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Egyptology Today

Egyptology Today

Edited by Richard H. Wilkinson. Pp. xiii + 283, figs. 66. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2008. $29.99. ISBN 978-0-521-68226-8 (paper).


The field of Egyptology is much more complex and diverse than its image often portrayed in the popular media. This book shows "what Egyptology actually is as a modern discipline" (2) and even projects where it is heading in the future. With this aim, the book is refreshingly original and extremely informative. The increasing importance of multidisciplinary cooperation among specialists is reflected in the structure of the book, which consists of 12 chapters written by experts and organized into four thematic sections.

Part 1 looks at the roles of archaeology (Weeks), history (Redford), and medical science (David) in Egyptology. In archaeology, the major trend is the growing number of specialists (e.g., ceramicists, zooarchaeologists), and the project director must synthesize all the data that they produce to answer specific (often social or cultural) questions. Weeks also discusses the relationship between Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and foreign-based archaeological missions. Chapter 2, on history, is perhaps the most theoretical one in the book. For example, Redford considers "what sort of history to write" (24) and why we should study Egyptian history at all (33), although he does not neglect to review the types of historical evidence available (or not) and how they affect Egyptian historiography. There is not much discussion on chronology in this chapter, but this topic was treated thoroughly in Hornung et al. (Ancient Egyptian Chronology [Leiden 2006]). In the third chapter, David narrates how the application of medical science in Egyptology, especially the study of mummies, developed over time, summarizing the advantages and limitations of various approaches and technology. She emphasizes the current preference for minimally destructive methods, such as radiology and DNA analysis.

Part 2 examines site survey (Parcak), epigraphy (Dorman), and site conservation ( Jones) in modern Egyptology. Chapter 4 not only describes various methods of remote sensing and advanced mapping tools but also highlights the establishment of specific projects and institutions (e.g., the EES Delta Survey Project, the Egyptian Antiquities Information Service) whose ongoing works exemplify the growing interest in intrasite and intersite surveys. The following chapter discusses the purposes, methods, and challenges of epigraphic recording. Although epigraphy is a relatively old subdiscipline in Egyptology, computer applications, including digital photography, are once again revolutionizing outlook and practice. Dorman even predicts that detailed three-dimensional scanning of wall surfaces may become possible in the near future (91). Survey and epigraphy are particularly important today because population explosion and industrial and economic development are destroying archaeological sites. Chapter 6, which deals with the related issue of cultural heritage management, raises the strongest sense of urgency in the entire book. Jones identifies and explains the main threats, and then describes the principles and actual implementation of site conservation and protection efforts. The short discussion on conflicting interests even within the Egyptian government (e.g., Ministries of Tourism, Culture, and Environment) is original and thought provoking.

Part 3 looks at art (Freed), museum (Kozloff), and artifact conservation (Gänsicke). Its first chapter gives a good summary of Egyptian art history, but it would have benefited from more detailed discussion on the approaches and issues that are especially important in current Egyptology. For example, choice and distribution of motifs in funerary decorative programs, studies of iconography and semiotics, and the identification of workshops and individual artisans come to mind. Chapter 9 mentions many museums that have opened recently or are soon to open in Egypt, including Nubia Museum in Aswan and Imhotep Museum in Saqqara. The lack of well-trained curators and modern collection management systems is still a problem in Egypt, but it is being rectified through foreign-sponsored training programs. Regarding museums abroad, Kozloff also touches on the controversial issue of ownership, the duties and challenges of curators and educators, and the increasing use of the Internet. The next chapter describes continuously changing theories and improving techniques in artifact conservation. Gänsicke appends a summary of common damages and appropriate treatments, as well as a glossary of conservation terms, both of which should facilitate better communication and collaboration between the curators and conservators.

Part 4 focuses on Egyptian language (Allen), literature (Foster and Foster), and religious texts (Leprohon). Chapter 10 summarizes the current understanding of Egyptian scripts, phonology, lexica, and grammar. Aside from some debates over the syntactic analysis of the emphatic forms identified by Polotsky, the grammatical construction of the Egyptian language is almost fully understood. Allen, therefore, finds the future of the subdiscipline belonging to lexicography (204). Chapter 11 examines Egyptian belles lettres. Three broad genres are lyrics, didactic literature, and narrative literature. A chronological survey of major works reveals the use of various literary devices (e.g., metaphor, refrain). As for areas of further investigation, Foster and Foster suggest the border between verse and prose, the role of oral tradition, and intercultural comparison (227–28). The final chapter approaches religious texts from both theological and literary perspectives. For example, Leprohon points out many puns used in the Heliopolitan Cosmogony (231). He divides official cult from personal worship but emphasizes that they are different manifestations of the same beliefs (239). This chapter incorporates many of the latest studies on myths, hymns, and funerary texts.

This book is not just another introduction to ancient Egypt but rather an introduction to the academic field of Egyptology. It is an excellent guide to the current state of knowledge, ongoing trends, and field-specific challenges in modern Egyptology, and it should be mandatory reading for all graduate students and professionals in the field. The book is also recommended for undergraduate students and the interested public who want to know what modern Egyptologists care about and what they actually do.

Kei Yamamoto
Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations
University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario M5S 1C1

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1134.Yamamoto

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