A year in the life of Ancient Egypt

yearShould you judge a book by its writer? Or a writer by just one book? In other words, are author and work one and the same? In this case, I would argue no.

To start with the author, Ann Rosalie David is a pioneering expert in the field of biomedical research in Egyptology. She basically invented this area of study. She studies ancient diseases and living conditions of real ancient Egyptians, scrutinizing mummies for signs of their health and diet. She has published extensively on medicinal and pharmaceutical topics. Her research is very science-based, which I can appreciate. Bones are a secret love of mine, and words like ‘occipital crest’ and ‘supraorbital torus’ make my blood flow a little faster. I think this was somehwere in the back of my ‘cranial cavity’ when I asked Pen and Sword Books for a review copy of A year in the life of Ancient Egypt.

Which is why I was surprised to find that the book is somewhat of a contradiction. First of all, the cover: well designed, while the interior layout of the book is a bit dull. I was expecting a book about ‘life in Ancient Egypt’, which it essentially is, but only at a very introductory level. The ‘year’ part kind of eluded me. Yes, the chapters are divided in three sections corresponding to the seasons of inundation, planting and harvesting, but nowhere else is this calendrical aspect being referred to. After setting the stage historically and geographically, the chapters are straightforward, although they appear a bit randomly chosen: (1) the land and its people; (2) religious beliefs and practices; (3) social customs; (4) artisans, trades and crafts; (5) the medical profession; (6) the legal profession; (7) entertainment and personal appearance; (8) education; (9) military campaigns; (10) funerary customs.

These topics are sometimes explained with reference to an imaginary 18th dynasty family living in Thebes, featuring a government official (Khary), his wife Perenbast (who was Chantress of Amun) and their sons Nakht (a lawyer, who likes lawyers?) and Amenemhet (an army officer), as well as daughter Meryamun (married to a doctor, what fun), and youngest son Ipy, still at school. Grandma Nefert also lives with the family (until she dies, now I’ve spoiled the ending). A nice idea, but then again, why choose an imaginary family when we have quite some information about actual families, especially of this high social standing? Or why not pick a normal, everyday family, with bad teeth and arthritis, and use real evidence from mummies kept in the Manchester Museum?

The narrative itself is a clearly formulated general introduction to different aspects of life in ancient Egypt. It is a pitty that the visual material is sometimes lacking in quality and is not always directly relevant to the text. Other times, an image showing what is being told (especially when it comes to tomb decoration) would have been clarifying. It seems that for copyright issues, only (old?) photos from the Manchester Museum were used. Object photos are not up to modern standards. Also, it is probably a choise that there is little citation, but for those interested in further information if would be helpful if there was more.

At several points the author revives, especially when it comes to medical details (chapter 5) and the vivid descriptions of mummification and the burial ritual (p. 233-240). What would have been really interesting by this author is not a book about ‘a year in the life’, but a book about death and disease! I’m keeping my hopes up for a popular book about mummies in various stages of decomposition, and how you can tell whether they were male/female, how old they were when they died, what diseases they had. A sort of archaeology of death (isn’t all archaeology about death?). Through those details, you could ultimately paint a picture of ancient Egyptian life. How heavy was life for a common Egyptian? What medicines did they have access to? How did treatments differ for more wealthy citizens? Were ancient Egyptians afraid of death, or obsessed by it?

Perhaps this book will be written one day, and I’d be glad to read it if it’s by Ann Rosalie David.

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