History Books

The best books on Ancient Egypt

recommended by Elizabeth Frood

Egyptologist Elizabeth Frood recommends books that take us away from the elite context of Egyptian history and focus on the 'normal' lives of Egyptians.

Buy all books

Let’s start with Jan Assmann. Tell me about Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt.

A lot of people, when they come to look at Ancient Egypt and Egyptian material, think that Egyptians were obsessed with death and funerary rituals because so much that survives from their world relates to death and the transformative realm; the transfiguration of a person in the next world. This is also true, in part, because death is one of the most problematic experiences for people in any age. Assmann offers studies and interpretations of a whole range of funerary texts and liturgies, biographies, songs and hymns and shows us the full complexity of the Egyptians’ relationship with death. Their images of it were diverse, complex, and often conflicting. Death was denied and feared, ‘an enemy’, but death was also a kind of return to an original state, to the womb, and also, perhaps more familiarly, death was a transition to another world.

When you start to look in detail at Egyptian concepts of death they often seem contradictory. There is a paradise similar to earth but better; then there is a real fear, death as something that will dismember you and take you apart. This is very human in a way, the contradiction, and of course it makes sense that death has all these possibilities.

Assmann is an Egyptologist but he is also a great humanist scholar, and he uses Egypt almost as a case study for a wider way of looking at human concepts of the world and experience, especially religious belief and practice. His background in comparative religion perhaps makes Egyptology and Egyptian religion more broadly accessible.

How did you get interested in Egyptology?

I’m from New Zealand, the other side of the world from Egypt, but my parents took me travelling from an early age and it was somewhere in Greece that I decided I wanted to be an archaeologist. Then, at the beginning of my university career, somebody showed me Gardiner’s Egyptian Grammar and I fell in love with hieroglyphs and Egyptian texts. I was very lucky to have Anthony Spalinger as a Professor at Auckland University – a world-renowned Egyptologist at the bottom of the world! I go to Egypt a few times a year and I’m just starting my own project there, in Luxor.

The Ancient Egyptian period, but it covers thousands of years. Presumably things changed a lot in that time?

My work is mostly on the Late New Kingdom and early first millennium (ca. 1200 to 700BC); you really do have to specialise! Change over time is difficult to approach, in part because we do specialise, but certain basic features such as art and religion also seem, on the surface, to be so static and unchanging. But there is enormous change and diversity – linguistic, religious and social developments were dramatic, for example ­– but ruling groups also wanted to preserve traditions so sometimes change isn’t immediately obvious and can be hard to assess.

Tell me about the John Baines book.

He’s a professor here at Oxford so he’s a colleague of mine, but also one of the most influential Egyptologists of the past 20 years. His work has been enormously significant. This book collects a number of his essays and presents them as a coherent whole and commentary on central Egyptian cultural institutions. He integrates different aspects of material culture – visual and textual – from tiny carved ivory tags to massive stone temples, emphasising the importance of context in analysis as well as comparative, anthropological perspectives. He explains how visual and written domains, two sides of the same coin, are complementary and mutually transforming and sustaining. These essays are a snapshot of his career over time, and what I find most inspiring is the way he can take a little detail and, through his reassessment of it, completely change your perspective on a whole topic.

Can you think of an example?

Well, he talks about approaches to Egyptian two-dimensional art and its ‘lack’ of perspective, which makes it look strange to us; we are trained in perspective as a representational tool from very early on. He argues that we shouldn’t see this as a deficiency; it wasn’t lack of ability, but rather that art had a different aim. Egyptian artists made play with the flat surface, using its potential and quite often having fun with it. When you start to think about the flexibility and potential of flat surfaces and the possibility to represent multiple viewpoints, you start to see the incredible complexity and freedom of Egyptian art, as well as its relationship to particular ways of seeing and understanding the world.

Your next choice is The Chapel of Ptahhotep 

This is really cool. It’s a photographic study of a single tomb space, an Old Kingdom tomb in the necropolis of Saqqara, near Cairo. There are hundreds, thousands of books and catalogues on Egyptian art, and most offer a good sense of visual culture, but this one is different. It is a detailed study of the tomb of one individual, taking you through the space and allowing you to examine all aspects, from the modelling of the dominant figure of the tomb-owner, to tiny details such as how the harpist’s fingers move over the strings, how the lips of the flautists are wrapped around the flute. You can begin to see decisions made by individual artists from the master craftsmen to trainees who are less skilled and have perhaps been given less important areas to concentrate on. I have actually worked with this team in Egypt and Paulo, the photographer, is just brilliant at capturing Egyptian scenes; the grainy stone surface, the curve of shoulder, the feathering of a bird’s wing. In the commentary Yvonne identifies the components of each scene and explains possible meanings. But she also discusses practical aspects such as problems encountered when taking the photograph and also, crucially, conservation issues. Tombs like these are deteriorating rapidly; in the photos you can see paint flaking away and other indicators of damage. These tombs are so vulnerable and books like this provide a permanent record for the future.

Do you have a favourite bit?

The photos I love are of the musicians, such as one of the musicians’ fingers – it’s almost as if they’re really playing. The artists are trying to create music through their work and you can almost hear it.

Do we know what it might have sounded like?

Scholars have tried to reconstruct aspects of it from the instruments represented and the words of the songs sometimes inscribed nearby, but we can’t know exactly what it sounded like.

I am always struck by the fact that they had such low life-expectancy and the people in the paintings must have been so young. Is that true?

Egypt was a brutal peasant society, so if you were working in the fields or as a local craftsman you would have probably lived into your thirties or forties maximum and, of course, there was very high infant mortality and many women died in childbirth. But if you were an official of higher status you could live into your seventies and eighties. These were the sorts of people building these tombs, like Ptahhotep’s; the elite with long-standing careers. As soon as you had the money and status you would start building your tomb but, even then, a lot of them aren’t finished. Some people didn’t quite make it!

During the building process it is likely that people came to visit – you could show it off to your friends and peers. There are texts that mention processions through and inspections of workshops, so in a sense you were saying; ‘Look what I can afford!’ The construction of a tomb was a significant indicator of rank and prestige. And then once you were dead the tomb would be part of an ongoing cult in your memory, for rituals, celebrations and feasting. People seemed to have visited tombs to be with their relatives as well as enjoying the beauty of the space.

And now the literature.

Yes. Village Life in Ancient Egypt is a collection of translations and is one of my favourites. So much of what we look at is high status, from elite contexts, but what we have here are texts coming from the day-to-day life in a village, from a daily context. They come from Deir el-Medina, the village of workmen who constructed the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Perhaps the work they were doing meant that there were such high literacy levels in the village. This seems exceptional but it is hard to properly assess because we don’t have much comparable evidence from other ordinary villages. This community not only left houses and tombs but also thousands and thousands of texts written on pieces of pottery and limestone; these were like scraps of paper for them.

The site of their village is open to tourists and you can see the huge pit where these texts were buried. They are written in a cursive form of hieroglyphs called hieratic – the same signs but in a reduced and cursive form. Hieratic is even harder to read than hieroglyphs; it is a very particular skill!

Did they bury the texts for posterity?

No, it looks as if they just threw them away. It’s hard to get water in the village – you had to go to the Nile, and that’s quite a donkey ride. It appears as though they tried to dig a well and kept digging and digging but didn’t reach water so they just used it as a rubbish tip instead. Some of these scraps of pottery, called ‘ostraca’, are housed in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, some are in the British Museum in London, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and all over the world really. There are thousands still waiting to be looked at and published.

What do they say?

They say all sorts of things. There are all kinds of little notes and letters. ‘Please make me a new pair of sandals’; ‘Why haven’t you answered my message, I wrote to you a week ago!’ There are divorces, records of women running away from their husbands and then the family coming to beat up the offending husband, petty legal disputes about property and inheritance, laundry lists, grocery lists, the day to day notes we write to ourselves, stories, literary tales, love poetry.

McDowell also includes texts from more monumental contexts such as the hymns and prayers set up in the villagers’ tombs and shrines. You get a vivid sense of individuals and a community, what they were like, what they cared about. We can never fully understand lived experience in Ancient Egypt, but these texts allow us the feeling that they dealt with some of the same problems, concerns, crises, and joys we all deal with. Without material like this a connection is hard to get. The art makes them look so different and the texts, especially religious texts, can seem so obscure and strange. But this is the nitty gritty and some of it is really funny – the legalese and the pedantry.

Did they have lawyers?

They had judges, senior members of the community, in front of whom you, as an individual, would plead your case.

The book by Richard Parkinson is another collection of translations, but this time of poems and other literary texts from the Middle Kingdom (1940-1640BC), the so-called classic period of Egyptian literary production. When I do public lectures or take tourists to Egypt they are often surprised that Ancient Egypt had a literature. We think mostly of Greek and Roman material when we think of ancient literature, but Richard has been at the forefront of changing that.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

This is a wonderful collection starting with the most famous Egyptian poem, the Tale of Sinuhe. It’s short, only about 16 pages in this edition. Although numerous written copies are known, including versions used in teaching at Deir el-Medina, we think the life of these stories was primarily oral, performed by one story-teller or a group of performers, perhaps in court contexts.

Is the fact that people don’t know much about Egyptian literature to do with the fact that it was translated so much later than Greek or Roman?

There began to be good translations in the mid-to-late 19th Century and then really thoughtful ones perhaps only in the 20th, so there isn’t the long tradition of ‘the classics’. But the Egyptian stories are also really different. They don’t have the plot structure and the characterisation that we are used to. Richard tries to open up the material so that we can understand it and see the beauty of the language. The Tale of Sinuhe, for example, is the story of an individual who flees Egypt when the king dies; he is worried that he will be accused of conspiracy. He becomes very successful in his new life in Syria-Palestine but all this success is hollow because the only life that is meaningful is a life in Egypt.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

It is easy to read a story like this just as propaganda for central Egyptian ideology and the king, but it isn’t that simple. Sinuhe ran away from Egypt after all, and the story can be read as a questioning of what it is to be Egyptian. There is a long eulogy to the king in the middle but it too is full of little contradictory nuances and critiques. Richard’s introduction and notes help you to understand the subtlety of the story, but at the same time allow you to develop your own ideas and thoughts, which is really important for my students and any reader.

Richard’s anthology offers a sense of the range of literary production. My favourite is a poem in which a man debates with his soul about views of death and his own existential anxiety. There is rhythm and metre and sound play – it’s an extraordinary poem:

Death is to me today

like a sick man’s recovery,

like going out after confinement.

Death is to me today

like the smell of myrrh,

like sitting under a sail on a windy day.

Death is to me today

like the smell of flowers,

like sitting on the shore of Drunkenness.

Death is to me today

like a well-trodden path,

like a man’s coming home from an expedition.

Death is to me today

like the sky’s clearing,

like a man grasping what he did not know before.

Death is to me today

like a man’s longing to see home,

having spent many years in captivity.

September 3, 2009

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Elizabeth Frood

Elizabeth Frood

Elizabeth Frood is a lecturer in Egyptology at the Faculty of Oriental Studies and a fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford. Her research interests include elite representation and biography in the late second millennium and early first millennium BC. She is also involved in field projects in Egypt. She tells FiveBooks that we should think again about our perception of the Ancient Egyptians – they wrote shopping lists too.

Elizabeth Frood

Elizabeth Frood

Elizabeth Frood is a lecturer in Egyptology at the Faculty of Oriental Studies and a fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford. Her research interests include elite representation and biography in the late second millennium and early first millennium BC. She is also involved in field projects in Egypt. She tells FiveBooks that we should think again about our perception of the Ancient Egyptians – they wrote shopping lists too.