BOOK REVIEW / Sweet wax cones and almost equal rites: Daughters of Isis - Joyce Tyldesley: Viking, pounds 18

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ARCHAEOLOGY is as much a field in which the imagination can play as it is an exact science. As Joyce Tyldesley, who is engagingly frank about the fallibility of her fellow scholars, points out, early excavators in Egypt expected to find harems - Egypt having began associated in the European mind, at least since the time of Herodotus, with sexual licence - and so harems they found.

Today's Egpytologists are less certain of the nature of the female-dominated institutions they discovered. Conventionally known as 'royal harems', they may in fact be royal granaries or royal accounts offices. Similarly, the extra women depicted as belonging to royal or noble households and traditionally described as 'concubines' are just as likely to be musicians, waitresses, or maiden aunts.

Given this degree of uncertainty, it is unsurprising that Tyldesley's account of Pharaonic women's sexual and social relationships, and their status in the community, is scrappy and vague: 'We do not know,' she writes; 'We have surprisingly little information'; 'We have no idea.' Her candour is bracing. I certainly prefer it to the ingenuity of the colleague she quotes who has managed to deduce the existence of a marriage ritual involving the eating of salt from the partially erased sentence 'While she was eating her . . . with Nekhmin.'

But it means that one arrives with some relief those chapters in her book dealing with areas in which archaeology can be trusted to illuminate. This book is at its most interesting when dealing with domestic architecture, clothes, food, laundry and moisturising cream, without which, as Tyldesley remarks in arch reference to the lotion-jars found in tombs, 'no fashionable Egyptian man or woman would be caught dead'.

'He is a cool room, that allows a man to sleep until the dawn,' says a hymn to King Senwosret III. Tyldesley is very good on the heat and dust of Egypt, and on the titanic amount of work involved in spinning, weaving and washing the immaculate white linen for which Egyptians were celebrated - work which was conventionally done by women (though great households employed washermen). She is able to give detailed, and therefore fascinating, information about eating habits. Egyptian cooks, with a good supply of fresh vegetables and fish, produced simpler and probably much better meals than their Roman successors, who were obliged to disguise stale meat with honey and spices. The New Kingdom vocabulary includes more than 40 different words for varieties of bread or cake.

Tyldesley tells us about beds (unusual enough to be taken as sure indicators of very high status) and breath-sweeteners (rendered necessary by a diet in which onion, garlic and radish predominated), about the Old Kingdom fashions which obliged women to be sewn into their dresses and about the more daring see-through style known as 'the fishing-net'.

She describes the cones of scented wax that party-goers wore on their heads, and explains why watering the vegetable garden with a woman's urine was an effective pregnancy test. Her book gives a picture of ancient Egyptian life all the better for being mainly concerned with trivial and material matters.

When it comes to higher things - religion, politics and love - what she has to say is more ambiguous. Egyptian women, who controlled their own property, enjoyed more legal rights than any European woman did until the end of the last century. Tyldesley quotes the case of a wife who lent her husband silver at the punitive rate of 30 per cent.

But those Roman authors who considered the Egyptians to be deplorably lacking in misogyny were only half right. 'Instructing a woman is like holding a sack of sand whose sides have split open,' wrote the scribe Ankhsheshonq. Only boys went to school. When Queen Hatchepsut, one of ancient Egypt's four 'female kings' (as distinct from queens-consort), appeared in state she wore - or is depicted as having worn - male clothes and a false beard. In Egypt, as in every other major civilisation to date, power was a masculine attribute.

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