Thursday, December 22, 2005

Ian Shaw – Ancient Egypt, a Very Short introduction

The Very Short Introduction series perform exactly what it says on the tin – they are short (this comes to 192 pages including glossary, index and other goodies) but very comprehensive. Shaw’s work has managed to cram a complex subject into a tiny book, but retain both his enthusiasm for the subject together with plenty of fascinating facts and discussions.

Shaw’s avoided trying to tell the story of ancient Egypt and spend endless pages describing pyramids, temples and mummies. Instead he concentrates almost entirely on Egyptology as a subject for Archaeologists and discusses what we know (and how what we know has changed or developed).

So for instance, in his all too brief discussion of the life of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut he takes on the commonly held belief that she was a “pacifist” queen, pointing out that this has more to do with the perceptions of later-day historians, particularly their sexist attitudes. Similarly Shaw discusses the most famous female monarchs, Cleopatra and Nefertiti, in the context of how their images have been appropriated by everyone from Hollywood filmmakers to Black Nationalists.

So in taking the long view of ancient Egyptian history, Shaw avoids one of the major problems that archaeologists have when studying this period. This is the problem of getting “into” the Egyptian mind. There is no doubt, for instance, that the ancient Egyptians did not have the same separation between “reality” and the “supernatural”. Their world was one where humans and Gods could interact. To understand their religious writings, practices and worship means entering that mindset.

Surprisingly then, by showing how everyone from Roman historians to the Victorians and modern-day archaeologists have viewed the Egyptians, Shaw has illuminated both their world, and ours.
I can best illustrate this by quoting Shaw’s description of the work of the Victorian “enthusiast”, Piazza Smyth, who described the Pyramids using the “pyramid inch” as a unit. Smyth went on to explain that this was also the unit of measurement used by those building Noah’s ark and Moses’ tabernacle.

Shaw writes that “Since the pyramid inch was conveniently virtually the same as the British inch, it was only a small step further to suggest that all this identifies the British as the lost tribe of Israel, which neatly adds rampant Victorian imperialism to Piazzi Smyth’s bundle of influences in his ruminations on pyramids.”

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