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Ancient Egyptian science

Annette Imhausen

Ancient Egypt is one of the earliest civilizations to have left written, pictorial, and archaeological records of its culture, including medicine, mathematics, and astronomy. Working with these sources can be immensely fascinating and satisfying, but at the same time it requires a certain stamina and willingness to leave our modern categories and concepts behind in order to engage with those of a civilization that flourished over 3000 years ago.

This points to the main technical obstacle to overcome: while the most important sources have long since been translated, these translations are often now outdated and need to be replaced. Studies of Egyptian science began in the second half of the 19th century, and Egyptology has since had several stages of rapid growth and change. Therefore, published translations, even if they were written by the most outstanding scholars of the time, may not reflect current understanding.

Although learning 'Egyptian' – this includes at least two stages of grammars (Middle and Late Egyptian) and at least two scripts (hieroglyphs and hieratic) – is not required for a first encounter with Egyptian science, willingness to look at the source material and critically engage with it is a basic prerequisite for a serious scholar or student.

Even more critical engagement is needed to deal with the secondary literature (mostly written in English, German, and French). Due to the shortage of extant written sources, and a limited understanding of Egyptian culture, sometimes conclusions that cannot be substantiated have become accepted as 'truth' by historians of science. Likewise, the awe of 'science' has sometimes led Egyptologists to believe the speculations of historians of science without a critical assessment of their actual validity in regard to their knowledge of ancient Egypt. And Egyptologists and historians of science have occasionally neglected to ascertain whether or not the modern concepts they use in their study of Egyptian science were in fact current in ancient Egypt.

This opens up a multitude of possibilities for your research. The historiography of ancient science has had a methodological and historiographical boost in the past twenty years from which that of Egyptian science should be able to draw as well. You can take a fresh look at a source that has been known for a long time, and challenge its traditional understanding. You may also look at additional sources that have never been used for history of Egyptian science, or you can have a look at recently published sources and explore how these change our understanding of specific aspects of Egyptian science.

Bibliographical recommendations

Where to start?

Before, or while, looking at specific source material of the area in which you are interested, you should also take a look at ancient Egyptian history, culture, and language.

  • Shaw, Ian (ed.): Oxford history of ancient Egypt, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000 (Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 105.56)
  • Collier, Mark and Bill Manley: How to read Egyptian hieroglyphs: a step-by-step guide to teach yourself, London: British Museum Press 1998 (UL: North Wing, Floor 5: 813:4.c.95.37)
  • Wilson, P. Hieroglyphs: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003

For articles on various topics of Egyptian culture and introductory bibliographies, see:

  • Donald B. Redford (ed.): The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Egypt, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001 (UL: Reading Room: R510.28)

Online resources

A warning

The internet has proven to be an easy way for Egyptomaniacs to distribute their opinions and the results of their 'study' of ancient Egyptian culture (often insisting that some well-known Egyptologists are in error). I recommend sticking to those web pages that are endorsed by an institution of higher education; some examples are listed below.

Topical

Bibliographical

Collections and traditional editions of sources

  • Clagett, Marshall: Ancient Egyptian Science: A Source Book, 3 vols., Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society 1989–1999 (must be read with reviews in: Isis 83 (1992), p. 117; Isis 87 (1996), p. 343-344; Isis 92 (2001), p. 151-152) (Whipple, UL several copies)

Astronomy

  • Neugebauer, Otto and Parker, Richard A. Egyptian Astronomical Texts, 3 vols, Providence: Brown University Press 1960, 1964, 1969 (Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 290.101/102 K)

Mathematics

  • Imhausen, Annette: 'Egyptian Mathematics'. In Victor J Katz (ed.), The Mathematics of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India and Islam. A Sourcebook. Princeton: Princeton University Press 2007: 7–56 (Whipple)
  • Parker, R. A. Demotic Mathematical Papyri. Providence: Brown University Press 1972 (UL: West Room S512:01.a.19.8)
  • Peet, Thomas E. The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus: British Museum 10057 & 10058. Liverpool: Hodder & Stoughton 1923 (UL: West Room S813.a.92.1)
  • Struve, Wasili. Mathematischer Papyrus des Staatlichen Museums der Schönen Künste in Moskau (Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Mathematik, Abteilung A: Quellen, Bd. 1) Berlin: Springer 1930 (UL: West Room S340.b.93.5)

Medicine

  • Breasted, James H. The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, 2 vols., Chicago: Oriental Institute Publications 1930
  • Deines, Hildegard von/ Grapow, Hermann/ Westendorf, Wolfhart. Grundriss der Medizin der alten Ägypter. 9 vols. Berlin: Akademie Verlag 1958–1973

More recently published sources

Astronomy

  • von Lieven, Alexandra. Grundriß des Laufes der Sterne. Das sogenannte Nutbuch (The Carlsberg Papyri 8, CNIP 31) Copenhagen 2007

Mathematics

  • Imhausen Annette & Jim Ritter: 'Mathematical Fragments', in: Mark Collier & Stephen Quirke: The UCL Lahun Papyri: Religious, Literary, Legal, Mathematical and Medical; Oxford: Archaeopress 2004: 71–96

Medicine

  • Collier, Mark and Quirke, Stephen: The UCL Lahun Papyri: Religious, Literary, Legal, Mathematical and Medical; Oxford: Archaeopress 2004: 53–69
  • Leitz, Christian. Magical and Medical Papyri of the New Kingdom. London: British Museum Press for the Trustees of the British Museum 1999

Introductory secondary literature

Astronomy

  • DeYoung, Gregg: 'Astronomy in Ancient Egypt', in: Helaine Selin (ed.), Astronomy across Cultures: The History of Non-Western Astronomy, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000, 475–508 (UL: South Front, Floor 4: 342:2.c.200.1)
  • Parker, Richard A. 'Ancient Egyptian Astronomy'. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 276 (1974): 51–65
  • Wells, Ronald: 'Astronomy in Egypt', in: Christopher Walker (ed.): Astronomy before the Telescope, London: British Museum Press 1996 (UL: South Front, Floor 4: 342:2.b.95.29; Whipple U.426 Reserve)

Mathematics

  • Imhausen, Annette: 'Ancient Egyptian Mathematics: New Perspectives on Old Sources', Mathematical Intelligencer 28 (2006), 19–27 (Whipple, Reserve Folder)
  • Ritter, Jim: 'Measure for Measure: Mathematics in Egypt and Mesopotamia', in: Michel Serres (ed.): A History of Scientific Thought: Elements of a History of Science, Oxford: Blackwell 1995, 44–72 (Whipple L.SER 1; UL: South Front, Floor 4: 340:5.b.95.79)
  • Ritter, Jim: 'Egyptian Mathematics', in: Helaine Selin (ed.), Mathematics Across Cultures: The History of Non-Western Mathematics, Dordrecht: Kluwer 2000 (Whipple Reference Collection: REF (MAT 15); UL: South Front, Floor 4: 348:3.c.200.32)

Medicine

  • Allen, J.P. The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art 2005 (Whipple W1.ALL 1)
  • Nunn, John F.: Ancient Egyptian Medicine, London: British Museum Press 1996 (Whipple W1.NUN 1, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 142.13, UL: South Front, Floor 3: 300:13.c.95.205)