Material Culture in Egypt and Nubia

Egyptology is still a text centred discipline with stress on historical and political interpretations derived from textual sources rather than on the ‘things’, which ancient Egyptians used. These are an equal source to inform on life’s reality of ancient Egyptians as well as on social and economic history and relationships. In this light a discrepancy in theoretical applications exists between archaeological remains that constitute a large portion of ancient Egyptian heritage and texts in the widest sense, many of which express political processes and opinions. These texts were written by elite members and for a socially restricted group, who were able to read. This research group, whilst not ignoring the textual evidence, focuses on the evidence from ‘things’ in order to test it with source groups transmitting political aspects. In this way differences and similarities of these source types will be highlighted and more information on social and cultural processes obtained.

Material culture and material culture theory offer a wide range of opportunities to evaluate archaeological finds, importantly within their contexts, to gain independent means of interpretation. Basic considerations stressing the importance of objects are the rejection of the western idea, that human beings should be divorced from the ‘things’ they are surrounded with, considering the intellectual sphere as superior. Human beings have relationships with material culture even before the ability to speak. ‘Things’ express actions/processes and are not the consequence of an ‘idea’. Hence objects are influenced by their maker and their user, whilst the object exerts influence on its user as well, creating an interdependency. Histories of objects and people are tied together and become parts of biographies of individuals. Depending on this history objects and situations become memories in personal perception. In this respect Bourdieu’s habitus mediating social structure and individual agency is important. Habitus represents durable and internalised dispositions (i.e. to act in certain ways influenced by structures of material conditions) that unconsciously structure the actions of an individual, and through which the individual structures his/her environment. This process is continuously reproduced. ‘Things’ found in a variety of contexts inform about material aspects of culture and the relationships to individuals, who used those ‘things’ and, represent a source also for archaeology.

One of the aims of the research group is to bring together material culture and its context with other source types for a better understanding of cultural and social processes, about which textual sources are not particularly informative. In order to reach this goal find contexts from a wide range of sites will be re-assessed with thorough description and analysis of different object types in a (find) contextual manner. This re-assessment will provide new raw data necessary for new research.


  • Janine Bourriau, Honorary Member of the Project Beyond Politics
    Janine Bourriau is Senior Reasearch Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge.
    Janine Bourriau devoted much of her research time to the study of the material culture of the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period. Her rich experience in this respect and life-long interest and effort in this field make her a most valuable partner for this research group.