Dr. Lynn Meskell attempts to disclose everyday ancient Egyptian life in her monograph, Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt. As the title reveals, her work is focused on New Kingdom Egypt, particularly the 18th and 20th Dynasties, between 1539 and 1075 BCE. The book synthesizes material relating to domains of lived experience and social interaction, particularly in the village of Deir el Medina, the community of workmen employed to build New Kingdom royal tombs. Much of her work has been based on the largely overlooked wealth of evidence from the 18th Dynasty cemeteries of the village. She makes use of texts from the village, as well as incorporating material and textual evidence from other sites and contexts, seeking a thorough integration of textual, visual, and archaeological material. Her thesis sets out “to present the complexity and sophistication of Egyptian society” (2) and to “argue that the template of the life cycle coheres more closely with the Egyptian evidence than … traditional categorizations” as was outlined in her first chapter (93). She further claims that “Textual, pictorial, and archaeological evidence makes clear that the cycle itself was open to gendered differences” (93).
Therefore, chapters 2 through 7 present the overall framework of the individual lifecycle, moving from “becoming a person” (chapter 3) to courting, marriage, and divorce (chapters 4, 5) and finally, explorations of sexuality and sensuality centered on the individual body, in life (chapters 5, 6) and in death (chapter 7). Many of the discussions within this setting focus on women’s lives and the thematization of female bodies in different domains. The author takes a negative stance regarding the social position of women in ancient Egyptian society and their ability to play an active role in shaping the world around them.
Meskell sees women in ancient Egypt as oppressed and there are times when this focus is taken too far. For instance, when confronted with texts demonstrating that women did actually own land, she adds the comment, “Yet it is easy to envisage situations where women’s husbands curbed their economic activities” (110). Similarly, in response to the texts that indicate women received one third of the joint marital property following a divorce, she asserts, “…these ideal scenarios must have been moderated by serious forms of exploitation” (110). Finally, Meskell relegates divorced women to a life of insecurity and poverty, although to do so uniformly is to ignore the substantial evidence for the incorporation of unmarried women into extended family households.
The reader is left to wonder, then, whether Meskell had herself fallen into the trap that she warned of at the beginning of the book: “There is a great risk of missing the cadences and characteristics of that other culture. It is vital to remain aware of this separation and dangerous to assume too great a certainty and familiarity with others from the past” (2). The reviewer has always...