Much of what we know of Ancient Egypt is distorted by 19th century racism

At the age of 75, Dr John Romer shows no signs of letting up – and seems to relish the controversy that his latest book is sure to arouse in the world of Egyptology. Interviewed by telephone from his home in Tuscany, the distinguished archaeologist and documentary presenter (‘Mr Romer’, he insists) gets down to earth in the second volume of his History Of Ancient Egypt: From The Great Pyramid To The Fall Of The Middle Kingdom.

After writing the first volume, A History Of Ancient Egypt: From The First Farmers To The Great Pyramid (2012), he’d expected to gallop through the ‘dark ages’ of the First Intermediate Period with little new to say about the Middle Kingdom – envisaging a two-volume history weighted towards later eras. However, during research, so much fresh evidence emerged that he expanded the book, leaving the New Kingdom for a third volume.

Serendipity has shaped Romer’s life. While making stained glass windows at London’s Royal College of Art in the mid-1960s, he applied to join the epigraphic survey of the University of Chicago in Egypt. Epigraphy is the meticulous recording and study of inscriptions and pictures on stone.

“Basically you just draw the stuff. The way we recorded the monuments at Thebes was almost identical to the way they’d done it 100 years earlier. Trying to make a very accurate copy of what’s on the wall is actually very difficult because most of the walls are highly damaged, so you need experienced people to help. It’s like banknote engraving actually, it’s that skilful.”

Romer did this for 20-30 years at sites across Egypt:

“Some people go there, it’s just a job… but I was always very interested in the stuff and I would talk to people where we lived in Luxor – the location of the University of Chicago’s headquarters, which was in a very grand 1930s film star type building built by Rockefeller – and most of the great Egyptologists of the day used to come through. You would sit and talk with them for hours and hours and hours.

“We had one of the best Egyptology libraries in the world, so if you’re interested in the subject, it was really better than a university, actually, because I didn’t have to learn all the ridiculous stuff students have to learn. I did it at my own speed and in my own way, asking the best people in the world what they thought.”

Dr John Romer (c) Elizabeth Romer

‘Stuff’ and ‘actually’ seem to be some of Romer’s favourite words. He delights in the archaeological evidence that disrupts conventional narratives and thinks that our view of Ancient Egyptian culture is skewed through the prism of European nationalism.

“It’s such a romantic 19th-century view of the world, like Arthurian legends or something, people have just bought into it for so long. Most of it doesn’t seem to be true, it was invented during the years between the French Revolution and World War I and it’s not changed much since; it’s very old fashioned. Racist, sexist… I’m not saying that they all sat down and plotted it all out, it was just a set of assumptions that people make about how things are.

“You hear about it every day on the radio, people get up and say ‘we’ll do this today because hunter-gatherers used to do it’ and they’ll usually get what the hunter-gatherers did wrong anyway – but they’ll use it as reason for why people get fat or thin or something.”

Romer’s history highlights this by using a different terminology – recasting ‘taxation’ as ‘tithing’, and ‘towns’ and ‘cities’ as ‘settlements’ – to better describe what he thinks Ancient Egyptian society was like: agrarian, without money, civic charters, guilds or even written history.

“Western cultures now revolve around writing – written laws and things – but their culture didn’t. There was no written history and there was no written text of how people should behave or anything. Writing was used for a different purpose and only by a very, very limited group of people.

“It comes down to how you translate certain words. The reason I called it ‘tithing’ was to get away from the idea that it was a tax, like money. Once you deal with a society that doesn’t have money, it’s very difficult for us to imagine how it works; you think they had equivalent values and things, but there’s no evidence that’s true. There’s lots of societies in the world that have operated without money, that don’t operate on some sort of abstract equivalence that only really seemed to come in after money.

Two priests holding a shrine, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The Ancient Greeks were, “…very clear about what money does to their culture. They say it takes away the value of things. Instead of having a pig, you suddenly have an object for sale. ‘Goods’ they call it, ‘goods’– Aristotle talks about ‘goods’. This is a new concept in the world and it’s very difficult for us to imagine, so I’m stuck with the dilemma of having to use all these old words we have, like ‘king’, ‘country’, ‘Egypt’, ‘a priest’, all these words that have been commonly translated. I’m trying to work out the difference, what an Egyptian king is compared to what we imagine a king to be.

“The first thing that crumbles is the idea of the Ancient Egyptian state, the organisation of it, and even the boundaries of the country. I mean the word ‘Egypt’ is not around in Ancient Egypt.”

Romer accuses the Berlin School of Egyptology of imagining an ethno-nation-state called Kemet, uniting the ‘two lands’ of the Nile Valley and its Delta.

“The black land and the red land is literally the word for the earth and the desert – it doesn’t mean country; it’s us that’s put the capital letter on it and called it Kemet as the ancient name of Ancient Egypt – when really it meant the black soil region.

“[This land had] no borders, of course, that idea of statehood comes straight out of German nationalism. When they first translated hieroglyphs, the idea of nation was being born in France with flags, anthems and patriotism. The word for ‘state’ was the same as for the royal residence – it radiates from the point where the pharaoh is, not from some bloody line in the desert.

“They don’t call it the Nile and the Delta. They call it the sedge and the bee, which are the actual pictures of a bee and a sedge plant. The bee is sort of black and dry like Upper Egypt, which is the heart of the culture, and the Delta is a sort of play land where people go for hunting and fishing.”

Dr John Romer’s latest book, A History of Ancient Egypt, Volume 2: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom, is available now from Allen Lane. For ancient history, pick up the new issue of All About History or subscribe now and save 25% off the cover price.