This paper investigates the use of postcolonial theory in Egyptology and Sudan archaeology. Theories and concepts developed out of examinations of specific historical colonial encounters were often applied by Egyptologists with little or no critical historical contextualization. Consequently, when using postcolonial theories and concepts some Egyptologists unwillingly transferred specific historical backgrounds to both ancient Egyptian experiences and those of their neighbours. This is inspected using the concept of reverse discourse as developed by M. Foucault. We need to construct novel and more data-informed concepts to understand the experiences and realities of living under Egyptian occupation.
Cet article étudie la façon dont la théorie postcoloniale est utilisée en égyptologie et en archéologie au Soudan. Les égyptologues ont souvent appliqué des théories et des concepts élaborés à partir de l’examen d’interactions coloniales historiques spécifiques en procédant à peu ou à aucune mise en contexte historique critique. En conséquence, en utilisant ces théories et concepts postcoloniaux, des égyptologues ont sans le vouloir associé des contextes historiques spécifiques aux expériences de l’ancienne Égypte et à celles de leurs contemporains. Ce phénomène est étudié à l’aide de la méthodologie du discours inversé proposée par M. Foucault. Il nous faut construire des concepts novateurs et mieux informés pour comprendre les expériences et les réalités de la vie sous l’occupation égyptienne.
Este artículo investiga el uso de la teoría poscolonial en la egiptología y la arqueología de Sudán. Los egiptólogos a menudo aplicaron teorías y conceptos desarrollados a partir de exámenes de encuentros coloniales históricos específicos con poca o ninguna contextualización histórica crítica. En consecuencia, al utilizar teorías y conceptos poscoloniales, algunos egiptólogos transfirieron sin querer antecedentes históricos específicos tanto a las experiencias del antiguo Egipto como a las de sus vecinos. Esto se examina utilizando el concepto de discurso inverso desarrollado por M. Foucault. Necesitamos construir conceptos novedosos y más basados en los datos para comprender las experiencias y las realidades de vivir bajo la ocupación egipcia.
In 2020, criticism of the decolonial project in Egyptology appeared with the basic argument that the demand to de-colonize Egyptology was no less simplistic than the idea that this field was a Western invention (Gertzen, 2020, p. 199; on complexity of the problem see most recently Jurman, 2022; Lemos, 2022). However, the fact that some Egyptologists erroneously referred to Sudanese exchange students and colleagues, attending an Egyptological conference in Münster in 2018, as members of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, and therefore as Egyptians, is a demonstration that de-colonization (both political and epistemic) is more than necessary.
Furthermore, in this paper, I will demonstrate that the postcolonial theory used in Egyptology and Sudan archaeology in the last two decades actually has very little to do with postcolonial theory (cf. Silliman, 2015 for a similar criticism of it’s use in archaeology). There are two main reasons for this. The first reason is an apparent misunderstanding of concepts borrowed from postcolonial theory, probably because it was filtered to Egyptology and Sudan archaeology from provincial Roman archaeology in Britain (e.g., Hingley, 2000, 2005; Webster & Cooper, 1996 quoted by van Pelt, 2013). It seems that the origins of these concepts are not always clear to Egyptologists. For example, it was suggested that concepts such as hybridity, creolization, syncretism and mestizaje came to postcolonial studies from biology, linguistics and social anthropology (Bader, 2013, p. 259). That the word ‘hybrid’ is also used by biologists for offspring resulting from combining the qualities of two organisms of different breeds, varieties, species or genera through sexual reproduction, and that it was recurrent in 19th century racial anthropology does not mean that the same meaning is implied by postcolonial theorists (cf. Silliman, 2015, p. 280; Young 1995, p. 5). Syncretism is used as a reference to the combination of different beliefs or schools of thought, often expressed in arts; however, it has been much criticised due to assumptions of “coherent theological systems, irresistible religious teachings, and native passivity and ignorance” (Frankfurter, 2017, p. 15). Mestizo is a racial classification originally used to label people of combined European and Indigenous American ancestry (Vento, 1998). It does not originate from any scientific field. Egyptologists and archaeologists should be careful in making assumptions about terms used by cultural theorists relying on the legacy of poststructuralism. Words change meanings.
It has been recently argued referring to Egyptian–Nubian New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1070 BCE) encounters that “Entanglement and hybridisation are terms now frequently deployed in the study of this encounter, balancing the narratives of conquest and domination set out in Pharaonic texts and foregrounded by earlier scholarship” (Spencer, Stevens and Binder, 2017, p. 1). However, although they can be useful when understood and applied in proper manner, these two terms should not be used by Egyptologists to mask the facts of conquest, domination, exploitation, violence and their consequences (cf. already argued by Fanon, 2008 ; 1968  among postcolonial theorists; for most recent examples in the practice of Egyptology see Jurman, 2022). The colonized can question colonial authority both through physical violence and subversive acts exactly because they find themselves in asymmetrical power relations. The dark side of ancient Egyptian conquest and domination will be addressed with examples at the end of this paper.
Hybridity and how to Misunderstand it
I will start this discussion first by delineating how archaeologists use the term hybrid, stressing that this has little to do with the use of this word in postcolonial theory. After that I will demonstrate how the former was confused for the latter in Egyptology, simply because one assumed that the same word had the same meaning in two different scholarly traditions.
As already stressed and criticised by Ph. W. Stockhammer, archaeologists perceive those objects as hybrid which resist classification within predefined taxonomies (2013, p. 11). We can think of a vessel made in clay from Egypt but imitating Minoan ware (Aston, 2015), or a depiction of a foreigner who has the physical features of a person from the Levant according to Egyptian iconographic convention but wears an Aegean dress (Matić, 2014; Matić, 2019b, pp. 654–655). According to Stockhammer, hybridity cannot exist without purity, just as “international” cannot exist without nation states and “transculturally” without cultures.
That is why, in order to define the previously mentioned vessels as hybrid we have to acknowledge the existence of Egyptian and Minoan archaeological culture (for problems see Matić, 2014), or in the case of a hybrid foreigner the existence of conventions for representations of Levantine and Aegean population in ancient Egyptian art. Thus, Stockhammer argues that purity “has been unconsciously reintroduced into postcolonial studies, which originally aimed to overcome exactly this politically so often misused division” (Stockhammer, 2013, p. 12). This is not entirely true. Purity was not reintroduced into postcolonial studies; rather, hybridity as understood in postcolonial theory has been misunderstood by archaeologists. Stockhammer further argues that:
“if nothing can be designated as pure everything is hybrid and hybridity becomes a redundant term which might then be used in a metaphorical way for stimulating discussion, but not as a conceptual tool” (Stockhammer, 2013, p. 12).
However, although Stockhammer distanced himself from hybridity and the work of H. K. Bhabha because of the reasons stated above, postcolonial theorist Bhabha had something different in mind. According to Bhabha, (1994, p. 2), cultural hybridities emerge in moments of historical transformation, a hybrid is “a subject that inhabits the rim of an ‘in-between’ reality” (1994, p 13). A place of hybridity is a place of construction of “a political object that is new, neither the one nor the other” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 25). Its subversive potential is summarized in Bhabha’s definition of hybridity as “the revaluation of the assumption of colonial identity through the repetition of discriminatory identity effects” (Bhabha, 1994, p 112). It is a “disturbing questioning of the images and presences of authority” (Bhabha, 1994, p 113). Colonial hybridity is not “a problem of genealogy of identity between two different cultures” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 114). Therefore, crucial for hybridity, as defined by Bhabha, is its political context and its use as a subversive strategy, mimicry of the authority for the sake of its questioning (cf. Fahlander 2007; Matić, 2017b, pp. 99–100; Matić, 2020, pp. 50–51; Silliman, 2015, p. 278). Hybridity is therefore a social practice (Silliman, 2015, p. 286) which allows the colonized to question the authority of the colonizer.
In Egyptology the word ‘hybrid’ can be found with different meanings. It often applies to visual hybridism in which at least two elements are combined by Egyptian painters, for example Syro-Aegean hybrid figures in 18th Dynasty (ca. 1550-1290 BCE) tribute scenes I mentioned previously. The problem emerges when Egyptologists and archaeologists interpret these figures as an Egyptian attempt to visually depict “cosmopolitanism” (Rehak 1998, p. 47) or crews of ships such as Uluburun on which material culture of various provenience has been found (Darnell and Manassa 2007, p. 202). As I already pointed out elsewhere, the fact that northern and southern neighbours of Egypt are never visually hybridised and that a transference of motifs and elements occurs only within representations of emissaries of northern lands indicates that we are dealing with cultural geography and not an attempt to represent reality (Matić 2012; Matić 2014). This is also attested in ancient Egyptian texts which place the Aegean in the north (e.g., Book of the Day from the tomb of Ramesses VI). J. F. Quack pointed out that this is because Crete and Byblos are on the same geographic latitude (Quack 1996, pp. 77–79).
The term “cultural hybridity” is sometimes used to describe the culture of Tell el-Dabca (Avaris) in the eastern Delta, capital of the Hyksos kingdom of the 15th Dynasty (ca. 1650-1550 BCE). There one can find both Near Eastern and ancient Egyptian cultural elements. However, the situation is much more complex than that. Using the term cultural hybridity actually covers up more than it reveals (e.g., van de Mieroop, 2021, p. 125). The reason this site is taken as an example of cultural hybridity is because of the culture-historical archaeological thinking as a background paradigm of its interpretations (Matić, 2020, pp. 24–34). Different forms of material culture are attributed with adjectives Egyptian or Near Eastern and one assumes that Egyptians and Near Easterners are behind them. When they appear together at the same site, the people living there are said to have been acculturated, etc. This is also evident in the work of authors dealing with “cultural mixing” at Tell el-Dabca (Avaris) who do not seem to have a problem with “(archaeological) cultures” (see Bader, 2013, and also the discussions by Jones 1997, pp. 15–25, pp. 106–109; Matić, 2020, pp. 34–35; Trigger, 1996). A similar use of the term hybridity is found in the context of Lower Nubia where the presence of C-Group, Kerman, Egyptian and Pan-grave cultures is interpreted as “remarkable hybridity” (Morris, 2018, p. 94). J. Budka writes that on the island of Sai in Upper Nubia “hybrid types of vessels indicate a complex entanglement of the Nubian with the Egyptian culture” (Budka, 2014, p. 71; for more or less the same logic see de Souza, 2020). R. Lemos seems to have understood what Bhabha meant with hybridity but at the same time argues that “indigenous agency and creativity in the (re)appropriation, adaption, rejection, and transformation of colonial patterns” resulted in “hybrid or entangled objects that are neither Egyptian nor Nubian” (Lemos, 2020, p. 5). However, indigenous agency, creativity, reappropriation, adaption and rejection of colonial patterns can also result in the production of objects which are not visually or technologically hybrid or entangled. Following Bhabha, in the right context, anything can be used to question authority.
Therefore, although the terms used are new, the underlying logic is the same. Material culture (e.g., pottery) can be neatly organised into archaeological cultures that stand in for people in manner V. G. Childe defined them:
“We find certain types of remains pots, implements, ornaments, burial rites and house forms constantly recurring together. Such a complex of associated traits we shall call a ‘cultural group’ or just a ‘culture’. We assume that such a complex is the material expression of what today we would call ‘a people’.” (Childe, 1929: v–vi).
The presence of material culture belonging to different archaeological cultures is interpreted as evidence for a multi-ethnic or a hybrid society, culture or context. Also, when the question of mixture is concerned, the problem with the concept of “racial mixes” is not because it involves racism (Bader, 2013, p. 259), but because it involves the existence of races (Matić, 2018a, b). There is a big difference in these two statements. By claiming that material culture “will not show if the person(s) using it belonged to a ‘racial mixture’ because its usage is due to a variety of (social) reasons that may lead to the deployment of objects mixed in style, shape and function”, Bader does not point out that the existence of “racial mixtures” is problematic. The problem is not recognizing them in the archaeological record; the problem is assuming that racial mixtures exist in the first place, because this implies that races exist (see Fields and Fields 2014; Saini, 2019). Therefore, before introducing novel theoretical concepts (e.g., hybridity as understood by Bhabha), we should be careful not to forget that some of the existing concepts (e.g., archaeological culture as understood by Childe) contradict them and cannot be used side by side.
Last but not the least, the use of the postcolonial concept of hybridity by Bhabha in archaeology (and Egyptology) is often floating on the scholarly surface. More often than not reference to his work Location of culture (Bhabha, 1994), where he elaborates on many of his theoretical concepts, is provided only with the last name of the author and the year of publication. The pages on which Bhabha discusses hybridity are not quoted and we are left with very general comments on his work (examples: Bader, 2013, p. 261; Lemos, 2020; Troche, 2020, p. 41), which often miss its theoretical nuances. In other Egyptological examples (for example de Souza, 2020), the words ‘hybrid’ and ‘hybridity’, discussions on purity, etc. are abundant but the work of Bhabha is not quoted. Instead, concepts are inherited from other archaeologists, such as Stockhammer. Examples follow.
Entanglement and how to Disentangle it
One of the terms which slowly but surely became a buzzword in archaeology is entanglement. Whereas some authors use it abundantly, others show dissatisfaction upon simply hearing it. The underlying problem is the basic misunderstanding of the way this concept has been used in works of different authors. I. Hodder, (2012) uses it to describe a mutual dependence of humans (H) and things (T) in the formula Entanglement = (HT) + (TT) + (TH) + (HH). Humans depend on things (HT), things depend on other things (TT), things depend on humans (TH) and humans depend on other humans (HH). In this part of the paper, I will analyse the usage of the concept of entanglement in archaeological writings on ancient Nubia.
As we have seen above, Stockhammer is reluctant to use Bhabha’s concept of hybridity in archaeology because of his own (not Bhabha’s) associations with this term. Instead, Stockhammer defines entanglement as a term “to describe phenomena that are the result of the creative processes triggered by intercultural encounters” (Stockhammer, 2013, p. 16; emphasis mine). In fact, this is closer to Bhabha´s concept of hybridity than Stockhammer leads us to believe. This is because the subversive potential of hybridity relies on creative processes of the questioning of colonial authority (for examples, see Fahlander, 2007, pp. 27–28).
Stockhammer distinguished between relational entanglement and material entanglement. The former is the appropriation and integration of a foreign object into local practices, systems of meaning and worldviews (Stockhammer, 2013, p. 16). For example, the Minoan genius can be interpreted as a result of relational entanglement in which the Egyptian goddess Taweret found her way into Minoan iconography and systems of meaning and worldviews (Blakolmer, 2015). However, for Stockhammer it is crucial that although the associated meanings and practices can change, the objects remain unchanged. The idea that meanings associated with objects can change without changing the objects themselves can be traced back to semiotics, structuralism and postprocessual archaeology’s mantra of “material culture as text” (Hodder, 1989). In this school of thought, objects are the signified and meanings are the signifiers, and according to French philosopher J. Derrida there is an endless chain of signifiers (Derrida, 1976).
Contrary to relational entanglement, material entanglement “signifies the creation of something new that is more than just the sum of its parts and combines the familiar with the previously foreign. This object is more than just a sum of the entities from which it originated and clearly not the result of local continuities” (Stockhammer, 2013, p. 16). One should be careful not to confuse this with Bhabha’s hybridity because the latter is essentially related to a subversive strategy and not visual hybridism. From the point of view of material culture, any object can be used for such purposes, no matter if it combines the familiar with the foreign or previously foreign.
According to M. Buzon, S. T. Smith and A. Simonetti, agency plays an important role for what they refer to as cultural entanglement theory:
“For example, cultural entanglement theory considers the agency of both indigenous and intrusive groups (Perry & Paynter 1999); interactions can be traced through a carefully contextualized analysis of material cultural patterning and archaeological residues of practices” (Buzon et al., 2016, p. 285).
However, the paper of W. Perry and R. Paynter, (1999) they quote, does not mention the word entanglement. Just like W. Paul van Pelt previously (van Pelt, 2013), Buzon, Smith and Simonetti rightly abandon “Egyptianization” as a model for explaining changes in Nubia and suggest an agent-centered approach they refer to as model of cultural and biological entanglement:
“The key to understanding the phenomenon of the Nubian pharaohs lies in adopting a bottom-up, agent-centered approach by replacing Egyptianization with a model of cultural and biological entanglement (Dietler, 2010; Hall, 1993; Thomas, 1991), a coalescence that affects the historical trajectories of the colonial power and the colonized” (Buzon et al., 2016, p. 287).
Clearly by biological entanglement they mean reproduction by sexual partners of different backgrounds. It remains unclear what they mean by with cultural entanglement.
Also, for N. Spencer, A. Stevens and M. Binder “the advance of Pharaonic armies up the Nile Valley in the reign of Kamose (c. 1555–1550 BC) was but the latest episode in the entanglement of Egypt and Nubia that stretched back millennia” (Spencer et al., 2017, p. 16). The authors most probably intend to argue that Egyptian and Nubian societies were mutually constitutive for millennia, so that what happens in one society has effects on the other.
Just how quickly terms can appear in updated versions of seminal works which previously did not use them is demonstrated by the use of the word entanglement as a “more appropriate term” than “cultural integration” (Kemp, 2018, p. 38). Similar to N. Spencer, A. Stevens and M. Binder, J. Troche clearly uses the word entanglement to indicate the interconnectedness and dependence of two phenomena. “While the histories of Nubia and Egypt were often entangled, an Egypto-centric perspective characterizes much of the scholarship on Nubian history” (Troche, 2020, p. 41).
One of the rare works in which definitions of entanglement are present and supported by references is one of the recent papers of A. de Souza, (2020). He refers to Stockhammer’s definitions of relational and material entanglements and attempts to recognise these in Pan-Grave and Egyptian pottery. However, he fails to recognise the poststructuralist background of relational entanglement I discussed previously, and the culture-historical background of his arguments. Several of them demonstrate that beneath the theory used as jargon, lies a “hidden theory” of culture-historical archaeology. According to U. Sommer and A. Gramsch, a “hidden theory” describes implicit theoretical backgrounds which show themselves only through interpretations (Sommer & Gramsch, 2011, p. 25). Thus, de Souza writes about Pan-Grave and Egyptian pottery and the search for evidence of entanglements via material culture:
“Before that issue can be explored, the two ceramic traditions must be briefly described in order to illustrate just how distinct they are, enabling the identification of entanglement if and when it occurs” (de Souza, 2020, p. 5).
Since the goal of this paper is not to deal with Pan-Grave and Egyptian pottery, I will not repeat de Souza’s descriptions, but point to the fact that his usage of “ceramic traditions” actually does not differ from the early 20th century culture-historical concept of an archaeological culture. Just in the previously discussed cases of hybridism understood as a visual combination of two or more elements, we also find here the idea that we need to understand pre-existing phenomena such as pottery manufacture traditions in order to understand those cases where the material culture cannot be assigned clearly to any of these traditions. A. de Souza stresses, though, that:
“pots are not people, and so direct correlations between a particular type of pottery and the cultural identity of the people who made or used it are avoided” (de Souza, 2020, p. 5).
However, he does use the adjective Egyptian for Egyptian pottery. He further adds that:
“[t]he fundamental argument is that objects are products of processes of entanglement taking place at a social level, but the objects should not themselves be interpreted as entangled” (de Souza, 2020, p. 5).
However, contrary to the assumption made by de Souza, as we have seen in the works of I. Hodder and B. Olsen, (2010), things, i.e., objects, can indeed be mutually entangled (e.g., a lock and a key; a screw and a screw driver; the steel hammer consisting of a wooden handle, wooden wedge and a steel head; flat surface and flat bottom of a pot etc.). It is useful to think about entangled objects in ancient Egypt and Nubia exactly because objects just as humans and other actants produce society (sensu Bruno Latour). Archaeologists can and should explore what happens when differently entangled objects are disentangled, intentionally or not, subversively or not.
Third Space and Where to Find it
The term third space was introduced in postcolonial theory by H. K. Bhabha. According to him third space represents the general conditions of language. The production of meaning requires that the “I” and the “You” is mobilized in the passage through third space. This passage is not conscious and is therefore ambivalent (Bhabha, 1994, p. 36). Therefore, for Bhabha this term is used as a metaphor for a communicative process. “Third space of enunciation” makes the structure of meaning and reference an ambivalent process. It constitutes the discursive conditions of enunciation ensuring that the meaning has no primordial unity or fixity, but that it can be “appropriated, translated, rehistoricized and read anew” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 37).
Contrary to Bhabha, it seems that most of the authors understand the concept as referring to an actual physical space. Thus, S. T. Smith writes that Bhabha’s third space “where identities are negotiated” applies to Nubia and Egypt (Smith, 2014, p. 209). Also, J. Troche writes that “Lower Nubia (that is northern Nubia) shared a border with Upper Egypt and so here we see a Third Space emerge—a zone of cross-cultural interaction and entanglement (Bhabha, 1996)” (Troche, 2020, p. 41). What they mean is rather a borderland per decolonial thought (see Langer and Matić in this issue; Langer in this issue). Most recently, B. Bader even made a sketch in which two sets as in mathematics (A and B) are in an intersection (A ∩ B). One set is an “Egyptian cultural tradition” and the other a “Syro-Palestinian cultural tradition” (Bader, 2021: Fig. 1). The intersection is labelled with numerous superimposed terms which Bader groups together “Third Space, borderland zone, frontierzone, middle ground, mutual appropriation, entanglement”. She labels the diagram as “postcolonial theorems with consideration of ‘Material turn’”. As we have seen, this is not what Bhabha meant. In fact, Bader’s postcolonial diagram has nothing to do with postcolonial theory and differs from her culture-historical paradigm only in the choice of graphics for the two sets. Whereas in the postcolonial one the outlines are dashes and dots, in the culture-historical one the outlines are full circles. Bader probably intends to focus on her heterogenous understanding of the two sets. Nevertheless, when Third Space and postcolonial theory is concerned, these are not related concepts.
If evidence for third space are archaeologically defined contact zones in border areas, then not only are we giving new meanings to this concept and erroneously quote Bhabha, but we are also neglecting a wide range of different other situations one can describe as third spaces without reducing them to a pre-defined physical space (Fahlander, 2007; Matić, 2017b, pp. 103–104). Third space is any encounter or situation in which ambivalent meanings are formed through communication between the “I” and the “You”.
Postcolonial Theory in Egyptology and Sudan Archaeology as a Reverse Discourse
Now I would like to analyse the use of postcolonial theory in Egyptology and Sudan archaeology as a reverse discourse. The term reverse discourse was used by M. Foucault, in his History of Sexuality I (1978, pp. 101) to describe a phenomenon in which the newly appearing psychiatry, jurisprudence and French literature of the nineteenth century produced the subjects we know as hetero- and homosexuals. At the same time those framed as perverts or unnatural were urged to speak for themselves alongside the demand that their naturality be acknowledged. Consequently, the very system of thought which produced both the natural and unnatural, the hetero and the homo, is not put into question. The use of the categories is reversed via the same discourse, without challenging the fundamental assumptions or concepts on which the discourse relies. To illustrate, instead of carefully distinguishing what Bhabha wrote about hybridity from how this was misunderstood by archaeologists, many Egyptologists simply fuse the two and lose important nuances in the process. In a way, they take the position of the colonized, imagined as proxy, and empower the peoples conquered by ancient Egyptians with words and concepts derived from postcolonial theory. Thereby the specifics of historical colonialism analysed by postcolonial theorists and the specifics of the non-anthropological and non-archaeological intellectual backgrounds of these theorists are neglected (cf. Webster, 1996, p. 7).
Postcolonial theorists such as F. Fanon, (2008 ; 1968 ), E. Said (1978), G. Ch. Spivak, (1988), H. Bhabha, (1994) and R. C. Young (1995), among others, wrote theory relying on very specific sources, namely texts. European (primarily English and French) literature about the Orient and M. Foucault’s concept of discourse were crucial for Said’s definition of Orientalism. Spivak’s analysis of the abolition of the Hindu rite of sati (widow-burning) in India is based on texts ranging from 1825 to 1976. The fact that sati texts are written from a Western perspective was crucial for her argument that the subaltern cannot speak. Bhabha’s analyses also focus on texts and the colonial experience in India. Young analyses nineteenth century literature and its fusion of racism with desire. All of these examples are millennia and thousands of kilometres away from Egypt and Nubia. Of course, one could say that being theoretical concepts, in epistemological sense, these terms should be explanatory in other settings too. But this is not the case for several reasons. None of these authors writes about total social facts, if something like this exists at all; they are not anthropologists working with a rich cross-cultural data set. They are representatives of what is often referred to as critical theory. Its background is a combination of different scholarly traditions, including psychoanalysis (Fanon, Bhabha), Derridean philosophy (Spivak, Bhabha) and feminism (Spivak). This is not to say that their ideas are useless or irrelevant for archaeologists, but as any other theoretical concepts these too cannot be used ad hoc. As pointed out earlier, an ad hoc use of postcolonial concepts leads to predictable and questionable superficial interpretations which are not coming from thorough analyses of the data (Matić, 2017a, p. 104). By the resulting misunderstanding of postcolonial theory, various authors have strengthened the dichotomy Egyptian and Other (e.g., Nubian and Syro-Palestinian) in a reversed manner. Ancient Egyptians were comprehended as British colonists and their neighbours as the colonized Indian people in a reversed manner. This is no different from nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial narratives in which the ancient Egyptians were conceptually equated as the British and the Nubians as Sudanese under British colonial government (Matić, 2020, p. 19). The difference is that now the latter are imagined as having agency, creativity, ambivalent identities, etc. The discourse is reversed but remains unquestioned. To change the extreme in which the Nubians are imagined as passive, underdeveloped colonized for the other in which Nubians have power does not change anything because both are bound to the same structure, the binary opposition between colonizer and the colonized. Instead, we should acknowledge the complexity of the problem, going beyond dichotomies. Demonstrations follow.
Where do we go From Here?
An often quoted example of a multifaceted identity beyond the dichotomy colonizer-colonized in Nubia during the New Kingdom Egyptian occupation is Hekanefer, prince of Miam. He was a man of Nubian origin working as an Egyptian official in Nubia (Matić, 2017b, p. 101; Matić, 2020, pp. 47–50; van Pelt, 2013; Smith, 2007, p. 240). We know of two more similar cases (Djehutyhotep and Amenemhat buried at Debeira). However, if Hekanefer is the only example discussed, then the entire notion of multifaceted identity in New Kingdom Nubia is actually based on a single individual and his representations. These are:
1. very traditional and ideologically framed Egyptian tribute scene from the tomb of a high-status person, namely Huy (Theban Tomb 40), Egyptian viceroy of Nubia under Tutankhamun, ca. 1332-1323 BCE (here Hekanefer is depicted as Nubian). 2. ideologically framed traditional tomb of a high-ranking official in the Egyptian government, Hekanefer, at Toshka in Nubia (here the owner Hekanefer is depicted as Egyptian).
The former (1) is not a photographic snapshot of an event in which Hekanefer partook, namely the annual bringing of tribute to the Pharaoh, but a patterned stock scene known since the early 18th Dynasty. These tribute scenes did not change a lot over time (Hallmann, 2006). The latter (2) demonstrates how a man with the high status of an Egyptian government official is usually buried. Therefore, whether or not Hekanefer questioned the authority of Egyptian government is not something we can easily deduce from these images. They also do not really enrich our understanding of his possible multifaceted identity.
The question is also whether we have other useful data to answer the questions of multifaceted identity in Nubia. The simple answer is no. Only the remains of a few individuals from Sai and Tombos in Nubia have been analysed using stable isotopes to determine where they were born, where they lived and died (Buzon & Simonetti, 2013; Retzmann et al., 2019). Results of stable isotope analyses can indeed help us to understand if someone was local, but a local could have been a second-generation Egyptian settler, a Nubian with long local lineage or even an Anatolian deportee (see Langer, 2021)! This is the main reason why some authors avoid claiming that a local (based on stable isotopes) buried as an Egyptian (based on material culture) had Nubian ancestry, and rightly so (e.g., Lemos & Budka, 2021, p. 383). We have no ancient DNA data from Nubia during the New Kingdom which would help us to reconstruct biological kinship and ancestry. We know from textual sources that in ancient Egypt at least, identity was town- rather than land-based and that ancient Egyptians were very well aware of the differences between the north and south of their land. As indicated by some written sources, strangers (Egyptians or foreigners) were not particularly welcomed in some communities (Assmann, 1996; Moers, 2016). Therefore, nothing justifies the use of the term Egyptian and Nubian since the reality was much more complex and heterogenous. Just as we have to acknowledge that there were “various versions of Nubia” (Lemos, 2020, p. 20) so do we have to acknowledge that Egyptians also came from various backgrounds representing various groups. In summary, since we cannot ascribe ancestry based on material culture deposited in burials, and we do not have other data, we should avoid returning to the culture-historical methodology in which ancient Egyptian material culture indicates an Egyptian and Nubian material culture a Nubian; and when these two or any other appear together at a site we have a brave new cosmopolitan, ambiguous, hybrid world of identities in constant flux. There, all the buzzwords in one sentence.
There is one more problem with recent so-called “postcolonial” approaches in Egyptology and Sudan archaeology. Colonization in the work of Bhabha, (1994), from whom archaeologists and Egyptologists borrowed and misunderstood most of their “postcolonial” terminology, is the one in which people are allowed to live. The extensive focus of Egyptology and archaeology on such forms of colonization dangerously neglects the dark side of occupation and colonialism in which people are allowed to live, but under certain novel social conditions (cf. Webster, 1996, p. 9). Enslavement, deportation and forced labour (Langer, 2021) do not affect all people in the same way, and the same has been observed in the case of ancient Egypt capturing men, women and children as prisoners of war during the New Kingdom (Matić, 2015, 2017b, 2021). Ancient Egyptian temples in Nubia can become places for spectacles of violence in certain contexts with the aim of reminding the locals of the physical and cosmic power of the Egyptian king (Matić, 2017c). Nubian settlements can be used to display mutilated body parts of rebels (Matić, 2019a, pp. 38–39) with the same inhibiting effect. These physical forms of colonial violence which directly aim at killing or hurting the bodies of colonized subjects are paired with other forms of bodily interventions.
Although recognized in historiographical, archaeological, postcolonial and indigenous studies outside Egyptology (Lugones, 2008; Papoli Yazdi & Dezhamkooy, 2021; Peakman, 2019; Voss, 2000; Voss & Casella, 2012), the close connection of colonialism with sex, gender and sexuality remains unexplored in Egyptology and Sudan archaeology. One of the questions we should ask is to what extent was the establishment of an Egyptian microcosm in Nubia (sensu Budka & Auenmüller, 2018) followed by an introduction of new gender norms concerning e.g., labour division, occupations, expressions, rights, etc., among others. Were these negotiated and how? These and many other questions require a move from buzzwords applied to the same contexts over and over again and to the collection and study of data triggered by novel research questions. The current ERC-European Research Council project of J. Budka “Diverse Nile” rightfully turns the focus away from the elites and towards other inhabitants of the Nubian Nile Valley (e.g., Lemos & Budka, 2021). We should understand identity as intersectional (Crenshaw, 1989; Matić, 2020, pp. 52–53) and aim for producing novel and question driven data. This is an important step towards understanding of the reality behind the textual and iconographic evidence for New Kingdom colonial violence in Nubia.
Postcolonial theory has much potential for Egyptology, when properly understood. One potential is through the decolonization of some earlier or current interpretative frames in order to critically deconstruct the theories and methods in usage, with the goal of producing more nuanced interpretations. In Egyptology these interpretative frames do not only concern how history of Egyptology has been written, should be written or could be written (Riggs, 2020; Jurman, 2022) but how knowledge on ancient Egypt and Sudan is produced. In Egyptology, by large, and for entire nineteenth and early twentieth century, this framework was a mixture of scientific racism, socio-cultural evolution, and culture-historical archaeology. Eventually, this gave way to a version of culture-historical archaeology with some remnants of the other two (Matić, 2018a; Matić, 2020). The diffusionist concept of the “Egyptianization” of Nubia is derived from these three (van Pelt, 2013).
The other potential of postcolonial theory for Egyptology lies in the use of theoretically analogous examples of the colonial domination and subjugation of the colonized, as studied using analytical tools drawn from postcolonial theory. Here a comparison between different historically attested forms of domination and subjugation is crucial (Webster, 1996, pp. 7–8), otherwise it turns into an uncritical and blind transfer of experiences from one context (arguably better known or documented) to another context (arguably less known or documented). Although postcolonial theory did inspire a revision of the history of Egyptology, when applied to the interpretation of the past misunderstandings still occurr.
The numerous misunderstandings come from the lack of references to and a serious engagement with primary works of postcolonial theorists. Furthermore, there is a general resistance to theory, but also the appearance of supposedly novel concepts which are in fact old wine in new bottles (poststructuralism and ´material culture as text´ labelled as relational entanglement). Last but not least, there seems to be little critical thinking on the applicability of postcolonial concepts developed from studies of very specific, historically contingent colonial encounters. This leads to an uncritical and nonreflexive transfer of historically contingent experiences and strategies to those of Egypt and Nubia, which does not epistemologically differ much from the similar transfer by Egyptologists writing from the colonial point of view. The only difference is that now the point of view is shifted to the colonized in a pseudo-postcolonial manner. Superficial readings are dangerous. Instead, we should treat postcolonial theory as an inspiration for the search for different ways to deal with colonial situations; ways maybe worlds different from those attested in periods which formed the basis for the development of most postcolonial theoretical concepts. For this we need novel data produced by asking novel questions and implementing novel methods more than anything else. We need epistemic reconstitutions (Lemos, 2022). These are as crucial as the range of perspectives on Egyptian colonialism and imperialism.
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Matić, U. Postcolonialism as a Reverse Discourse in Egyptology: De-colonizing Historiography and Archaeology of Ancient Egypt and Nubia Part 2. Arch 19, 60–82 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11759-023-09473-6
- Sudan archaeology
- Postcolonial theory