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Carving a Career from Hieroglyphs


In this portrait, Egyptologist Lise Manniche speaks of her passion for Ancient Egypt and the creativity needed to carve out a career in this field in Denmark. She received her Ph.D. from Cambridge and has written several books on topics such as the sex lives of ancient Egyptians and their use of aromatherapy and herbal medicine. Her latest book will be published this fall.

FORUM/17.9 98 The perfume Vallée des Rois, named after the Valley of Kings in Egypt, is one of the more intriguing fragrances to be found on perfume counters worldwide - the glass bottles suitably regal in the colour of royal Egyptian blue.The Danish Egyptologist Lise Manniche is amongst the priviliged few who knows its secret ingredients, as she is the woman who helped decipher them from ancient hieroglyphs. Surely a perfect example of the many uses of Egyptology.

Manniche's latest book, to be published this autumn, is about perfumes, aromatherapy and make-up in ancient Egypt, where aromatic oils were of great importance. Tutankhamon was for instance buried with 350 litres of perfumed oils, which were to help induce the right sexual atmosphere for rebirth and the afterlife. While researching her new book, Lise Manniche worked hard to obtain permission for pollen analysis of remains of aromatic oils found in Egyptians tombs. The The Cairo Museum, however, would not allow for a new analysis of oil remains from the holiest of the holy tombs.

- Pollen analysis of the oil remains would have been very interesting. For example, 20 years ago, a team of researchers was allowed to remove a tiny piece of the remains of King Ramses II (1100 BC). The pollen analysis showed, amongst other things, that he had been smeared in chamomile oil, and that the chamomile grew in field with 20 different kinds of weeds and so on, says Lise Manniche, explaining the wide scope of pollen analysis.

Perhaps permission for pollen analysis will be granted in the future. Patience is clearly one of the most important virtues in Egyptology and a certain amount of tenacity and creativity are also paramount, if you want to get results in this very demanding field. Not least in Denmark you have to work hard and think on your feet to carve out a career in Egyptology.

- One really has to be mad about Egyptology to choose it as a career. You need large quantities of optimism and absolutely no expectations of becoming rich, she says.

Lise Manniche received her doctorate from Cambridge University in 1984. Since then, she has published several books on life in ancient Egypt including the sex lives of the pharaohs and their use of medicinal herbs. All in all, she has spent four years in Egypt, but they have been a far cry from the Indiana Jones-type excavations of jewel encrusted gold statues, precious temples and cursed mummies that have so captured popular imagination.
- Basically, I have overseen sand dunes being shifted from one place to another. Nowadays, excavation is a highly specialised and technological trade, and a science in its own right. I mostly work from ancient manuscripts and pictures.

In fact, hieroglyphs sparked her interest in Egyptology.
- I have always been interested in art and in Classical Archaeology. When I discovered hieroglyphs and the beautiful colours of Egyptian art, I chose Egyptology. I was deeply fascinated by the ability to write with pictures.

Lise Manniche received her Masters degree from the University of Copenhagen in 1971 and for a time from 1978-81, she was unable to find work in her field.
- That was the time of job-activation schemes, where people were sent out to count bicycles parked at train stations. Something which I certainly did not want to waste my time doing. I then applied to do my post-graduate studies at Cambridge University and received funding from both The British Council and The Carlsberg Foundation.

She took off for Cambridge with her then 8-year-old daughter and embarked on one of the most productive periods of her career in a particularly fertile and stimulating scientific environment. Besides her doctorate, she wrote four books, some in a collaboration with The British Museum.

Lise Manniche's stay in Cambridge lasted 13 years, where she also worked as publisher for The Islamic Text Society and on several projects funded by The Carlsberg Foundation. Her doctorate focused on Lost Theban Tombs. She reconstructed the tombs, which were surveyed from 1816 when Egypt was opened to foreigners. The tombs have since disappeared from the face of the Earth, but by immersing herself in the material from the 19th century she was able to recreate them. Scenes from the tombs were drawn on ordinary waxed paper, not the sophisticated tracing paper of today, and yet they were extremely accurate and precise.

At Cambridge, Lise Manniche also started research on a book on the position of women in ancient Egypt. Bearing in mind the notoriously famous and powerful queens Cleopatra and Nefertiti feminism is obviously not just a recent Western invention. However, when it turned out that a colleague was already pursuing this line of research, she decided to drop the book and use the material for a series of lectures.
- Women in ancient Egypt had a very desirable position in society as they had established legal rights. For instance, before 1000 BC women could buy and sell on behalf of their families. They were entitled to inherit - be it a cow or a cooking pot. Although the Egyptians were very focused on the afterlife, they were also very materialistic, so legal rights to land, jewelry and property were very important. Divorce was quite common and if their husbands were unfaithful to them, Egyptian women were legally entitled to take their things with them upon divorce. >From 2500 BC women were also entitled to their own tombs. These rights were, of course, only for privileged women and did not include slaves and servants.

- It is in the temples, however, that women really wielded power. At one point they actually ruled most of the kingdom. This was in 700 BC, when the kingdom was divided in two. They were in Thebes in the south and ruled male politicians in the north and thus the entire kingdom of Egypt. As the imperial god was male, a female and the female element were needed in order to recreate the creative cycle, which was the cornerstone of offerings. Pharaoh came to the temple and presented offerings and the god symbolically returned the kingdom to him. The temple priestesses were unmarried but held a high position in the temple.

- Another question that often arises is whether women in ancient Egypt could read and write. Two-thirds of the population was illiterate and although letters written by high-ranking women have been found, they perhaps had been dictated to scribes. However, it has been documented that Queen Hatshepsut's daughter had a tutor, who taught her hieroglyphs.

The famous Queen Hatsheput who ruled from 1475 BC is one of Lise Manniche's favourite great Egyptian women.

- She was guardian for her nephew, who was to be king, but she assumed power for herself and even let herself be depicted as a male pharaoh. She played the role of a man, but continued to be a woman. She had power despite being a women, while temple priestesses had power because they were women.
- Nefertiti was also very interesting. From several lesser documents, it can be seen that she enjoyed exactly the same status as her husband King Akhenaten - some researchers even believe that she independently ruled the country after his death. But this is a very contentious issue amongst Egyptologists.

Besides her interest in the balance of power between men and women in Ancient Egypt, Lise Manniche has worked with ancient Egyptian herbalism which led her to her involvement in the royal perfume Vallée de Rois. A few years ago, she was contacted by an Egyptian woman living in London, who had read her book An Ancient Egyptian Herbal. This woman wanted to recreate a perfume from ancient Egypt, Vallée des Rois. Lise Manniche also worked as a travel guide for a group of aromatherapists in Egypt - you have to be versatile in order to make a living as an Egyptologist. And aromatherapy did in fact exist in ancient Egypt, although it wasn't called by that name. Particular plants were utilised for their aromatic properties, for example in conception ceremonies for rebirth after death.

Her latest book Ancient Luxuries. Fragrance, Aromatherapy and Make-Up in Pharaonic Egypt to be published this Autumn, is about perfumes in ancient Egypt both as luxury item and in ritual. As an indication of the importance of aromatic oils, perfume was kept in precious flasks of alabaster or colourful glass.

Lise Manniche has lived in Denmark for the past four years. She can't quite let go let of the dream of permanent tenure and a pension, despite the years of living by writing, lecturing, tour-guiding, etc.
- I felt time was ripe for moving back to Denmark, where I'd like enjoy my old-age. There wasn't really any job available in Egyptology. For a while I worked in a day-care institution, but then an opening as part-time Associate Professor came up at the Carsten Niebuhr Institute of Near-Eastern Studies at Copenhagen University, where I now work. The prospects of a higher position aren't good because very few students choose to study Egyptology when enrolling in Near-Eastern Studies. And they usually give up when it comes to learning hieroglyphs!

Research into ancient Egypt is far from complete, and is a constant source of fascination for Lise Manniche. It is always possible to find a new angle or new material to apply to old theories and understanding.

- Ancient Egyptian culture simply has everything and the British among others continually unearth new artifacts. Excavation is mainly undertaken by the British and French, Germans and Americans. Of course, Egyptians also participate, but they are very dependent on foreign investment. Currently interest is focused on the towns situated around the pyramids rather than the pyramids themselves and refuse heaps generate the most excitement. What did the inhabitants eat? Many fish remains have been found. But which species? Where did the clay for cooking pots come from? Where did the stones come from? Egyptology is a continual fountain of knowledge.

Manniche has several ideas for future projects.

- Out of my interest in herbs and plants has grown a desire to work with eating as a social phenomenon. There are very few depictions of people eating. Why not? For most women, the central task was to keep the family alive - all day was spent processing and serving food.
- Music is another exciting field, which I have worked with and which I would like to dig more deeply into. Musical instruments from other countries have been found in Egypt, for example the lyre, which originated in Eastern Turkey. There were many female musicians. When foreign princesses married Egyptian royalty, there was an extensive exchange of gifts and goods. Some princesses arrived for instance with an entourage of as many as 300 women, many of which were musicians. What happened to the women in the entourage? Were they automatically absorbed into society?

- Mummification demanded lengths and lengths of cloth, so textile factories were plentiful and traditionally run by women. A pay roll list from a textile workshop recently unearthed shows that there were also foreign names amongst the staff, for example from what is now Syria. This is one proof among many that there was a great influx of various populations into Egypt.

Gunhild Riske is a journalist and studies anthropology. She is co-editor of FORUM for Gender and Culture.
Translation: Annette Nielsen

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