Image: Nakht's Tomb

Peopling Ancient Egypt: an ethnography of pharaonic Egypt

5:00pm - 7:00pm / Thursday 9th February 2023 / Venue: Lecture Theatre 8 Rendall Building
Type: Seminar / Category: Department
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The aim of this project is to people the material record through an ethnographic approach to the description of actual behaviour. The reality of pharaonic Egypt is found in accounts of individual behaviour, as an escape from the traditional – and deeply attractive – view of Egypt as a high culture easily incorporated into a universal (Westernising) heritage: a museum-civilisation. It invokes a decolonisation of the ancient record, and emphasises the non-western, non-modern character of pharaonic society. A focus on behaviour also avoids concern with structure and with ideology. Concerns about gaps in the evidence – archaeological, pictorial and textual – are then less important, since there is no expectation that descriptive ethnography can be complete. Individual incidents of behaviour, natural to a contemporary Egyptian, allow the description of behaviour, where they may not be as effective in addressing modern agenda or theoretical approaches.
The real pharaonic Egypt was a peasant society, and its core values were rooted in the realities of its peasant economy and culture. The close reading of the ancient record, and a bottom-up approach, then looks to describe what individuals actually did, and to locate that behaviour within the physical environment. It looks to extract descriptions of what was real from the ancient sources, and so place the ancient Egyptian directly into a continuous historical ethnography of Egypt. Key themes are those of any ethnography, focussed on the description of individual behaviour and manners within the range of primary social contexts: the household, work and kinship groups, and the village; social violence, and the negotiation of disputes; social rituals of coming of age and initiation; description of direct personal interactions with the immanent supernatural world, where worship was non-congregational.
Overall the aim is to present incidents of behaviour as evidence of contemporary reality, separated from more familiar agenda rooted in assumptions about the nature of Egyptian as a civilisation, or visions of Egypt as a society with effective institutional structures and political order.

Chris Eyre is Professor of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, where he has been a staff member since 1977. He originally studied Ancient Egyptian with Akkadian in the University of Oxford, graduating with a doctorate examining Employment and Labour Relations in the Theban Necropolis. He has worked on site in Egypt as an epigrapher in tombs of both the Old and New Kingdoms at Saqqara, as well as the Temple of Seti I at Abydos. Publications include monographs on The Cannibal Hymn (a ritual of the Pyramid Texts) and on The Use of Documents in Pharaonic Egypt, and papers concerned with the economy, the agricultural regime, and social relationships in pharaonic Egypt.
Much of his current research is concerned with applying a more ethnographic approach to the Egyptian record, targetting a more realistic understanding and more contemporary description of cultural, social and religious behaviour in the pharaonic period, and on continuities in the history of Egypt from ancient to modern. He is currently working to complete the project Peopling Ancient Egypt: an ethnography of pharaonic Egypt, for which he held a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship.

This is a free event which is open to the public.
No registration necessary.