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Kinship and Family in Ancient Egypt: new book by Leire Olabarria

24 July 2020

Leire Olabarria, former Randall-MacIver Fellow and Old Member of the College, has recently published a monograph entitled Kinship and Family in Ancient Egypt: Archaeology and Anthropology in Dialogue with Cambridge University Press. Leire studied for her DPhil at Queen’s from 2010 to 2014, before becoming a departmental lecturer at the Faculty of Oriental Studies for two years. This book was written during her postdoctoral fellowship at Queen’s (2016 to 2019) and culminates almost ten years of research on ancient Egyptian kinship. Leire is now a Lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Birmingham.

The book presents an interdisciplinary approach to Egyptian relatedness, using theories from archaeology and sociocultural anthropology to analyse ancient social trends. First, it relies on the notion of kinship as a process, which assumes that kinship is a perfomative phenomenon that needs to be defined in emic terms. This means that kinship is not simply given at birth, but it is rather made and remade throughout the life of an individual depending on his or her relationships with other people. Second, the book focuses on material agency, exploring how objects have an impact on people, on other objects, and on the landscapes into which they are embedded. By combining these two theoretical approaches, it is possible to investigate how monuments contributed to constructing and perpetuating kin relations in the ancient Egyptian context.

The main corpus of primary sources used in the book are memorial stelae of the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom (ca 2150–1650 BCE) excavated from or attributed to the site of Abydos in Upper Egypt. These stelae were often grouped into clusters with a clear commemorative purpose, favouring a group approach to monuments. In addition, individuals were commemorated on these stelae not in isolation, but always in relation to other people. Based on this idea, kin groups instead of individuals are taken as a unit of social analysis. Thus, group approaches to both monuments and people are brought to the forefront, emphasising the importance of a contextual analysis.

In the second half of the book, three case studies illustrate the potential of ancient Egypt for cross-cultural anthropological comparison, something that has not received enough attention so far in the discipline. The first case study focuses on group formation, showing that recognition of relatedness would have been grounded on practice, that is, on how people acted as much as on who they were. The second case study explores the role of the head of the kin group, exemplifying the hierarchies and asymmetric reciprocities inherent in kinship relations in ancient Egypt. Kinship is thus often difficult to differentiate from relationships of patronage, as they are both informed by similar practices. Finally, the third case study uses marriage patterns to discuss in depth the role of rites of passage in the construction of individual and group identity.

In brief, this work lies in the intersection between Egyptology, anthropology, and archaeology, seeking to provide an emic definition of ancient Egyptian kinship that relies on performative aspects of social interaction.