One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.
What topic do you study?
I am an archaeologist currently pursuing a PhD in classical archaeology at the University of British Columbia. My background is in Egyptian archaeology, as well as classical art history and archaeology. My research mainly focuses on connectivity in the archaic Mediterranean, and in particular on Sicily. For my PhD dissertation I am studying Egyptian and egyptianizing objects found in archaic-period contexts in Sicily (ca. 800-480 BCE). These type of objects (scarabs, amulets, perfume vessels, and figurines) commonly referred to as aegyptiaca became popular throughout the whole Mediterranean starting from the 8th century BCE, and their popularity grew exponentially in the following centuries. They were not only used as personal ornaments, but also as protective amulets, and dedicated in sanctuaries of local and “international” deities alike. The inhabitants of indigenous, Greek, and Phoenician cities of Sicily were not immune to these trends. However, a comprehensive study of all the objects found on the island has been missing since 1973.
What sources or data do you use?
My research is heavily archaeology-based, as I am analyzing the objects in their original archaeological context. For the first part of my analysis, I rely on excavation reports and photos, as well as catalog entries from various museums that host these artifacts. This method poses several issues, as earlier archaeological excavations were not conducted in the same way as more recent ones, nor were they recorded in as much detail as we do today, so a substantial amount of data concerning the original context of the objects is lost. Thus, while I need to trust my sources, I cannot verify their reliability. I am also relying heavily on art historical texts and catalogs, as well as previous studies, in order to describe the object and make educated guesses about their production places. The latter is not the focus of my dissertation, but it is a facet that I cannot ignore.
For the interpretation of the reasons behind the use of these objects in Sicily, I am relying on two categories of modern scholarly texts. My first set of texts are larger studies that focus on cultural and trading networks in the archaic Mediterranean, and how people in various regions reacted to pan-Mediterranean trends. These processes, that are often referred to as “glocalization”, can help us shed light on local agendas by looking at how local actors appropriated and deployed foreign objects to serve their own specific agendas. The second set of texts are studies dealing with single cities and regions in Sicily during the archaic period. By analyzing the cultural, political, and social changes taking place during these centuries, I can then contextualize the use of the aegyptiaca against the backdrop of the reality in which they were employed.
How does this research shed light on real people in the past?
The study of aegyptiaca can help us shed light or real people in the past in two ways. The first way in which we can look at these is that of personal beliefs. This is, of course, difficult to assess, as no written sources explaining the value of these objects exist for this period. However, we can get some glimpses of the significance of aegyptiaca by analyzing how they were used by people in Sicily. For instance, when looking at the data coming from cemeteries, we can see that from the mid-7th century BCE onward these objects were most often found in the tombs of women and children. Moreover, it seems that scarabs in particular, when not mounted or rings, were worn around the neck. This practice, which was very widespread not only in Sicily but also in central and southern Italy, suggests that the inhabitants of these regions used Egyptian and egyptianizing scarabs as amulets. These people may not have known the religious and cultural meaning of these objects in their land of origin, and they were probably unable to read the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the flat side of the scarabs. But in this case what seems to have been important for the people of Sicily were the protective properties that they projected onto the scarabs, no matter the fact that many of these objects were not even produced in Egypt.
On the other hand, by analyzing the ways in which they were used, we can gain some insight into social processes underway at that time. For instance, it seems very likely that wealthy indigenous families during the 8th century BCE chose to acquire very high-quality Egyptian scarabs mounted on golden rings as a sign of their wealth. The fact that these objects were found alongside imported pottery in burials associated with different families seems to indicate that social hierarchies were not yet crystallized, so that various groups were competing for status and tried to establish dominance in their own community by showcasing their wealth. In the following century, aegyptiaca seem to have become a status symbol for elite groups around the Mediterranean. Wealthy individuals would acquire them, alongside high-quality Greek vessels and other luxuries to signify that they belonged to a well-connected international network of wealthy elite members that expressed their status through socially significant objects. To sum up, the study of aegyptiaca can help us shed some light not only on the religious beliefs of the people who acquired them, but also on how the people of Sicily were connected to Mediterranean networks, and how they employed these objects to further their own agendas.
Boschloos, V. (2017). “Traded, copied, and kept: the ubiquitous appeal of scarabs.” In Pharaoh’s land and beyond: ancient Egypt and its neighbors, edited by P.P. Creasman and R.H. Wilkinson, 149-66. Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press.
Cultraro, M. (2020). “Documenti di culti funerari di origine egizia a Lipari in età arcaica. Una nota preliminare.” Quaderni del Museo del Papiro XVII: 153-174.
Famà, M.L., Inferrera, I., and Militello, P. (eds.) (2015). Magia d’Egitto: Mostre Archeologiche e Convegni in Sicilia. Palermo: Regione Siciliana.
Feghali Gorton, A. (1996). Egyptian and Egyptianizing Scarabs: A Typology of Steatite, Faience and Paste Scarabs from Punic and Other Mediterranean Sites (Oxford University Committee for Archaeology, Monograph, No 44). Oxford: Oxford University School of Archaeology.
Guzzardi, L. (1991). “Importazioni dal Vicino Oriente in Sicilia Fino all’Età Orientalizzante.” In Atti del II Congresso Internazionale di Studi Fenici e Punici, 941–54. Rome: Istituto di Studi sulle Civiltà Italiche e del Mediterraneo Antico.
Hodos, T. (2016). The Routledge Handbook of Archaeology and Globalization. London: Routledge.
———- (2010). “Globalization and Colonization: a View from Iron Age Sicily’ Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 23: 81-106.
Hölbl, G. (2001). “I Rapporti Culturali della Sicilia Orientale con l’Egitto in Età Arcaica Visti Attraverso gli Aegyptiaca del Territorio Siracusano”, in La Sicilia Antica nei Rapporti con l’Egitto. Atti del Convegno Internazionale, Siracusa 1999, 31-47.
Kistler, E. (2012). “Glocal Responses from Archaic Sicily.” Ancient West & East 11: 219-33.
Sfameni Gasparro, G. (1973). I Culti Orientali in Sicilia. Leiden: Brill.
Villing, A. (2015). “Egyptian-Greek Exchange in the Late Period: the View from Nokradj-Naukratis.” In Thonis-Heracleion in Context (Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology Monograph 8), edited by D. Robinson and F. Goddio, 229-246. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology. Webb. V. (2019). “The significance of faience in the religious practices at Naukratis and beyond.” British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 24: 312-40.
Kate Minniti is a PhD Candidate in Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies with an emphasis on Classical Archaeology. Kate’s main research field is the study of Mediterranean connections during the Iron Age, with current research exploring how material culture was adapted by different agents to fit local agendas. Her most recent works deal with the import, use, and meaning of Egyptian and Egyptianizing imports in Archaic Sicily. Kate is also involved with researching receptions of the Ancient World in pop culture and mainstream media. She has participated in archaeological excavations in Motya, Wadi Howei (Sudan), in the Norwegian Archaeological Survey of the Karystia (NASK), and most recently in the NYU excavations in Selinunte (Italy). In 2019 Kate received an Affiliated Fellowship for her dissertation research project “Aegyptiaca in Archaic Sicily”. You can find Kate on Twitter: @ammit_ and on email: email@example.com.