Decolonising Egyptology

This week I am tasked with answering this question:

In what ways do you think Victorian social standards and taboos have influenced the study of Pharaonic Egypt? And do you think we have entirely moved past that in the modern age?

ancient column corridor
Photo by Roxanne Shewchuk on Pexels.com

When discussing the Victorian social standards, it is always important to consider the impact that imperialism had on the mindset the Victorians themselves. Edward Said has said that:

“it will not take a modern Victorian specialist long to admit that liberal cultural heroes like John Stuart Mill, Arnold, Carlyle, Newman, Macaulay, Ruskin, George Eliot, and even Dickens had definite views on race and imperialism, which are quite easily to be found at work in their writing. So even a specialist must deal with the knowledge that Mill, for example, made it clear in On Liberty and Representative Government that his views there could not be applied to India (he was an India Office functionary for a good deal of his life; after all) because the Indians were civilizationally, if not racially, inferior”
(Said, Orientalism, p.22.)

All the writers and thinkers of the Victorian period were part of the hegemonic structure of imperialism, and this is particularly clear in the field of Egyptology. Flinders Petrie was good friends with Francis Galton, the founder of the pseudo-science Eugenics. This is reflected in his theories of invasions/migrations of new (read, superior) races into Egypt. Additionally, his style of archaeology reflected the idea of the white man’s right to rule, as he believed the contemporary Egyptians intellectually unfit to study their own past and this gave him the right to excavate and remove artefacts from Egypt to Britain.

This inherent racism in early archaeology (across all disciplines, not just Egyptology) has held back the subject by not allowing the voices of indigenous scholars to have a voice. Recent books have been written to set the record straight (The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie), but Egyptology, like Classics, still has a long way to go to decolonise the discipline. As well as more engagement with indigenous and black scholars, the subject needs to be reflective and examine the ideas and ideals that led to its creation.

Bibliography

Challis, D. 2013. The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie. London: Bloomsbury.

Ram-Prasad, K. ‘Reclaiming the Ancient World’ Eidolon, July 2019. https://eidolon.pub/reclaiming-the-ancient-world-c481fc19c0e3

Said, E. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

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