Ancient Egyptian Art: Made for Eternity
Ancient Egypt is the oldest known civilization in Africa and one of the earliest and greatest in the world. Along the Nile river, ancient Egyptians built innumerable temples and tombs, which they filled with resplendent works of art. Through surviving examples of such art objects, Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from The British Museum examines this culture’s history spanning more than three thousand years—from the first Egyptian rulers in 3100 B.C. through A.D. 170, when Egypt had been under Roman rule for about two centuries.
As in most ancient societies, power and wealth in Egypt belonged to a relatively small group of rulers and administrators. These elite individuals commissioned the greatest artists to create statues, reliefs, and paintings for their temples, where they worshiped the gods, and for their tombs, where they hoped to preserve the spirit as well as the memory of their dead. Although the majority of Egyptians owned only a few modest amulets (small, symbolic images worn or carried to provide magical protection), people who held moderately important positions, such as officials and priests, were often able to afford small statues and other objects including funerary articles, jewelry, and cosmetic vessels. As a result, ancient Egyptian art represents a considerable variety of media, styles, and purposes, revealing much about the civilization’s society, customs, and religious beliefs.
To emphasize the shifts in styles and conventions over ancient Egypt’s long history, most of the objects in this exhibition have been arranged in chronological order. The works displayed here demonstrate that, despite stylistic changes, central traditions and values of ancient Egyptian civilization and its representation endured over thousands of years. Through their art, the Egyptians themselves sought eternal life—a desire expressed in the hieroglyphic phrase ankh djet, which means “living eternally.”
From ancient Rome through the present day, Egyptian art has fascinated collectors, archaeologists, and general audiences. Some of the most important and exquisite surviving examples are preserved in The British Museum in London, whose renowned collection was assembled over more than two hundred years of exploration, excavation, bequests, and acquisition. This exhibition presents many of the finest and most famous objects from that great collection.
Edna R. Russmann
Curator, Department of Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art
Brooklyn Museum of Art
Kings and Dynasties
Kingship was so central to all aspects of the Egyptians’ government and religion that they based their historical records, from the First Dynasty (about 3100 B.C.), on the reigns of individual kings and their families, or dynasties. Almost three thousand years later (about 280 B.C.) an Egyptian priest named Manetho used this continuing record to write an important history of Egypt, in which he grouped all the kings into thirty dynasties. By Manetho’s time, the king was usually called pharaoh, which literally means “the palace” (much as Americans today often refer to the president as the White House).
Modern scholars have divided these dynasties into the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, the New Kingdom, and the Late Period. These times of strong central government are separated by eras of political instability, known as Intermediate Periods. Dates for most of ancient Egyptian history are still uncertain and sometimes change with continuing research. In this exhibition, dates are often preceded by the word “about.”
Representations of Egyptian kings show them with royal costumes and symbols, which include crowns or a royal headcloth (called a nemes), a cobra at the forehead (called a uraeus), and usually a traditional short kilt. Kings also sometimes wear a “royal beard,” an artificial rectangular piece attached to the chin with straps. In Egyptian art, royal names are written within an oval, which is known by the modern term cartouche.
Early Dynastic Period
Dynasties 1 and 2 (about 3100–2686 B.C.)
According to ancient Egyptian records, a king named Menes founded the First Dynasty by uniting northern and southern Egypt into a single kingdom. This unification under strong central government led to important social, economic, and artistic developments. Egyptian kings built huge tombs, filled with goods for the Afterlife, including precious works of art. First and Second Dynasty kings also built large ceremonial enclosures for their funerary rites. Although these structures were built in mud brick, Egyptians had already begun to use stone in tomb construction. Like the statues and reliefs depicting the king, these tombs were intended to last forever.
Few works of art have survived from this early period, however, because of destruction and theft by ancient tomb robbers seeking valuable treasures. Most of the surviving works are small objects that escaped the attention of these early thieves, such as the three ivories in the nearby case. Their sophisticated craftsmanship reflects a predynastic tradition of ivory carving that was already a thousand years old.
The Old Kingdom
Dynasties 3-6 (about 2686–2181 B.C)
The Old Kingdom was a period of intense creativity in ancient Egyptian art. In the Third and Fourth Dynasties, artistic activity centered on the need of the kings and their families to build and furnish their tombs for protection and longevity in the Afterlife. During the Fourth Dynasty, King Cheops built his tomb, the Great Pyramid, at Giza. His son Chephren built both a huge pyramid and the nearby Great Sphinx. These immense structures are perhaps the best-known surviving Egyptian monuments. In the sculpture made for these tombs, Egyptian artists began portraying the human figure with increased naturalism.
As in the First and Second Dynasties, the culture of the Old Kingdom focused on the all-important figure of the king. As this period progressed, however, the Egyptian economy and society grew richer and more complex, necessitating ever larger numbers of religious and governmental officials. By the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, an increasing number of priests and bureaucrats were building tombs, which they decorated with scenes of agriculture, fishing, and other daily activities. The depictions of such activities were intended to magically ensure an eternal supply of food and other goods for the deceased. These scenes provide precious information about the lives of ordinary people, who themselves could not afford decorated tombs or elaborate works of art.
The four wooden statues displayed nearby exemplify a new way of depicting the human body that was introduced late in the Old Kingdom (Sixth Dynasty). In contrast to the sturdy, muscular forms of early Old Kingdom stone statues, these figures have long, slender bodies, oversized heads, and large, staring eyes. The reasons for these stylistic changes are not clear, and scholars still do not understand why, in this period only, statues of high-ranking men and women were sometimes shown nude, without costumes or jewelry to indicate their status.
Most ancient Egyptian wooden statues, examples of which are displayed throughout this exhibition, were considerably smaller than life-size. Because the trees native to Egypt produced wood of poor quality, fine wood had to be imported from farther south in Africa or from the area of Lebanon, and was therefore expensive. In order to use wood most economically, Egyptian artists usually carved a statue’s head and body from a single piece and made the arms, the fronts of the feet, and the base separately. The dynamic striding figure of Meryrahashtef nearby is a rare exception, carved from a single piece of wood. Since wood is lighter and more easily worked than stone, wood carvers usually eliminated the filled-in spaces between the limbs as well as the back pillars typical of stone statuary.
The First Intermediate Period and the Early Middle Kingdom
Dynasties 9–11 (about 2160–1985 B.C.)
Egypt’s central government collapsed at the end of the Old Kingdom. The civil disorder of the First Intermediate Period that followed had a direct effect on Egyptian art. Artists in provincial centers had little training in the controlled, formal styles associated with the royal court, and they developed their own stylistic variations. In the stela (decorated stone slab) of Inyotef displayed nearby, the artist’s renderings of figures with large heads and hair textured by drill holes are signs of a regional style.
Toward the end of the First Intermediate Period, King Mentuhotep II rose to power. He eventually reunited Egypt, establishing the strong centralized government of the Middle Kingdom. One of Egypt’s most influential kings, Mentuhotep II had a large and lavishly decorated funerary temple built for him at Thebes, along the Nile river in southern Egypt. The head of a statue of him and three wall reliefs displayed nearby came from that now-ruined temple.
Stelae were used by Egyptians to commemorate their death and transition into the Afterworld. Decorated with funerary or offering scenes, they were located in or in front of tombs. Stelae were also placed in temples with representations of the king or private people, who thus served the gods eternally.
The High Middle Kingdom
Dynasty 12 (about 1985–1795 B.C.)
The powerful and capable kings of the Twelfth Dynasty moved their capital from Thebes, in southern Egypt, to Lisht, in the northern part of the country. This was a strategic move to strengthen their control over the entire country, but it also enhanced the influence of Old Kingdom art and architecture, which was still prominent in the north.
Like Old Kingdom rulers, Twelfth Dynasty kings had pyramids built as their tombs, testifying to their unity with Egypt’s past and assuring their own future in the Afterworld. The artist of the statue of Sesostris I whose upper half is on view in this gallery was strongly influenced by the sturdy naturalism of Old Kingdom sculpture, as is evident in the youthful face and body. The somber standing statue of his great-grandson, Sesostris III, and the colossal head of his great-great-grandson, Amenemhat III (displayed in the next room), show these later kings with unusually individualized features. They are also depicted with somber expressions, which appear to reflect a Middle Kingdom perception that kingship was a heavy and difficult burden.
The Late Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period
Dynasties 13–17 (about 1795–1550 B.C.)
The centralized government achieved by the kings of the High Middle Kingdom disintegrated under their Thirteenth Dynasty successors. Although we know very little about these kings, Egyptian records indicate that about fifty of them reigned over a period of 150 years, in what is known as the late Middle Kingdom. In that unsettled time, many artists consciously attempted to evoke the spirit of the great Twelfth Dynasty kings. As we can see in the statues displayed in this gallery, these artists often paired mature facial features with youthful bodies. This artistic combination echoes Twelfth Dynasty statues of the powerful kings Sesostris III and Amenemhat III.
Egypt’s political difficulties enabled rulers from the east called Hyksos (an Egyptian word meaning “chiefs of foreign lands”) to gain control over the northern part of the country. This period of foreign rule, known as the Second Intermediate Period, ended about 1550 B.C. At that time, a Theban dynasty under King Ahmose expelled the Hyksos, once again uniting Egypt and beginning the great era known today as the New Kingdom.
The Mummy as Statue
Ancient Egyptians preserved the bodies of their dead through mummification, a process of drying the body with salts and organic substances. They developed this practice because they believed that the body had to survive intact in order for the soul to enjoy eternal life in the Afterworld.
Egyptians designed various coverings—masks and coffins, for example—to protect the body physically. In addition, coffins and tomb walls were decorated with imagery of the gods and symbols of rebirth, to supply magical protection. In periods when people were buried in group tombs, dense coffin decoration, as on the intricately patterned lid displayed nearby, took the place of tomb wall decorations.
Ancient Egyptians believed that human-shaped coffins, mummy masks, and tomb statues could receive offerings of food on behalf of the deceased. During the New Kingdom and later, the coffin (with the mummy inside) was placed upright outside the tomb during the last rites, as if it were a statue of the deceased. Like the coffin lid, the much later coffin displayed in this gallery was designed to stand upright before being laid in the tomb.
The Book of the Dead: Drawing and Painting on Papyrus
Throughout their history, ancient Egyptians believed that their spirits could live forever in an underworld where the sun traveled through the night—a realm that combined features of life on earth and the mythical presence of the gods they worshiped. Increasingly, they came to think of their journey to the Afterworld as a difficult and sometimes dangerous one. To assist them in this passage, they developed what we now call the Book of the Dead, collections of magical spells that were placed in tombs. Scribes wrote these spells on long strips of papyrus, the earliest form of paper, which was made from stalks of the papyrus plant that grew along the Nile river. The spells were illustrated, sometimes with elaborate scenes.
An unusual painted scene from a Book of the Dead displayed in this gallery shows a couple with their earthly house and garden, worshiping the god Osiris in the mythical land of the Afterworld. Three other paintings in this gallery come from the most famous of all funerary papyri, made for a scribe named Ani. One scene depicts Ani’s funeral procession, and the others illustrate episodes in the Afterworld—the weighing of Ani’s heart (the final judgment of his soul) and his idyllic Afterlife. Another painting of the weighing of the heart displayed nearby, made almost a thousand years later, shows how little depictions of this scene changed over time.