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Reviewed by:
  • Daily Life in Ancient Egypt: Recreating Lahun
  • Eugene Cruz-Uribe
Daily Life in Ancient Egypt: Recreating Lahun. By Kasia Szpakowska. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. 244 pp. $35.00 (paper).

A most daunting task for an Egyptologist is to undertake the writing of another book on the daily life practices of the ancient Egyptians. To do so makes the author subject to numerous, perhaps unwarranted, critiques questioning the need for another volume discussing something covered in so many other volumes. Szpakowska contends that her volume is uniquely placed in that it addresses daily life for a specific time frame (in this case the Middle Kingdom period—2025–1650 b.c.). She argues that most volumes lump together all classes of Egyptian society (elites and all others) from all periods when talking about the social and cultural aspects of Egypt. That gives a misguided view of the dynamic nature of ancient Egyptian society and suggests that other studies on daily life are doing a disservice to the continually changing nature of Egyptian culture. If for no other reason than that, this volume breaks new ground in how we need to examine Egyptian culture. In addition, she has chosen the Middle Kingdom time frame because many scholars of ancient Egypt (especially philologists) have argued that that time period was the “classical period” in Egypt. Thus, the “empire” period glitz of Tutankhamun and Akhenaten do not dominate.

Like most volumes on daily life we find a series of chapters on birth, housing, trades, farming, leisure, religious practices, illness and related medical practices, dealing with death, and love. In a departure from typical volumes Szpakowska uses the fictive technique of introducing each chapter through the eyes of a female child, Hedjerit. Such a technique is fraught with potential problems, but again the author uses it with discretion and common sense. In this manner she allows for a more gendered understanding of the life cycle in Egypt and the patterns of community interactions that could not be described fairly without such a technique. In addition, she blends the vast textual material [End Page 134] from the Middle Kingdom with the wealth of data from archaeological investigations. Some of this is achieved through her clear writing style; the remainder through her accurate portrayal of life centers in and around the town of Lahun.

This volume has both strengths and weaknesses. One area of concern for me is the use of the terminology of “middle class” to describe the denizens of the Lahun area who were not engaged in the daily process of providing food for the Lahun population and administrative structure. She uses the term to include all those who might deal with post-resource processing, such as craftsmen who make pottery, furniture, and clothing, as well as administrators within the town and the like. I think the use of this term developed for a modern economic grouping may paint an inaccurate picture of the economic and social structure of ancient Egypt. This approach may suggest that the Lahun colony was more closely akin to a modern urban culture than it actually was. S. Quirke (“Labour at Lahun,” in The Archaeology and Art of Ancient Egypt, ed. Z. Hawass and J. Richards [Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2007], p. 286) observes, “Our contemporary quest is for a responsive, dialogic encounter with lives that might take us away from the dominant naturalized and monolithic metropolis-talk. Among the strategies available to the resistance are closer studies of fieldworkers. . . .” While the author may not have had access to that article while writing her volume, Quirke’s other studies along those lines are noted in the bibliography. While this terminological usage may be misleading, I do not think it is a fatal flaw in the volume. On the contrary, it does provide an anchor for the modern reader to frame the ancient Egyptian experience.

While most chapters were particularly well documented and argued, I was most impressed with the chapter dealing with religion (chapter 7, pp. 122–149). Here we find the true nature of Egyptian religion as practiced by the local population clearly outlined and separated from the state-sponsored temple cult processes. The local...