In this second installment of the Popular Archaeology Anniversary Issue, author and teacher Richard Marranca interviews Dr. Kara Cooney, the popular American Egyptologist perhaps best known for hosting television shows and authoring popular-press books on ancient Egypt. Among her books are When Women Ruled the World, The Woman Who Would Be King and, to be released in November, 2021, The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World. Most significant, however, is her role as a professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA. Her current research focuses on ancient coffin reuse, most specifically that of Egypt’s 21st Dynasty. Generally, her research addresses the socioeconomic and political turmoil of this period, and how this was reflected in ancient Egyptian funerary and burial practices.
RM: Can we begin with your origin story? What are some things that led to your being an Egyptologist?
KC: If I had been a first-generation immigrant, I don’t think I would have had that opportunity because their parents focused on getting a trade and contributing to the family. None of this silly philosophical stuff, right? So, I might be encouraged to do something else. If I were born a man, I think I would also have been encouraged by my family or society to do something else. My brother has very academic interests and yet he went to law school. He felt he needed to go to law school. And so my being a woman allows me to — allows myself to be — less practical than some of the men in my socioeconomic class. I mean it when I say I am an upper middle class white chick. That’s important, the female part is important because that allows me to follow my heart and continue on with this study.
The second part is the more personal one. Why Egypt? I have no answer for you. And it is the question that I am asked in every interview. It is the question I am asked at every talk. How did you get involved in Egyptology? What is it about ancient Egypt? And I say, this is the one question that an Egyptologist would never ask another. It would be a kind of heresy to ask another Egyptologist this because we know there is no answer. We don’t ask it because we don’t, we’re confused about it ourselves. I am confused about my own interest. Why am I am drawn to learn about these ancient people of so many thousands of years ago and why do they never bore me (laughter) and why do I continue to be interested in these people? I don’t know the answer! It’s a mystery to me as well as it is to everybody else. I know people look at me and they’re like “What the hell is going on here? Why is this woman from Texas interested in ancient Egypt and so passionate, so interested?” There must be some weird thing or connection, but about that I have no answer. When I was seven years old, I remember my mother brought back from the British Museum books about Vikings, Romans, Egyptians and medieval Europe—and Egypt was my favorite. I don’t know why. I’ve always loved everything about it. I’ve always loved this idea of time travel. I don’t know why. And my interest is, as you can tell, quite passionate and I don’t know why. So that’s just a weird little thing and again, all Egyptologists share this. There aren’t many people crazy enough or socially entitled enough to be able to follow their interests to the level that we have in order to end up teaching, forming young minds, doing research, etc. I realize every day how lucky I am to be able to do this. It is quite a blessing. It’s amazing.
RM: Do you have any favorite archaeologists from long ago or closer to the present who were sort of dashing and romantic figures?
KC: Some people are drawn to Egyptology because of Margaret Murray or Flinders Petrie and they delve into the biographies of them. That wasn’t my gateway drug (laughter). I was more interested in the ancient Egyptians as I could find them in the ancient texts and in daily life, the way people behaved. I am happiest watching people try to spin their wool and people dressed up and speaking with their accents, trying to make mead or something. And with my graduate students, we do the same thing. We’ve done a lot of experiments on how Egyptian glue actually flows onto a piece of wood and how you apply it and what varnish is like and how you apply that. The practical aspects of life in the ancient world are more interesting to me than anything else. What it was like in the past draws me. But I’m not a dirt archaeologist, so I don’t romanticize about that part of life necessarily. I kind of treat it as a time machine of the mind where I fantasize about what it could have potentially been like to be in the ancient world.
RM: I recently showed an episode of your program, Out of Egypt, to my classes. It’s a fascinating broad approach, a true adventure that the viewer partakes. One of the things you show is how cities and civilization breed armies and large-scale violence.
KC: Essentially, complexity begets complexity; you don’t get complex violence until you have complex human systems. A bunch of roving hunter-gatherer bands, while quite violent, can’t compete in terms of the scale of that violence or the complexity of that violence. So, real war begins with agriculture. Agriculture demands settling down to form complex systems of government, with taxation, bureaucracy, stored wealth, redistributed wealth. Some people have much, some people very little, but it takes an army to protect it. If we asked anybody on the street, would you rather go back to live a hunter-gatherer existence or stay in the city? I think there would be many people who see the hunter-gatherer existence as a peaceful time, but the opposite is true. Hunter-gatherers killed more of their men, percentage wise, than any complex society. To get out of those cycles of violence, we gave up many freedoms with our move to settled society; women especially gave up many freedoms to be a part of this complex system that demanded warfare, taxation, etc. But I think human beings repeatedly left the hunter-gatherer existence around the planet, settling down, because they wanted to avoid the constant and brutal violence that could kill 30% of your male population in a given season.
RM: What were some of the high points for you in creating Out of Egypt?
KC: My favorite part was allowing myself not to be an expert, to be an intelligent questioner, to puzzle through larger questions. It’s a rare thing that an academic cannot be the expert and instead be the one who’s learning. So in a sense, I got to be a student again. And for most of the sites visited, we brought in an expert who knew all about the site and then I could just pepper that person with questions and learn as much as I wanted; it was such a privilege to be able to learn from such extraordinary people in such extraordinary places. The place that pops out the most, that I really remember and would love to visit again, was Sri Lanka—the island that time forgot. Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists all mixed up into one place. The majority are Buddhists. The Hindu temples are pretty extraordinary in their own way. To see the way these people have been through a civil war, through bombings and revolutionary attacks and how they’ve come to a peaceful place to live with each other, is extraordinary. To see all of these different rituals and rites coexisting is something to see. I remember a Christian couple in the Buddhist temple dedicated to the tooth of the Buddha, and I said, “Well you’re not Buddhist.” They said, “It doesn’t matter. We’re here to ask for blessings from the Buddha.” So, there was a lot of crossover as well. There was also a lot of old religion, magical shamanist religion, that had nothing to do with Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu.
I remember visiting the Temple of Cursing. You could curse somebody with hot chili peppers and grind it up and curse your enemies and that was a shamanist kind of practice. And there was a practice with a devil—also a very old shamanist practice, of inviting him (who is giving you sickness or giving you poor circumstances in your life) into your space through this Dance of Devils and then feeding them and appeasing them. It was a beautiful thing; having grown up with the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, it was completely strange to invite a devil in and give him an offering in order to leave you in peace, but it makes perfect sense. And this is something that everybody participates in as well. Whether you’re Christian, Buddhist, Muslim or Hindu, it seems the lines are very blurred, so I love that.
RM: In many places that you present in that documentary, there are archetypal shapes, such as pyramids and circles. What does it mean? I’m also reminded of something Carl G. Jung might ask: how does the pyramid live in us?
KC: That’s the great thing about Out or Egypt—that I was able to ask these big questions and get scientific answers. It’s something that Erich von Däniken and John Anthony West often apply a more supernatural reasoning to. So, I can take aliens out of the equation, but I can bring the aliens back in, which was great. I mean in a sense, you stand in front of those pyramids and you think, my god, look at that. You can’t believe that it’s human hands, that human effort built this mountain of stone. It seems impossible and that’s exactly what the ancient Egyptians would have wanted you to believe. Every time we assign supernatural responsibility to the pyramids, whether it be aliens or something else, we are falling into an authoritarian trap, the propaganda trap. Their purpose in Mesoamerica or Egypt or Dubai was to show power, to show the ability to construct something that seems impossible, like the tallest building on the planet. It is also a way of proving to the people in material form that that community is at the pinnacle of a pyramidal society. And it works again and again and again—that we believe that the leader has some sort of spiritual otherworldly non-human power—and that to me is the key to nature. The fact that they are all pyramidal is obvious. You don’t have wheels to construct it, so to build a tall structure, you build it wide at the base, narrow at the top. And I am not the first to say something like that. Many engineers have said that. The pyramidal structure just happened because that’s how you build large buildings in pre-modern times. But the mountains of stone—independent of one another in Mesoamerica, in South America, in Europe, in Egypt, in China, in Indonesia, all over the planet—were there to create a political-supernatural link that cannot be denied. It creates unassailable leaders to whom you cannot say no, whom you must follow. And it worked again and again and again. And amazingly, even when the leaders are dead and gone and the pyramids are either covered with vegetation or sand and fallen into disrepair, people still look at them and say that they were built by other-worldly supernatural beings, and this still continues to work upon us today.
In Out of Egypt, I like taking the political tack. And I think I should have gone further with it. I think I have solidified my ideas over the years, and I was only just forming those ideas when I did that show. Today, I think I would have gone further in the political realm of things.
RM: We visited some of the places presented in your program, which added so much to my understanding, plus it continued the adventure. You presented the vast creativity of civilization as well as its dark side.
CK: The city offers civilization, but at a price – perhaps more for women than men. But there were exceptions, which is what my book, When Women Ruled the World, focuses on.
Ancient Women & Power
RM: Your books and courses have a lot to do with powerful women in ancient times. In Athens or Rome, there would be a problem with a woman looking to gain political power. In the case of Rome, it was also the fear of a distant, foreign power who seduced Caesar and Antony. Didn’t the Romans say the most horrible things about Cleopatra?
KC: Yes, for sure. I teach a class at UCLA called Women in Power in the Ancient World, and this is one of the reasons I can write this book so quickly. I have been thinking about it for the last four or five years. I’ve taught this class four times; we spend half of the class on Egypt because half the ancient female rulers were Egyptian—which is stunning in and of itself, but then we spend a week on Greece, a week on Rome, a week on China, a week on the Levant and Mesopotamia—and compare systems of power and female rule within those systems of power. It becomes ever so useful to see these patterns and it becomes a class on ancient power systems as big history, if you like.
Every class I start with a map of the Levant, a map of Mesopotamia, a map of Egypt, a map of Greece, a map of Rome, whatever. And I say, okay, will this place allow easy unification and easy communication like Egypt, which is the first regional state in the ancient world, or will this place, with its geography, lend itself more to constant competition, constant warfare? And if it’s the latter, and most places are the latter, then you see female power in a more limited way. Or in the case of ancient Greece – holy god! Can this place ever unify? Everyone was like, No! (laughter). How could they communicate with each other? Well, by sea. How are they going to get money? Well, by trade and shipping, mostly, and farming and animal husbandry sometimes.
And you know, Greece has an extraordinarily competitive decentralized type of system, which in Athens takes the primal form of a democratic peace effort, with only male citizens allowed in the game; if one man falls, another will take his place. And women are kept shut up in the home. There is no power for women in ancient Greece. I spend only half a week on women in Greece in my class because once we’ve discussed the system and I’ve given them two examples, we’re done. There is no power for women in this system. Rome is a little bit different because the woman is a representative of her family and can act as such, so you do see powerful women coming to the fore as representatives of a patriarchal system in times of great crisis.
But once you get this imperial hereditary monarchy in Rome, with the principate, a noblewoman can take power in the way that a woman took power in Egypt. You see Roman women taking power as the mother of the next emperor, or as a sister or wife of the emperor. The emperor system in Rome is so fraught and these emperors are killed more often than dying naturally. You can look it all up on Google. It’s great fun (laughter)—reasons for the deaths of the Roman emperors. You can spend a whole day going down that rabbit hole. But if you understand how contentious and uncertain the imperial Roman system of monarchy was, then it’s clear why women had so little chance for leadership there in any systematic way. But in the Eastern Roman Empire, as we move into the Byzantine system, we see that in Constantinople female rule was strong because it was supporting a stronger hereditary dynasty. And then I come to this conclusion again that the more unequal the social situation, the more a woman can step into power. Fittingly, the more pyramidal the social structure is, the more women can step into power.
And I ask myself if this is something that humans understand on a gut level: women who step into power like Indira Gandhi act as a representative of the patriarchy in a highly unequal situation in a time of crisis, often after there’s been an assassination. Given that, do we instinctively perceive female power as reflective of inequality, authoritarianism, unequal social systems? These women are allowed to work on behalf of their families and don’t fit the larger group of humanity. Is this one of the reasons we’re hostile towards female power? This is a puzzle I’m still trying to figure out. Our hostility towards female power, the biological sources, the social sources—these are areas of importance.
RM: I can see how getting into one specific area leads to others. Can you talk about Hatshepsut and the various positions she had in life? God’s Wife, queen, pharaoh herself? What did she achieve? What was she like as a real person?
KC: Ancient Egypt is extraordinarily frustrating to try to pin down what someone was really like. In the same way that I presented you with those maps of ancient Greece and Rome or ancient Egypt on the other side, the more decentralized and competitive a place is, the more we can potentially learn about an individual person from the political competition, because one either has to expose their personality to people to get their vote and their support or because there were political takedowns where tidbits of their life or personality were revealed to us in the historical record, letters and more. We know about the personality of Julius Cesar or Cleopatra because the Romans wrote about them, or about Solon as an example of a Greek leader. But in an authoritarian regime, this is buttoned down. You do not have people talking about the personality of their leader. The means of communication that are left to archaeologists are sacred temple spaces where everything is idealized.
For Hatshepsut’s reign, most of my evidence, if not all of it, comes from an ideological context – temples and tombs. I don’t have diaries. I don’t have letters. Now in temples or tombs, would I expect to find personal information – people revealing their innermost thoughts about what Hatshepsut was really like? No. So I can’t, unfortunately, tell you what her personality was like, or how she was perceived or accepted or not accepted. I have no idea, which is really frustrating, but if we then take a step back we can say, okay, what can we talk about? I can tell you that from a very young age, probably from the reign of her father, Thutmose I, she inhabited the most sacred priestess position, God’s Wife of Amun.
The details of her duties were shielded from us as well because this was a highly exclusive religion. We are not meant to know what mysteries were happening inside of these sacred enclosed spaces. This is something that is meant to be shielded from our eyes. So even here, where the temple might produce something, we’re almost at a loss of what’s actually going on. But using all we can from the Gods Wives of Amun, from the titles, even if they don’t explicitly tell us what mysteries were performed, the God’s Wife of Amun was meant to be a wife to the gods and it was meant to have a sexual component. It was meant to awaken the god through sexuality, to give him a rebirth through sexuality. One of the other titles of the God’s Wife of Amun was the God’s Hand; this was meant to masturbate so that he could recreate himself into existence every day. You just got back from India, so I don’t need to tell you about the lingam stone and how it represents creation. It’s there as well and sexual intercourse is there on the temple walls.
In Egypt, it’s less overt, but the notion that the god must sexually recreate himself in the depth of the temple every night to be recreated every morning is something the Egyptians clung to and their temples were built to facilitate this daily or seasonal rebirth. And so, the God’s Wife of Amun was very powerful. Hatshepsut knew mysteries that we will never know. She was initiated into unwritten mysteries about the rebirth of the gods, the creative god incarnate that we will never be able to do more than just touch. And she would have been there with eyes closed touching those most sacred mysteries to make sure that the world continued going as it should, that the sun rises and sets and the Nile floods its banks as it should. And whether or not she saw herself as an integral cog in this, she took her position very seriously and that title – the God’s Wife of Amun – was the one she used most when she took over the regency, ruling on behalf of her young nephew Thutmose III. This was after the death of her husband Thutmose II. She knew her power had a foundation in ideology too.
Now, I skipped over her queenship; she was daughter of the king and God’s Wife of Amun in the reign of her father. And when her father died, she was married to her half-brother Thutmose II, who by all accounts and from the mummy that we have preserved, was a sickly youth who died after three years of reign. And for him Hatshepsut acted as chief queen. This would have been a woman walking through the palace and temples with eyes raised looking at everybody in the eyes expecting servility. She would have an authority to her – an authority that maybe the new king Thutmose II didn’t even have because he didn’t expect to be king. He had older brothers who died before him. This kingship was probably a surprise to him as much as anybody else. When he died after such a short reign, she was left holding the bag of a family dynasty that was only nascent, begun by her father Thutmose I.
Before Thutmose I, there was Amenhotep I, a childless king. If they had allowed the kingship to go to a different family with the death of Thutmose II, then Thutmose’s line would have been two kings and done. Hatshepsut, with the help of her courtiers and priests and elites, stepped into this breach, this vacuum of power, and made sure that the kingship continued to another Thutmose. So, Hatshepsut had an extended regency for seven years, ruling on behalf of her young nephew, before she just took the whole thing and became king in her own right. Why and how she did that is probably the most frustrating part of the story because we don’t have the details preserved. She only reveals that she is doing what her father, Amun, asked her to do by becoming king. But something must have happened to demand that she grab power and formalize it by becoming king herself.
RM: An amazing story and history. It makes me think that Pres. Donald Trump was sort of like Thutmose III. Trump tried to erase Pres. Barack Obama’s legacy the way that Hatshepsut’s nephew tried to erase her when he becomes king.
KC: I don’t think that’s unusual. Let me put it this way. You either follow a good leader or a bad leader. If you follow a bad leader, then all you do is say, look what he’s done. It’s bad. Look what he’s done. If you follow a good leader, then you take credit for it. Trump was in an interesting position where he followed a very good leader when the economy rebounded and rule of law was returned in banking, etc.
But the propaganda was that he was a very bad leader. So Trump can take credit for things that are happening; he can say he did it, even though it was a legacy of Obama’s rule. Trump can claim, “Thank god I’m here and look at the bad things Obama did.” So there was a strange revision of history to Trump’s presidency. And while demonizing Obama, using a fictional account of his presidency, Trump took credit for the good things very cleverly. And it seems that most of his base goes along with this propaganda. So, Trump vilifies the black president that went before him. But this is a different discussion (laughter).
RM: The discussion of power takes us deep into the mind, in that labyrinth, into so many layers of society. Success is another loaded term too.
Success is a tricky thing and I’ve thought about this a lot and I write about this and I talked about this in the One Day University lecture that you attended. Success is abstract. It’s a very bland sort of thing. Success is not very sexy. There’s no salacious story. There is no fodder for the journalists, no big story. I spoke about this with my husband recently, who said, “Jerry Brown sure is under-appreciated.” People don’t talk about success the way they talk about failure. Anyway, in the ancient world, success is something that easily can be transferred from one ruler to another without people really noticing. It’s what they expect. It’s what they want; it’s what is assumed a ruler is going to strive for. So, Thutmose III and Amenhotep II can take credit for Hatshepsut’s achievements, saying, more or less: “We did this.” It’s easy for the people then to say, “Okay, thanks! Of course.”
On the other hand, failure is very idiosyncratic, very specific to one circumstance, one person, one time. It’s harder to transgress, nor would you want to. Cautionary tales are born; there is Cleopatra and the asp and the pearl earring dissolved in the vinegar. Stories like that recur which are more useful to transmit.
RM: It’s interesting to talk about how power operates. I bet most people don’t know that Jerry Brown actually did a great job as governor with little fanfare. Or the quality of life in Scandinavia and elsewhere, again with little fanfare and propaganda involved.
KC: Where’s the interest and scandal? Well, success is an interesting thing to think about. But success is not all it’s cracked up to be. Obama’s most idiosyncratic—the most identifiable part of his administration—was his African American background. And that’s the part that I think people cling to, whether they want to talk about it openly or not. He put himself out there in terms of racial politics. Also, he played it all without scandal, as he himself would proudly say.
RM: Was there any scandal with Senenmut? He exemplified the ancient Egyptian system with bureaucratic patronage. Does your gut instinct plus the evidence and that sexual cartoon prove anything about a relationship with Hatshepsut? Or was her private life really just totally invisible and we’ll never know anything?
KC: I think unfortunately the latter. I think her private life is totally invisible and we’ll never know anything. As frustrating as that is, I think it’s the truth. She certainly would have had lovers. Why not? But why would we know about them? There is absolutely no reason why we would have access to that kind of information. And so Senenmut is misread as her lover, and it’s kind of ridiculous – like he’s the only candidate. The reason I think Senenmut and Hatshepsut are so close is that he needed her and she needed him politically. I don’t think that there is any evidence – at all – that suggests a sexual relationship there. There is ample evidence for a power relationship. And that one graffito that you’re mentioning says more about Egyptologists than it does about Hatshepsut. There is nothing in that graffito that links it to Senenmut and Hatshepsut. Nothing. Not a name, not a title, not the way it’s drawn, no markers of kingship. Absolutely nothing links it to Hatshepsut and Senenmut. And yet, Egyptologists have gone crazy saying that this is evidence of their affair and what the Egyptians thought about it. But there’s nothing there but a scribe’s interest in and ability to draw a sexual scene. I don’t think we’ll ever really know. I am sure that Hatshepsut had an interesting sexual identity. What it was, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to get to it. Frustrating, yes, but I think that’s how it is with an authoritarian regime.
RM: What about the powers of the goddess and her influences. Isis, for example, is an amazing goddess, and everyone is fascinated by the Isis and Osiris story, as it says so much about Egyptian beliefs. Going all the way back to Paleolithic culture and after, there are amazing fertility figures, cave art, energetic symbols on goddesses. So, what’s the goddess code or imagery in ancient Egypt?
KC: There is typical stuff and indeed the Egyptian goddesses are quite interchangeable, almost like they’re one being, which is strange and interesting. Students who can’t read hieroglyphs will look at images of Hathor or Isis and say, “Well which is it?” And I point out that you can’t tell from what she is wearing. They both wear more or less the same thing and show themselves with the cow’s horns, with the sign in between. You have to read the text to know. And they also act very similar. So, they’re all magicians. They’re soft and kind, and they are tough and vicious sometimes.
The Egyptians celebrated feminine power with all of its hormonal craziness. When a woman becomes incensed and angry on behalf of her son, father or family and she goes out on a rampage to destroy, the Egyptians saw that as one of the most important things to protect the king or the sun god himself. They didn’t shy away from it. In fact, they thought of it as something to honor, to celebrate and learn to appease, to control.
I’m reading a book called Moody Bitches by Julie Holland, which is essentially telling women that your hormones and your sensitivity is your greatest asset. Don’t let anybody tell you that you’re just PMS-ing and you’re imagining things. Holland says you’re seeing more clearly during those times potentially than at any other. And the Egyptians understood that as well. They understood that sensitive female power and that they have more than men – the ability to see if someone’s going to screw you over, that female intuition, that sensitivity to facial features and mannerism. Their anger and emotionality is one of the most important protective features of the family and the child. And the Egyptians had a very important festival of drunkenness which involved sexuality, drinking and temple activity in the wee hours of the night where everyone could see the goddess and connect with her through this ritual. And so again, that female, mercurial nature was something that was celebrated, honored, included.
RM: Does goddess culture and women in power work elsewhere to better the position of women? Just because Victoria was Queen of England doesn’t mean the position of regular women was better.
KC: I agree with that, yes.
Life, Death, Mummies
RM: I know you have a fascination for mummies and have studied hundreds of them, including coffins and coffin reuse. Is there a message in that?
KC: Much. Yes, we can worry about dying, but you know, I see my son—he’s going to live forever! He’s going to live for a hundred years. Maybe global warming will get him. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll get to live for a hundred years. And I worry about my health and it’s a constant thing that I think about, but I’m not in pain constantly. I don’t have parasites coursing through my body enough to count my mitochondria (laughter). It’s a very clean existence that we live and I think we forget what real humanity is and was. You know that in the First World where we can shield ourselves so carefully and so cleanly, we forget what a struggle most people deal with.
What about the people that get strung out on opioids? What the hell else are they to do? The poor of this country with no safety net. I think it’s easy to forget what that’s like. And in a way, I’ll make a political statement here, too, because it’s more in our view than ever before. I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but in Los Angeles, homelessness is an epidemic and it is a very visible thing. And in a sense, I don’t have to close my eyes in my time machine and imagine what it was like to be an ancient person. I can go out to the streets in Los Angeles and look at somebody who has been homeless for ten years and there I have antiquity in front of me, in a sense. I have a person who is living a very hard-scrabble existence trying to survive day-to-day, living in a very uncomfortable set of circumstances, ignoring his health and looking very old before he should. This is something that I can go out and see in my own very wealthy Los Angeles cityscape quite easily; there in a way I have that humanity presented before me and that’s something I think we divorce ourselves from way too easily.
RM: Yes, for sure about patterns of wealth and poverty and total depredation continuing. C. G. Jung said that modern humans are ancient, medieval and modern at the same time. Speaking of the ancient-modern nexus, at One Day University you mentioned something most of us never realized – people are mummified today.
KC: We don’t even know why we do it, but we want that body preserved. We want it to be something we look at and we’re not facing death as overtly as if the body were decomposing in front of us. So we pump these bodies full of plastic, but there’s no real difference. Right? If people in the future look at our remains, they’ll say, “Oh look! You know Americans of the 21st Century were still mummifying the dead.”
Also, more people are cremated now than ever before. But we’re still mummifying and that is because of display. When you mummify a body, generally, it’s because you’re going to have the casket displayed in the funeral home. And so the display is essential and mummification is part of the display. And it’s no different from the ancient Egyptians. They needed to show that body to an audience. So when you see original activity, most Egyptologists and I dare say most archaeologists have been inclined to look at this ritual in a religious lens, thinking people did this because they believed that this would happen and they believed that that would happen.
And they forget that people did rituals because they wanted to compete with other families. They wanted to have a certain socioeconomic status. They wanted to show off. And they wanted to have a display in front of a large audience that gave their family a tremendous amount of power. I always hold to the old adage: the dead do not bury themselves.
This is a reflection of the families who are doing the burials rather than the dead. And I’m working on that in my next book, with chapter 1 including a queen who benefitted from sacrificial burials. People killed to accompany her in burial. And I could just talk about that or I could talk about the fact that she buried her dead husband with the same sacrificial victims, but she was there when her son was too young to rule on his own, ordering who would die and who would live and standing there watching as the courtiers that she grew up with are dispatched before her very eyes.
RM: She’s an Egyptian Queen from when?
KC: The first dynasty.
RM: Was that around the time of those sacrificial burials at Ur in Mesopotamia?
KC: It is. It’s an interesting thing that the beginnings of kingship often are accompanied, not just in Egypt or Mesopotamia, with sacrificial burial. And when kingship is established the sacrificial burials often end. Only in highly competitive societies do you see the sacrificial burials continuing. It’s a very cruel practice. It’s also a very socially expensive practice and something that your courtiers are going to rebel against eventually and find ways around it.
RM: How were they dispatched?
KC: With great trauma. They used a kind of bludgeon to the back of the head and the people were probably drugged or drunk and then they just slugged them in the back of the head with a blunt object; they probably dropped where they stood. In ancient Egypt, there is no evidence of any trauma. And Flinders Petrie discovered most of these bodies at the end of the 19th century and didn’t do what would be a modern scientific forensic analysis, it’s true. And only the skulls remain. They didn’t keep the entire body.
But new sacrificial victims have been found around the enclosure of Abydos by Laurel Bestock, among others. I don’t know of any evidence of trauma, like blunt force or if you could see strangulation on the body. It’s quite possible that these people were strangled or poisoned and that it didn’t leave any evidence on the body itself. There could have been a quieter form of death as opposed to what the Egyptians would have done to an enemy, which was blunt force trauma that was used in war. You hold the enemy by the hair and you dispatch them with a blow to the head.
RM: This reminds me of the bog bodies in Northern Europe. The sacrifices got a knock on the head and more.
KC: They still have the strangulation ties around the neck as well.
RM: And the Peruvian mummy bundles. I think some of them died of the cold and/or poison.
KC: Yes, I think you’re right. I would have to check on the Peruvian mummy bundles, but I think there was poison involved, particularly of the children. Finding cause of death in a mummy is not as easy as one would expect. And with skeletal material, which is what you have preserved for Dynasty I, of course, it’s even harder. We have Tutankhamen’s body, but do we know how he died? By no means. And people will continue to argue about that for some time. In my opinion, it’s the wrong thing to ask for Tutankhamen.
For the sacrificial burials I would like to know because you get a better understanding of how the ritual would have worked. But I have to assume in rituals of the first dynasty that courtiers would have all stood in a funeral enclosure or out on the necropolis grounds, watching their brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers killed before their eyes. And the mourning would have been heightened because of it. So, the king would have gone into burial with all of the power of that mourning, of that loss. The greater the lament, the more powerful the transformation in the next world. Stature added impetus to kill them. Also, it kept society controlled when you’re establishing kingship for the first time.
RM: As usual, a ritual works on many levels.
KC: Yes, for sure.
RM: I know you have to get going. If you have a few minutes, I wanted to ask you a few scattered questions. I recently watched one of John Romer’s older programs that focused on the dangers to archaeological sights. Is this a worry? Can you comment on the overall picture?
KC: Of course, I worry about Egyptian archaeology. I think archaeology is under threat everywhere right now. I think that whatever country you look at, whether in the west or in the east or in the Middle East, there is the threat of anti-intellectualism and there is a push against academics. And there is the possibility of seeing archaeology as frivolous, unnecessary and a waste of resources rather than seeing it as the best means of understanding human patterns, cycles of crisis and prosperity and human reaction to those cycles of crisis and prosperity.
RM: What is the message and wisdom that archaeology and related studies have for people today?
KC: We can learn so much from what we have already done, using them as cautionary tales. Using it as building blocks, using it to help us do better. And archaeology is one of the best tools that we have moving towards potential apocalypse of global climate change. People have gone through it before. I’ve studied the Bronze Age collapse, and the massive crisis that occurred because of climate change, maybe not human induced climate change, but because of climate change around 1200 BCE and what happened. How did government fail? What states collapsed? What did people do? What were the reactions? These are useful things to know going forward because we will go through this again. In many parts of this globe, people are already going though this. There are many places that are dealing with apocalypse in the here and now and archaeology can help us to understand these patterns.
Egyptology has one of the most colonial archaeological histories on the planet.
For pure archaeological work there is not a lot of money. There’s not a lot of return on your investment. And so what you end up having is a colonial science where a lot of non-Egyptians come into Egypt to do work; that creates tensions and problems. The more sensitive we can be to Egyptian ways of doing things, the better we can be. For example, I applied for and got the grant from the American Research Center in Egypt for US AID funds and in that $70,000 grant, I asked for $25,000 to go directly to the Egyptian Museum to help with the registrar and other costs that they may have. And the next grant I do, I will do the same thing. And if we can move money towards Egyptian institutions that have so very little, then the institutions will be better for it.
Every photo that I take of objects in the Cairo museum, I gladly give with no copyright restrictions to the Egyptian Museum. They can do whatever they want with those images and I am happy to do so because I know that their embarrassment of riches is a blessing, but it is also a responsibility and a weight that is difficult to deal with and I try to make my contribution as best I can. I see other archaeologists and historians doing the same. So, the more we can cooperate and help, the better, but with the understanding that we’re working in their country and we should abide by their rules and their cultural ways.
RM: Yes, for sure. You brought up the environmental qualities of studying archaeology; it makes me think we need a required class on archaeology, history and climate change.
KC: I’m reading about the ‘70s. Just the ‘70s is incredibly useful. All of the revolutionary thinking, all of the bombs, the schism between society on the left and right, the idea of these dirty hippies on one side and intellectuals and on the other side, the rise of the republican right. You know, it’s a useful thing to look back to see how we as a country cycled through that; now, the next schism between right and left is so much more destructive. History is our best tool for understanding the future.
RM: I know you have head out. That means time for the mummy movie question: do you have a favorite movie that depicts ancient Egypt?
KC: I showed my son Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time—and wow did he love it! I hadn’t seen it in ten years. And all the Egyptian stuff is wrong but cool; it’s such a good movie and if I have to pick any movie about Egypt, it has to be Raiders of the Lost Ark. Is it authentic? No, but it doesn’t need to be. Julian can’t wait to see the second one. I keep trying to tell him it’s not as good.
RM: Great to relive these programs with your son. Thanks so much for your time, expertise and for keeping the adventure alive.
For the first installment of this interview, see Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, and Akhenaten, published in the Anniversary Issue of Popular Archaeology.
Kara Cooney’s latest book, The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World, will be released November 2, 2021. Interested readers may purchase the book by pre-order at this site.
About the interviewer
As a child, Richard Marranca was given books on history, myth and religion that ignited his interests. When he was seven, he went with his mom, grandmother and aunt to Italy and Switzerland – a trip that lasted a lifetime. During his doctoral studies at New York University, he spent a semester in Greece with a side project in Egypt. Around the midpoint of his career, he also was awarded a Fulbright to teach at LMU Munich (and for two years was president of NJ Fulbright chapter), as well as six NEH summer seminars, including Andean Worlds in Peru/Bolivia; Concord MA; and High Plains Indians of Nebraska.
For Richard, teaching and writing go together; he teaches a variety of humanities and English courses. His most recent publications include stories in Coneflower Café, The Raven’s Perch and Months to Years Magazine; interviews in Popular Archaeology and Minerva; and poetry in the Paterson Literary Review. His manuscript, Speaking of the Dead, has been accepted for publication by Blydyn Square Books in NJ.
The latest project: His wife Renah, daughter Hera and Richard create videos, the latest being Childe Hera’s World on YouTube; so far it’s mostly travel videos, but this year the highlight was Coronavirus, A Child’s View.
Richard wishes to thank his wife Renah and Bridget Briant for their help with this interview.
Cover Image, Top Left: By Jaredgrafik, Pixabay