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Community and Identity in Ancient Egypt: The Old Kingdom Cemetery at Qubbet el-Hawa

Community and Identity in Ancient Egypt: The Old Kingdom Cemetery at Qubbet el-Hawa

By Deborah Vischak. Pp. xviii + 328, figs. 61, color pls. 19, tables 2. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2015. $99. ISBN 978-1-107-02760-2 (cloth).

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Vischak’s study accomplishes what far too few Egyptological volumes even attempt to do: it moves scholarly discussion away from the royal house and the pharaonic state and refocuses on community structure and identities in the provinces. This volume, a revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation, takes as its dataset the decorative programs from 12 late Old Kingdom tombs in the Qubbet el-Hawa necropolis, located southwest of the frontier settlement of Elephantine Island. Vischak’s study makes it clear that the art of the provinces can be interpreted as tangible manifestations of local identity and social construction and should not be thought of as inferior to the art of the capital.

Despite a long history of excavation outside of Memphis, there is a severe absence of analysis of the periphery, provincial life, or provincial identity construction in Egyptology and Egyptian archaeology. There are many reasons for this omission, not least of which is that the best-preserved data typically derive from elite, Memphite contexts and thus the Egyptian state has provided the primary framework for understanding the Egyptian past. Thus, as a discussion and synthesis of provincial data and not simply an excavation report, this volume is a valuable contribution to the field. It fits in a small but persistently growing set of studies around provincial data and regional agency in Egypt (e.g., R. Bussman, Die Provinztempel Ägyptens von der 0. bis zur 11. Dynastie [Leiden 2010]; the Egyptian articles in M. Müller, ed., Household Studies in Complex Societies: (Micro) Archaeological and Textual Approaches [Chicago 2015]).

Though Vischak does not use the term, her work is essentially grounded in anthropology. The mechanics of this grounding are made manifest in the introduction, which lays out both the definitions and the theories that frame her viewpoint. She bases her study in agency theory, which she calls “agency methodology” (7–11), though not establishing how, or if, an agency perspective actually influences or establishes methodology. The data used throughout the study are primarily art historical; for the archaeological data from Qubbet el-Hawa the reader should refer to the primary excavation publications of the necropolis by Elmar Edel.

Chapter 1 establishes the historical context of Qubbet el-Hawa, the settlement of Elephantine, and the surrounding area (ancient Abu). Much of the discussion focuses on the status of the individuals buried at Qubbet el-Hawa and how their titles reflected an interest in expeditions into Nubia rather than provincial administration.

Chapters 2 through 4 present the meat of the data and analyses. Chapter 2 discusses each of the tombs in extensive iconographic detail. Key to her argument are seven style groups identified in the tombs, groups established via medium, figure proportion, facial features, iconography, “character,” and panel design. Thorough descriptions of the tombs (58–132) clearly demonstrate that each tomb contains several styles. Chapter 3 analyzes the images presented in chapter 2, positing that the visual program of the Qubbet el-Hawa tombs presents a complete, well-envisioned style defined by the use of panels, the almost exclusionary focus on offering bearers, and the common, contemporary use of more than one style in tomb decoration (contra, e.g., L. Habachi, Sixteen Studies on Lower Nubia [Cairo 1981]). The first two points are well handled, with interesting parallels to Memphis tombs, nicely showing how the use of panels and the extensive employment of offering bearers make Qubbet el-Hawa unique, even among provincial tombs. The third point had been clearly made via the exhaustive description in chapter 2; however, the same data are presented again, this time organized by style rather than by tomb (142–59). The data become overwhelming and difficult to consume; tables could have been employed instead, to better effect. In this context, her valuable discussion of artists and skill gets lost, though her argument that all styles were contemporary is thoroughly made. In chapter 4, Vischak ultimately posits that the Qubbet el-Hawa tomb owners used scenes from the Memphite artistic corpus to their own ends, reshaping traditional depictions of the tomb owner and of offering bearers to present their own social, community identity.

The final chapter is brief, but the author’s concluding analysis actually begins at the end of chapter 4, where she argues that the artistic style of these tombs was a physical manifestation of the community’s unique identity. Abu was a frontier settlement, and Vischak posits that the close proximity of an ethnic and cultural other created a social pressure that made the Egyptian inhabitants of the community become tighter-knit and more socially cohesive. Her brief conclusion further reminds the reader that the tomb owners under discussion, though elite, were not removed or isolated from Abu’s greater community. Shrines on Elephantine to Heqaib and Mekhu show that these individuals were deified and served as “integral parts of their [the local community’s] shared identity” (220). Thus, the elite influenced communal life in both life and afterlife.

This is a valuable study of one region of Egypt in the late Old Kingdom. It does not, however, live up to the grand scope of its title. Thoroughly dealing with community and identity in ancient Egypt would have required Vischak to take a larger view of Egypt and the Old Kingdom. Even for a discussion focused on community and identity as expressed at the First Cataract, the data the author presents are too limited. There is little elaboration upon the relationships she found in the 12 tombs under study and minimal connection with the archaeology of Elephantine, which would seem a great omission considering the theme of community. Vischak espouses the Patrimonial Household Model as a framework for Egyptian social organization (32, 35), but she does not engage with how Abu’s unique communal identity might influence or contradict this model. A broader discussion of how her data fit into this model would have been very useful. The difference in art in the Qubbet el-Hawa tombs as opposed to those found in the rest of Egypt leads one to question if the tomb owners’ unique expression of identity might have resulted in part from different social organization.

Outside of the limit of the text’s scope, the argument is strong, but the presentation of the data is challenging. For an art historical work, this volume is poorly illustrated. More figures and photographs, rather than relegating visual data to textual presentation, would have advanced the author’s argument. Data presented in long, detailed discussions in chapters 3 and 4 could have been minimized into tables or cross-referenced with chapter 2’s very detailed descriptions. While I, like so many scholars, am a devotee of books, in today’s increasingly digital world there must be a better way to publish a text whose argument is so fundamentally visual.

Appendices and tables appear at the end of the volume but are not integrated into the discussion and are rarely referenced in the text. Further, the figure numbers presented in appendix B do not correspond to the figures published in the text. Chronological relationships are barely addressed in the body of the text but rather are relegated to appendix A. As a result, appendix B and the tables are not very useful.

These shortcomings do not detract from the fact that this volume offers a valuable approach to and perspective on ancient provincial life and Egypt in the third millennium. Scholars of the period, the Aswan region, or the provinces in general will find that this is a must-read, as will individuals looking for new approaches to Egyptian art history. It is a significant example of how allowing for the agency of ancient actors provides a valuable, often radically different, view of the material record.

Leslie Anne Warden
Department of Fine Arts
Roanoke College

Book Review of Community and Identity in Ancient Egypt: The Old Kingdom Cemetery at Qubbet el-Hawa, by Deborah Vischak

Reviewed by Leslie Anne Warden

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 4 (October 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1204.Warden

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