The construction of ethnic self and other played a central role in ancient Egyptian ideology as well as at a more quotidian level. Ethnic groups are usually seen as self-defined, distinctive entities, often corresponding neatly to political or cultural units, but in reality, expressions of ethnic identity are mutable and socially contingent. Adopting a multi-scalar approach informed by practice theory, this paper examines ancient Egyptian constructions of ethnicity, taking into account ideological and elite expressions of ethnic identity from art and texts and everyday practices revealed by archaeology. A carefully contextualized analysis shows how pejorative constructions of an ethnic other by the state contrast with more positive interactions and patterns of mutual influence at a more individual level.
I am indeed like a stray bull in a strange land … No Asiatic makes friends with a Delta man. And what would make papyrus cleave to that mountain? Sinuhe.1
Ethnicity is a potent force in human societies. As a cultural construction of difference, ethnic identity serves to promote social solidarity but also to divide people into essentialized categories of self and other. Some scholars have argued that ethnicity is a modern concept, a product of the nationalist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.2 Sinuhe’s construction of essentialized categories of Asiatic and Delta man, however, shows that the concept has deep origins in the past.3 For ancient Egypt, ethnicity is reflected in ideology, literature, and archaeology. Sinuhe’s worry reflects the central role of difference in the construction and maintenance of ethnic identity. Ethnicity is usually defined as a set of shared cultural practices and primordial attachments. Herodotus defined the Greek ethnos as “the kinship of all Greeks in blood and speech, and the shrines of the gods and the sacrifices that we have in common, and the likeness of our way of life.”4 Akhenaton created a strikingly modern statement of ethnic difference in the Great Hymn to the Aton: “You set every man in his place … Their tongues differ in speech, their characters likewise; Their skins are distinct, for you distinguished the peoples.”5 As Renfrew points out, modern definitions of ethnicity rely on a similar combination of common descent, language, culture, and beliefs.6
Ethnicity is often described as a self-defined, shared identity, but the ethnic self is inevitably constructed and defined by the ethnic other, who are often given negative attributes. This was certainly the case in ancient Egyptian ideology.7 In contrast to Akhenaton’s benign statement of difference, depictions and accounts of foreigners in official contexts presented them in a negative light, as barbarians or even animals to be resisted, conquered and tamed.8 In the broad strokes of Egyptian theology, the Egyptian ethnos was surrounded by three different opposing ethnic groups, Nubians, Asiatics, and Libyans (Fig. 1). Each group, including Egyptians, was depicted with distinctive dress, cultural features including hairstyles, jewelry and body modifications (tattoos for Libyans and scarification for Nubians), and physiognomy (skin color and facial features). These negative ethnic stereotypes helped to define a positive Egyptian ethnos. Ethnicity is not, however, inevitably constructed in these negative terms, instead varying from positive to negative depending on the social context of interactions between ethnic groups. In spite of Sinuhe’s trepidation as a Delta man amongst Asiatics, he was nonetheless welcomed by Ammunenshi, the ruler of upper Retenu (Canaan). More prosaic Egyptian texts and archaeology reflect a more positive interethnic dynamic, where difference still played a role but not necessarily a negative one. In the end Sinuhe even became an Asiatic, marrying one of the Ammunenshi’s daughters and adopting Canaanite lifeways. His experience, even though likely fictional, reflects a common dynamic of ethnicity. In spite of its construction as an essential category acquired at birth, studies show that ethnic identity is both mutable and socially contingent.
2 Ethnicity, Race, and Ancient Egypt
Ethnic identity is a powerful phenomenon. It is powerful both at the affective level, where it touches us in ways mysterious and frequently unconscious, and at the level of strategy, where we constantly manipulate it.9
Ethnic identity is a specific kind of cultural phenomenon, a creation of a consciousness of difference. As with Herodotus’s definition, ethnicity is constructed as a set of primordial, distinctive traditions handed down from time immemorial and bounded in space. In spite of this essentializing self-definition, ethnic identities are in praxis surprisingly fluid and socially contingent. Ethnic identity is subjectively constructed and has the potential to shift and adapt as individual actors confront different social contexts.10 This fluidity means that ethnic groups are not as clearly bounded as one might expect and thus can be difficult to track in both the historical and archaeological record. Jones resolves this issue through the use of practice theory, arguing that ethnicity derives from a selection of features drawn from the habitus, the habitual cultural practices shared by a group, roughly equivalent to the general concept of culture.11 The habitual patterns that make up the thread of daily life are largely unconscious, but can become self-conscious and evolve through innovation and when confronted with difference. The features selected to represent the essential qualities of different ethnic groups, both self and other, are drawn from the reality of the habitus, but should not be equated directly to historical or archaeological cultures.12 Instead, ethnic identities are constructed from a subset of cultural features meant to emphasize difference and are often distorted and/or exaggerated, particularly in the case of other-ascription. As a social construct, ethnicity can thus be defined through narrow differences and partly or even completely fictive primordial ties, regardless of the “objective” reality of ancestry or cultural similarity.13 Since social practices relating to ethnic identity are expressed materially, they can in principle be found in the archaeological record.14
Competition and conflict sharpens ethnic polarization, reflected by Sinuhe’s trepidation upon reaching Upper Retenu and in the ideological constructs of “barbaric” foreigners found in Egyptian ideology. Loprieno’s distinction between topos and mimesis in the representation of foreigners in Egyptian text and art provides a useful lens through which to examine the ethnic dynamics of Egyptian society, one which will be explored further below.15 Ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern celebratory texts and imagery created and juxtaposed a positive ethnic self against negative ethnic others in order to legitimize the power and authority of their kings.16 But this sharply polarized picture breaks down in more prosaic textual sources and archaeological evidence that points to positive intercultural and ethnic interaction. For example, Liszka notes an initial fluidity in the application of the ethnonym Medjay in different social contexts, sometimes as a sub-set of Nehesi (Nubian), sometimes differentiated as a separate group. Created by Egyptian bureaucrats as an ethnic stereotype, she argues that what began as an other-ascription of ethnicity was accepted, or co-opted, by semi-nomadic desert groups as positive connotations began to characterize the ethnonym in the context of day to day interactions with Egyptians during the Middle Kingdom. By the New Kingdom, the term referred to an elite paramilitary force,17 but this in itself does not mean it had completely lost its connotation as an ethnonym. This seemingly inconsistent pattern is entirely consistent with theories of ethnicity that emphasize its socially contingent nature. In the context of royal legitimization, ethnic lines are starkly drawn and stereotypes negative. In contrast, everyday interactions reflect a greater degree of tolerance and the porous nature of ethnic boundaries and fluidity of ethnic identity.
Ethnicity and race are similar social constructs that are often conflated. Both create categories of self and other and involve negative stereotyping and an emphasis on primordial ties, but are fundamentally different. Race relies on the modern concept of speciation, founded on the misguided evolutionary notion that differences in physiognomy reflect sub-species of human. Although constructed as a biological reality, the existence of race cannot be established through biological measures.18 Phenotypic traits like skin color, kinky hair, or nose shape are distributed among human populations in clines, which are not bounded but continuously vary through adaptation to environmental conditions and interbreeding. The use of lighter skin tones for Asiatics and Libyans (yellow), intermediate for Egyptians (red, brown) and dark for Nubians (brown, black) mirrors this clinal distribution of skin color (Fig. 1). In the end, race is a modern, cultural construct, not a biological reality that can be projected into the past.
In line with modern essentialized notions of race, Egyptologists and other scholars have often mapped modern racial categories onto ancient Egyptian representations of ethnic groups, keying on putative racial phenotypic traits, in particular skin color. As a result, imagery like the famous depiction of Egyptians and the three archetypical ethnic groups are characterized as an Egyptian representation of “races” (Fig. 1).19 This is reflected in the common translation of the term Nehesi (nḥsj), “Nubian,” as “negro,” or more recently “black.”20 This thinking represents a post-hoc rationalization of modern categorizations of the race of the ancient Egyptians and Nubians. In spite of strained attempts by Albright to create a derivation from the Semitic root šḥr, “black,” the term Nehesi has no connection to darkness.21 This flawed etymology continues to be repeated in more recent studies that attempt to equate Egyptian constructions of ethnic groups with modern racial classifications, in particular Redford’s explicit projection of modern racial categories into the past.22 I have suggested a more plausible derivation from the verb nḥs, to bite or sting, as a metaphor for Nubian’s famed skill as archers.23 Similarly, Chichi has recently suggested a connection to the verb nḥj, “to implore a god,” perhaps referring to incantations given the fame of Nubian magicians in Egyptian texts.24 These etymologies, which could be seen as either positive or pejorative, are more in line with the kind of cultural stereotyping consistent with ethnicity than the essentialized lines of color prejudice, especially given its general absence in ancient Egypt and more broadly antiquity.25 Egyptologists have been strangely reluctant to admit that the ancient Egyptians were rather dark-skinned Africans, especially given the natural clinal distribution the farther south one goes in Egypt and Nubia. The still common use of the label “black Pharaohs” for the Nubian 25th Dynasty reflects the same flawed attitude towards race in antiquity, and begs and answers the question of the race of the “normal” Pharaohs (i.e., white not black).26 If we are to apply modern racial categorizations to the ancient Egyptians and Nubians, then both groups would be characterized as black.27 In the end, ethnic groups in antiquity cannot be reduced to the severely bounded rules of modern color prejudice.
2.1 Ethnicity and Ideology: The Foreigner-
When his majesty [Ramesses II] saw them, he was enraged against them, like his father, Montu, lord of Thebes … Then he betook himself to his horses, and led quickly on, being alone by himself. He charged into the foes of the vanquished chief of Kheta, and the numerous countries which were with him. His majesty was like Sutekh, the great in strength, smiting and slaying among them; his majesty hurled them headlong, one upon another into the water of the Orontes.28
Hattusilis III in response: “(Really) there was no army and no chariotry there?”29
Loprieno’s distinction between topos and mimesis in the depiction of foreigners in Egyptian literature and art provides a useful lens for us to examine ancient Egypt’s ethnic dynamics. The foreigner-topos represents an idealized view of the world, which serves a rhetorical more than a literal goal.30 In his account of the battle of Kadesh, Ramses II clearly exaggerates when he asserts that he alone defeated the entire Hittite army, something that Hattusilis later called to his attention. Constructions of ethnicity played a central role in this trope of universal ruler by providing an idealized barbaric enemy for the king to subdue. When tied to power relations, the features selected to define the ethnic other are often negative and subordinating such as, in ancient Egypt, the characterization of Kush (Nubia) or Retjenu (the Levant) as “wretched,” powerless against a Pharaoh like Ramses.31 The celebratory ideology found on Egyptian monuments and texts constructed an ethnic “other” by creating an ethnic topos juxtaposing civilized Egyptians with barbaric foreigners.32 Liverani develops a similar theme for western Asia, noting the similarity between Egyptian and Near Eastern depictions of the king as sole defender of the inner order against the outer chaos represented by foreigners as a legitimizing theme in royal ideology.33 He goes on to note that triumphal imagery and accounts like the depictions and epic poem lauding Ramesses II at Kadesh were meant for an inner audience and often departed from reality, a fact that was sometimes noted by those from the outside like Hattusilis, whose viewpoint reflects a more mimetical version of events.
Peoples to the north and south were framed in the foreigner-topos as deceptive and craven on the battlefield in Middle Kingdom texts. Senwosret III asserts regarding Nubians that “Attack him, he will turn his back, retreat, he will start attacking. They are not people one respects, they are wretches, craven- hearted.” The Asiatic is equally reviled, in the Instruction for King Merykare, “he does not announce the day of combat, like a thief who darts about at group … a crocodile on its shore, it snatches from a lonely road, it cannot seize from a populous town.” The Prophecy of Neferti compares Asiatics to a flock of rapacious birds descending on the Delta. The metaphor of Asiatic as crocodile or flock of birds plays on another theme of the topos, the foreigner as animal, a common trope in negative ethnic stereotyping cross culturally.34
The foreigner-topos was materialized through monumental art and in ideologically charged quotidian objects, in particular the furnishings and jewelry that surrounded and adorned the king (Fig. 2). Scenes of the ruler in battle play off of this idea through imagery that materializes the contrast between Egyptian order and foreign chaos. On temple pylons and objects like Tutankhamen’s painted box, the king, larger than life in his chariot, rolls over a disorganized mass of enemies, backed up by the orderly ranks of his army. This theme of order versus chaos is drawn from the solar theology. Re charges the king with enforcing Ma‘at, order, on earth, symbolized by his defeat of foreign enemies, who embody the earthly forces of Isfet, chaos. Once the battle had ended, the king leads the prisoners to the god, the embodiment of chaos subdued and pacified. In some cases, he holds an individual or mass of captives to be executed before the divine presence, a motif that was particularly common in spaces where public rituals or events took place, like the massive renderings on temple pylons and gateways (Fig. 2). In these scenes, the foreigners have the distinctive dress and appearance of the foreigner-topos, an ethnic stereotype that drew a sharp line between Egyptians and Libyans, Asiatics, and Nubians.
The connection between this imagery and the king was made explicit through a materialization of ideology in architectural spaces. In addition to temple façades, the “window of appearances” at Medinet Habu is framed by scenes of the king slaying enemies and a row of topical heads lies beneath the royal feet. Imagery of trampling links to Egyptian magical practices, creating a kind of apotropaic destruction by the king of the ethnic enemies of Egypt on monuments and as he went about his daily tasks. Playing directly off of this magical symbolism, statue bases often had images of bound prisoners as with Ramesses II at Abu Simbel and Luxor Temple. Processional ways in palaces at Amarna and Malqata were lined with images of bound prisoners, so as the king walked to various ceremonial events he would trod upon Egypt’s topical ethnic enemies (Fig. 2). Tutankhamen’s tomb contained a number of objects that would have emphasized this symbolic imagery in a more intimate setting, including footstools with enemies, sandals with the soles decorated with a topical Nubian and Asiatic, and walking sticks with imagery of Nubians and Asiatics on the curved base (Fig. 3).35
2.2 Ethnic Mimesis: Shifting Identities and Cultural Entanglements
Then the royal daughters were brought in, and his majesty said to the queen: “Here is Sinuhe, come as an Asiatic, a product of nomads!” … I was shaved; my hair was combed. Thus was my squalor returned to the foreign land, my dress to the Sand-farers. I was clothed in fine linen; I was anointed with fine oil. I slept on a bed. I had returned the sand to those who dwell in it, the tree-oil to those who grease themselves with it. Sinuhe.36
In the course of his journey, Sinuhe shifts from ethnically Egyptian to Asiatic and back to Egyptian, a reflection of ethnicity’s mutability. His shifts in identity are what anthropologists refer to as instrumental, the adoption of ethnicity for social and/or economic advantage.37 Ethnicity is a complex phenomenon and social context plays a central role in how ethnicity manifests, including the particular cultural features that define ethnic self and other and the situations where ethnicity becomes particularly salient. Thrust into an Asiatic milieu, Sinuhe’s relations with the ethnic other are largely positive. Loprieno notes that in contrast with the ideologically charged foreigner-topos, sources with a more positive view of foreigners reflect mimesis, or a more realistic representation of encounters between Egyptians and members of other ethnic groups. Seen through the lens of ideology, Egypt would appear to be a xenophobic society, an attitude that some Egyptologists have uncritically projected into daily life. This attitude is to some extent understandable, since as noted above negative stereotypes of foreigners feature strongly in the celebratory ideology of Egyptian monuments. As Loprieno points out, this polarizing view of foreigners breaks down in more prosaic textual sources and with archaeological evidence of intercultural and interethnic interaction and entanglement.
Like Sinuhe, Hekanefer, the Nubian prince of Miam (Aniba in Lower Nubia), goes through a transformation in the New Kingdom from Egyptian to Nubian during the Presentation of Inu ceremony.38 In his tomb at Toshka, Hekanefer is represented as an Egyptian official.39 The same applies to the Lower Nubian prince of Tehkhet Djehutyhotep, who administered the area near Buhen. Djehutyhotep not only appears in the guise of an Egyptian official, but also with Egyptian coloring and physiognomy (Fig. 4).40 During the Presentation of Inu, however, Hekanefer and the other princes appear in the role of pacified Nubian following the conventions of the foreigner-topos, including leather sash, ivory jewelry, feathered hairstyle, panther skin cloak and physiognomy. At home, Hekanefer and the other Lower Nubian princes for whom we have tombs self-identify as Egyptian officials. This provides another example of instrumentality; the Lower Nubian princes shift their ethnic identity to meet the ideological demands of the ceremony.
Several scholars have recently suggested that Hekanefer appeared as Nubian during the Inu ceremony as a personal choice celebrating a dual ethnic identity or special status in the colonial administration as a Nubian prince.41 A careful consideration of the ethnic dynamics of the Presentation ceremony contradicts this notion. In the ideologically charged event, the king demonstrates his role as universal ruler by receiving the homage of foreign leaders, including subordinates like Hekanefer, vassals like the rulers of petty kingdoms in Syro-Palestine, and the envoys of great powers like Babylon. The Nubian princes had to don the garb and accoutrements of the foreigner-topos to enact the role of pacified foreigner, demonstrating the king’s enforcement of Ma‘at against the earthly forces of Isfet. Liverani notes that the same applied to great rulers like the king of Babylon Kadashman-Enlil, who was not amused to find his gifts treated like the “tribute” of vassals.42 For the purposes of the ceremony, Babylon’s envoys represented another tamed Asiatic people paying homage to Pharaoh, much to the Mesopotamian king’s chagrin. We lack a personal account of the event by participants like Hekanefer. Perhaps he and the other princes had a similar view as the Maharajahs who were required to don their “traditional” finery at the British colonial Durbars of the late 19th and early 20th century. One of them told Gandhi that he disliked the events, but “if I were to absent myself from the levée, I should have to suffer the consequences. If I were to attend it in my usual dress, it would be an offence.”43 Far from having the choice of ethnic self-presentation, the participants in the Presentation ceremony had little choice as to their appearance in this highly-choreographed event. At home, however, they were free to depict themselves as they wished, and in their tombs, they appear as Egyptian officials, in a parallel with Sinuhe shifting from Egyptian to Nubian and back to Egyptian.44
The complex and ambiguous nature of ethnicity is also reflected in the creation of private monuments and artwork belonging to foreigners living in Egypt. Loprieno notes that artists depicted the Nubian mercenaries who settled in Gebelein during the First Intermediate Period as in conventionally Egyptian funerary roles on their stelae, in spite of their being in some cases identified as Nubian (nḥsj). Elements of the topos often also appear, including Nubian stereotypical facial features, skin color, elements of costume, and hairstyle. They also appear to have married Egyptians, to a large extent integrating into Egyptian society, perhaps as an ethnic minority.45 These kinds of cultural entanglements are a common feature of intercultural encounters, in particular in the context of imperial expansion. In contrast to the stark contrasts and boundaries between ethnic self and other that characterize the foreigner-topos, Egyptians and the peoples they encountered selected different cultural features in a process of adoption, adaptation, and sometimes rejection.46 The mercenaries of Gebelein kept certain elements of Nubian dress and material culture, but adopted features of Egyptian burial practice in an ethnic mimesis where foreign elements like costume and physiognomy were not marked as negative.
Djemi led these Nubian soldiers for a period of time during the First Intermediate Period civil war (Fig. 5). His titles, “overseer/general” (ı̓my-r) and “chief” (wr) of “mercenaries” (Ꜣm), suggest that he himself was Nubian, although unlike some of the other Gebelein stelae of Nubians serving as soldiers in Egypt, he is not explicitly identified as such in the text or through his costume and physiognomy. The one exception is his tightly curled hairstyle, associated with Nubians but also more generally the military. The title wr, “chief/prince” is, however, particularly connected to foreign and specifically Nubian leaders. It is perhaps telling that he boasts of taxing the people of Lower Nubia, pointing towards his familiarity and perhaps connections in the region. Just as Sinuhe created positive relationships with the Asiatics he encountered in his journeys, Egyptian administrators and military officials took advantage of Nubians and Asiatics who were willing to serve Egypt in positive ways. Perhaps like Hekanefer, Djemi identified as Egyptian even though his ancestry was Nubian. In this social context, the features of the topos that appear at Gebelein, like darker skin or distinctive hairstyle, were not negatively marked, but simply indicated Nubian ancestry.
During the New Kingdom, officials like Maiherpri reflect a similar entangled mimesis (Fig. 6). As a “child of the nursery,” he was likely the son of a Nubian prince who was raised at court in order to cement ties to the future Pharaoh. On his copy of the Book of the Dead, he commissioned his depiction with a stereotypically Nubian physiognomy, in particular dark skin and Nubian influenced military curly hairstyle, which was preserved on his mummy.47 Elements of his jewelry also reflect and may have signaled his ties to Nubia, including ivory bracelets and beaded choker, which are also worn by the offspring of the Nubian princes in Huy’s tomb (Fig. 4). In every other way, however, Maiherpri appears in an Egyptian funerary context. He was given the rare privilege of a tomb in the Valley of the Kings and had a magnificent burial assemblage, including a very fine copy of the Book of the Dead, coffins, etc. In the everyday context of his role as a high military advisor (Fanbearer to the Right of the King), he was most likely seen as Egyptian, with features drawn from the topos like dark skin and jewelry simply acknowledging his Nubian ancestry. The connections between Nubians and warfare, however, could indicate that Maiherpri’s Nubian features had a strategic social value.48 At a minimum, his privileged status and close royal connections demonstrate a lack of color prejudice in ancient Egypt.
This conclusion is further reinforced by evidence for royal marriage to Nubians. Queen Ahmose Nofretari, a founding figure of the New Kingdom, is consistently shown with black skin suggesting Nubian ancestry.49 The wives of Nephepetre Montuhotep bear the title “Royal Wife” and are shown with dark skin and have names indicating Nubian ancestry. As Liszka notes in this volume, there is some debate about the identification of the women buried within Montuhotep’s funerary complex as Queens. The argument against this attribution comes from Kemp, who nevertheless acknowledges that the use of the title at least indicates their status as royal women. Kemp goes on to argue against the idea of Nubian ancestry in the Middle Kingdom royal line, specifically the Prophecy of Neferti’s allusion to Amenemhet I’s Nubian mother.50 He follows Posener’s argument that Neferti’s reference to the prophesied savior Ameni as a “child of a woman of tꜢ-sty” indicates that she was from the first Upper Egyptian nome rather than Lower Nubia. For all the elegance of Posener’s literary argument, the use of the “foreign land” determinative in at least one of the manuscripts nevertheless points to Lower Nubia,51 but even if one accepts Posener’s argument, the Nubian connection is still present. Aswan and the first Upper Egyptian Nome always had a rather Nubian character, reflected in its designation as tꜢ-sty (along with Lower Nubia), and archaeologically through its settlement pattern and material culture.52 In any case, since Neferti refers to Amenemhat it has no bearing on who Mentuhotep might have married. Unlike Liszka, I do find the notion of alliance building with Nubians before the reunification plausible—in fact, that’s exactly the point at which one would expect him to be forging ties to potential allies. This reconstruction doesn’t preclude Liszka’s conclusion that their main role was as priestesses of Hathor. As we both note, Ethnic expression is fluid and contingent and need not be the primary aspect of identity emphasized in a particular social context, where other axes of identity, in this case gender and religious, could come to the fore.
The same dynamic applied to Asiatics, as we have already seen with Sinuhe. Amenhotep III’s vizier Aper-El retained a Canaanite theophoric name in spite of his high position in Egyptian society. Names have particularly powerful ethnic connections, but nevertheless like Maiherperi, Aper-El’s tomb and burial assemblage are conventionally Egyptian.53 Individuals with Asiatic names appear in various contexts in Egypt, again suggesting a multi-ethnic dynamic, although as with Sinuhe it is important to remember that ethnic identity could shift according to social context. A stela from Amarna shows a man and his wife drinking beer from a straw, a Mesopotamian practice that is also attested archaeologically in Egypt. The man appears with the dress and physiognomy of an Asiatic, bearded, hair fillet and brightly colored clothing, but his wife and servant appear as Egyptians.54 Other cultural entanglements include the adoption of Asiatic deities like Reshep, Ba’al, and Astarte into Egyptian religion.55 Nubian influence is harder to trace. Perhaps the most important Nubian contribution is the ram imagery of Amun likely borrowed during the early New Kingdom as the god was syncretized with a local deity. The temple of Amun at Napata became a counterpoint to Karnak in a new theology establishing the sacred mountain of Gebel Barkal as the birthplace of the god.56 Nubian influence on the Egyptian military was particularly strong, not surprising considering the long history of Nubians serving in the army. The tightly cropped hairstyle like that worn by Djemi and Maiherperi became fashionable, along with a kind of leather kilt that is shown in depictions of Egyptian soldiers and has survived archaeologically.57 The Egyptian hieroglyphic determinative for soldier has an ostrich feather in his hair and carries a bow, two iconic features of the Nubian ethnic topos.
3 Ethnicity and Archaeology
When we have learned to read the silent artifact, history will not be an easier pursuit. But if artifacts … can be read, then history will become a philosophically more plausible pursuit.58
The archaeological identification of ethnic identity is complicated by its mutable nature. Although it seems counterintuitive, ethnic identities are dynamic and multi-faceted, constantly changing at different times and contexts, like Sinuhe and Hekanefer’s ethnic shifts.59 The specific features that signal ethnic identity are socially contingent and can be obvious but also narrow and subtle. Kamp and Yoffee note that ethnic groups in the Middle East are rarely bounded and different ethnicities can share the same village. As a result, archaeologists should focus on the recovery of specific practices that might signal ethnic difference rather than overall similarities.60 Ethnicity can also embrace a considerable diversity in cultural practices and material culture, even language.61 Indications of ethnic identity in the past may not always be recoverable archaeologically, but the effort is worthwhile even in a case like Egypt where historical sources exist, if nothing else as a corrective to the ideologically charged celebratory texts and negatively charged ethnic stereotypes.62 As Glassie points out, only archaeology can get at the everyday actions of the vast majority of society,63 in our case providing a sense of the broader ethnic dynamics within Egyptian society. In particular, archaeological evidence can give a voice to those not represented or underrepresented in the textual and artistic record, in particular women, who tend to get left out of these kinds of discussions.64
In spite of these difficulties, ethnic identity can be teased out from the archaeological variability that results from ethnicity’s complex situational dynamics. Santley, Yarborough, and Hall focus on ritual, dress, language, and culinary practices in their investigation of a Teotihuacan enclave at Matacapan.65 Costume has a central place in the foreigner-topos. A return to Egyptian dress and grooming plays a dramatic role in Sinuhe’s transformation from Asiatic back to Egyptian, and donning the appropriate dress and accoutrements were central to Hekanefer’s portrayal of the Nubian topos in the Presentation of Inu. Shared religious practices and monuments both express boundaries and promote group solidarity. In particular, the cultural cues materialized in funerary monuments and grave goods offered an opportunity for re-defining and negotiating social roles and identities, especially ethnicity. Proper burial practice, and ancestor veneration in a household context, signal and demonstrate primordial ties, a fundamental aspect of ethnic identity.66 Efforts at ethnic cleansing and genocide typically involve the destruction of cemeteries and religious monuments; in Bosnia-Herzegovina creating a false ideology of a pristine ethnic past by erasing the evidence of multi-ethnic primordial ties inscribed on the landscape.67 Senwosret I appeals for Sinuhe’s return home from the Levant by explicitly acknowledging death’s ethnic dimension. “You shall not die in a foreign land, interred by Asiatics! You shall not be wrapped in the skin of a ram to serve as your coffin … think of your corpse, come back!”68 Sinuhe is reintegrated into Egyptian society not only by throwing off his Asiatic garments, but by building a proper tomb and ensuring that the proper rituals will be observed when he dies. Burial practice is by nature deliberate and embodied, providing an explicit, and through ritual public, tie to self-identification and ancestry, especially Egyptian theology’s focus on the survival of an individual’s personality and identity beyond death.
At a more quotidian level, meals and feasting can also serve to reaffirm individual and group identity through culinary practice. The cuisine itself, the equipment used in preparation and service, and dining etiquette could also serve to create both social and ethnic distinctions. Dining plays a fundamental role in the process of enculturation, providing children the opportunity to observe adults acting in appropriate roles. The Maxims of Ptahhotep reflects this concern for social distinction through cuisine:
If you are one among guests at the table of one greater than you, take what he gives as it is set before you … The great man gives to the chosen man; thus eating is under the counsel of god, A fool is he who complains of it …69
The private and public dimensions of meals and feasting offer opportunities for both host and guest to demonstrate social competence and position, but also exclusion and contrast through the choice of food and food etiquette.70 Cuisine, including culinary equipment, plays a central role in establishing and maintaining ethnic ties. For example, foodways allowed slaves on southern plantations to maintain a separate ethnic identity, and cuisine continues to play a key role in African-American ethnicity.71 Culinary equipment plays a central role in this kind of ethnic signaling, as with the Philistines, who projected an ethnic identity distinct from their Canaanite neighbors through the use of elaborately decorated vessels and distinctive forms that reflected differences in cooking, eating and drinking.72
Colonization provides a good context for the examination of ethnic dynamics, since ethnicity is often heightened in situations where cultures come into contact and conflict, like the Egyptian occupation of and interactions with Libya, Syro-Palestine, and Nubia. The remainder of the paper will consider two case studies from Egyptian colonies in Nubia where ethnicity is expressed in the material record: foodways at the fortress and settlement at Askut, and burial practice associated with the large fortified colony at Tombos (Fig. 1). Askut was founded by Senwosret III, c. 1850 BCE, as one of the final components of the hardened Middle Kingdom frontier at the second cataract. Occupation continued through the Second Intermediate Period, into the New Kingdom, ending in the Third Intermediate Period. Excavated by the late Alexander Badawy during the Aswan High Dam Salvage campaign, the collection is remarkably complete, allowing for the quantification of pottery and other objects.73 Tombos was founded around the reign of Thutmose III and was occupied through the 25th Dynasty. The large colonial cemetery at the site was first identified by a University of Khartoum expedition led by Ali Osman M. Salih and David Edwards, and the site has been the focus of a University of California, Santa Barbara-Purdue University expedition since 2000.74 The location of Tombos just north of Kerma at the third cataract combined with a series of commemorative stela by Thutmose I and several Viceroys suggests that Tombos lay upon an internal symbolic boundary within the empire. The expedition has recently identified a huge fortified enclosure, at over 215 x 230 meters the largest New Kingdom fortress in Nubia.75 This discovery strongly points to Tombos as the “Fortress (mnnw) of Taroy” mentioned by Amenhotep III’s Viceroy Merymose as the southernmost place from which he recruited soldiers for a punitive expedition against the desert territory of Ibhet.76
Although the overall ceramic assemblage at Askut is overwhelmingly Egyptian, Nubian pottery appears consistently as a small percentage of the assemblage, as is the case at other Egyptian colonial sites in Nubia (Fig. 7). Ceramics are tied to culinary practices through their use in food service and preparation, both of which can play a role in signaling ethnic identity.77 Nubian and Egyptian ceramic traditions are fundamentally different in both manufacture and decoration, making them a suitable medium for ethnic expression that can potentially be recovered from a carefully contextualized analysis. When the pottery from Askut is examined by sub-assemblage interesting diachronic patterns emerge. The proportion of Nubian serving vessels like the distinctive fine quality blacktopped red wares fluctuates over time, starting as a very small component in the Middle Kingdom, but rising to over ten percent of the serving assemblage in the Second Intermediate Period when the region was controlled by the kingdom of Kush, dropping somewhat with the establishment of the New Kingdom empire, but rising again after the end of the empire. The increase in Nubian serving ware may reflect a political and/or ethnic assertion of ties between the former colonial community and the new political/social order under the ruler of Kush. Goody notes that elements of culinary practices that connect to larger political systems tend to be more mutable, adapting to new social and political realities.78 This is a social context where men in particular may have shifted ethnic affiliations/identities in the more public context of feasting at least in part through the use of appropriate vessels for consumption.
The proportion of Nubian cooking pottery at Askut, however, takes a completely different trajectory, suggesting a different social dynamic (Fig. 7). Starting at nearly half the cooking assemblage during the Middle Kingdom, Nubian cookpots rise to dominate the cooking sub-assemblage during the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period. This pattern is even more dramatic than the rise in Levantine Middle Bronze Age pottery at Avaris (Tell el-Dabʿa) from about 20–40% of the ceramic assemblage as the Hyksos cemented power in the eastern Delta.79 Although the data are preliminary and the numbers somewhat variable, the presence and often dominance of Nubian cooking pottery appears in more recent excavations of colonial sites in Upper Nubia, including Tombos, Sai, and Amara West. Nubian pottery likely connected with Nubian cuisine and perhaps signaling ethnic identity within an Egyptian social context also appears at Elephantine and sites in Egypt like Ballas,80 where Nubians likely formed a significant military contingent employed/allied with the late Second Intermediate Period/early New Kingdom kings campaigning against the Hyksos and Kushites in Nubia. This pattern contradicts the strong ideological boundaries created by the foreigner-topos, instead providing another example of mimesis in the existence of multiethnic communities at various places in Egypt that transcended ideological boundaries.81 Goody notes the conservative nature of culinary practices without external connections.82 The use of Nubian cooking pottery could provide an example of this tendency as a simple reflection of the habitus of Nubian women in the colony. However, the steady increase of Nubian cooking wares and presumably cuisine suggests a more active assertion of Nubian ethnicity that came to dominate this particular social context in a gendered dynamic. Similar patterns appear in more recent colonial encounters, for example in Spanish Saint Augustine and California’s Russian colony at Fort Ross.83 Stein investigates the intersection of gender and ethnicity at an Uruk colony embedded within Hacinebi in eastern Turkey in part through distinctive patterning tied to cuisine and specifically the relative abundance of local cooking pottery within an Uruk context. He notes a distinction between ceramics associated with food preparation and service similar to the patterning at Askut, with Uruk styles dominating contexts of consumption and local pottery dominating the cooking assemblage.84
During the New Kingdom, Nubia’s sacred landscape was transformed by the construction of a series of massive temple complexes, like Abu Simbel in Lower Nubia and Soleb in Upper Nubia.85 These monuments inscribed the landscape with an Egyptian imprint that is still legible today and that in antiquity was accompanied by a widespread, and to some extent successful, campaign at cultural and ultimately ethnic assimilation.86 In a similar way, the landscape at the Hyksos capital received a Middle Bronze Age imprint with the construction of monumental Levantine style temples.87 Askut had a more modest Egyptian style mud brick temple, but Nubian religious influence appears in a household context though fertility figurines. The most elaborate figurine is associated with an Egyptian style household shrine dedicated to an ancestor named Meryka.88 Its context suggests that it represents more than just a habitual practice, but like the cooking pots may have signaled a gendered ethnic counterpoint within the household that ultimately undermined the emphasis on primordial attachments to an Egyptian ancestor.
Burial practice at Tombos reflects a similar intersection of gender and ethnicity, as well as a diachronic shift documented elsewhere in Upper Nubia.89 Colonists inscribed Egyptian primordial ties onto the landscape with the erection of monumental mud brick pyramid tombs, the largest of which was elaborately decorated with funerary cones, an unusual feature that tied its owners, the Scribe-Reckoner of the Gold of Kush, Siamun and his mother, Mistress of the House, Weren, to Thebes.90 A second tomb was recently discovered with cones, not completely legible but likely dedicated to a hem-netjer priest named Horemhet, further signaling a Theban association. Burial practice similarly aligns with Egyptian theology, including inscribed coffins, mummified bodies in extended, usually supine, placement with head aligned to the west to face the rising sun, basic amulets, personal items like cosmetic kits and ebony throw sticks, and more rarely specialized objects like ushabtis, heart scarabs, perhaps a Book of the Dead, and canopic sets indicating evisceration. As in the settlements, Nubian pottery appears but in very small numbers. The highest percentage was found in the courtyards surrounding Siamun and Weren’s pyramid and chapel complex, including cooking pottery that suggests another Nubian tie to cuisine in the context of funeral feasts.
In contrast to this strong adherence to Egyptian burial practice, at least nine individuals were buried in Nubian flexed position at Tombos.91 All but two were oriented head to the east, facing north in line with Kerman tradition. At least four were placed upon beds in a longstanding Nubian practice, possibly more given the often poor preservation of organic materials. Flexed burials occur in otherwise Egyptian tombs at sites in Upper and Lower Nubia, with a particularly close parallel to Tombos at Soleb (Fig. 8). Although the individual at Soleb was not sexed, only women were buried in this way at Tombos, six from the New Kingdom and three from the Third Intermediate Period, suggesting a strongly gendered dynamic similar to the evidence from foodways. Again, this patterning could simply reflect an adherence to tradition by some Nubian women at the site, but the strongly marked Egyptian character of the monuments and other burials within the cemetery and even side by side in the same tombs suggest the deliberate signaling of a kind of Nubian ethnic counterpoint. Egyptian funerals were public events that served to commemorate the dead, accompanied by often elaborate processions where the body and grave goods were displayed. Brought to the tomb on a bed in flexed position, the funerals of these women would have created a strong contrast with Egyptian burial practice, one that signaled different, Nubian, primordial ties.
During the Ramesside Period this ethnic signaling became more overt as people began being buried under Nubian style tumuli, evoking and materializing ties to a Nubian past on a previously Egyptian sacred landscape. Only one of the flexed burials appears in this Nubian context, the remaining burials are supine, all but one head to the west facing the eastern horizon in Egyptian style. Various combinations of coffined and mummified, and bed burials appear in this new cemetery next to the older part of the necropolis. Egyptian amulets appear in these contexts along with more traditional Nubian jewelry, as is the case for the earlier flexed burials (Fig. 8). These deeply entangled practices reflect the complex nature of multiethnic social contexts. Putative ethnic markers can change, transformed over time though intercultural borrowings. This may be the best way to understand these mixed practices, although the messages may reflect different nuances of ethnicity and cultural entanglement at the individual and community level. In any case, the continuing construction of pyramid tombs opposite tumuli from the Ramesside Period through the 25th Dynasty at Tombos continued a juxtaposition of contrasting Egyptian and Nubian primordial ties upon the landscape.
I do not know what brought me to this country; it is as if planned by god. As if a Delta-man saw himself in Yebu, a marsh-man in Nubia … He (Ammunenshi) said to me (Sinuhe): “Well then, Egypt is happy knowing that he (Senwosret I) is strong. But you are here. You shall stay with me. What I shall do for you is good.” Sinuhe.92
Ethnic identities past and present are inevitably constructed in essentialist terms that obscure the complexity of ethnicity as ultimately fluid and situationally contingent. This has resulted in a tendency for historians to read ethnic topoi too literally and sent archaeologists on a futile search for neatly bounded sets of material culture and practices. The solution lies in taking a multi-scalar approach that emphasizes the intersection between ideology and individual choices in specific social contexts. Although created as acquired at birth and immutable, ethnicity is in reality socially contingent and can shift depending on the social and economic interests of individual actors like Sinuhe, who remarks on the strangeness of his situation but is welcomed by his Asiatic hosts and eventually integrated into Levantine society. Instead, we should look for the creation of difference using particular markers in particular cultural contexts. The Presentation of Inu provides an obvious context where ethnicity was particularly salient, forcing shifts in ethnic identity amongst the participants like Hekanefer as well as miscues of status between the great powers as their roles in the event were manipulated by the foreigner-topos. Since the foundation of the Egyptian state, this ideology promulgated the king’s role as enforcer of Ma‘at on earth by defeating Egypt’s topical enemies, the chaos that surrounded Egypt’s inner order. Egyptian texts and representations from other contexts reflect an ethnic mimesis that acknowledges people from other ethnic groups in more realistic and positive ways, like the soldiers of Gebelein or the Medjay, foreigners from different ethnic groups who eventually integrated into Egyptian society. Ethnicity was not necessarily salient in any particular social context, so an important step in identifying it in the archaeological record is to target contexts where ethnic identity might come to the fore, as in multicultural settings like Avaris or Gebelein and colonial contexts like Askut and Tombos. A closely contextualized examination of the patterning at these sites allows for a consideration of how ethnic dynamics operated at a more quotidian level, highlighting ethnicity’s situational and socially contingent nature and identifying areas of intersectionality between ethnicity, gender and other axes of identity.
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Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism; Handler, Nationalism; Banks, Ethnicity, 123–31.
For a wide-ranging discussion centered on the Mediterranean, see McInerney, Companion to Ethnicity.
Rawlinson and Blakeney, Histories of Herodotus, vol. VI, 44.
Renfrew, “Prehistory and the Identity of Europe.”
Cf. the approach of Liszka, this volume, who focuses on self-identification.
Loprieno, Topos und Mimesis.
Royce, Ethnic Identity, 1.
Royce, Ethnic Identity; Knapp, “Mediterranean Archaeology and Ethnicity”; Siapkas, “Ancient Ethnicity and Modern Identity.”
Jones, Archaeology of Ethnicity, 92–94. Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice.
Jones, Archaeology of Ethnicity; Siapkas, “Ancient Ethnicity and Modern Identity.”
Barth, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries; Glazer and Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot; Royce, Ethnic Identity; Smith, Wretched Kush.
Bentley, “Ethnicity and Practice.”
Loprieno, Topos und Mimesis.
Liverani, International Relations.
Liszka, “Ethnogenesis of the Medjay,” and in this volume.
Keita and Kittles, “Persistence of Racial Thinking”; Visweswaran, “Race and the Culture of Anthropology”; Siapkas, “Ancient Ethnicity and Modern Identity”; and for a detailed discussion, see Sussman, The Myth of Race.
Sarich and Miele, Race, who use the depictions of the four “races” from Seti I to justify race as a biological “reality”; rightly critiqued by Proctor, “Racial Realities or Bombast?” and Cohen, “A Review of Race: The Reality of Human Differences”. For a recent Egyptological example, see Redford’s racialization of the Nubian topos in From Slave to Pharaoh, 5–10.
E.g., AREI, 206; Wb. II, 303.
Albright, “Notes on Egypto-Semitic Etymology. II.,” 234; Chichi, “Etymology.”
The reading of the personal name pꜢ-wrm in racial terms is also dubious, Redford, From Slave to Pharaoh, 5–6, 154 n. 5. For a critical review, see Smith, “Review.”
Snowden, Before Color Prejudice; Redford, From Slave to Pharaoh.
Morkot, The Black Pharaohs; Redford, From Slave to Pharaoh; Bonnet and Valbelle, Nubian Pharaohs; Draper, “The Black Pharaohs.”
For example, in the American South of the 1950’s, most Egyptians and Nubians, both past and present, have a physiognomy that would have relegated them to the back of the bus.
Liverani, International Relations, 217.
Loprieno, Topos und Mimesis.
Liverani, International Relations, 216, n. 8, suggests “foredoomed to defeat” as better capturing the nuance of the pejorative ḥsj that is routinely attached to the names of enemies.
Loprieno, Topos und Mimesis.
Liverani, International Relations.
Siapkas, “Ancient Ethnicity and Modern Identity.”
Egyptologists often assume that the curved part of the staff is analogous to a modern cane, with the king grasping his enemies. However, the fact that the prisoners are situated to gaze level ahead or behind when placed upright, and the lotiform finials are only properly oriented when at the top, confirms the opposite orientation, which aligns thematically with the pervasive trampling symbolism connected with the foreigner-topos.
Royce, Ethnic Identity.
Davies, Tomb of Huy.
Säve-Söderbergh and Troy, New Kingdom Pharaonic Sites.
Török, Between Two Worlds, followed by van Pelt, “Revising Egypto-Nubian Relations,” and in a flawed comparison with the British colonial Durbar, see Darnell and Manassa, Tutankhamun’s Armies, critiqued by Smith, “Colonial Gatherings.”
Liverani, Prestige and Interest. Liszka, this volume, also emphasizes the importance of social and ideological context in expressions of ethnic identity.
Gandhi and Desai, An Autobiography, 229–30. For a comparison of the Durbar and Inu ceremony, see Smith, “Colonial Gatherings.”
For an extended discussion see Smith, “Hekanefer and the Lower Nubian Princes.”
Fischer, “Nubian Mercenaries of Gebelein”; Fischer, “Further Remarks on the Gebelein Stelae,” discussed by Loprieno, Topos und Mimesis.
Dietler, Archaeologies of Colonialism.
Daressy, Fouilles De La Vallée Des Rois (1898–1899); see Liszka this volume, who rightly points out that Maiherpri would have controlled this entangled self-presentation.
As with Liszka’s discussion in this volume of the value of Nubian associations to the cult of Hathor.
Smith, “Ethnicity and Culture,” 230–31, Fig. 16.10. The consistent contrast between her coloring and her son Amenhotep I, as well as other venerated royal ancestors, suggests a deliberate signaling of ethnic ties, see also the discussion of coloring by Liszka, this volume.
Kemp, “Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period,” 79.
Posener, Littérature et Politique, 47–48. Curiously, the other determinative used is the sign for “house.”
E.g., Raue, “Nubian Pottery on Elephantine Island”; Gatto, “Nubians in Egypt.”
Zivie, Découverte à Saqqarah.
Freed, Markowitz, and D’Auria, Pharaohs of the Sun, 239 (cat. nos. 114–15).
Wilkinson, Complete Gods and Goddesses, 101, 126, 138.
Török, Between Two Worlds, 224–26.
Brovarski, Doll, and Freed, Egypt’s Golden Age, 175–77 (cat. nos. 199–200).
Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, 12.
Royce, Ethnic Identity: Strategies of Diversity, 45–49, who documents a similar ethnic shift among the Zapotec in Mexico.
Kamp and Yoffee, “Ethnicity in Ancient Western Asia.”
Barth, “Introduction”; Wiessner, “Style and Ethnicity”; Eriksen, “Cultural Contexts of Ethnic Differences.”
For an interesting comparison across three civilizations see Pu, Enemies of Civilization.
Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, 8–12.
Smith, “A Portion of Life Solidified.”
Santley, Yarborough, and Hall, “Enclaves, Ethnicity, and the Archaeological Record at Matapacan.” This archaeological approach complements Liszka’s focus in this volume on representation—ethnicity is and was also enacted through material practices that are recoverable through a careful consideration of social context.
Morris, Burial and Ancient Society; Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity; Emberling, “Ethnicity in Complex Societies”; Blake, “Identity-Mapping in the Sardinian Bronze Age”; Smith, Wretched Kush; DeCorse, An Archaeology of Elmina, 144–49.
Chapman, “Destruction of a Common Heritage.”
Goody, Cooking, Cuisine, and Class; Bourdieu, Distinction; Wood, The Sociology of the Meal.
And burial practice, see McKee, “Food Supply and Plantation Social Order,” 235.
Bunimovitz and Faust, “Chronological Separation, Geographical Segregation, or Ethnic Demarcation?”; Faust and Katz, “Philistines, Israelites and Canaanites.”
Smith, Wretched Kush, 97–135.
Smith and Buzon, “Identity, Commemoration and Remembrance.” Excavation at Tombos was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and National Geographic Society.
Smith and Buzon, “The Fortified Settlement at Tombos.”
Urk. IV, 2068:12; see discussion in Morris, The Architecture of Imperialism, 331–33; Smith and Buzon, “The Fortified Settlement at Tombos.”
E.g., Stein, “Food Preparation, Social Context, and Ethnicity”; Burmeister, “Archaeology and Migration”; Faust and Katz, “Philistines, Israelites and Canaanites.”
Goody, Cooking, Cuisine, and Class, 151–52.
Lacovara, Deir El-Ballas.
Raue, “Nubian Pottery on Elephantine Island.”
Goody, Cooking, Cuisine, and Class.
Lightfoot, Martinez, and Schiff, “Daily Practice and Material Culture in Pluralistic Social Settings”; Deagan, “Transculturation and Spanish American Ethnogenesis.”
Stein, “Food Preparation, Social Context, and Ethnicity.”
Schiff Giorgini, et al., Soleb I–VI.
Török, Between Two Worlds; Smith, Wretched Kush.
Smith, Wretched Kush.
Smith and Buzon, “Identity, Commemoration and Remembrance.”
Cones rarely appear in Egypt outside of Thebes and at only one other site in Nubia, Aniba, see Ryan, “Egyptian Funerary Cones.”
Smith and Buzon, “Identity, Commemoration and Remembrance.”
AEL I, 225–26.