The Story of Egypt
by Joann Fletcher
Hodder & Stoughton 482pp £25
Writing a comprehensive history of Ancient Egypt is no easy task, especially when the author, as here, aims to create a more balanced story than that traditionally told, by ‘pushing back boundaries beyond limited time frames, beyond current borders and beyond a male elite of kings and priests’. Fletcher’s time frame is startlingly ambitious, taking us from the remains of a child from 55,000 years ago, to the cobra venom which dispatched Cleopatra – Shakespeare’s ‘descendant of so many kings’ – in 30 BC. Her Genesis-like ‘In the Beginning’ first chapter explores the great Egyptian creation legends, enabling Fletcher to stress the duality of kingship in a civilisation where male and female elements comprise two halves of an essential whole.
She relates nicely how many early 20th century (male) Egyptologists were reluctant to acknowledge any female pharaohs apart from the legendary Queen Hatshepsut. By contrast, Fletcher stresses the contributions of the female elite. For example, recent excavations at the ‘Fourth Pyramid of Giza’ suggest that Khentkawes I ruled as a pharaoh in her own right at the end of the Fourth Dynasty.
Fletcher makes good use of material culture to illuminate the role of women: the female burials, which contain weapons and jewellery, and skeletal evidence revealing osteoarthritis, which suggests load-bearing occupations. This focus on artefacts, however, can be at the expense of accuracy. Thus her illustration of the Tarkhan tunic in the Petrie Museum is erroneously captioned as having belonged to ‘a young woman’, whereas we have no proof as to the gender of its owner. Further, this garment was not found in a ‘packing case’, but, less romantically, buried deep within a crumpled heap of dirty linen rags.
Fletcher shows a penchant for anything to do with hair, from the earliest female extensions (c.3500 BC), to the hollow bodkin in the bound-up hair of Cleopatra, which was the most likely carrier of the poison. Red henna as a treatment for greying hair is also a feature.
An extensive bibliography enhances the book, but poor quality colour plates and the lack of a visual timeline detract. While refreshingly free from footnotes, it is frustrating to have to search the copious notes under specific textual phrases. The book is archaeologically and scientifically up to date: the unique Abydos birthing brick and the Ramesseum school are both mentioned, as is the 2012 CAT-scanning discovery that the mummy known as ‘Ginger’ in the British Museum was literally stabbed in the back.
The male elite appear in a new light. Fletcher quotes from the letter of Sennefer, a mayor of Thebes, to his tenant-farmer Baki asking for lotus blossoms to be made into bouquets, which must be ‘fit for presentation’. The request ends with a warning: ‘And don’t be lazy! For I know that you are lazy and like eating in bed!’
Fletcher captures glimpses of the minutiae of everyday life and she succeeds in her quest to ‘push back boundaries’, as the Ancient Egyptians become part of our world today.
Rosalind Janssen is Lecturer in Education at the UCL Institute of Education, having previously been a Curator of the Petrie Museum and subsequently a Lecturer in Egyptology at the Institute of Archaeology.