The Archaeology Of Early Egypt, By David Wengrow
The Archaeology of Early Egypt is ambitious in scope covering the period from the end of the last Ice Age (c. 10,000 BC) through to the emergence and early development of the state (c. 2650 BC). Accounts of this period, or parts of it, have been attempted before. Refreshingly, what sets Wengrow’s work apart from many of these other studies, with the notable exception of Michael Hoffman’s (1979) volume, is the balanced, critical engagement with social theory which situates the evidence within a broader academic narrative.
Writing such an authoritative account is not an easy task. This is particularly the case given that this large span of time encompasses fundamental social transformations, such as the emergence of farming, the origins of kingship and writing, as well as the evolution of the Egyptian state. In order to navigate through the mosaic of evidence Wengrow selects key themes that inform his interpretation. These include a practice-centred approach that considers the role of the ‘body politic’ as an image and framework through which meaning is constituted and experienced, particularly in the context of mortuary rituals. A related concern is the relationship between the living and the dead.
The book is organised into two sections; part one consisting of five chapters under the banner of ‘transformations in prehistory’, and part two comprising six chapters on dynastic kingship. The chapters within these sections do not stand alone but build upon and interweave with each other.
Chapter one situates Egypt within the wider context of innovations and interactions with south-west Asia and north-east Africa from the end of the last glacial to the Old Kingdom (c. 10,000 – 2600 BC). This period encompasses important developments, such as the introduction of domesticated plants and animals from south-west Asia, new methods of transport, urbanisation, and the invention of specialist craft technologies. The account of these transformations, as Wengrow acknowledges, is partial and is intended only as an overview. The theme is returned to in chapter seven and together these chapters emphasise that transitions in economic and ritual practice cannot be understood without reference to Egypt’s relationship with the wider world.
Chapter two is a more substantial engagement with the evidence for the establishment of the social foundations of Egyptian society through the Neolithic. It is not until chapter three, however, that the discussion picks up pace. Here Wengrow introduces the term ‘primary pastoral community’, characterised by increased mobility and a greater investment in animal wealth, as well as conspicuous display for the living and the dead. The latter is the more explicit focus of chapters four and five, chapter five being a partially reworked version of a paper co-authored with John Baines (2004). Of all facets of early Egyptian analysis it has been the mortuary realm that has been the most extensively discussed. Yet, as Wengrow observes, previous approaches have, in adopting overtly quantitative methodologies in data analysis, marginalised the variability of the mortuary contexts of this period. Instead Wengrow calls for more qualitative treatments of the evidence that attends to the minutiae of interments. It is convincingly argued that the attachment of increasing numbers of people to particular locations was not achieved primarily by permanent habitation but was importantly linked to the creation of mortuary settings. This interpretive shift is a welcome departure from the often banal narrative of social stratification that characterises outlines of this evidence and goes some way to alleviating the impasse reached in academic discussion of Predynastic mortuary evidence.
The second part of Wengrow’s study centres upon the strategies of local elites in appropriating material and symbolic resources during the political unification at the end of the 4th millennium, a process insightfully termed ‘the evolution of simplicity’ (cf. Wengrow 1999). The thread of the argument remains fixed upon the body and the artefacts related to its care and presentation; the ‘technologies of self’. The emergence of writing, as well as the royal and elite funerary rituals of the beginning of the 3rd millennium, are well attended to in chapters nine and ten. These chapters reach into the archaeology of Old Kingdom Egypt which is the more familiar preserve of Egyptology. In doing so Wengrow challenges the artificial separation of Egyptian prehistory from the historic period. However, as with traditional Egyptology it is the high elite culture of the first dynasties that is privileged with discussion. Admittedly, there is a dearth of evidence for the customs of non-elite communities but it nevertheless seems an oversight not to have made reference to the later cemeteries of Naga ed-Der, for example, to at least provide a counterpoint for practices after the First Dynasty.
Overall, the book accomplishes bridging the perceived divide between Egyptology and archaeology. Egyptian archaeology has often been chastised for its isolationist approach and a tempting response to this is the importation of an excessive volume of theoretical terminology that has been developed with reference to other archaeological datasets. Such projects can appear overly self-conscious and often the data that they purport to interpret are tagged on post hoc to a lengthy theoretical excursus. David Wengrow, however has succeeded in avoiding these pitfalls instead focusing productively upon the essential essence of notions such as agency and practice theory. Consequently, the book will be of interest not just to analysts of early Egypt but will also more broadly appeal to anyone concerned with the emergence of farming and state formation.
Inevitably, however, in following a particular line of argument a certain degree of selectivity in the use of evidence is necessary. This is not a problem per se as it is inherent in any such endeavour but it is perhaps an issue given the title under which this account is presented. ‘The archaeology of Egypt’ suggests a certain comprehensiveness which is not borne out in the text and to which the author admittedly makes no claim himself. Understandably, the book’s title is a necessary commercial correlate of the series ‘Cambridge World Archaeology’ of which it forms part. Nevertheless, it remains somewhat of a misnomer. This is ‘an archaeology of Early Egypt’ that is far from being an accessible introductory text. For those who may be unfamiliar with the material and terminology characteristic for this time Wengrow’s book provides insufficient detail with which to properly familiarise oneself and tends to assume prior knowledge. It lacks contextual background information on the historical and methodological development of the archaeology of early Egypt, fails to engage fully with many previous studies, and skims over key issues not accessible to the line of argument developed, such as the spread of the Naqada culture north and the foundation of Memphis. Moreover, despite the foregrounding of mortuary evidence in the book most of the relevant cemetery sites are in fact given only cursory attention, their role being merely anecdotal, embedded within the larger narrative, and only exceptional burials are mentioned. For instance, much theoretical ground is covered by Wengrow on the subject of secondary mortuary treatments. However, these practices remain rare, accounting for only a small proportion of the large number of burials excavated. Therefore, whilst certainly possible, the notion that body parts were retained for use within contexts of living practice is perhaps overstated. In this regard a greater engagement with a broader cross-section of the mortuary evidence might have been desirable.
Nevertheless, for those wishing to engage with stimulating academic ideas on a more generalised theoretical level, without recourse to the in-depth technicalities of pottery typologies and chronological construction, the book will certainly appeal. For people already familiar with the material, this work will undoubtedly breathe new life into the study of this crucial period of cultural development and it forms a very welcome critical axis for further debate.
It remains to be noted that the book is generally well illustrated throughout, although it is lamentable that no coloured images are included. The layout is accessible with appendices covering chronology included at the back together with the extensive and fairly comprehensive reference list.
Review Submitted: August 2006
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of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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