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A History of Ancient Egypt

A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid
John Romer
Allen Lane   505pp   £25

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The story of ancient Egypt is well known. Starting with its unification by a king called Narmer, it becomes obsessed by, then loses interest in, pyramid building, develops a huge empire ruled by any number of odd characters, then it all goes wrong with invading foreigners turning up on a regular basis. However this is not the story recounted in this, the first of John Romer's promised two-volume history of ancient Egypt, which takes us from the earliest farming communities in north-east Africa, to the building of the Great Pyramid of King Khufu.

The choice of the Great Pyramid as end-point of this first volume is, at first sight, a surprising one. Khufu's reign in the early part of the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2500 bc) seems an unlikely mid-point in a story which still has 27 Dynasties and over 2,000 years to go until the arrival of Alexander the Great.

For traditional histories of Egypt the periods after the pyramid-building Old Kingdom are increasingly data-rich and lend themselves to satisfying narrative accounts significantly based on the written sources left by the Egyptians themselves. For most Egyptologists the triple developments of the unification of Egypt at around 3100 bc as a unitary state, the emergence of writing and the development of the institution of kingship and its projection in religion through art, seem to provide a kick-start to what is recognisably ancient Egypt. However this is one of the central points of Romer's approach, which is part of a relatively recent trend among scholars, who have tried to trace the story of ancient Egypt well beyond the unification of Egypt and the writing-based evidence which emerges at the same time.

The story of how simple farming communities developed into a territorially large, politically unified and highly centralised state might once have been read as one of 'evolution' of human capabilities and societal organisation. In this context the Great Pyramid of Khufu could be seen as a high water mark of achievement for the Egyptian state in terms of technical ability and, more significantly, the organisation of that state to facilitate the completion of a single huge project. However, Romer’s story is not so straightforward, not least because of the attention he gives to these early communities as worthy of attention in their own right rather than poking through the remains of their material culture to see nascent signs of what we might regard as recognisably Egyptian in the dynastic period.

The evidence he looks at goes well beyond the written sources, which are the traditional backbone of Egyptian history-writing, to archaeological evidence – some a reappraisal of early excavations, some an account of much more recent, extensive fieldwork and research into the Predynastic period – which allows him to explore pre-unification Egypt in some detail. The picture Romer  paints of these early communities is one which might surprise readers steeped in the traditional ‘hieroglyphic culture’ of dynastic Egypt. Although searchers for the seeds of a later recognisable Egypt will find some evidence in what he describes, the Egypt of 5000-3000 bc is a strange and unfamiliar place with a significant amount of regional diversity, from the decorated pottery of Nagada II in southern Egypt to the figurines of Tell Farkha in the Delta.

In setting out to begin from first principles in his interpretation of the available evidence, Romer’s history is deliberately eclectic and personal and includes discussions of topics on which there is very far from being an agreed academic view, such as the extent of influence of the Mesopotamian Uruk culture in the development of standard ‘Egyptian’ cultural artefacts such as monumental architecture, writing and the display of divine kingship. However his analysis is firmly rooted in primary evidence and the latest scholarship and, written with the same panache Romer brings to broadcast media, this is a stimulating read.

Steven Snape is Senior Lecturer in Egyptian Archaeology at the University of Liverpool.

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