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A caution on reading the Ancient Egyptian writings on health

With its strong philological bias, Egyptology has tended to give priority to written sources in the study of health and healing in Ancient Egypt. Methodologically, this carries high risks: writing introduces mediators between the ancient body and modern researcher - ancient writers, copyists, language.

In reading any written source on health, the reader should restate the lower status of written sources, relative to less mediated source material. For the study of ancient health, the primary (least mediated) sources must be the human remains themselves. Both written and pictorial sources come a distant second.

This does not mean that the information from written sources should not be used in the study of Ancient Egyptian healing. However, explicit recognition of different status of sources is crucial, if the philological bias of Egyptology is to be neutralised.

Four questions

  1. How effective was a treatment?

  2. How precise was a measurement in a prescription?

  3. How precise were the tools used in healing?

  4. How precisely can we identify the materials used in healing?


Treatment: the effect

Efficiency of treatment is sometimes claimed in a phrase such as 'effective a million times', more rarely with reference to a particular reign as the period of use, for example 'it is (a prescription that was) good in the time of the Majesty of the Dual King Nebmaatra (Amenhotep III)' (iw.s nfr.ti m hAw Hm n nswt bity nb-mAat-ra, British Museum EA 10059 column 12, line 1).

Assessing efficiency is difficult with the available data: the efficiency of specific prescriptions depends on identifying materials correctly (see the comment on Materials for problems of identification), and the efficiency of incantation in resocialising the individual into the community of the healthy is problematic, given the assumptions and presumptions operative in the world of the reader, for example in alternative or in 'orthodox' Western healing.

The best guide to the efficiency of treatment must be the human remains themselves, wherever they provide evidence for recovery from illness, but more importantly in the general demographic information available on health and life-expectancy. The focus in publication has until recently been on the former, depriving us of the most useful source of information on ancient health, the general populations surviving as skeletal or mummified human remains.


Precision of measurements

Precision varies according to the historical and social context: in general, measurements become more precise over time, and may be more precisely expressed where writing is developed.

Precise measuring of quantity is crucial for treatment where substances may have harmful or beneficial effect on the body depending on the quantity given. In societies with writing, earlier records seem to express measurements more vaguely, and later records introduce more precise measuring units, and provide fractions as well as whole numerals. Superficially this might be interpreted as a development from (1) a society with relatively little knowledge and control of useful substances, to (2) a society with increased knowledge and control of useful substances. Such an evolutionary interpretation places modern (Western) medicine at a privileged high point, and corresponds to the experience of Western society with its internal modern history of increasing knowledge and control of the environment. However, societies without writing may be more immersed in their environment, and may have more direct daily experience and knowledge of the flora, fauna and minerals available in the lifelong battle to secure and maintain good health. Therefore the historical pattern of development is not the linear progression assumed in Western histories of medicine, but a more complex history of relations between humans and their environment.

In Ancient Egyptian healing, written sources (primarily manuscripts) indicate a unified system for measuring capacity and weight. New research by Tanja Pommerening on the unit of measurement for small volumes is to be published in the journal Aegyptiaca Helvetica. For weights, there is the study by Marguerite-Annie Cour-Marty (Cour-Marty 1990). Otherwise, relatively little research has been published on the historical development of weighing since Petrie 1926 that volume should be consulted in conjunction with the article by Cour-Marty, as its terminology requires revision.

Precision of tools

As for measurements,tool production seems to become more precise over time, with multi-purpose tools gradually replaced by function-specific tools. In earlier periods, there is no evidence that any tool was made specifically for use in healing. The earliest certain sets of 'medical instruments' date to the Roman Period. Even the intricate procedures of mummification do not seem to have involved the use of specific tools that can be identified in the archaeological record; there are two possible exceptions: (1) rare examples of knives with an image of the jackal, perhaps Anubis, god of mummification; (2) a set of tools found among items relating to embalming in the layer over the sealing of a Thirtieth Dynasty or early Ptolemaic Period burial chamber excavated by Manfred Bietak in the tomb of Ankhhor at Thebes.

As for weights, relatively little research has been published on the comparative history of tool production in Egypt since Petrie 1917.

At present, it seems that Ancient Egyptian healing involved tools that might be used in other settings: there is no identifiable category of 'medical instruments', and no specialised vocabulary for such tools.

Modern identifications of ancient words for materials

The Egyptological tradition of lexicography (study of words) has advanced from initial study of individual words to the study of, and compilation of dictionaries for, groups of words: the two most important examples for the study of Ancient Egyptian healing are the volumes produced by the project directed by H. Grapow from 1954 (Grundriss der Medizin der Alten Agypter, 9 volumes, Berlin 1954-1963 with supplement in 1973) and the assemblage of sources for the vocabulary of plant materials (G. Charpentier, Recueil de materiaux epigraphiques relatifs a la botanique de l'Egypte ancienne, Paris 1981).

There remain fundamental problems in the identification of materials, given the historical fluidity of vocabularies (i.e. words change meaning over time, and may have multiple reference within one time period): these problems derive from the philological bias underlying both this lexicographical tradition and the entire study of healing. In order to secure identifications, the following method might produce more reliable results:

Example: flora (same divisions would apply to fauna and minerals)

  1. what was the flora of the period? archaeobotanical information from dry and wet settlement sites
  2. what was the flora of the period? archaeobotanical information from cemetery sites
  3. what was the flora of the period? information from ancient pictorial sources
  4. what was the flora of the period? information from ancient written sources

For each of these, it is as important to record what the sources do not reveal, as to record what they do reveal. Some plants and uses of plants may not survive in the archaeological record (1-2) or be identifiable in the pictoral or written record.

For assessment of the written sources, it is important to distinguish the sources by context and script. The hieroglyphic script may include quite specific signs that are depictions specifying species of animal or plant, whereas usually only generic 'animal', 'plant' and 'mineral/material' signs are supplied in the cursive script (hieratic in Old, Middle and New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC)). For most names of plants and minerals, research is still needed to establish not only the meaning of the individual word, but more importantly the underlying ancient systems of naming for features of the environment. For a plant, someone studying healing may identify an Ancient Egyptian name as a Linnaean category: this may provide a modern reader with a means of access to the materials in Ancient Egyptian healing, but it is strictly speaking an inaccurate imposition of one worldview (eighteenth century flora typology) onto another (Ancient Egyptian vocabulary). Sydney Aufrere has placed the focus of research on this study of whole vocabularies and the underlying principles of vision and division in naming, in his monograph L'univers mineral dand la pensee egyptienne, Cairo 1992.

Similarly, the effect of context on word-use needs to be taken into account:

Germer 1998 provides a summary of the problems with modern identifications of materials by their ancient names.


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