EGYPTIAN ART AND ARCHAEOLOGY
By Alex G. Malloy from Official Guide To Artifacts Ancient CivilizationsThe dawn of civilization in ancient Egypt is lost in the mists of prehistory. We know that the fertile Nile Valley attracted early man to its vicinity but experts differ as to when it happened. The archaeological record goes back in an uninterrupted progression at least to the Neolithic period c. 5000 B.C. and some scholars want to push it back even further.
Environment and geography strongly affected the history of ancient Egypt. In fact it is one of the classic examples used by proponents of geographic determinism. In a largely rainless climate, Egypt’s high agricultural productivity depended on a long but very narrow flood plain formed by the Nile’s annual inundation. Periodic, long-term decreases in its volume might create social stress and political and military conflict, while increases in volume increased food supplies and favored stability and centralized government. It was thus in the interest of the Egyptians to do everything in their power to regulate its flow from establishing a stable and powerful central government to propitiating the various deities they believed responsible for its rise and fall. Despite the shortage of arable land, Egypt was, for much of its history, in a protected and resource rich geographic environment. The deserts to the east and west had valuable stones and minerals and helped protect Egypt from much external attack or infiltration. To the south (northeast Africa) and northwest (Syria-Palestine), however, important kingdoms developed. Egypt traded with and exploited these kingdoms, but was also sometimes threatened by them as in the period of the Hyksos domination. Beyond Syria-Palestine, greater powers – in North Africa, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Iran – were alternately Egypt’s allies and its rivals in Imperial expansion, but none was a direct threat before the 7th century B.C., so the Egyptians were able to enjoy thousands of years of development, for the most part, without foreign conquest. This goes a long way to explain the remarkable continuity of Egyptian culture over its long history. For example, once the Egyptian languages was explain the remarkable continuity of Egyptian culture over its long history. For example, once the Egyptian language was deciphered by the French scholar Jean Francois Champollion in the early 19th century (he was able to do this following the discovery some years earlier by Napoleon’s forces in Egypt of the Rosetta stone, whose bilingual inscriptions in Greek and the ancient language of Egypt enabled him to make the decisive breakthrough in the decipherment of the hieroglyphic script), scholars could basically read texts from the Old Kingdom to the Roman period, a span of thousands of years, despite the inevitable changes in the language over time. While it is true that during its life of more than 3,000 years, the language underwent substantial changes in grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, as well as in the number and character of the hieroglyphic signs used in writing it, it remained basically the same languages. From the before 2650 B.C., scribes, when writing in ink, often adopted a cursive hand, known as hieratic, which developed until it bore little resemblance to the hieroglyphic script, called demotic, evolved from hieratic in about the 7th century B.C. and continued as late as the 5th century A.D. Scholars were able to read this as well.
The importance to Egyptology of this ability to read ancient Egyptian cannot be underestimated. Documents in these three scripts cover a wide variety of subjects, including religion, magic, practical wisdom, belles letters, history, business, personal and legal matters, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy. Egyptologists of many nations have worked on these documents, publishing the texts with translations and commentaries, writing grammars, and compiling dictionaries. Although many of the original documents are damaged or incomplete, they have provided an invaluable insight into the mind of the ancient Egyptians. Try to read Chaucer in the original Middle English some time to get an idea of how the English language has changed over a far shorter period of time, and you will begin to understand the importance of linguistic continuity to ancient Egyptian culture. The archaeologist’s spade has played an equally important role in understanding ancient Egypt. The number of monuments and the quantity of objects available for study are enormous, chiefly because of the long history and pre-history of the ancient Egyptians, the use from an early date of stone, the preservative effects of Egypt’s dry climate, the rapid accumulation of wind-blown sand over edifices, and the burial of so much material of all kinds with the dead. The vast amount of material found in Egypt is certainly part of what makes Egypt such a magnet for the modern collector. To understand Egyptian art we must have some familiarity with Egyptian history. As noted, Egyptian civilization begins in the prehistoric period but scholars like to divide Egyptian history into periods roughly corresponding to the thirty dynasties of kings listed by Manetho, an Egyptian chronicler of the 3rd century B.C. The period before c. 3100 B.C., a time for which no written records exist and which is usually referred to as the prehistoric period in Egypt, is called the Pre-dynastic era. The process of Pre-dynastic cultural development is hard to follow in Egypt because major Pre-dynastic sites, on the flood plain, are inaccessible or destroyed and most data come from peripheral settlements and low-desert cemeteries. In northern Egypt, however, the development of Neolithic life can be traced at Merimdeh and in the Fayum sites which date back to at least 5000-4000 B.C. There and elsewhere in the North, the pervasive Northern culture emerged, characterized by monochrome pottery using incised and applied decoration. The earliest Neolithic phases of Southern Egypt are not yet identified, but two cultures existed there by c. 4000 B.C.: the Tasian, influenced by the North, and the Badarian, which originated in the Eastern desert. The former evolved into phases labeled Nakada I (also called the Amratian) and II (also called the Gerzean), representing a material culture very different from that of the North. In the South, among other differences, pottery is more varied in fabric, often has a black top, and favors painted decoration. This pottery is highly prized by collectors and a nice specimen can bring hundreds of dollars today.
According to later traditions, by late pre-dynastic times about 3300 B.C., chiefdoms had coalesced into two competitive kingdoms, Northern and Southern. Gradually, the characteristic material culture of the South had been spreading, and it replaced the once different one of northern Egypt in Nakada III. The Pre-dynastic Egyptians probably traded with Syria, Palestine, and northeast Africa throughout Pre-dynastic times. Mesopotamian-style cylinder seals, pottery, and artistic motifs have been found in Pre-dynastic sites but these may have come through intermediaries rather than by direct contact.
The two Pre-dynastic kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were apparently unified by King Narmer. A famous ceremonial slate palette shows him surveying slaughtered prisoners, striking a Northern enemy, and wearing the regalia of both kingdoms. He and his immediate predecessors were buried at Abydos, at or near the Southern capital. Narmer’s successors were the Pharaohs (kings) of the 1st and 2nd dynasties. Memphis became the new capital of United Egypt, and 1st dynasty, c. 2686-2613 B.C., when much larger royal tombs, now dominated by step pyramids in stone, were built at Saqqara. The best preserved is Zoser’s step pyramid. Even more dramatic were the world famous pyramids of the 4th dynasty at Giza. Cheops’s Giza pyramid was the largest ever built. Pyramids of the 5th and 6th dynasties at Abusir and Saqqara were smaller but still impressive. Many theories have been expounded regarding the pyramids and their use, but one thing is abundantly clear from the archaeological record – materials, organization, and labor required by the pyramids, and the many estates supporting the cult and personnel of each, clearly reveal the king’s firm control over Egypt and its resources.
Initially, the royal court with its adjacent cemeteries was the major center of intellectual, artistic, and architectural activity, but as towns began to develop in various parts of Egypt, they too shared in the cultural life of the time. Royal relatives and central officials were buried under Mastabas, rectangular superstructures of brick or stone. The Mastabas contained chapels and other rooms, increasing in number over time and opening up more wall space to be covered with reliefs and paintings. These depicted the funerary cult, and also the preparation of a multitude of foods, liquids, and objects for the benefit of the deceased. These Mastaba tombs were the prototypes for the Egyptian tombs of later periods. The Egyptian art which decorated their walls as all Egyptian art followed conventions which were established at an early date.
Centralized rule began to break down under the 7th dynasty. The ensuing chaotic period is known as the First Intermediate period c. 2181-2040 B.C. The Memphite monarchs were powerless to prevent provincial warlords from fighting each other over territory. Eventually two separate kingdoms emerged, one ruled by the 9th and 10th dynasties from Heracleopolis, the other by the 11th dynasty from Thebes. They tried to dominate each other but were mutually unsuccessful until the 20th century B.C, when the 11th dynasty kings conquered the North and rebuilt a centralized monarchy, inaugurating the Middle Kingdom which found its height in the 12th dynasty.
Amenemhet I founded the 12th dynasty in approximately 1991 B.C. He worked hard to restore royal prestige, seriously damaged by civil war and periodic famine in the First Intermediate Period. Its kings, living near Memphis, reduced provincial power and developed a loyal central elite. Funerary beliefs and rituals changed; the pyramid tombs of Old Kingdom royalty were redefined and new types of punerary furniture such as elaborate tomb models were introduced. The very rituals, once largely restricted to kings, now spread throughout all classes. The names of private individuals began to appear on scarabs and increasingly elaborate and private tombs of new designs , albeit often based on the Mastaba prototype, began to appear. Middle Kingdom art, although it follows the conventions common to all Egyptian art, is often seen today as more in tune with modern tastes for realism than the art of other periods and is thus highly regarded by most collectors.
Following the 12th dynasty a new period of decline set in called the Second Intermediate period c. 1786-1567 B.C. Highly officials became so powerful in the 13th dynasty a new period of decline set called the Second Intermediate period c. 1786-1567 B.C. High officials became so powerful in the 13th dynasty that they manipulated the fought over the royal succession. Centralized power was disrupted and Egypt lay open to foreign domination. The Cushites of Upper Nubia occupied Lower Nubia, while Syro-Palestinians conquered Egypt itself established the 15 dynasty. These Hyksos exploited Egyptian ideology but in many respects remained Syro-Palestinian in culture. Some Biblical scholars identify the period with the Biblical story of the Patriarchs and the sojourn of the Hebrew people in Egypt. Eventually, Theban vassals of the 17th dynasty began a war of independence, resisted by an alliance of Hyksos and Cushites.
Art styles of the Second Intermediate Period are markedly different from the Middle Kingdom, not surprisingly, often showing a heavy Easter influence. For example, Semitic names frequently appear on scarabs, and pottery, based on fertile crescent prototypes, appears. Egyptian influence continues to predominate, however, and the art of this period presents many interesting stylistic aspects for the collectors and scholar alike.
Expelling the Hyksos, the Theban insurgents of the 17th dynasty founded the 18th dynasty, inaugurating ancient Egypt’s most brilliant period, the New Kingdom 1570-1085 B.C. Its rulers included some of the greatest of all Pharaohs, whose very name was a magic amulet hundreds of years later; Akhenaten, the heretic, who tried to institute a form of monotheism; and the great king Ramses II who may have been the pharaoh of the Exodus. The New Kingdom was the “Golden Age” of ancient Egypt.
The art of ancient Egypt also reached its height in the New Kingdom. Although much did not survive the ravages of time, much did, such as the almost untouched treasures found in the tomb of a very minor pharaoh, Tutankhamen. What the funerary furniture of the great pharaohs such as Seti and Ramses II was like, we can only guess. Not only royalty but middle-class peoples, who included many craftsmen, were well off, as can be seen from the prosperous village of Deir el Medinah, housing for 400 years the artisans who cut and decorated the royal tombs and is even now being excavated. Even minor arts were very well developed. Many of the less important finds unearthed in Tutankhamen’s tomb such as Tutankhamen’s thrones, weapons, and chairs were well crafted in exotic woods. Exquisite jewelry, amulets, scarabs, ushabtis, and other objects in stone, metal, and other materials are frequently founded in Egyptian tombs and other archaeological sites.
Royal tombs in the New Kingdom show a radical change. The pyramids and mastabas of earlier generations were abandoned, to be taken over in the New Kingdom show a radical change. The pyramids and mastabas of earlier generations were abandoned, to be taken over in a smaller scale by private tombs. Nearly all New Kingdom royal tombs are tunnels cut in the walls of the remote Valley of the Kings, their walls covered with a brightly painted underworld full of gods and demons. Royal funerary cult rites were performed in the temples separate from the tombs and at the tombs and at the foot of the cliffs fronting the valley.
The New Kingdom was at its height in the 18th and 19th dynasties, but it began to decline in the 20th, and both the dynasty and the period ended in a civil war under Ramses XI. After 1085 B.C., Egypt split between to decline in the 20th , and both the dynasty and the period ended in a civil war under Ramses XI. After 1085 B.C., Egypt split between a Northern 21st dynasty claiming national recognition and a line of Theban generals and high priests of Amun who actually controlled the South. Thus was the Third Intermediate Period ushered in. The 22nd dynasty rose from long-settled Libyan mercenaries and used a decentralized system, with kings based in the North and their sons ruling key centers elsewhere. Rivalries and sporadic civil wars resulted, and by the 8th century B.C. Egypt had divided into eleven autonomous states, their subjects dependent on congested, walled towns for security and exhibiting increased anxiety by adherence to local rather than national gods.
By the 25th dynasty the country once again fell into foreign hands. The Cushite rulers of the 25th dynasty brought limited unity and resisted Assyrian expansion into Syria-Palestine. Assyria occupied Egypt 617, 667-664 B.C., but a 26th dynasty regained independence and instituted an artistic revival which provides us with much of the Egyptian art on the market today. It did not last, however, The Persians ruled Egypt from 525 to 404 B.C., and again from 341 to 333 B.C. In the 4th century B.C, Egypt was wrested from Persia by Alexander the Great. Alexander’s general Ptolemy I established a Macedonian dynasty that ruled the country for over 300 years. Although the Ptolemies supported traditional religion, native Egyptians resented the Greek officials and soldiers. A Roman takeover followed the death of Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic ruler, in 30 B.C. For about two centuries, conditions were favorable under the Romans who respected Egyptian civilization, and who even adopted some of her deities into their pantheon. Although some distinctions between Hellenized and traditional Egyptians were broken down during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, traditional life continued everywhere, Greek civilization being confined to Alexandria and a few other towns. Temples continued to be built in traditional form, but art had a hybrid quality. Wall scenes in tombs show a sometimes skillful but often clumsy mix of Egyptian and Hellenized Greek styles and subjects. Later, emperors’ faces in realistic Roman style were grafted incongruously into traditional statues of the pharaoh, and realistic portraits, painted on wood, were integrated with Egyptian-style mummies and coffins. Sacred bird and animal cults were now especially popular, and many, sometimes striking, images were produced. This process continued into the Coptic period, the last to see a truly Egyptian art. During the independent Coptic period from the 4th to the 7th century A.D., which ended with the Arab conquest op 639-42 A.D., Christian images and religious practices gradually supplanted the ancient Egyptian culture.
Egyptian art has fascinated collectors and connoisseurs for millennia. Perhaps on reason is that, although it appears realistic, it followed certain conventions which remained dominant throughout its history. In painting and relief, human and animal figures are drawn according to a set of fixed proportions, and reality is ignored so as to present the most characteristics aspects. Humans, for example, almost always have heads, legs, and feet in profile but eye and torso presented frontally. Figures were scaled according to their importance, and perspective is not depicted. Landscapes were sometimes depicted. Landscapes were sometimes depicted in schematic form, but architecture was rarely shown. Subject matter is also highly selective, for an idealized world is shown; aging, disease, injury, and death are usually omitted, except for inferior beings such as foreigners and animals. Painting, relief, and sculpture were used mainly for temples and tombs, and consisted of representations of gods, kings, and Painting, relief, and sculpture were used mainly for temples and tombs, and deceased individuals. Complex compositions were avoided, although sometimes two or more figures might be shown side by side. Life-size statues were not uncommon, but most were smaller; colossal royal figures embellished temples. As in painting, set conventions were closely followed in statuary. Whether seated or standing, figures are always facing forward, with arms and legs in standardized positions.
Technically Egyptian sculpture and other art forms were often superb, although many clumsy works were also produced, but sculpture and other purported ancient art which ignores the major or minor conventions established by the Egyptians is often a tip-off for spotting a modern forgery. The vast richness of Egyptian art cannot begin to be done justice in this brief introduction, and the serious collector will make it a lifelong study.
TOOLS AND WEAPONS As in many archaeological excavations, tools and weapons in iron, bronze even precious metals are often founded in Egyptian excavations of various periods. Many military items such as bows, arrowheads, swords, axes, spearheads and even whole chariots have been found in Egyptian tombs. Agricultural and domestic tools of various kinds-hoes, picks, hammers, and the like, to name only a few, are often available to the collector. Nice Egyptian tools and many weapons can sometimes be acquired for under $200.
Pottery is quite plentiful in Egyptian tombs. Unfortunately, with the exception of the Pre-dynastic and New Kingdom and Roman periods, it is usually quite utilitarian and plain in nature. Roman period pottery from Egypt is rather distinctive and ranges from the simple to the elaborately painted. Often it is mold decorated with interesting designs in relief, for example, the highly decorated pilgrim flasks which occasionally appear on the market. Some Pre-dynastic, New Kingdom and Roman pottery found in Egypt is painted usually in a geometric style. Types of pottery, as usual, include domestic vessels of various wares, oil lamps often with relief decoration, most of which date to the Ptolemaic/Roman periods, some ritual vessels particularly in the New Kingdom, architecture elements such as tiles, and various types of pottery used in the extensive Egyptian funerary rites. Pottery coffins have been found in some excavations. Fine examples of Egyptian pottery from various periods can often be purchased by the astute collectors for under $200.
As has been noted elsewhere terracotta is a type of hard-baked clay, usually rendered brownish red in color. It was used extensively in ancient Egypt from the earliest times particularly for the production of sculptures of various sizes. Pottery sculpture representing deities, animals, objects, people, and even toys, is found in large quantities in Roman-Egyptian sites. Because of this, Roman period Egyptian sculpture is relatively cheap on the antiquities market. Pottery sculptures of earlier periods is rarer, although tomb models and other magical figures such as New Kingdom “concubine figures” appear with some regularity on the market. As with other Roman period pottery, a somewhat worn Roman-Egyptian head from a statuette, for example, might be purchased for as little as $10 while a superb example might go several hundred. Earlier pottery sculptural pieces such as Middle Kingdom offering tables and New Kingdom “concubine figures” appear from time to time as well.
Faience generally refers to a type of tin-glazed earthenware that became popular throughout Europe from the 16th century. This is confusing because the term is also used by archaeologist and art historians for a type of vitreous paste used, particularly in ancient Egypt, for the manufacture of small-scale sculptures and objects such as amulets, seals and ushabti figures (the ubiquitous Egyptian servants of the dead found in large numbers in most Egyptian burials). Faience came in many colors, blue green being the most popular, but when found today it has often faded almost to white. Faience objects which retain their original color are thus highly prized by collectors. A true glass paste called “Egyptian Blue” which was also in widespread use in ancient Egypt is often confused with faience by the novice collectors as is glazed steatite, a soft glazed stone often used by the ancient Egyptians for the same types of objects faience was. Amulets, ushabti figures and the like in faience are quite readily available to the collector of even very modest means.
METAL OBJECTSSome Egyptian metalwork has survived from antiquity. Ranging from simple cooking pots to elaborate vessels made of precious metals, these objects can often be of great artistic merit, and some such as Tutankhamen’s gold funerary mask are among the most famous of all Egyptian antiquities. The numerous metal sculptures which frequently appear on the market date to various but were particularly popular in the Late Period c. 600 B.C. These sculptures were often for religious use, representing the various deities of the Egyptian pantheon: Osiris, Isis, Horus, etc. Many sculptures were made for political use and/or public display. Small sculptures of animals sacred to the Egyptian deities – cats, ibises, fish and the like – are also quite common. While usually relatively expensive, good examples of Egyptian metalwork can sometimes be acquired for as little as $150.
WOOD AND CARTONAGE OBJECTSDespite the fact that much of the wood used in ancient Egypt had to be imported from elsewhere, its extremely dry climate meant that materials such as wood and cartonage (a type of stucco sculpture made from plaster applied to a cloth or papyrus base and usually painted) have survived in Egypt in quantities not found elsewhere in the ancient world. The most common objects in cartonage were mummy masks and coffins, large numbers of which, particularly from later periods, have survived. Cartonage masks are in particular demand by collectors because they are often sculpted in wood such as the Ptah seker Ausar figures of the Late Period, and the detailed tomb models of the Middle Kingdom. Small objects such as amulets and even scarabs were also made of wood on occasion. Even some utilitarian objects such as doors, boats, combs, etc., have been found in Egyptian excavations. For the collectors interested in these perishable materials no place in the ancient world offers a more fertile prospect of forming a collection than Egypt.
STONE OBJECTSStone objects from Egypt are quiet varied. Utilitarian objects such as stone vessels and cosmetic pallets are fairly common from the Pre-dynastic period to the Roman period. Much of ancient Egyptian architecture was in stone. Stone sculpture both in the round and in relief was in widespread use for the decoration of tombs, temples and residences throughout Egyptian history. Sculpture in stone, although formalized according to the conventions of ancient Egyptian art, often has a haunting beauty which has captured the imagination of its beholders throughout the ages. Perhaps because of this, Egyptian stone sculpture is among the most desirable of all collectors antiquities. Although great works of the Egyptian sculpture’s art are beyond the scope of the average collector, many objects in stone can be hard for relatively modest sums.
Scarabaeus sacer is the Latin name for the dung beetle. This particular variety, which was the type variety for the family Scarabaeidae, was sacred to the ancient Egyptians. They connected its habits of rolling balls of dung around their eggs with their concept of eternal life in the afterworld (actually several members of the family Scarabaeidae were venerated). Representations of this beetle were very common in Egyptian art and a whole class of seals and amulets were made in its image. These scarabs, as they are called today, were manufactured in a wide variety of materials of including faience, stone, glass, and bone, from the Old Kingdom through the Roman period. They often bear various designs on their base including the names of various individuals both noble and common. The most interesting are those bearing the names of the pharaohs. The names of most of the royal Egyptian personages have been found on scarabs. The more popular pharaohs’ names such as Thothmes III appear to have been used for hundreds of years after their demise. This was due to the fact that the very name of a great pharaoh was deemed to bring good luck to the bearer since the pharaoh was a deity in his own right. This name and/or the figures of other Egyptian deities are also quiet common on these small seals. Egyptian scarabs are eminently collectables and many great collections have been formed. Indeed so varied and numerous are they that scarab collecting might be considered a sub-field all by itself. Many antiquities dealers have issued catalogs entirely devoted to scarabs. Like ancient coins, scarabs can be purchased for prices ranging from a few dollars to many thousands depending on rarity, condition and the prevailing market.
AMULETSThe ancient Egyptian were great believers in magic, and the use of amulets for protections and benefit was integral part of their religious belief and practice. The variety of amulets found in Egyptian excavations is mind boggling. Literally hundreds, if not thousands, of types have been identified by Egyptologists. The materials used in their manufacture are manifold-various stones, colored faience, wood, glass, bronze, silver, gold, ivory, and many other materials were all used. Each material undoubtedly had a special meaning to the Egyptians, as we know from surviving magical papyri. Amulets were fashioned in the shape of sacred animals such as the cat, or of deities such as Isis, or of symbols such as the eye of Horus. They might also take the shape of hieroglyphic signs or any number of other things. The modern collector often sees in Egyptian amulets a quaint assembly of animals, deities, and objects d’ art, but to the ancient Egyptians they were a sacred chance to influence their lives. They were manufactured in vast quantities and many have survived. Since they are so numerous on the market the collectors of almost any means can find amulets in his or her price range.
Glass was in use in ancient Egypt from very early times. During the New Kingdom glass vessels made by the core form method were sometimes found in the tombs of the wealthy. Not much of this early glass has survived, however, and even a fragment can fetch a good price.
Ancient Egyptian jewelry, like most ancient jewelry, can be of precious metal or base metal. Many stones and beads of faience and other materials were also used in the making of jewelry. Personal ornaments was widespread among both men and women in all periods of ancient Egypt. Much jewelry has survived due to the Egyptian practice of burying the deceased with all of his or her finery. Pins, rings, bracelets, earrings, and necklaces are all found as are some purely Egyptian forms such as golden toe covers. Many amulets and seals were also worn as jewelry both by the living and the deceased. Although gold and silver objects are usually high priced, faience jewelry is within the reach of most collectors.
Written records exist from most periods of Egyptian history, although they could be read in relatively modern times. They have fascinated scholars for millennia. The hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts were in use from the Old Kingdom onward the demotic script was in widespread use in later times. During the Ptolemaic and later Roman period, Greek and Latin were in common use. It was the finding of the Rosetta stone inscribed in hieroglyphics and Greek which allowed for the decipherment of the ancient Egyptian language. Inscriptions often appear on objects of stone, metal, pottery, faience objects as ushabtis. Most of the written records were on papyrus, much of which has survived due to the climate. Of particular interest are the so-called Books of the Dead. Many public and private inscriptions were carved in stone, much of which has survived. For example, most funerary monuments, particularly sarcophagi and the wall of the tomb, were almost always inscribed. Many utilitarian objects such as mirrors, combs, et.c, also bore inscriptions. Seals, particularly scarabs, are also an important source for epigraphic knowledge. Many an interesting collection of Egyptian art has been devoted solely to Egyptian writing.