2/27/2006

Books & Dating the Latest Fashion

song du jour: Hair, from the original Broadway soundtrack

mood: tangled ;-)

I just started reading Dr. Joann Fletcher's The Search for Nefertiti: The True Story of an Amazing Discovery I keep trying to finish the books I've started, but then Amazon keeps bringing these little brown packages to my door, and they make me giddy the way shiny things usually do. Seriously, I'm on page 67, and if it keeps up, this promises to be the best written book on Egyptology I've ever picked up, and as you might imagine, I've read many.

First of all, she blows off the obligatory, educate-the-lay-masses, introductory chapter that inevitably starts with "Heroditus described Egypt as the gift of the Nile..." - How many books by well known Egyptologists do I own that start off like that? I wouldn't even try to count. - Instead, Fletcher uses the perspective of her first trip to Egypt as an enthusiastic teen to put the pieces of Egypt's history into a background, illuminating to those newer to the subject, yet completely captivating to those of us, who know that story by heart. She tells of the discrepancies in the assumptions and accepted history that she noticed even as a teenager and hints at how she will explain some of my favorite unsatisfactory explanations like who succeeded Tutankhamun and how they did so.

Fletcher literally put her career on the line by not only putting forth a theory that flies in the face of the staid establishment, but also by going around the accepted protocol to present her highly researched ideas to the public. Her theory is quite plausible and rests on more evidence than has led other (male) Egyptologists to declare a few men past pharaohs. Her heroes include some of my own like Howard Carter, and William Flinders Petrie, but also Amelia Edwards, the writer and single, Victorian woman, who created the still active Egypt Exploration Society and endowed Britain's first chair of Egyptology, the first held by Petrie, at University College London. She blew off Oxford and Cambridge in her bequest because UCL was "the only university to admit men and women on equal terms reagrdless of religious belief." It was founded in 1827 and accepted students 'without distinction of color, caste, creed, or sex,' and so it became known as 'the godless and infidel establishemnt of Gower Street.' Makes me want to go take a course there. ;-)

I'll let you know how the book goes. I ordered it because I caught repeat airing of a Discovery Channel special and because since it first aired, I've totally agreed with the findings she announced in a press conference in September of 2003. I too believe that the nearly forgotten mummy, known as 'the younger woman,' stashed away in a walled up chamber in the tomb of Amenhotep II in The Valley of the Kings is the mummy of a pharaoh and the mummy of Nefertiti. With the evidence she brings to light, there aren't many other women it could be, but people get upset at the possibility that Nefertiti ruled as co-regent and then as a pharaoh after the death of her husband despite all the pictorial and written evidence, showing her as a ruler. As far back as the 1960's Egyptologists were putting forth the theory that Nefertiti had ruled as co-regent and then as pharaoh based on the carvings of some 30,000 blocks uncovered under the foundations of Karnak and several mortuary temples as well as evidence from Amarna, the contemporary name for the city she helped found.

We still cling to the idea that pharaohs were always men. They usually were, but not always, and the Egyptians didn't seem to mind too much when they weren't. - It's popular to claim that Tutmoses III hated Hatshepsut so much he obliterated her name from her monuments, replacing hers with his own, but that was a common way of attributing more art to the current ruler and not merely a way of wiping out the name of a ruler because (gasp) she was a woman.

Despite the many women, who figured heavily in the birth of Egyptology as a formal area of study, the climate was Judeo-Christian and European, and particularly, Victorian. Women in these traditions were only permitted supporting roles, and ignoring the women of their time, who were independent, male archaeologists filtered all their finds through this cultural view. Many of the papers on Egyptology and anthropology, written by women were not published because the topics or depth they covered were considered 'too delicate' and accepted for publication only by male authors. But of course, if we're talking about the Victorian era, we're talking about a time when one of Europe's most powerful leaders was a woman! English Egyptologists were well versed in the idea of powerful queens, who, when there was not a male heir, proved, like Elizabeth I, to be among the strongest their empire has ever known. The irony is positively tedious.

Fletcher's area of expertise is another thing that keeps her an outsider of the boys club. While in school, she realized how much art and evidence was ignored out of sexism. As she puts it, who the ancient Egyptians were depends on the view of the Egyptologist, so if one is primarily a boys club prof, then the Egyptians of interest are the literate, educated, male elite. That's a VERY small section of the population. Fletcher believes that all ancient Egyptians are worth studying (obvious to us perhaps, but revolutionary to the field), and so she focused her post graduate studies on artifacts of daily life, particularly hairstyles.

Think about turning on one of the old movie channels. You see a movie in color with actors you don't immediately recognize, but you know instantly what era the movie was from even if it wasn't set in its contemporary time. How? The hairstyles and clothing, of course. No matter when the plot is set, if you see a woman with boufed up hair and blue eye shadow, you know the movie was made in the 1960's.

It works the same with the hair and makeup styles in Egyptian art. Ancient Egyptians put great emphasis on appearance. Men paid just as much attention as women to their coiffure, wearing makeup and, at times, longer hair, wigs, or extensions than did Egyptian women. LIke Samson and Delilah, ancient cultures often associated long hair on men with virility. Not only can one use hair and hairstyles to date artifacts, they can be the key to understanding a person's rank and socio-economic status. Sadly, because men from the early 1800's and up view such endeavors as partaining to women only, they dismissed much of the most obvious evidence in front of them and often tossed it aside just as they tended to do with anything else deemed 'feminine.'

While people all over the West from the pro-Aryans like Hitler to present day African-Americans have argued over Nefertiti's ethnic background to claim her as a mascot for their race, the real argument lies in our inability to reconcile a nearly supreme icon of beauty with an incredibly powerful, possibly even ruthless, world class leader. It makes our male oriented little heads spin.

Part III forthcoming

2 comments:

kate said...

oh holy wow: the most interesting post I've read in so long . . . I went to a little Egyptian exhibit here in Albany, NY last weekend and the most interesting things to me were the things pertaining to daily life - tweezers, makeup containers, mousetrap, jewelry, clothing. The big story is nice, but the small stories of their lives are fascinating . . . thank you :)

victoria said...

Thanks, Kate! I agree wholeheartedly. It seems like most Egyptologists are interested in stone or bones alone. They don't even really like finding gold, thinking it to be a headache for a 'real' archaeologist to cope with and catering to the masses' greed for treasure. My own love of jewelry has much more to do with the hows and whys of the smiths and the adorned themselves than the glitz. In any case, all those small everyday objects whether for royalty or peasants tell an intimate personal story that is timeless and often common to us all.

If you haven't read Fletcher's book, I highly recommend it. I'm about 2/3 thru with it now, and I've learned more about life in the Amarna period than I have from numerous other books combined. She does not disappoint.

Take care,
Victoria