Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum
- Dates: November 23, 2001 through February 24, 2002
- Collections: Egyptian, Classical, Ancient Near Eastern Art
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.
The Early New Kingdom Dynasty 18 (about 1550–1295 B.C.)
The New Kingdom, founded by King Ahmose, was Egypt’s imperial age. Under Ahmose’s successors, especially the conqueror Thutmosis III, Egypt extended its power to the east and the south, making it the strongest and wealthiest civilization the world had ever known. The art of this expanding empire expressed wealth and power through elegance and beauty. The costumes and adornments of the elite became increasingly elaborate.
Thebes, in southern Egypt, was the royal city of the Eighteenth Dynasty kings. The Valley of the Kings, on the Nile’s West Bank, was the royal burial ground, and huge royal funerary temples lined the bordering plain. The enormous head from the statue of Amenhotep III displayed in this gallery comes from his funerary temple, which today is almost destroyed, except for two gigantic seated statues of the king known as the Colossi of Memnon. Karnak, the main temple of the Theban god Amun, on the East Bank of the Nile, became one of the richest and largest in Egypt. The head of Thutmosis III in a tall crown and the cloaked figure of Senenmut with a princess displayed nearby are examples of the fine statues that once lined Karnak Temple’s corridors and courtyards.
Akhenaten and Tutankhamun Late Dynasty 18 (about 1352–1336 B.C.)
For thousands of years Egyptians worshiped many gods and goddesses. When King Akhenaten came to power in the late Eighteenth Dynasty, he rejected the traditional religion and worshiped only the sun’s disk, which was called the Aten. The king’s subjects, in turn, worshiped the royal family as the Aten’s descendants on earth. Akhenaten ordered the temples of the traditional gods and goddesses to be closed, and their images to be destroyed. The king founded a new capital city at a site in central Egypt now called Amarna, where he lived with his queen, Nefertiti, and their six daughters. The distinctive artistic style that developed in the Amarna Period began with exaggerated representations of the king’s long neck, drooping chin, and plump figure, and moved toward softer, more naturalistic depictions.
After Akhenaten’s death, Tutankhamun—who was probably his son—became king. Still a child, Tutankhamun was a leader only in name. Powerful officials exercised his authority, restored the old gods and their temples, and abandoned Amarna and the religion of the Aten. The elegant naturalism of the Amarna style continued, however, in sculpture such as the standing figure of Tutankhamun in this gallery.
A few years after Tutankhamun’s premature death, his chief-of-staff, named Horemheb, became king. This gallery includes a relief from the large, elegantly decorated tomb that he built for himself while he was serving Tutankhamun. For his successor, Horemheb chose a military colleague, Ramesses I, who founded the Nineteenth Dynasty.
The Scribe as Artist
In ancient Egypt, where very few people could write, scribes (writers) were highly respected professionals. Although the majority of scribes were not artists, most painters and sculptors were trained as scribes. This practice encouraged a close relationship between writing and art.
Egyptians wrote in combinations of flat, schematic pictures of plants, animals, and other objects. These images, known as hieroglyphs, had to be precisely drawn in order to be readable. Therefore, artistic and scribal training emphasized the importance of outlines in hieroglyphs and, consequently, in paintings and reliefs. This integration of writing and images helps explain why Egyptian artist-scribes drew figures and landscapes in a way that eliminated any sense of spatial depth, even when carved in relief. These intentionally flat images demonstrate an artistic sensibility very different from that associated with Western conventions of perspective.
Young scribes and artists learned their trade by copying the hieroglyphs and drawings of masters. When decorating the walls of tombs or temples, professional Egyptian artists probably worked from sketches and often used an underlying grid to ensure the correct proportions of figures. Egyptian scribes and artists used very simple tools: reeds with pointed or frayed ends were their pens and brushes. They used paint and ink made from pigments, such as red and yellow ocher and carbon, which were ground and mixed with water or a binding medium.
The works in this section demonstrate inventive solutions to various artistic challenges. In order to depict the many ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses with animal heads and human bodies, for example, artists carefully adjusted the proportions of the heads and bodies and covered the awkward join by adding a long wig. Human and animal shapes also inspired an ingenious interplay of form and function in decorative objects. The craftsman of the headrest in the shape of a hare displayed in this gallery designed it so that the sleek ears form the cradle for the owner’s head. The artist who made the statuette of a girl holding a box on her head that could be used for cosmetics answered his patron’s desire for a delightful, unique luxury item by portraying the figure in an unusual and naturalistic pose.
Ancient Egyptian craftsmen worked in a wide variety of media. Faience, a type of glazed ceramic invented by the Egyptians, was used to make objects ranging from jewelry and amulets to statuettes like the little figure of a monkey stealing a horse in the nearby case. In glass, ancient Egyptian craftsmen were able to produce such exquisite pieces as the fish and sphinx head in the nearby case, despite the technical challenge of being unable to melt glass to the point where it was easily workable. Even pottery, usually restricted to simple vessels, was sometimes used for human forms, such as the graceful figure of a woman playing a lute, in the same case.
Magic and Symbols in Egyptian Art
In ancient Egypt, religion and art were closely related. Egyptians believed that images of people or things could become magically alive when animated by the proper rituals and spells. The “cult” statue of a god in a temple, such as the silver figure of Amun displayed nearby, served as a body that the god could inhabit to receive worship and accept daily offerings from the priests. Kings placed their statues in temples to ally themselves with the gods and to serve them for eternity. Egyptians furnished their tombs with statues and painted or carved wall decorations. These images of the deceased were considered able to receive the offerings needed to sustain their souls in the Afterworld.
Ancient Egyptians also believed that various symbols—from images of plants and animals to hieroglyphs—possessed magical powers. Egyptians relied on them for protection from physical danger and demonic spirits, both on earth and in the Afterlife. Because Egyptians believed that the ankh sign, a hieroglyph meaning “life,” had the power to strengthen the life force, the represented it on many different kinds of objects, like the small ring in the nearby case. Egyptians from all levels of society possessed protective amulets.
The Late New Kingdom Dynasties 19 and 20 (about 1295–1069 B.C.)
The late New Kingdom is called the Ramesside Period, after its most important king, Ramesses II, known as Ramesses the Great. His long reign of sixty-seven years, his military prowess, and his colossal monuments and statues were models for his successors. Some of the structures he built—such as parts of the temples atKarnak and Luxor and the rock-cut temple at Abu Simbel in the far south—have survived. Many of his statues are extant as well, including a large pink granite bust from a standing figure of him in this exhibition.
Representations of Ramesses vary considerably, both in their facial features and bodily proportions, as do the statues of his contemporaries. At this time, elite individuals were shown wearing wigs and costumes that were even more elaborate than those of the earlier New Kingdom.
Ramesses’ successors tried to imitate his triumphs and artistic ambitions. Many of them even named themselves after their famous predecessor. None were as successful in their endeavors as Ramesses the Great, however, and Egypt’s empire began to fall to both dynastic quarrels and political turbulence abroad. The Twentieth Dynasty—and the New Kingdom—finally came to an end with Ramesses XI.
The Third Intermediate Period Dynasties 21–25 (about 1069–656 B.C.)
The kings of what we call the Third Intermediate Period were mostly of foreign ancestry. Those of the Twenty-first to Twenty-fourth Dynasties were descendants of Libyans who had long been settled in northern Egypt. The Twenty-fifth Dynasty was a family from the kingdom of Kush, in present-day Sudan. These kings practiced the Egyptian religion and adopted traditional royal regalia. Unlike their predecessors, however, few of them had firm control over the entire country. Despite political problems, Egyptian society and culture remained strong and stable throughout this period, and the arts flourished. Kings continued to build temples, which included great columned halls. The decorative top of a giant column from one of these halls is displayed in this gallery.
Artists of the Third Intermediate Period were encouraged to look to earlier Egyptian art for inspiration, but new artistic ideas also arose. One of the most striking of these innovations was the development of large or elaborately inlaid bronze statuary, exemplified in the richly decorated dress of a divine consort or queen on view nearby.
Looking to the Past: Archaism in Dynasties 25 and 26 (about 716–525 b.c.)
To ancient Egyptians, the past was always alive. It was part of the eternal cycle in which the sun rose and set each day, and of the unending chain of life, death, and rebirth. Throughout their history, ancient Egyptians continued to regard the reigns of strong earlier kings as models to be followed, especially during periods of political disturbance or social unrest.
Egyptians expressed this idealization of the past in many ways, including the imitation of earlier Egyptian art. This practice, called archaism, can be seen in Egyptian art as early as the Old Kingdom, but it reached its peak during the Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Dynasties, when its popularity helped to stimulate an artistic revival. Reliefs and statues made during these dynasties show influences from the art of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. Sometimes artists imitated the poses, costumes, and hairstyles of a single past period quite faithfully, but often they combined features from different periods in one work of art. For example, the kneeling statue of Nespakashuty holding an emblem of the goddess Hathor elegantly combines an Old Kingdom kilt with a typically NewKingdom pose, elaborate wig, and beard.
The Late Period Dynasties 26–30 (664–343 B.C.)
Under the strong kings of the Twenty-sixth (“Saite”) Dynasty, a number of new developments began that lasted for the rest of pharaonic history. One was an increase in the number of immigrants, many of them Greek, who came to Egypt as traders and soldiers. A second development was the emergence of a new artistic style that combined archaism (the imitation of earlier Egyptian art) with innovative elements. The result is an elegant, impersonal style, characterized by a move toward fleshier, more softly modeled forms. One distinctive feature of this new style is the little “Saite smile” with its deeply curved lower lip. This pleasant attribute can be seen on many of the statues of both kings and commoners displayed in this gallery.
Persian emperors defeated the last Saite king and ruled Egypt for more than a century (525–404 B.C.). When the native Egyptian kings of the Thirtieth Dynasty regained control of Egypt, they continued to build large temples, and they and their subjects had statues made that were based on the Twenty-sixth Dynasty style. This artistic mode had become so strongly identified with Egyptian tradition that the pharaohs of the following Ptolemaic Period also adopted it as their royal style.
The Ptolemaic and Roman Periods (332 B.C.–A.D. 642)
In 332 B.C. the Macedonian prince Alexander the Great expelled a second wave of Persian invaders from Egypt and added the country to his growing empire. Although Alexander himself held Egypt only until his death in 323 B.C., the Greek conquest of Egypt marked the end of native Egyptian rule. Alexander was eventually succeeded as king in Egypt by his boyhood friend and later general, Ptolemy, after whom the Ptolemaic Period is named. The fifteen rulers of this dynasty are notorious for their powerful ambitions and often violent political rivalries. The last of them—and probably the most capable—was the famous Cleopatra VII, who was ultimately unable to withstand the power of Rome. In 30 B.C. she and her consort Marc Antony were defeated by Augustus, and Egypt became the property of the Roman emperors.
Under the Ptolemies, Greek was the language of the government and Alexandria, the royal city, was a major center of Greek culture. Nevertheless, official policy encouraged the vast majority of Egyptians to live and worship according to their ancient traditions. The government also supported the construction of imposing temples decorated with wall reliefs representing the Ptolemies as traditional Egyptian pharaohs.
Although statues of these rulers and their Egyptian subjects often had faces with features based on Greek- and Roman-style portraits, they continued to have traditional Egyptian poses, costumes, and style, as in the standing statue nearby of a Ptolemaic pharaoh. Even for these last Greek and Roman rulers of ancient Egypt, who were faithful to their own Western religions and customs, ancient Egyptian art, culture, and traditions had an eternal appeal—which resonates with us today.