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Birmingham Egyptology

Edward Mushett Cole at Rosetta Forum: ‘Seven pious nonentities’?

On Tuesday 27th May, Edward Mushett Cole presented to the Rosetta Forum (http://www.rosetta.bham.ac.uk/), giving a talk entitled “‘Seven Pious Nonentities’: a reassessment of the later 20th Dynasty kings and their political power”. For those of you unable to attend that event, here is a brief summary of what was a fascinating talk:


Edward’s PhD research is centred around the use of theory to reconstruct elements of the relatively poorly documented later Ramesside and Third Intermediate Periods. This talk was concerned with the former, the first part of the title being a reference to William Hayes who described the later Ramessides as such. Initially, listeners were taken through the complex timeline of events during this period, mainly those of internal political and economic strife from the end of the reign of Ramesses III such as Deir el-Medina strikes, tomb-robberies and the struggles between High Priest Amenhotep, Viceroy of Kush Panehsy and his successor Piankh toward the end of the Dynasty; encounters with the Sea Peoples, incursions of Libyans and other external conflicts were less important in this context. The theory being used to challenge the view expressed so succinctly by Hayes was that of Joseph Tainter, which Edward summarised as ‘investment in complexity’ – when societies are faced with problems, the solutions implemented (adding to institutions, restructuring the system of authority and so on) result in the society becoming more complex, leading to new problems which cannot be solved in the same way. This anthropological conception, it was argued, can be used to show that the later Ramessides were not as weak as they are often considered to be. That many only experienced short reigns is not necessarily symptomatic of poor-quality leadership, but may explain why fewer documents and monuments survive in their name. It is also important to consider that they suffer from comparison with earlier, ‘greater’ pharaohs of the New Kingdom, especially Ramesses II and III.


Using the events laid out in the timeline, Edward demonstrated that the highs and lows of the later 20th Dynasty do seem to fit with Tainter’s theory. For example, a shadowy issue with the northern vizier under Ramesses III was apparently solved temporarily by the southern vizier being given more power in the north. However, he was then perhaps less focused on his southern responsibilities and as a result, economic problems arose, represented by strikes at Deir el-Medina. Successive and interconnected economic and political problems and their short-term resolutions, which Edward explained, essentially built up until the end of the Dynasty, when we know of the six-month suppression of the High Priest of Amun Amenhotep, during which there appears to be many tomb and temple robberies. Initially it seemed that giving more power to the Viceroy of Kush Panehsy, who had military power at his own disposal, was sensible, but this appears to have led to something akin to civil war. Eventually Piankh and then Herihor, northern officials, were brought in to resolve these problems as the Dynasty drew to a close.


In essence, Edward was arguing that the kings, though short-lived, were not powerless. Instead, it seems that they had a fundamental misunderstanding of the political structure and the causative effect of changes to this system, though exact reasons why can only be speculative; a more complex system and an ambitious, opportunistic elite likely contributed to the issues. Arguments for environmental problems such as drought are unconvincing but suggest the possibility that there were greater contributory factors. Nonetheless, certain clues in the evidence (such as a letter from Ramesses IX to the High Priest of Amun demanding better eye-paint than that which was sent) suggests that the pharaohs still could expect people to obey them, in other words that they still had authority over and the respect of – at least outwardly – their subjects, and thus were much more than ‘nonentities’.

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