Vol. XXIV, Issue 1 (Winter 2017): Race and Racism in Egyptology



Gloria Emeagwali
Chief Editor

Walton Brown-Foster
Copy Editor

Haines Brown

ISSN  1526-7822


Olayemi Akinwumi

Ayele Bekerie

Paulus Gerdes

Alfred Zack-Williams
(Sierra Leone)

Gumbo Mishack

(South Africa)



Jennifer Nicoletti
Academic Technology, CCSU

For more information on AfricaUpdate
Prof. Gloria Emeagwali
CCSU History Dept.
1615 Stanley Street
New Britain, CT 06050
Tel: 860-832-2815


Table of Contents
Sally Ann Ashton: "Race Theory, Racism and Egyptology"


  The study of ancient northeast Africa, the region that comprised not   only ancient Egypt but Nubia, in its various manifestations at Ta-Seti,  Kerma, Napata and Meroe, and pre-Aksumite and Aksumite Ethiopia.   Methodologically speaking, a few explanatory and historiographical   models have emerged over the last half century. Nubiologists,  Arabists, Islamists, Afrocentrists, Africa-centrists, Egyptocentrists   and Egyptologists are among the various interpretive   schools of thought that have emerged. Nubiologists decry  the tendency of some of the analysts to view Nubia as a satellite of   Egypt and point to Nubia's culturally rich heritage and the   influence of aspects of Nubian culture on Egypt. Arabists   seem to have a "Dam the culture" approach, whether through the   Aswan or Kajbar dams, or by making it quite difficult for researchers   to obtain permits to do research. Afrocentrists and Africa-centrists   consider it ridiculous not to view Egypt, Nubia or Axum as being   fundamentally the product of indigenous Africa. At this point, may we   add that the contemporary administrations in Egypt seem to be more   open to research and visits to the region, and reflect a more   favorable pro-tourist stance,than the reluctant Arabist   administration in the  Republic of Sudan.



In her article, Dr. Sally Ann Ashton shares her insights into the mindset,  and some of the assumptions and modes  of thinking of the Egyptologists.
Dr Sally-Ann Ashton has a BA in Ancient Greek from the University of Manchester, and has a BA (Hons) and MA in Classical Archaeology from King's College London. She has a PhD in Egyptian Archaeology from the same institution. She worked as a researcher in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at The British Museum in London and later as co-curator for the special exhibition: 'Cleopatra of Egypt: from history to myth'. Sally-Ann then moved to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College, London as a researcher. She was then appointed as Senior Assistant Keeper in the Department of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge with curatorial responsibility for Ancient Egypt and Sudan until 2015.In addition to publishing numerous books and articles on a wide range of subjects relating to Ancient Egyptian and Sudanese cultures, Sally-Ann has undertaken archaeological and anthropological fieldwork in Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Greece, Italy and the Caribbean. Her most recent work has been on the history of African hair combs.

We are grateful to Dr Ashton for sharing some of her vast knowledge
with us, in this issue.

Professor Gloria Emeagwali
Chief Editor, Africa Update



"Race Theory, Racism and Egyptology"

  Dr. Sally-Ann Ashton

The role of Ancient Egypt in theories of 'race'.

Many academic disciplines in the nineteenth century were embedded within the racist ideologies of the societies and academies where they developed. This is true of the sciences and humanities, including Egyptology, which were directly linked to the study of 'race'.

Racism and Egyptology

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942)
Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie was appointed the first professor of Egyptology in the UK in 1892 at University College London (UCL). He was a prolific excavator of sites in Egypt, and wrote many publications on his work. Also at UCL during this period was Sir Francis Galton and Karl Pearson who were both pioneers of the eugenics movement. In fact Galton actually coined the term 'eugenics'; a word taken from two ancient Greek words meaning 'well/good' and 'group/kin'). His ideas are captured in a book entitled Hereditary Genius, published in 1869, where Galton wrote the following:

Let us do what we can to encourage the multiplication of the races best fitted to invent, and conform to, a high and generous civilisation, and not, out of mistaken instinct of giving support to the weak, prevent the incoming of strong and hearty individuals.


Galton, Pearson and Petrie worked closely together. Petrie provided the Anthropomorphic Laboratory at UCL with human skulls from Egypt for study. Thus, once again the ancient culture was used to illustrate theories of race. However, this time it was also directly influencing the newer field of Egyptology. Today these 'theories of race' are deemed to be racist, but Petrie fully embraced them in his work.

One of Petrie's 'racial types' from Memphis, Egypt. Image copyright of the Petrie Museum, UCL

When I worked at the Petrie Museum as a research assistant, I was tasked with registering around 250 terracotta heads that had been collected by Petrie from the site of Memphis. Petrie became obsessed with identifying racial types, writing the following in 1909:

The discovery of portraits of the foreigners was not even thought of and only gradually was it realised that we had before us the figures of more than a dozen different races.

Such quotes show the extent to which Petrie was influenced by contemporary theories of race. If you are interested in further exploring the relationship between Petrie and Galton, it was the subject of a publication in 2013 by Debbie Challis entitled: The Archaeology of Race: The eugenic ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie. There are also a number of publications that were part of the Encounters with Ancient Egypt conference that critically explore how Egypt has been viewed in the past, and this includes a volume on Ancient Egypt in Africa.

How did the ancient people view themselves and others?


Detail from the Tomb of Ramose depicting Kemite/Ancient Egyptian people
The ancient people of Kemet distinguished themselves in terms of their appearance and also their culture from their surrounding neighbours. It is worth noting that unlike the later European and North American theorists, these differences were not made solely on the grounds of physical appearance. Libyan people were typically distinguished by their light brown skin, shoulder lock of hair and their headdresses.Kushite people, from what is now Sudan, had black skin, short hair that was often coloured with henna and typically wore gold earrings, as a reference to their control of the gold mines.  Asiatic people were the only non-Africans to be depicted, and came from the countries that would now be referred to as the Middle East. People from this region were generally shown with yellow skin (to identify them as being different from those who were African) and later in Roman period they were shown with pink coloured skin. They wore beards and were also depicted in clothes that were different from African peoples. Finally, Egyptian/Kemite people had a range of different skin colours including black, deep red and brown (see above) and were shown with many different types of clothing and hairstyles because artists depicted a greater range to represent their own people than for those who came from other cultures.

A question

Given that the foundations of Egyptology are so closely connected to racist ideologies and theoretical frameworks, is there then, still evidence of this attitude within the discipline today? I will be highlighting how the remnants of past theories can permeate through to the present in the course of discussion.

Portraiture, Kingship and Kemet: The case of Senusret Kakaure

It seems a little odd, when the majority of Egyptologists have no direct connection to Africa in regard to their own biological or cultural heritage, that they feel justified in deciding when a representation is or isn't of a person of African descent.

Granite statue of Senusret Kakaure. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge (E.37.1930)

The ruler illustrated in this post is a case in point. It represents Senusret Khakaure, who is now known as Senusret III. He was a fifth ruler of Dynasty 12, which belongs to a period now referred to as the Middle Kingdom, and ruled Kemet from around 3800 years ago (circa 1872-1853 BCE). His strong jawline, hooded eyelids and prominent cheek bones have led many people to recognise facial features that are typical of some indigenous African people, and people of African descent.

Fragment of a statue of King Senusret Kakaure. Copyright the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (E.GA.3005.1943)

Now it should be the case that you don't need a qualification to decide whether a statue represents someone of African descent, no? Well, that doesn't seem to be the academic consensus in the case of Ancient Egyptian sculpture. Since the 1990s it has generally been assumed that images of kings are not true likenesses of the people they represent.I should state from the off-set that I do not subscribe to this point of view and whilst I am prepared to concede that rulers, from any culture, are typically represented in an idealised way, I really do not understand why a portrait would look nothing remotely like the subject. Particularly when there is such a variety amongst Ancient Egyptian royal sculpture.
I adopted this point of view very early in my career as an Egyptologist.  My doctoral thesis was on Egyptian royal sculpture and I subsequently spent some years continuing to research this particular area. I am confident that I could correctly identify an image of any Ancient Egyptian ruler. I can do so, because each had a very specific 'portrait' type.

Statue of Senusret Kakaure. The British Museum, London

There was a good reason for this phenomenon. Life-size stone statues, (such as those above) were often placed at the entrances to temples or palaces with the intention of promoting the King. Inscriptions were not always visible on statues and so the iconography (symbols) and the facial features needed to also play a part in assisting with identifying who the statue represented. How then are the features of Senusret III typically explained?

Realistic, symbolic or psychological portraits?

In 2015 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held an exhibition entitled: Ancient Egypt Transformed. The Middle Kingdom . The key issues relating to Middle Kingdom portraits are contextualised in an essay for the catalogue by Dorothea Arnold entitled: Pharaoh. Power and Performance (Ancient Egypt Transformed. The Middle Kingdom, edited by A. Oppenheim, D. Arnold, D. Arnold, and K. Yamamoto. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. pp. 68-72). They are as follows:

  1. Realistic– Egyptologists Cyril Aldred and Jacques Vandier who wrote, in the 1980s, on the subject of portraiture in Kemet dating to the so-called Middle Kingdom concluded that the portrait features on statues from this period were realistic representations of the kings.
  3. Non-realistic– in relation to non-idealised portraits on funerary representations dating to the earlier period of the so-called Old Kingdom, Bernard V. Bothmer concluded that no representations from Kemet should be called 'portraits'.

More recently, Egyptologists have interpreted features on the sculptures of Senusret as coded messages– for example the prominent eyes representing a vigilant king.In 1996 Egyptologist Jan Assmann, put forward the idea that these portraits represented the inner character of the kings and were psychological.More recently, and as Arnold concludes in her essay, specialists in sculpture generally accept that these royal representations draw upon the actual appearance of the king, but within an acceptable framework so that he can be identified as such by people who looked at the statue. Arnold writes the following:


… it is very difficult to imagine that Senwosret III's eyes in his official image did not reflect his own peculiarly shaped eyes in real life… The faces of Senwosret III… are best understood as recognizable images of these pharaohs with some realistic details formalised in the particular intellectual climate.  (p. 71)

I have included this quote because a number of friends and colleagues who have questioned professional Egyptologists have met with a response that suggests portraits from this period are to be dismissed as non-realistic representations. In other words when asked if Senusret really looked like his statues, they are told that this is not the case. The question often arises because people of African descent recognise the portrait features on these statues as similar to their own. Therefore, to deny that the statues look even remotely like their subject, is to deny their African origin.There is one key issue that no-one seems to have addressed. Whether these 'portraits' are realistic or idealised representations, the overall appearance of these statues (their profiles, facial features, and also where hair is represented) suggests very strongly that they represent indigenous African people. Why would any sculptor show their kings in this way if they were anything other than African?


Reconstructing Cleopatra
I have always hesitated to take part in documentaries, because although they set out to be factual, producers often have a set agenda and story that they wish to explore. This agenda quickly becomes apparent in the types of questions that are asked of specialists, and no matter how hard you try to avoid acquiescing, it is the filmmakers who have the ultimate control in the way that they edit.
In 2008 I was asked, in light of writing a book on Cleopatra, to take part in a documentary on the subject of the queen. The producers wanted to reconstruct how Cleopatra might have looked and asked if this would be possible. I said that it was, by looking at statues of the queen. However, from the offset I said that I would only take part if the producer was prepared not to perpetuate the myth that Cleopatra looked like Elizabeth Taylor in the eponymous film.

A brief background to Cleopatra

Cleopatra was descended from Macedonian Greeks, who first arrived in Egypt with the army of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. Following Alexander's death in 323 BCE Ptolemy, one of his generals, took control of Kemet. By the time Cleopatra first came to power in 51 BCE her family had lived in Egypt for two hundred and seventy-two years. In terms of Cleopatra's immediate ancestry we do not know the identity of Cleopatra's grandmother, who was a concubine rather than official wife, nor are we certain who her mother was. It is therefore possible that the concubine(s) were either of Macedonian Greek descent but equally possible that they were indigenous Kemites, along with the majority of the population at that time. We know from documentary research that an increasing number of the population of Ptolemaic Egypt had mixed Greek-Kemite ancestry. This can be documented through people's names.

Following a process (of sorts)

With this in mind, I began to work remotely with a company that specialised in computer-generated images. I sent them photographs of a statue of Cleopatra that was found in Rome at a sanctuary of Isis (below left). In case people are wondering, the nose was damaged when the statue was used as ballast in a later building on the site of the original sanctuary. In spite of the statue's later fate, aside from some surface damage to the nose, all of the features (including the original shape of the nose) were present. I naively thought that this would be a simple task.

A statue (left) representing Cleopatra of Egypt and a first attempt to produce a digital image of the queen

The initial images that were generated can be seen above alongside the original statue. Although the fullness of the mouth has been maintained, little else of the physical features have survived. The nose has been narrowed, the fullness of the jaw line has also been trimmed, and the eye shape is not true to the original.

Reconstruction of Cleopatra based on a statue of the Queen from Rome

The initial attempts looked nothing like the statue. However, eventually we were able to produce features that were closer to the original statue than the first attempt (above). The next challenge was the hair. On the statue that was used as a model for reconstructions Cleopatra is shown with layered locks. The style is a longer version of that worn by Kawit, who was a royal wife of King Montuhotep Nebhetepre, who ruled Kemet from around 2046 to 1995 BCE. Kawit appears on the side of a sarcophagus (coffin) with her hairdresser, who attaches a piece of styled hair to the royal wife's head.A  detail of a relief showing royal wife Kawit having her hair styled is in the Capitoline Museums ,Rome.

In addition to her hair, the statue presents the queen with a vulture headdress (the head of the vulture is now missing); this symbol identified her as a goddess. The statue doubtless shows Cleopatra as Isis. All of Cleopatra's representations in her homeland show her as an Egyptian ruler. It is only on coinage minted overseas and on two sculptures that were manufactured in Italy that she was presented with Greek iconography, showing her as a Classical ruler.

The two Classical sculptures (see one example above) also depict Cleopatra with very tight curly Africoid hair; in both instances it is twisted and pulled back into a small bun. The hairstyle was unusual on Classical sculptures, and if we compare the queen's hair to her predecessors we see waves but not with the Africoid texture, or to the extent that we find on Cleopatra's Classical-style representations. In short, the closest parallel that I could find for her hairstyle was either twists or plaits that are both commonly worn by people of African descent with African-type hair. The resulting style that was created by the digital artists was somewhere in between (see below and also feature image).

Final version of the computer generated image representing Cleopatra

Responses to the images

Just before the documentary was shown, The Daily Mail (a tabloid newspaper for those reading this blog outside of the UK) ran an article on the reconstruction. The article was entitled 'Sorry Liz but THIS is the real face of Cleopatra'. The article summarised the documentary and showed a picture of the reconstruction. The wider circulation of the reconstructed images and the opportunity for readers to share their comments on the newspaper's website, provided a forum for the general public to air their, unsubstantiated, points of view on the racialized identity of Cleopatra.
Some comments were dismissive, others were outraged, and some revealed racist attitudes and ideals embedded within the doctrines of European/White supremacy. From a social psychological perspective, many of these comments enable a clearer understanding of the roots of prejudice and racism more widely. Many reminded me of an encounter that I observed in New York in 2006, and which I wrote about in one of my books on Cleopatra (Cleopatra and Egypt). I was undertaking research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and heard a man, who it seemed from the conversation was of American nationality and Greek descent talking to his sons. He said to them that in school they would be told that the Egyptians were the forefathers of African-Americans and that this was wrong. He asked his children if the figures on a temple looked like African Americans and they shook their heads in agreement with their father, who then went on to remind them that Cleopatra who was Queen of Egypt was Greek, as indeed were their own ancestors.

Cleopatra and her son make offerings to the gods on the Temple of Hathor at Denderah


The temple to which the man referred dated to the reign of the Emperor Augustus. It was not, therefore, a representative example for the man to use in his lesson. Nevertheless, this conversation and many of the responses to the idea that ancient Egypt was an African civilisation and that Cleopatra may have been herself part African are revealing in the sense that they allow those of us to see exactly why people react so vehemently against the idea.

What's the problem?

If the idea that Cleopatra was of mixed African/Macedonian Greek ancestry is so bizarre, why do people respond so strongly? Why does she have to remain 'pure' as one commentator on the Daily Mail website stated? The answer lies in cognitive dissonance, and in many respects the Cleopatra 'experiment' reveals this. It is strange that people use Shakespeare and Hollywood to evidence how Cleopatra simply couldn't have looked like the proposed reconstruction,  rather than turning to the images of the queen that have survived from her lifetime. It is ironic that some people of European descent wish to maintain ownership of Cleopatra. Octavian, who later became the Emperor Augustus, was not so keen to welcome either her, or her son by Julius Caesar to Rome,  and it is quite apparent that the Queen was seen to be Egyptian.

 For more on related issues refer to
Virtual Kemet:



A Letter to the British Museum
The British Museum
As some readers will know, I was invited to present a talk at the British Museum for Black History Month in October of 2016. This was the third lecture that I have given at the museum on African-centred approaches to Egyptology. All have been extremely well attended by enthusiastic audiences. Having spent some time talking to members of the audience at the last lecture I decided that it might be helpful to contact the British Museum to relay some of their thoughts and my own personal experiences of curating Kemet. I sent the following letter* on 12 November 2016.

 The Letter
As you may know, I presented a talk at the British Museum on 24 October on African-centred approaches to Egyptology. The talk was well-attended with quite a number of community members present. Such was their interest, that I spent over an hour talking to people after the lecture; this was also the case after the other two talks that I gave on African-centred perspectives…

I felt that in your capacity of Keeper, you would want to know how people responded. A number of people then, and subsequently, expressed a view that the British Museum was not really making any effort to present ancient Egypt as part of an African civilisation. The one room that references Africa in fact compounds this issue because it is associated with Nubia rather than the more northern region of Egypt.

A number of people asked me why if in Cambridge, Liverpool and at the Petrie, Egypt was contextualised within Africa, this was not the case at the British Museum. Naturally I don't have the answers to their questions regarding the British Museum's policy, and in fact suggested that people should write to the museum directly. However, I do note that the educational material for schools does directly refer to ancient Egypt as an African culture and often direct people to this. I believe that some visitors would just appreciate this information in the galleries as well.

In addition to relaying these responses I felt that I should also share one very simply change that I made at the Fitzwilliam Museum and which had a huge impact on our Black communities who visited the museum. It was simply putting up a panel that explained about African-centred interpretations and perspectives. A number of people wrote to thank the Department for doing this.

Anyway, I wanted to write to you directly to relay this information. It seems such a pity when the Departments of Ancient Egypt and Sudan and Africa Oceania and the Americas supported both of the African-centred exhibitions that I put on at the Fitzwilliam Museum with objects, that the British museum is obtaining a reputation for disengaging with this issue.

I received a statement from Dr Neal Spencer, Keeper of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, with regard to the British Museum's policy on displaying Egypt as part of Africa:

The Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum has, in the last 15 years, focused much of its research on the relationship between Egypt and Nubia, from Prehistory through the Medieval Period. The geographic (Egypt and northern Sudan) and chronological scope of that research is of course a reflection of the collections material we hold that research can be undertaken on, and the research specialisms of staff within the museum. Surfacing that research in galleries is not always straightforward, as some of the material is fragmentary and difficult to display, but we publish widely (both online and in print) and run an extensive programme of lectures, gallery tours and conferences (seewww.britishmuseum.org with further links to online content and publication lists).
The present-day Egyptian galleries are arranged thematically – looking at life (and idealised life) in New Kingdom Egypt (Room 61, Nebamun), funerary beliefs in Egypt (Room 62-63), prehistoric Egypt (Room 64) and Egyptian temple/tomb sculpture (Room 4). Within those galleries and the chosen themes and space, there is limited scope to discuss how these themes relate to wider Africa, or indeed regions that Egypt was in contact with beyond Africa. A bioarchaeology section in Room 63 does highlight how future research might tell us about migration patterns within and beyond Africa, which would of course be relevant. The Room 4 display does feature some objects relating to Dynasty 25 and the Kushite state and culture.
Room 65 is the exception, as the chosen theme here expressly looks beyond Egypt to explore its relationship with areas further south, across a period spanning prehistory to the Medieval era. This gallery – entitled "Sudan, Egypt and Nubia" – looks at the distinct aspects of Nubian and Egyptian cultures, alongside shared elements, and how they were at times entangled, with ideas, iconography, art, craft, technologies and so on travelling in both directions. This gallery highlights Egypt in the context of another great and (importantly) contemporaneous African civilisation, using objects from the collection.
Research, collections and display on Africa at theBritish Museum are not limited to the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, but are ongoing across the Museum. Egyptian objects (principally of 19th and 20th century date) are also featured in the Living and Dying gallery, and the Africa galleries. Finally, we are currently in the process of creating a collection relating to 20th century Egypt, with associated research. This very much places Egypt in its global context, and an emerging story within that is around Egypt's engagement with sub-Saharan Africa during the 20th century – something that is less often highlighted than its relationship to the Middle East, Europe, USSR and USA. The outputs of this project are still being defined, but might include small displays, a book and digital content.
We are very aware of different interpretative frameworks for how Egypt is part of Africa at different periods, and around the reception and interpretation of ancient Egypt, but none of our galleries focus on interpretative frameworks nor the historiography of research. This current situation in no way precludes future displays on such subjects, whether in permanent galleries or exhibitions.
We seek to be open to debate, new ideas and discussion. Public programming and online content is naturally quicker to reflect such things (for example, inviting Sally-Ann Ashton to give three lectures at the British Museum on the subject of African-centred approaches to Egyptology), as gallery interpretation can take time to change, for logistical reasons. The current displays and information vary in date from 1979 to 2015, depending on the individual gallery, but as we have opportunities to update those, we will of course consider new research and perspectives.

Neal Spencer, Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan, British Museum



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