspect of human society that has never changed. Whether it’s a straight smile, dark eyes, flat foreheads, or something else just as drastic, humans will always go out of the way to make themselves into what they view as beautiful.

Mortuary Ritual and Social Status

While reading the chapter assigned to us this week, I paused at one of the “boxes” because its topic, mortuary analysis, caught my eye. At first, when the author criticized Binford’s claim that “the structural complexity of mortuary ritual should be directly correlated with status systems within a society,” I disagreed. I immediately jumped to the conclusion that the higher one stood on the social ladder, the more elaborate their burial process would be.

This assumption, however, isn’t always true, and it took me a second to realize this. The example that the book uses refers to the King of Saudi Arabia, who can be credited as an extremely wealthy and influential man. His burial process doesn’t reflect this though, because he is simply buried in an uncomplicated grave, with only a shroud carrying him. In class we learned that the regions of the Tell el-O’mar and Ma’adi were at one point very similar settlements. People of these regions both lived in oval houses, some of their characteristics were similar to those in Levant, and they were both Predynastic. I realize that there are also many differences, but in general, they have many similar aspects. However, while they are similar in terms of how advanced their societies were and in terms of social classes, their mortuary practices were different. The people in Tell el-O’mar buried their dead under their houses, while in Ma’adi, a cemetery was found, which was where most of the dead were placed.

Of course, one can’t argue the extreme for either side, because in some cases, Binford’s claim is true. Take our modern society in the U.S. It is common for those who have passed to be buried in a cemetery. However, in general, those with more money have the choice to purchase large headstones or hold elaborate funerals while those who aren’t as wealthy don’t have the choice, and hold simpler and smaller funerals. So in a way, burial practices do correlate with status within the society. As was proven in the chapter, however, this isn’t always the case, and exceptions to the rule must be kept in mind when making assumptions, not just about burial practices but life in general.

A Desert Too Dry

Of all the things that grabbed my attention while reading this chapter, the issue that struck me the most was the fact that most of the desert area of Egypt has yet to be investigated. According to the chapter, “Paleolithic sites in the desert are much better preserved that those in the Valley, but archaeological exploration of the deserts has also been limited.” I understand that it’s extremely difficult to dig at a site with conditions of the desert, but it’s still a pity that there is so much evidence still buried deep in the sand.

This brings me to what I discussed in my first blog – that it is unfortunate that some of Ancient Egypt is getting washed away from the flooding of the Nile. It’s almost like Ancient Egypt stands on both ends of the spectrum; in one region, archaeologists can’t get to the artifacts because there is too much water, and in another region it is far too hot and dry to set up survivable dig sites. I know nothing is perfect, but a part of me is wondering if there is more that could be done to uncover these sites. Is it simply a funding problem? There must be ways to set up camps that are survivable in in the desert, but of course I am no expert on it; maybe it really is impossible to dig in some of the regions in Egypt.

It seems so ironic to me that a land that helped Ancient Egyptians thrive for so long is now making it extremely difficult in some areas to uncover their homes and culture. It’s almost like fate or a higher power is deliberately adding some difficulty to the hunt to understand Ancient Egyptian civilization. In reality, it’s just the planet Earth doing its natural thing, and that’s something even human beings can’t always overcome. However, I still stand by the fact that it is unfortunate that these natural obstacles are in the way of Egyptian archaeologists.

Exaggerations in the Media

To be honest, I’ve never really thought about just how much fantastical media about ancient Egypt is out there for us to consume. It wasn’t until I read the intro chapter to our class’s book that I realized just how easy it is to take the concept of ancient Egypt and make it into a best seller or a horror movie. Take mummies, for example; they have been portrayed as the monster in many scary stories and movies, some of which don’t even take place anywhere near Egypt. They rise from their coffin, blindly chasing after the heroes with their arms out, sometimes even letting out a ghostly moan. Where does this image come from? From what I know, it is quite an exaggeration from what a real mummy actually is. Is it perhaps even disrespectful that the image of a mummy has been so blown out of proportion from its original fascinating beauty? In addition, as Bard states, “Ancient Egypt at the movies includes several films about Cleopatra VII, usually as an exotic seductress.” I’m no expert on Cleopatra, but I’m sure that those films magnify traits about her that the audience members would enjoy seeing, rather than portray the woman who actually was. I understand this is all for entertainment and for the enjoyment of the masses. I myself have read the first three books in the series Bard talks about; the series written by Elizabeth Peters about the fictional Egyptologist Amelia Peabody. Human beings like their entertainment, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a good book or movie. I just think that Ancient Egypt has so much beauty to it, so much to be learned from and to decipher and understand without having to exaggerate any of its existing features. I just hope that before people turn to media for an idea of how ancient Egypt lived, they would instead look at the real evidence that archaeologists have uncovered.