Last Session


Friday 17th November 2017

Topic: Ethnicity in Ancient Egypt

Chair: Dr Edward Mushett-Cole

This week’s discussion, led by Dr Edward Mushett-Cole, considered ethnicity in ancient Egypt. It was noted that this is an increasingly contentious topic in the discussion of ancient cultures, in which modern comprehensions and interpretations of race, ethnicity, and social/cultural markers undoubtedly impact upon our view of the past. Indeed, the extent to which the ancient Egyptians may have had a different outlook or perspective on ethnicity was also an important part of the Forum debate.

The group began by establishing important aspects of our modern views and definitions of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’; it was noted that discussions of the ‘race’ of the ancient Egyptians has often been influenced by earlier scholars, however more recent anthropological and biological related research concerning ancient DNA and genetic analysis typically refrains from the use of the word ‘race’. Thus the terminology surrounding this topic can distort our appreciation of a more complex ancient culture, and also relates to a larger problem of the potential for modern audiences to ‘mould’ the ancient understanding of cultural similarities and differences within a society or nation to our own contemporary understanding of ethnicity. Modern concepts of ‘race’ are often social constructs, which cannot be considered applicable to the identification of ancient peoples; thus, one argument which was discussed included that race was a Western perception, whereas ethnicity was much more concerned with cultural features and distinguishing markers. Another aspect of the term ‘race’ is the implicit homogeneity and ‘hard’ boundaries of identifying peoples as different; yet again the group considered the implications of applying this to ancient cultures, and agreed that in considering ancient Egypt, ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are overlapping, looser constructs.

Key examples of ‘markers’ within Egyptian art were considered, in which the use of colour, regalia, dress and pose were typically identifying features to mark out an Egyptian figure vs. a ‘non-Egyptian’ or ‘other’, foreign figure. There are individual and collective characteristics that we may use to describe a representation within Egyptian art as inherently ‘Egyptian’, yet the point of view of the ancient audience was also noted. What did the ancient Egyptians understand by ‘ethnicity’? Artistic markers may indicate a distinct ‘otherness’, such as the Libyan identification through feathers in the hair and the writing of Meshwesh in hieroglyphs with a feather sign, yet the extent to which these were accurate representations of reality (and how much we can glean from such representations) was debated. In these examples certain characteristics can be singled out within artistic portrayals that have associations with other cultures and traits. Again, the overriding significance of these markers in terms of shedding light on how the ancient Egyptians perceived race, ethnicity, and the differences in social and cultural markers or traits was further discussed. The potential for modern viewers to attach more meaning or significance to various markers was also considered; as such, the reasons behind the use of various cultural markers and their ancient meaning can also be distorted by our modern need to attach meaning to intricate details. Yet to the ancient viewer, these details may have had little importance! Another complication is also the lack of comparable depictions of Libyans, for example, from their own archaeological record in order to consider their own self-presentation, and how this may compare to the Egyptian portrayal.

To what extent did these Egyptian trends in the depiction of other cultures represent (or reflect a conscious attempt) at depicting reality? Context was noted as particularly important in considering this question, and the ‘purpose’ of the representation; the intended audience, to what extent this can be ascertained, must also have played a part in the decision-making process in ancient Egyptian art. In later periods, recurrent archaism and ‘harkening back’ to earlier trends as a method of legitimising and reinforcing superiority is a feature of both royal and non-royal art. As such, this also connects to the question of portraying ‘reality’; can these representations be considered accurate reflections, a perceived reality, or indeed the priority is the use of earlier established artistic trends as opposed to concern for representing different cultures in a factually appropriate way. This also led the group to question why the Egyptians ‘re-used’ images, and to what extent ‘foreignness’ or ‘otherness’ was always an important artistic distinction. Other important factors within Egyptian art include the artistic conventions and decorum, as well as issues of gender which are also distinguished via skin colour, height of figures, regalia and dress. On that note the group discussed the lack of representations of foreign females within Egyptian art, a major contrast to other civilisations such as Assyria. It was agreed that gender, age, and ethnicity were all closely connected as identifying ‘markers’ within ancient artistic conventions.

The group established that what is depicted, what (ancient or modern) people see, and what it represents are all different, yet overlapping, aspects of Egyptian art. It was also noted that pictorial depictions are distinct from other levels of communication which were possibly more widespread, yet these too can still be distinct from reality. In public forms of communication, including tomb and temple artistic depictions, there are also underlying cultural and political motivations which influence representations of both Egyptians and non-Egyptians. This raised the question of how the ancient Egyptians viewed themselves within the varying levels of society; could cultural ‘markers’ have similarly distinguished Egyptian from foreigner, but also elite from non-elite?

This led to discussion of the foreign adoption of Egyptian names and artistic styles and conventions, in both royal and elite contexts. Does archaism and adopting ‘otherness’ indicate your status as an elite member of society? And equally, does the adoption of Libyan/non-Egyptian names and styles indicate some societal change which took place in the later phases of Egyptian history, as well as changes in decorum? Again the discussion circled back to terminology and the interpretations of changing ‘labels’ throughout time, as well as older words and phrases which appear to be reused in certain contexts (the inscriptions pre and post Ramesses III, for example). It was suggested that perhaps in their original use certain words had a particular significance with regards to ethnicity, and was coined for a particular reason, which becomes lost over time. There is certainly a need to understand and appreciate terms which appear to designate a particular culture or people, as opposed to more generic terms which simply seem to suggest ‘non-Egyptian’ or ‘foreigner’. Interestingly while the adoption of Egyptian language and practices could go some way to ensuring your identification as Egyptian, other cultures such as the ancient Greeks did not share the same view; Greek cultural and ethnic identity was inherently connected to citizenship, in which comprehension of the Greek language was a key aspect. Yet acknowledgement of different city states (we compared Athenians with Spartans, for example) is a gap in our knowledge for ancient Egypt – not only do we not have a clear picture of Egyptian views of each other, but to compare dialects, local practices and traits of those living in Thebes or Elephantine, for example. Another problem we face is a lack of understanding of the chronological and geographical layers of the Egyptian language, its vocalisation and pronunciation, and thus linguistic developments over time. We must imagine that there were mixtures of ethnic influences and sources of impact within the different Egyptian dialects and development of the language as a whole, partly inspired also by the phenomenon of contact with a variety of different cultures.

Discussion concluded by again considering our modern aims and intentions behind discussing ethnicity – it was argued that ethnicity could be understood as a fluid concept in ancient Egypt, and it is through modern eyes that we attempt to ‘fix’ boundaries in order to further define and understand different social strata and backgrounds within ancient cultures. It was agreed that the modern recognition (whether conscious or unconscious) of social ‘markers’ and attribution of meaning to these aspects may in fact have been unimportant or insignificant to the ancient viewer.



Back to Top