The Importance of Ethnicity

The most important topic that we covered in my opinion, was the concept of identity in Egypt. We briefly touched on the fact that Egyptians had isolated themselves for several centuries and had limited contact with those outside of their world. We begin to see the formation of an ethnic identity when foreigners began to interact with the Egyptians during the Middle Kingdom, as ethnicity is partially self ascription and partially an awareness of the how outsiders view oneself. The depictions of these foreign people are found on the walls of Egyptian tombs and temples. As immigrants migrated into Egypt and took on roles in the community scholars note the adoption of Egyptian cultural practices by those immigrants. This adoption of cultural practices creates an interesting discussion on what it means to be Egyptian and how we as anthropologists should determine ethnicity for an individual and a population.

This topic of the concept of ethnicity was the catalyst to my research paper where I was able to look deeper at the archaeological evidence of the interactions between the people at the border area between Nubia and Egypt.  This territorial area was not unique as there were likely similar cultural interactions between the eastern and western borders of Egypt as well as across the Mediterranean Sea. The extensive Hellenization of Egypt also illustrates how identity of individuals, communities and the entire region continuously evolves.

The ties to higher theoretical questions about Egyptian life in this time period are incredible important to consider. While studying the history of Egyptian anthropology scholars are now beginning to study the history of what it meant to be Egyptian. Both of these histories are incredibly dynamic and complex, but shed so much light on what life was like and how these people saw themselves and their foreign neighbors.

Ethnicity and Identity

In class this week, we have brought up the issue and concept of Egyptian identity and the acculturation of other populations to Egyptian ways. We briefly spoke about the Egyptian adapted mortuary practices exemplified in Nubian pyramids. The classification of mortuary practices as distinctly Nubian or Egyptian can be problematic as these practices are complex and do have a natural variation. The Nubian pyramids were undeniably inspired by their Northern neighbor, but things such as the orientation of the body, grave good, types of coffin, etc. were not uniformly Egyptian or Nubian. The outward display of the pyramid linked the Nubians to the Egyptian culture and allowed them to show that connection to the outside world. Burials are considered a display and in this case the Nubians were demonstrating their close relationship with the Egyptians.

We have also examined how the Ptolemaic Dynasties built religious temples in the Egyptian style (architecture and art) in order to proclaim their association with the Egyptian culture. This occurred in a time where the people of Egypt were becoming more multicultural and had an increase in diversity, yet the Ptolemaic Dynasty still felt the need to associate themselves with the ancient Egyptian culture. They did not want to appear as though they were outsiders – even though these new cultures were all living in the same region and under the same government.

The concept of ethnicity and ultimately identity is a complex one. While in class this week, I was struck by the dynamic nature of the identity of the Egyptian people, as well as their neighbors with which they interacted. How did the people living in Egypt see themselves? We know that there were specific communities of Egyptians, Greeks and Jews, but did they feel an overarching connection to Egypt, its past, and an investment to the nations future?

Depictions of Egyptians

The art of ancient Egypt always impresses me, but one of my favorite aspects of the monuments and carvings from that period has been the depiction of the people. Pharoah Akhenaten stands out from all other ancient pharaohs with his depiction as a long headed and pot bellied man. His royal family is also long headed and pot bellied. There are many theories on why there is this drastic change in the appearance of the pharaoh and his family, but since his mummy has not been positively identified there is no ability to test theories that he suffered from some type of genetic disorder. There is also a theory centered on the presence of alien life forms that point to an extraterrestrial influence on the pharaoh (there are several ‘interesting’ blogs on the topic). The mystery will likely remain until Akhenaten’s mummy is discovered and tested for genetic disorders as well as examined for skeletal evidence of his distinct cranio-facial features.

Akhenaten is not the only person that stands out in ancient Egyptian art. The representation of the foreigners present on the temple walls is also distinct from Egyptians. While in Egypt, I remember being fascinated by these depictions. The stark differences in skin tone and cranio-facial structure along with distinct dress and hair styles demonstrates that the Egyptians were aware of several things. First and foremost, they were interacting with their neighbors in some capacity whether it was through warfare, peaceful trade, or the formation of alliances. They were no longer isolated by their physical boundaries which they had used to keep to themselves for centuries previously. The Egyptians were also defining their ethnicity as being very distinct from these other populations, both physically as well as culturally. Most depictions were created to show that the Egyptians were in a powerful position over these foreigners.

The Egyptians used art to distinguish between their own people as well as themselves from foreign outsiders. They implied their power and dominance over these foreigners through their graphic depictions of battles. These artworks were created by and for a higher status group of individuals. It is important to keep in mind that these depictions represent an idealized version of the differences between individuals and that these differences may not have been as important on an individual basis.




Research Proposal: Fluidity of Borders

Our modern boundaries on our world maps appear to be rigid declarations marking the exact territories that belong to a specific group of people. We know that the formation of these lines and the maintenance of these boundaries can be carried out several different ways but most often are enforced through politics and military power. The borders of ancient Egypt were no different. For the research paper for this course I plan on writing about the fluidity of the southern border between Egypt and the region known as Nubia. I would like to focus on the dynamics between these two populations seen through time based on historical documentation and the archaeological artifacts and human remains excavated from that area.

The ancient Egyptians had predominantly kept to themselves for several centuries viewing non-Egyptians as ‘the other’. Drawing from concepts written about by Said (1978) I would like to briefly analyze this mindset and determine what occurred historically to begin the relationship between ancient Egypt and its Nubian neighbors. Smith’s book, “Wretched Kush: Ethnic Identity in Egypt’s Nubian Empire” (2003) will also be used to analyze the ethnic identity of these populations throughout time and discuss the concept of the Egyptian southern border.

I will follow the history of the Egyptian and Nubian interactions at the political level, but would also like to view their relationship at a smaller scale pulling evidence from archaeological sites near the area. Comparative studies of the patterns of skeletal trauma seen in human remains from Kerma and Tombos, both located near the Third Cataract of the Nile, provide evidence of a transition in the relationship between the Nubians and ancient Egyptians (Buzon and Richman 2007).

Several scholars have studied the physical anthropology of these populations trying to determine the ‘racial typology’ that distinguishes these groups (Batrawi 1946) using what is now considered as outdated methods. Other work has focused on the biological distance between these two groups and the evolutionary perspective which could explain any differences seen (Carlson and van Gerven 1979). Recent work has examined the archaeological artifacts and human skeletal remains in this region and discovered that at the site of Tombos that there is a mixture of ethnicities seen both in mortuary practice and craniofacial measurements (Buzon 2006). This work also determined that there was no clear cut suite of measurements that would distinguish a Nubian from an Egyptian. This is evidence for the fluidity of the southern border allowing cultural ideas to be exchanged, material goods, and genetic flow to take place.

The northern portion of Nubia has been of great interest to archaeologists and physical anthropologists because of the interactions between these two populations. This paper will examine the historical evidence of the relationship between Nubia and Egypt through time considering the cultural implications on a personal scale as well as a political scale. Evidence from archaeological sites in this region will be used to support the concept of the southern border of Egypt as a fluid and ever changing boundary and its effects on the occupants of both sides.

Works Cited

Batrawi, A. (1946). The racial history of Egypt and Nubia: Part II. The racial relationships of the Ancient and Modern populations of Egypt and Nubia. “The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland,” 76(2):131-156.

Buzon, M. R. (2006). Biological and ethnic identity in the New Kingdom Nubia: A case study from Tombos. “Current Anthropology,” 47(4): 683-695.

Buzon, M.R. and Richman, R. (2007). Traumatic injuries and imperialism: The effects of Egyptian colonial strategies at Tombos in Upper Nubia. “American Journal of Physical Anthropology,” 133: 783-791.

Carlson, D. S. and van Gerven D. P. (1979). Diffusion, biological determinism, and biocultural adaptation in the Nubian corridor. “American Anthropologist,” 81(3):561-580.

Said, E. (1978). “Orientalism.” New York: Random House.

Smith, S. T. (2003). “Wretched Kush: Ethnic Identity in Egypt’s Nubian Empire.” London: Routledge.

Elite Burials

In today’s lecture Ethan talked about the non-royal elite burials near the pyramids on the plateau of Giza that were placed there to be as close to the pharaoh as possible. These desirable places for tombs were also within the sacred space of the large funerary complex demonstrating the prestige of the ancient Egyptians buried there. Additionally, the pharaoh was viewed to some level as a demi-god of the land creating both a political and religious reason to desire a burial in close proximity to the pyramids.

This mortuary practice is interesting to me, as we see a similar ad sanctos burial practice in medieval Europe. Individuals would want to be buried within churches and as close to the holy relics and altar as possible in hopes of solidifying their eternal life in paradise. The individuals that were buried ad sanctos are thought to be generally wealthy, elite people of the community with some exceptions of religious leaders who had great social capital with their position in the church (Naji 2005, Effros 1997). However, there is also a trend of infant burial under the eaves of churches in England and Italy to bless these young individuals (Crawford 1999) which unless these are only the children of the elite members of society it is unlikely that these infants were viewed as elite.

Both of these mortuary practices, allowed those of higher status to differentiate themselves from individuals of lower status as well as give them some sort of possible advantage in securing a place in the afterlife. Both practices are on sacred ground that is not available for every individual’s burial. While the exact circumstances and motivations between these two mortuary practices are likely different, I think it is a really interesting trend that ancient populations as well as medieval populations were very concerned with their place in the afterlife and utilized their burial position to try and ensure a better fate for their souls.

Naji S. 2005. Death and Remembrance in Medieval France. In Interacting with the Dead  Perspectives on Mortuary Archaeology for the New Millenium. Ed. G Rakita, J Buikstra, L Beck, S Williams. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. pp 173-191.

Effros B. 1997. Beyond cemetery walls:early medieval funerary topography and Christian salvation. Early Mediveal Europe 6(1):1-23.

Crawford S. 1999. Children, Death and the Afterlife. In The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England: Basic Readings. Ed.   CE Karkov. Garland:New York. pp 339-359.

Controlling Chaos

The film shown in class today kept coming back to the theme of the ancient Egyptians trying to control chaos. The Nile and its annual flood was a large part of that chaos, but also incredibly important to the everyday life of the Egyptian people providing them with food and a route of transportation.

The Egyptians relied heavily on religious rituals in all aspects of their lives, so it is not surprising that they also used rituals to try and control the chaos of their lives. What struck me was the attempt to build a dam that was so large and quite an undertaking in both manpower and engineering. In light of the pyramids and numerous temples, perhaps this is not the finest piece of ancient Egyptian work. It is interesting that so much time and effort was spent on the construction of the dam which would have benefited the people of that area in being able to control the waters of the Nile. Although this likely would have also benefited the elites who were behind the construction, it appears that it is one example of civil engineering as opposed to the individual benefits for the construction of pyramids and large temples.

I also find it interesting that the ancient people were motivated to step outside of their religious rituals to control chaos and attempt to build something that would physically control the chaos. Perhaps the construction of this dam was triggered by divine inspiration. It is a shame that such a large undertaking was destroyed so quickly which I am sure affirmed the Egyptian’s belief that these forces were greater than man. I do wonder about how this dam if it had been completed and functioned, would have changed the history of Egypt. Would the surrounding area grow in power, as the inhabitants were able to finally control chaos?

Dating Ceramics and iPods

The dating of ancient Egyptian time periods is largely based on the typology and craftsmanship of ceramics, as we learned in class as well as in our text. I think that it is interesting that the rough ware ceramics used in the household did not change much throughout the time periods discussed. It makes sense – why build a better mousetrap? The advancement of the craftsmanship in form and decoration of mortuary ceramics continued throughout the periods which reflected the increasing complexity of social positions. Although this was just one way in which social stratification can be seen in that population.

Having taken a course in ceramics in college where we merely did hand building of pots (as opposed to throwing on a wheel) I know how difficult constructing a pot, firing it without blowing it up, and decorating it can be. This is without even considering the regularity in shape and form with which the Egyptians were creating their numerous ceramics as well as the beautiful decorations that they used. It seems like the formation of new ceramics would be desired to separate and differentiate between groups that were being formed based on their position in society.

During class I was also pondering about what material culture could be used to date our generation. We know that examining the clothing and hair styles in photographs are an easy to date the picture down to the decade. Examining technology such as the type of cell phone in your pocket or the iPod in your backpack would be an even more exact way to date our culture. These items would also have some type of correlation to social stratification – the newest technology is more likely owned by more wealthy individuals (as opposed to the flip phone this graduate student still owns…). However, our technology has changed more rapidly than the Egyptian’s ceramics, so perhaps our dating based on electronics would be more precise.

Gertrude Caton-Thompson

To hear that one of the first settlements excavated in Egypt was done by a woman in the 1930’s was completely surprising to me. I always imagine the field of archaeology in those days to be completely dominated by men with few women in the midst. It was nice to hear that one of these rare archaeological ladies was an incredible excavator and crucial to the history of Egyptian archaeology.

I decided to look up some information about how Caton-Thompson got to Egypt and what type of training she had. She was born in England in 1885 and traveled to Egypt, Greece, Palestine and Malta as a child which likely gave her an appreciation of prehistory (Kelly and Hurst Thomas 10). As a young woman, she met TE Lawrence and Gertrude Bell who were both archaeologists (Kelly and Hurst Thomas 10). These friends may have encouraged her to join the field. In 1921 Caton-Thompson began studying the field of archaeology as well as zoology, paleontology, geology, and Arabic (Kelly and Hurst Thomas 10).

Caton-Thompson traveled back to Egypt and began working with Sir Flinders Petrie (Kelly And Hurst Thomas 11). Her important impact on the field of Egyptian archaeology was stepping away from the excavation of burials and mortuary contexts and focusing on settlement archaeology. As we have discussed in class most of the Egyptian archaeology before Caton-Thompson was mortuary analyses. This shift to settlement archaeology is important in the ability to test hypotheses on migration patterns, determine the time frame for the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals, as well as the rise of social complexity.

Caton-Thompson has also been credited with one of the first interdisciplinary studies performed in Egypt. She worked with a geologist in the Fayum to determine the sequence of settlements and their relationship with the levels of an ancient lake (Kelly and Hurst Thomas 11). Her work has paved the way for complex analyses to be conducted in the region.

Kelly, R.L., and Hurst Thomas, D. (2009). Archaeology (5th Ed.) (pp. 10-11). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


Ethan’s point about the term ‘civilization’ being used to denote a specific time period as opposed to the formation of state based societies has always been troublesome to me as well. Our reading this week described the ancient Egyptian history from the Paleolithic period to the Neolithic period. All I could think about is how amazing the stone tools formed in these periods are. The craftsmanship behind the stone tools (even the clunky handaxes) is pretty incredible. The creation of tool sets for specific purposes as well as the advancing technology of stone tool creation techniques up and through the Predynastic period denotes the transition into a more complex society. In my opinion, our modern reliance on technology is not any more civilized than the ancient Egyptians ability to create their own tools and calendars from materials that we (or at least the vast majority of us) would be unable to work in the same manner.

The beginning of commemoration of the dead through burial is a ‘civilized’ act. Although, burials are not common during the Paleolithic our text references the oldest known burial in Egypt comes from this period (Bard 72-73 ). Bard also alludes to the fact that burials from this earlier period may have been destroyed or have not yet been discovered. This social act speaks more to me about the formation of a society than the creation of specialized tools.

The determination of what period is ‘civilized’ and what period is not – is just a matter of clarification of terminology. Like Ethan’s caveat in lecture, we can fairly easily correct our previous ethnocentric description of the Predynastic period. However, this cultural transition into a state based society is not cut and dry, like most things in life it is on a spectrum. The material culture began to change slowly overtime and is not easy to pinpoint a specific time to this transition. It is a challenge for Egyptian archaeologists to determine a timeframe to divide ancient Egyptian history based upon criteria that they must also determine to be the crucial components to the aforementioned determined period.


Edward Said’s work, Orientalism (1978), came to my mind during this week’s readings and lectures. This book is basically on the history of this field of study and Said further comments on the concept of knowledge. Said uses historical texts to examine the evolution of the concept of Orientalism where the only theme that seems to remain unaltered is the, “separateness of the Orient, its eccentricity, its backwardness…a locale requiring Western attention, reconstruction, even redemption (p 206).”

As anthropologists we know and understand the dangers of ethnocentrism and can look back at earlier written works, many analyzed by Said, and appreciate that the views in them have changed drastically and scholarly works written today are no longer tainted by our personal lens and bias (as much as possible). However, the same ethnocentric view was the rationale behind the colonial acquisition of artifacts and antiquities discussed in class and in our textbook which has physical consequences. As Ethan pointed out in class, the “legal” ownership of these large Egyptian antiquities has become a major issue between Egypt and European countries. It is difficult to look back at that time period and appreciate that views have changed and proper archaeological excavations have replaced digs for treasures while we still have those ‘treasures’ sitting in our museums.

I understand and appreciate that by having these Egyptian antiquities in museums young minds can be inspired and future archaeologists born, but is it ethically right to keep them? Couldn’t those same minds be inspired by a special exhibition that travels to those same museums for short installments of time? In some way when Egyptian officials ask for their national artifacts back and the Western world refuses, aren’t we still reinforcing to some level the mentality of colonialism under which these artifacts were usurped?

I know that this issue is much more complex and politically charged than I am discussing it here, but I also feel like there are several compromises and solutions that could be reached to alleviate this tension as well as reconnect the ‘Orient’ to the rest of the world.

Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.