Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 17.
Lynn Meskell, Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002, Pp. xvii + 238, incl. sixty-two illustrations and three tables. ISBN 0-691-00448-X. US$35.00.
Lincoln College, University of Oxford
Creatively and fluently written by Lynn Meskell, Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt proves to be a useful addition to a number of already published books on life (and death) in ancient Egypt. This book seems to be appropriate for interested but not necessarily informed readers and, although it does not carry many footnotes, it would make a wonderful resource for undergraduate students of Egyptology. Meskell assumes little or no knowledge of the ancient Egyptian languages among her readers, and she keeps the transliteration of terms to a minimum. Since the majority of the facts and data that she discusses are well known, full-fledged Egyptologists might find the book a little elementary. Meskell, however, expresses her wish to contribute especially her 'interpretive approach and willingness for interdisciplinary conversation' to the study of New Kingdom Egypt (p. 16). Indeed, this author, trained in anthropology, successfully combines her interests in many fields including gender studies and social theory when interpreting the documentary, iconographic, archaeological, and anthropological evidence.
There are seven chapters and a postscript, and since there is no introduction, the first chapter essentially serves as introduction. Chapter 1 describes Meskell's reasons for writing the book, her methodology, and the biases inherent in examining particular types of evidence. She also warns her readers to be aware of the distinction between the Egyptian ideal (that is, what is represented on the monuments) and the reality; this comes into greater focus in later chapters. Meskell conscientiously describes the kind of words she prefers to use when referring to different groups within a society; she uses 'strata' instead of 'class', for example (p. 13). Chapter 2 explores how the New Kingdom Egyptians viewed themselves, addressing 'questions of ethnicity, authenticity, and issues of citizenship' (p. 17). Meskell discusses briefly the history of the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and this is followed by a geographical description and demography of Egypt. Meskell introduces several sites, such as Deir el Medina, Amarna, Memphis, and Gurob, in order to speculate on possible village structures using the archaeological data. Iconographic and archaeological evidence show that a 'certain desire for foreign luxury goods and even people' (p. 45) coexisted with Egyptian ethnocentrism. The last sections of this chapter discuss domestic cult and family. Meskell reports on 'the centrality of men and the servitude of women' (p. 56). This is a new insight, since most scholars have viewed ancient Egyptian society as relatively benign toward females.[]
From Chapter 3 to Chapter 7, Meskell ventures to structure her book 'according to the dynamics of category and the cycles of life as perceived by the Egyptians themselves' (p. 14), namely conception, childhood, maturation, the founding of a household, and death accompanied by the hope for a happy afterlife. Chapter Three begins with the concepts of personhood and the body, then moves on to the New Kingdom understandings of conception, gynecology, and childbirth. In the same chapter are discussions on childhood and adolescence, although Meskell supposes that such a concept as adolescence might be heavily colored by modern scholars' 'own preoccupations with rites de passage' (p. 88). Meskell argues that the experiences of maturation process 'were significantly different for males and females', as the sexualization of girls occurred at much earlier age (p. 93). Entitled 'Founding a House', Chapter 4 deals with marriage in New Kingdom Egypt and related issues such as adultery, domestic violence, and divorce. Meskell suggests that even though there were exceptions, non- elite women who were unmarried, widowed, or divorced endured much hardship in their daily life (p. 102, pp. 108-10). Later sections of the chapter describe the typical structure of an Egyptian house, in which '[o]verlapping spheres of domesticity, sexuality, and ritual life coexisted' (p. 124). Chapters 5 and 6 are primarily concerned with New Kingdom sexuality and eroticism. Meskell carefully states that '[a]n individual's age, social standing, sex, ethnicity, life stage, and occupation all determined how their erotic lives would be portrayed, performed, and scrutinized by society at large' (p. 127). Chapter 5 dwells on New Kingdom love-poetry and idealized female sexuality and sensuality in iconography. Meskell also argues that sexuality was not always associated with fertility, as there were numerous medical texts on contraceptive devices. Examining the textual evidence, Meskell writes that there was no dichotomy between sex and gender in ancient Egypt, nor was there a word for sexuality. Homosexuality was present, but 'the terminology was used to delineate practices rather than individuals, a very different scenario than that of high modernity' (p. 145). Chapter 6 examines the 'corporal knowledge' of the Egyptians: 'the material pleasures, intoxications, tastes, aromas, music, and dances', all of which were closely tied to sensual, eroticized life as well as to religion. Time and again, however, Meskell reminds her readers that the physical perfection represented in the iconography must have been very different from the reality (e.g. pp. 161, 162, 170). Finally in Chapter 7 Meskell addresses the end and the new beginning of the life-cycle: death and the afterlife. Textual, archaeological, and anthropological evidence suggest to her that although the ideology of happy afterlife and rebirth was fully developed, there was also 'a profound skepticism about mortuary provision, the survival of monuments, and bodily destruction' (p. 187). Meskell, upon close examination of the Deir el Medina cemeteries, realizes that most non-elite persons were not subject to embalming or evisceration; their bodies were simply wrapped in linen. In the Eighteenth Dynasty many tomb paintings were concerned with the depictions of the living world, whereas Nineteenth Dynasty tomb iconography portrayed the importance of the afterlife. The latter Dynasty's tombs also featured 'the more favorable treatment of women and children' (p. 200). At the very end of the seventh chapter, Meskell argues that even though some ideologies changed over the course of the New Kingdom, there was a ubiquitous desire in Egypt to be remembered and commemorated after death, whether individually or collectively. The ensuing postscript is a concise summary of her approaches and observations.
It is worth noting that in spite of the title of the book, Meskell often refers to Middle Kingdom literature as literary evidence (for example, pp. 58, 157, 183, 188), thereby demonstrating that there was some sort of continuity with the distant past within Egyptian society. The book is very pleasantly illustrated, although the first time Meskell draws her readers' attention to one of the figures is on page 46 (Figure 2.10)! Her method of referring to the illustrations in fact seems arbitrary throughout the work. Out of sixty- five illustrations and tables, less than a third are actually referred to. Some knowledge of Egyptian religion would be helpful when reading the book, as Meskell introduces a few deities' names with only minimal descriptions of their domains and does not explain the nature of syncretism among the Egyptian gods and goddesses.[]
Meskell is highly successful in approaching old evidence with new, eclectic perspectives that are gathered from 'a variety of scholarly traditions: the annalistic historians, third wave feminism, the postprocessual school of archaeology, and a host of disciplines such as anthropology, social history, and literary studies' (p. 208). She uses different types of evidence appropriately when needed, and her observations are perceptive and convincing, including some revealing insights. The book is an interesting, scholarly read and it is undoubtedly a valuable contribution to the study of social history of ancient Egypt.[]
[] Cf. Meskell's own complaint: '[m]ost researchers interested in questions about women or gender in Egypt have tended to favor unilinear equations of women's status: it was either incomparably high or invariably less than males' (p. 126).
[] For a concise discussion of syncretism see Erik Hornung (tr. John Baines), Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many (Ithaca, New York 1982) 91-99.
[] A few errors need to be pointed out. The name of the sun-god is written as Ra on page 62 but Re on pages 21, 120, and 172, and the Theban god, Amun, is mentioned several times throughout the book but cited once (as part of textual evidence) with the alternate spelling of his name, Amen, on page 51. These very minor discrepancies might confuse some uninformed readers. In Meskell's defence, she does acknowledge the difficulties of 'be[ing] entirely consistent in transcribing names and words from ancient Egyptian' (p. xvii). Another minor inconsistency is the spelling of 'non-elite', which first appears on page 13 as a carefully selected keyword, but appears again as 'nonelite' on page 57. There is also a small error on page 131: the tenth line from the top where Meskell cites a love poem, the seven words after the colon should be italicized.