An Empire of Broken Pottery: John Romer’s A History of Ancient Egypt

How much do you know about Ancient Egypt?

If you’re anything like me, you are probably operating with some confidence in the knowledge that you have the story down, more or less. Pyramids, pharaohs, the Nile, sun, sand. As an armchair classicist, I flatter myself that I know as much as the next person—and probably a bit more than that. I’ve read Herodotus. I’ve seen The Mummy. Egypt, right. Everybody knows about Egypt.

This book puts the lie, delightfully, to that unwarranted assumption of knowledge on my part, and, I would venture, on the part of a great deal of casual readers.

John Romer contends that it’s been decades since a comprehensive popular history of Ancient Egypt has been written, and even those were yet steeped in the affectations and prejudices of the discipline as it was in the 19th century. These narratives we tell ourselves, about dynastic pharaohs, and boy kings, and Cleopatra with the asp at her breast, are a cultural concoction of Egyptian history as repackaged by writers from the Greeks through modern times, first Hellenizing and then European-izing the history, hammering it into a reflective surface returning an image that resembles ourselves as much as it does Egypt, the way we think about the concept of the state, the rise and fall of great powers, our colonialist past, etc.

These histories, moreover, have traditionally been a deeply literary product, warming over the bones of other written histories made thousands of years after the events described. Romer proposes to start his history from nothing, a dead stop, setting aside these literary histories and proceeding only from concrete evidence in the archaeological record, from one relic to the next—to draw a line, with as close to no embellishment as possible, that connects the Neolithic hunter-gatherers of the Nile Delta to the people who came to build the pyramids.

The chapters open with quotations, often not from historians but from philosophers and social theorists, and in Chapter 3 Wittgenstein’s exhortation that “we can only describe, and say human life is like that” nicely encapsulates Romer’s whole approach. Romer writes to show the record and describe, and in doing so he assembles from an infinity of tiny dusty bits an Egypt that is new and mysterious and fascinating. Any part of an ancient history that isn’t reflected in the archaeological record, he tells us, is, at best, guesswork, and at worst, bogus. Gone are the old saws of the classical histories: there is no internecine warfare of the stone age inhabitants of Egypt; there are no pharaohs who behave with the manners and attitudes of 16th century European royalty; gone is the image of the ancient Egyptians as a savage, superstitious, ghost-haunted rabble prostrating themselves before icons of animal-headed gods.

He builds on what is left, which is, at first, potsherds and more potsherds. And later, arrowheads, flint sickles, fingernail sized scraps of ancient linen, baskets woven from cane and rush, and still more potsherds. This is the stuff of Romer’s history because they are real objects that exist. Some readers may quail at this description as sounding overly dry or academic, but they needn’t. While the parade of potsherds does at first seem to rob the subject of a certain Hollywood romanticism, that disappointment is swiftly erased by Romer’s intense, hypnotic erudition and enthusiasm, and before you have even gone very far into the book, the succession of stone age cultures and their distinctive handicrafts has got you hooked.

A large part of this is due to Romer’s sure-handedness as a writer. Though he’s been on cable television a little bit, most Americans are probably less conscious of Romer as a host of historical television programs than British viewers are. Many of his specials are quite lovely, but his slightly goofy screen presence, and warm, pacific voice-overs on television did not prepare me for the grace and assurance with which he could write.

There is a thing in popular nonfiction written by working journalists and bloggers that cultivates a certain neutrality of style suggesting the writer could just as easily be delivering two thousand words on “Ferocious Foreplay Moves That Drive Him Wild,” so maybe I’m just setting the bar abnormally low. But it is deeply gratifying, and maddeningly rare, to come across a book of pop nonfiction written in clear, powerful prose, in control of its tone and undiluted by cliché.

Standing again before the oval of King Narmer’s Palette, the museum’s case a dark, reflecting mirror, brings us sharply to ourselves. Narmer smites, and the evidence of that same act has been excavated in the flesh from a cemetery five centuries older than the king. Intimate and violent, the same tableau had been drawn time and again before it emerged, iconic, on Narmer’s Palette; later, it became the central image of pharaonic culture. It is an image of a killing king.

( recently posted an excerpt from the book, in which you can get a broader sense of Romer’s style.)

My largest quibble with the book is that Romer, in his salvo on the histories that have been written before his, opens by saying “you would never guess that since the 1960s some brilliant academic research has revolutionized our understanding of the ancient past.” Unfortunately you wouldn’t know it from this book either. Most of the great names of Egyptology he references—Auguste Mariette, Guy Brunton, Flinders Petrie—were in the grave before Romer was even born.

More modern scholars, like Michael Hoffman, get a nod once in a while, but generally while he criticizes older Egyptologists, most of the ones we hear about are precisely this older generation, though to be fair they do make for some entertaining character portraits. With a particular horror did I read of the exploits (pun fully intended) of Émile Amélineau who, when he had removed everything he intended to remove from a dig site, smashed and burned all the artifacts he was leaving behind, so as to render his own spoils more precious and rare.

While the subtitle does tell you that the book catalogues Egyptian history only up through the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza, most readers would probably be forgiven not knowing how early in Egypt’s history the Great Pyramid was actually built. The book is otherwise coy in hipping you to the fact that this is only the first volume of two, ending abruptly at the Old Kingdom, which is not very far in the scope of things, and you’re more than halfway through the book before anything popularly recognizable as “Ancient Egypt” shows up. Still, Romer makes a convincing case that the emphasis on stone age Egypt is both warranted and illustrative, not in spite of the lack of written record, but because of it, and that the roots of that Great Pyramid lie buried at intersection of the Neolithic Revolution and the agricultural surplus brought about by the almost mythically fertile Nile River delta.

A History of Ancient Egypt is available now from Thomas Dunne Books
Read an excerpt here on

David Moran has read a little bit of Herodotus in Greek, but is pretty helpless without his Great Scott.


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