Friday, November 3, 2023

Kingship in the Everyday: Experiencing Royal Authority in the Middle Kingdom

The goal of this study, broadly speaking, is to better understand how Middle Kingdom (ca. 2055–1650 BCE) kingship worked from a non-royal perspective. Egyptological scholarship has traditionally taken for granted both that Egyptian kings were omnipresent in ancient Egyptian society, and that the intricacies of kingship were restricted to royal and elite circles. This contradiction between expected omnipresence and simultaneous restriction is most often explained through the concept of “decorum,” which as applied in Egyptology proposes that royal symbols and the image of the king were confined to the royal sphere. This is a reductive approach that removes the agency of those outside the royal circle. Instead, this dissertation prioritizes non-royal agency in engagement with kingship. The dissertation’s main argument is constructed from two separate but related parts: first, kingship was not omnipresent; second, kingship was still relevant and present in non-royal society in specific context-dependent ways. The simultaneous omnipresence and restrictedness of kingship can be differently explained if one considers the relevance that kingship had to non-royal Egyptians in different circumstances. In highlighting relevance, this study makes an argument that restrictedness is not necessarily an imposition from above, but that it may also be a choice for something else by non-royals. This argument was developed based on evidence from settlement contexts in Egypt (Chapter 3), royal, divine, and elite monuments and rituals (Chapter 4), and funerary practice (Chapter 5). Rather than simply a critique of decorum, this study proposes an opposing explanation for the role of kingship in broader ancient Egyptian society that takes into account the agency and priorities of different actors, rather than just the king. This study can be thought of as a bottom-up exploration of kingship, one framed by and contextualized in methodologies employed in the archaeologies of empire and sovereignty. The primary way in which Egyptology has approached interactions with kingship in the past—as a largely uniform engagement conditioned by strict decorum—has gotten in the way of our proper understanding of both kingship itself, as well as how it fit into broader Egyptian society. Kingship cannot be said to not have been important. But based on the evidence discussed in this study, it also cannot be said that the king or kingship were always overarching concerns. The ways in which kingship was engaged with by different parts of the population could differ dramatically, and previous models used to explain non-royal engagement with kingship have obfuscated that variability. Kingship in the Middle Kingdom was not monolithic: it was not experienced in the same way by all Egyptians, and it was more relevant and invoked by some more than other


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