Book Review: Antiquity Imagined by Robin Derricourt
Review: Robin Derricourt, Antiquity Imagined: The Remarkable Legacy of Egypt and the Ancient Near East (London: I. B. Tauris, 2015).
The Ancient Near East has long commanded people’s attention and dominated our imaginations. It has produced countless books, articles, magazines, films, and fiction stories based on both fact and fancy. The theories based on nothing but spurious evidence abound: who built the pyramids? Why? Who were the ancient Egyptians? Where did the 10 missing tribes of Israel really go? Even the History Channel in the US has shows that deal with some of these questions and validate some of these theories.
In Antiquity Imagined, Robin Derricourt deals with many of these ideas, theories, works of fact and fiction, and more to bring the reader a thoroughly-researched, exciting and entertaining read.
This book is for the scholar looking for confirmation of misremembered theories they won’t find anywhere else as well as those looking to understand more about Egyptomania; it is also for the interested general reader who wants to know a fuller story of how Egypt and the Near East have affected the way that the West views the area. Much of the book focuses on Egypt and the questionable ideas and conspiracy theories about the ancient culture that once thrived there; the rest of the book talks about the peoples who have lived in Palestine and Syria. Derricourt did an impressive amount of work digging through the appropriate primary sources; he definitely included the pertinent secondary sources, too. This book is well researched and well written.
Throughout each chapter, given descriptive and clear titles, he outlines the specific ideas he is analyzing and then traces in detail the history of those ideas. Many times he also details the arguments against the ideas he is presenting. The two chapters specifically talking about race are based firmly in the literature: Chapter 5, “The blight of ‘race’,” discusses Western ideas of race and how those practices gave way to ideas in the West about Egypt’s ancestors; Chapter 6: “Race Reversed: the Afrocentric Challenge,” traces the history of the “black Egypt” movement and the effect it has had on the study of Egypt.
My favorite chapter, by far, is “Mummies and their changing reputation.” This will likely not be a surprise to anyone who has ever paid a little attention to me. The race chapters were complex and inter-woven narratives; the mummy chapter is as well, but in a different way. Derricourt details historical mummification, then dives into how mummies were viewed by the West: alternatively as medicine, sources of magical powers, horrifying beings that can bring death and doom, and, of course, fodder for fiction. Amazingly, he does all of this without really poking fun at any of the viewpoints. I don’t remember once reading the word pyramidiot which, let’s be honest, could be used rampantly here.
One thing I noticed that I wanted as part of the book is some sort of notation system. There are a lot of ideas that Derricourt mentioned as part of a history or analysis of an idea, but doesn’t go into detail. That is to be expected in a work where the author accomplishes so much, anyway. But times where I thought “Oh, I wonder where I could read more about that!” I wanted a note, and then a source or “further reading” notice. Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t miss the References section or the Sources and Further Readings section. As a scholar, I am simply missing the endnotation in the text. It works very well for the interested general reader.
A final note for Derricourt’s book, which you really should read if you’re interested at all in the ancient Near East: this book is not for reading on a crowded plane, train, or other crowded place. Seriously. The chapter titles alone will make people think that you may believe some of these ideas: “Mystical Roles for Ancient Egypt,” “Pyramidologies and Pyramid Mysteries,” and “Lost Tribes” are just a few examples. I read part of it on a plane and tried to hide it! Maybe that’s my pride.