If you missed the introductory post to this series, check it out here.
This month, we’re investigating how labels can tell us more about the people who wrote them than the artefact being described. It’s a crash course on race and eugenics in Egyptian Archaeology in just a few hundred words!
Label Detective: Case 3
Case Notes: These two stone heads sit next to each other in a case. I walked by them occasionally, for months, until the little niggling voice in the back of my head got louder and louder: How did archaeologists know that these statues were of ‘foreigners’? What does ‘foreigner’ even mean in an ancient Egyptian context?
When I asked someone at the Petrie Museum about the label, they asked me ‘Have you seen the ‘Memphis “Race” Heads’? Petrie through it was important to teach students of Egyptian archaeology how to ‘read’ racial differences on the faces represented on cultural artefacts. The 1915 case of clay figurine heads that Petrie felt represented different ‘races’ is no longer on display, but his interest in eugenics* still shapes the collection in labels like the above.
For Petrie (or any of his label-making disciples), it’s likely that ‘foreigner’ meant that someone had identified the head’s features ‘not Egyptian’. According to Petrie’s ‘New Race’ theory, the dynastic period in Egypt (these statues are from the Early Dynastic Period) was ushered in by the arrival of a more advanced Caucasoid (read:white/European race — i.e. not the people of the Nile Valley. This is a theory that Petrie developed using eugenist methods, and wouldn’t give up for many years, but has been widely discredited.
When we talk about ‘ancient Egyptians’ now, we are generally referring to people of the Nile Valley. However, we don’t know what exactly they would have looked like, or, more importantly, how they would have defined themselves. There is evidence ancient Egyptian had contact with people from many different places, through trading, migration, and invasions. This included Nubians (today Southern Egypt/Sudan) in the south, ‘Libyans’ in the west, and the Near East (‘Asiatics’). While Egyptians depicted different peoples’ appearance and styles differently, we don’t know how ancient Egyptians defined Egyptian identity, as there are no primary sources that really set this out.
Debbie Challis, who has directed much of the Petrie museum’s research on Petrie, race, and eugenics, does a great summary of these complex issues in two short quotes in her 2013 book The Archaeology of Race:
‘Race and identity in the ancient world was about more than skin colour and neither are skin colour or physical characteristics necessarily signs of genetic origins’
‘What cannot be denied though is the fact that Egyptologists and Classicists have consistently treated ancient Egypt as distinct from the rest of Africa, and until recently rarely tried to understand ancient Egypt’s connections to ancient north-east Africa’
Status: Can you close a case like this? Maybe after I finish Debbie Challis’s book?
If you want additional resources, you can find a short essay on the ‘Memphis “Race” Heads in the open-access book that was published on the 100 year anniversary of the museum
This website, while dated, is also a good, slightly more detailed summary of the debate around race in ancient Egypt.
*Most simply explained, eugenics is the idea that you should encourage people with ‘desirable’ traits to reproduce and discourage people with ‘undesirable’ traits from reproducing. This is fake, racist science! Eugenics is most well-known in its use by the Nazis in the Second World War, but was first coined and promoted by (British) Francis Galton at UCL, who collaborated with and influenced Petrie.