Art of ancient Egypt
Ancient Egyptian art refers to paintings, sculptures, architecture, and other arts produced in ancient Egypt between the 31st century BC and the 4th century AD. It is very conservative; Egyptian styles changed remarkably little over time. Much of the surviving art comes from tombs and monuments, which have given more insight on the Egyptians' belief of the afterlife. This has caused a greater focus on preserving the knowledge of the past. Wall art was not produced for people to look at but it had a purpose in the afterlife and in rituals.
|Ancient art history|
Ancient Egyptian art included paintings, sculptures in wood, stone and ceramics, drawings on papyrus, faience, jewelry, ivories, and other art media. It displays a vivid representation of the ancient Egyptians' socioeconomic status and belief systems.
The Ancient Egyptian language had no word for "art". Artworks served an essentially functional purpose that was bound with religion and ideology. To render a subject in art was to give it permanence. Hence, ancient Egyptian art portrayed an idealized, unrealistic view of the world. There was no tradition of individual artistic expression since art served a wider and cosmic purpose of maintaining order.
- 1 Art of Pre-Dynastic Egypt (6000–3000 BC)
- 2 Art of Dynastic Egypt
- 3 Characteristics of ancient Egyptian art
- 4 Materials
- 5 Painting
- 6 Sculpture
- 7 Pottery
- 8 Architecture
- 9 Jewelry
- 10 Calligraphy
- 11 Furniture
- 12 Fashion
- 13 Cosmetics
- 14 Music
- 15 Funerary art
- 16 Art of Meroë
- 17 References
- 18 Sources
- 19 Further reading
- 20 External links
Art of Pre-Dynastic Egypt (6000–3000 BC)
Continued expansion of the desert forced the early ancestors of the Egyptians to settle around the Nile and adopt a more sedentary lifestyle during the Neolithic. The period from 9000 to 6000 BC has left very little archaeological evidence, but around 6000 BC, Neolithic settlements began to appear all over Egypt. Studies based on morphological, genetic, and archaeological data have attributed these settlements to migrants from the Fertile Crescent returning during the Neolithic Revolution, bringing agriculture to the region. However, other regions in Africa independently developed agriculture at about the same time: the Ethiopian highlands, the Sahel, and West Africa.
Merimde culture (5000–4200 BC)
From about 5000 to 4200 BC, the Merimde culture, known only from a large settlement site at the edge of the Western Nile Delta, flourished in Lower Egypt. The culture has strong connections to the Faiyum A culture as well as the Levant. People lived in small huts, produced simple undecorated pottery and had stone tools. Cattle, sheep, goats and pigs were raised and wheat, sorghum and barley were planted. The Merimde people buried their dead within the settlement and produced clay figurines. The first Egyptian life-size head made of clay comes from Merimde.
Badarian culture (4400–4000 BC)
The Badarian culture, from about 4400 to 4000 BC, is named for the Badari site near Der Tasa. It followed the Tasian culture (c. 4500 BC) but was so similar that many consider them one continuous period. The Badarian culture continued to produce the kind of pottery called blacktop-ware (albeit much improved in quality) and was assigned sequence dating (SD) numbers 21–29. The primary difference that prevents scholars from merging the two periods is that Badarian sites use copper in addition to stone and are thus chalcolithic settlements, while the Neolithic Tasian sites are still considered Stone Age.
Mortuary figurine of a woman; 4400–4000 BC; crocodile bone; height: 8.7 cm; Louvre
Decorated jar with two boats; 4400–3800 BC; painted pottery; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
String of beads; 4400–3800 BC; the beads are made of bone, serpentinite and shell; length: 15 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art
Naqada culture (4000–3000 BC)
The Naqada culture is an archaeological culture of Chalcolithic Predynastic Egypt (c. 4400–3000 BC), named for the town of Naqada, Qena Governorate. It is divided into three sub-periods: Naqada I, II and III.
The Amratian (Naqada I) culture lasted from about 4000 to 3500 BC. Black-topped ware continues to appear, but white cross-line ware – a type of pottery which has been decorated with crossing sets of close parallel white lines – is also found at this time. The Amratian period falls between 30 and 39 SD.
White cross-lined ware vase with plant designs; 3900–3700 BC; painted pottery; 28 × 11.1 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Gerzean culture (Naqada II), from about 3500 to 3200 BC, is named after the site of Gerzeh. It was the next stage in Egyptian cultural development, and it was during this time that the foundation of Dynastic Egypt was laid. Gerzean culture is largely an unbroken development of Amratian culture, starting in the Nile delta and moving south through upper Egypt, but failing to dislodge Amratian culture in Nubia. Gerzean pottery has been assigned SD values of 40 through 62, and is distinctly different from Amratian white cross-lined wares or black-topped ware. Gerzean pottery was painted mostly in dark red with pictures of animals, people, and ships, as well as geometric symbols that appear to have been derived from animals. Wavy handles, which were rare before this period (though occasionally found as early as SD 35) became more common and more elaborate until they were almost completely ornamental.
Although the Gerzean culture has been clearly identified as being the continuation of the Amratian period, significant amounts of Mesopotamian influences worked their way into Egypt during the Gerzean, which are indicative of Egypt–Mesopotamia relations.
Distinctly foreign objects and art forms entered Egypt during this period, indicating contacts with several parts of Asia, with particular artistic influence from Mesopotamia. Objects such as the Gebel el-Arak knife handle, which has patently Mesopotamian relief carvings on it, have been found in Egypt, and the silver which appears in this period can only have been obtained from Asia Minor.
In addition, Egyptian objects had been created which clearly mimic Mesopotamian forms. Cylinder seals appeared in Egypt, as well as recessed paneling architecture. The Egyptian reliefs on cosmetic palettes had been made in the same style as the contemporary Mesopotamian Uruk culture, and ceremonial mace heads from the late Gerzean and early Semainean are crafted in the Mesopotamian "pear-shaped" style, instead of the Egyptian native style.
The route of this trade is difficult to determine, but contact with Canaan does not predate the early dynastic, so it is usually assumed to have been by water. During the time when the Dynastic Race Theory was popular, it was theorized that Uruk sailors circumnavigated Arabia, but a Mediterranean route, probably by middlemen through Byblos, is more likely, as evidenced by the presence of Byblian objects in Egypt.
The fact that so many Gerzean sites are at the mouths of wadis which lead to the Red Sea may indicate some amount of trade via the Red Sea (though Byblian trade potentially could have crossed the Sinai and then taken to the Red Sea). Also, it is considered unlikely that something as complicated as recessed panel architecture could have worked its way into Egypt by proxy, and at least a small contingent of migrants is often suspected.
Despite this evidence of foreign influence, Egyptologists generally agree that the Gerzean Culture is predominantly indigenous to Egypt.
Protodynastic Period (Naqada III)
Naqada III is notable for being the first era with hieroglyphs (though this is disputed by some), the first regular use of serekhs, the first irrigation, and the first appearance of royal cemeteries. The art of the Naqada III period had become quite sophisticated, exemplified by cosmetic palettes. These had been used in predynastic Egypt to grind and apply ingredients for facial or body cosmetics; by the Protodynastic period, the decorative palettes appear to have lost this function and had become commemorative, ornamental, and possibly ceremonial. They were made almost exclusively from siltstone, which originated from quarries in the Wadi Hammamat. Many of the palettes were found at Hierakonpolis, a center of power in predynastic Upper Egypt. After the unification of the country, the palettes ceased to be included in tomb assemblages.
Art of Dynastic Egypt
Early Dynastic Period (3100–2686 BC)
The Early Dynastic Period of Egypt immediately follows the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, c. 3100 BC. It is generally taken to include the First and Second Dynasties, lasting from the end of the Naqada III archaeological period until about 2686 BC, or the beginning of the Old Kingdom.
Cosmetic palettes reached a new level of sophistication during this period, in which the Egyptian writing system also experienced further development. Initially, Egyptian writing had been composed primarily of a few symbols denoting amounts of various substances. In the cosmetic palettes, symbols were used together with pictorial descriptions. By the end of the Third Dynasty, this had been expanded to include more than 200 symbols, both phonograms and ideograms.
Old Kingdom Period (2686–2181 BC)
The Old Kingdom of Egypt is the period spanning c. 2686–2181 BC. It is also known as the "Age of the Pyramids" or the "Age of the Pyramid Builders", as it encompasses the reigns of the great pyramid builders of the Fourth Dynasty. King Sneferu perfected the art of pyramid-building and the pyramids of Giza were constructed under the kings Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. Egypt attained its first sustained peak of civilization, the first of three so-called "Kingdom" periods (followed by the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom) which mark the high points of civilization in the lower Nile Valley.
Stela of Tjetji; 2112–2055 BC; limestone; height: 148 cm (stela in total); British Museum (London)
Colossal statue of Menkaura; 2548–2530 BC; alabaster; Museum of Fine Arts (Boston)
Middle Kingdom Period (c. 2055–1650 BC)
The Middle Kingdom of Egypt (a.k.a. "The Period of Reunification") follows a period of political division known as the First Intermediate Period. The Middle Kingdom lasted from around 2050 BC to around 1710 BC, stretching from the reunification of Egypt under the reign of Mentuhotep II of the Eleventh Dynasty to the end of the Twelfth Dynasty. The Eleventh Dynasty ruled from Thebes and the Twelfth Dynasty ruled from el-Lisht. During the Middle Kingdom period, Osiris became the most important deity in popular religion. The Middle Kingdom was followed by the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt, another period of division that involved foreign invasions of the country by the Hyksos of West Asia.
After the reunification of Egypt in the Middle Kingdom, the kings of the Eleventh and Twelfth Dynasties were able to return their focus to art. In the Eleventh Dynasty, the kings had their monuments made in a style influenced by the Memphite models of the Fifth and early Sixth Dynasties. During this time, the pre-unification Theban relief style all but disappeared. These changes had an ideological purpose, as the Eleventh Dynasty kings were establishing a centralized state, and returning to the political ideals of the Old Kingdom. In the early Twelfth Dynasty, the artwork had a uniformity of style due to the influence of the royal workshops. It was at this point that the quality of artistic production for the elite members of society reached a high point that was never surpassed, although it was equaled in other periods. Egypt prospered in the late Twelfth Dynasty, and this was reflected in the quality of the materials used for royal and private monuments.
New Kingdom Period (c. 1550–1069 BC)
The New Kingdom, also referred to as the "Egyptian Empire", is the period between the 16th and 11th centuries BC, covering the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties of Egypt. The New Kingdom followed the Second Intermediate Period and was succeeded by the Third Intermediate Period. It was Egypt's most prosperous time and marked the peak of its power.
Amarna art (c. 1350 BC)
The Amarna period is named for the extensive archeological site at Amarna, where pharaoh Akhenaten moved the capital in the late Eighteenth Dynasty. This period, and the years leading to it, form the most drastic interruption to the continuity of style in the Old and New Kingdoms. Amarna art is characterized by a sense of movement and activity in images, with figures having raised heads, many figures overlapping and many scenes full and crowded. As the new religion was a monotheistic worship of the sun, sacrifices and worship were apparently conducted in open courtyards, and sunk relief decoration was widely used in these.
The human body is portrayed differently in the Amarna style than Egyptian art on the whole. For instance, many depictions of Akhenaten's body give him distinctly feminine qualities, such as large hips, prominent breasts, and a larger stomach and thighs. This is a divergence from the earlier Egyptian art which shows men with perfectly chiseled bodies. Faces are still shown exclusively in profile.
Not many buildings from this period have survived, partially as they were constructed with standard-sized blocks, known as Talatat, which were very easy to remove and reuse. Temples in Amarna, following the trend, did not follow traditional Egyptian customs and were open, without ceilings, and had no closing doors. In the generation after Akhenaten's death, artists reverted to their old styles. There were still traces of this period's style in later art, but in most respects, Egyptian art, like Egyptian religion, resumed its usual characteristics as though the period had never happened. Amarna itself was abandoned and considerable effort was undertaken to deface monuments from the reign, including disassembling buildings and reusing the blocks with their decoration facing inwards, as has recently been discovered in one later building.
Blue-painted storage jar; 1353–1336 BC; painted pottery; height: 69 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
Statue of Akhenaten; c. 1350 BC; painted sandstone; 1.3 × 0.8 × 0.6 m; Louvre
The Late Period (c. 664–332 BC)
In 525 BC, the political state of Egypt was taken over by the Persians, almost a century and a half into Egypt's Late Period. By 404 BC, the Persians were expelled from Egypt, starting a short period of independence. These 60 years of Egyptian rule were marked by an abundance of usurpers and short reigns. The Egyptians were then reoccupied by the Achaemenids until 332 BC with the arrival of Alexander the Great. Sources state that the Egyptians were cheering when Alexander entered the capital since he drove out the immensely disliked Persians. The Late Period is marked with the death of Alexander the Great and the start of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Although this period marks political turbulence and immense change for Egypt, its art and culture continued to flourish.
This can be seen in Egyptian temples starting with the Thirtieth Dynasty, the Fifth Dynasty in the Late Period, and extending into the Ptolemaic era. These temples ranged from the Delta to the island of Philae. While Egypt underwent outside influences through trade and conquest by foreign states, these temples remained in the traditional Egyptian style with very little Hellenistic influence.
Another relief originating from the Thirtieth Dynasty was the rounded modeling of the body and limbs, which gave the subjects a more fleshy or heavy effect. For example, for female figures, their breasts would swell and overlap the upper arm in painting. In more realistic portrayals, men would be fat or wrinkled.
Another piece of art that became increasingly common during was Horus stela. These originate from the late New Kingdom and intermediate period but were increasingly common during the fourth century to the Ptolemaic era. These statues would often depict a young Horus holding snakes and standing on some kind of dangerous beast. The depiction of Horus comes from the Egyptian myth where a young Horus is saved from a scorpion bite, resulting in his gaining power over all dangerous animals. These statues were used "to ward off attacks from harmful creatures, and to cure snake bites and scorpion stings".
Nectanebo I temple on Philae
Ptolemaic period (305–30 BC)
Discoveries made since the end of the 19th century surrounding the (now submerged) ancient Egyptian city of Heracleum at Alexandria include a 4th century BC, unusually sensual, detailed and feministic (as opposed to deified) depiction of Isis, marking a combination of Egyptian and Hellenistic forms beginning around the time of Egypt's conquest by Alexander the Great in 332–331 BC. However this was atypical of Ptolemaic sculpture, which generally avoided mixing Egyptian styles with the Hellenistic style used in the court art of the Ptolemaic dynasty, while temples in the rest of the country continued using late versions of traditional Egyptian formulae. Scholars have proposed an "Alexandrian style" in Hellenistic sculpture, but there is in fact little to connect it with Alexandria.
Marble was extensively used in court art, although it all had to be imported, and use was made of various marble-saving techniques, such as using a number of pieces attached with stucco; a head might have the beard, the back of the head and hair in separate pieces. In contrast to the art of other Hellenistic kingdoms, Ptolemaic royal portraits are generalized and idealized, with little concern for achieving an individual portrait, though coins allow some portrait sculpture to be identified as one of the fifteen King Ptolemys. Many later portraits have clearly had the face reworked to show a later king. One Egyptian trait was to give much greater prominence to the queens than other successor dynasties to Alexander, with the royal couple often shown as a pair. This predated the 2nd century, when a series of queens exercised real power.
In the 2nd century, Egyptian temple sculptures began to reuse court models in their faces, and sculptures of a priest often used a Hellenistic style to achieve individually distinctive portrait heads. Many small statuettes were produced, with the most common types being Alexander, a generalized "King Ptolemy", and a naked Aphrodite. Pottery figurines included grotesques and fashionable ladies of the Tanagra figurine style. Erotic groups featured absurdly large phalli. Some fittings for wooden interiors include very delicately patterned polychrome falcons in faience.
Falcon box with wrapped contents; 332–30 BC; painted and gilded wood, linen, resin and feathers; height: 58.5 × 24.9 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
Characteristics of ancient Egyptian art
Egyptian art is known for its distinctive figure convention used for the main figures in both relief and painting, with parted legs (where not seated) and head shown as seen from the side, but the torso seen as from the front. The figures also have a standard set of proportions, measuring 18 "fists"from the ground to the hair-line on the forehead. This appears as early as the Narmer Palette from Dynasty I, but this idealized figure convention is not employed in the use of displaying minor figures shown engaged in some activity, such as captives and corpses. Other conventions make statues of males darker than those of females. Very conventionalized portrait statues appear from as early as the Second Dynasty (before 2,780 BC), and with the exception of the art of the Amarna period of Ahkenaten and some other periods such as the Twelfth Dynasty, the idealized features of rulers, like other Egyptian artistic conventions, changed little until the Greek conquest. Egyptian art uses hierarchical proportions, where the size of figures indicates their relative importance. The gods or the divine pharaoh are usually larger than other figures while the figures of high officials or the tomb owner are usually smaller, and at the smallest scale are any servants, entertainers, animals, trees, and architectural details.
Symbolism pervaded Egyptian art and played an important role in establishing a sense of order. The pharaoh's regalia, for example, represented his power to maintain order. Animals were also highly symbolic figures in Egyptian art. Some colors were expressive.
The ancient Egyptian language had four basic color terms: kem (black), hedj (white/silver), wadj (green/blue) and desher (red/orange/yellow). Blue, for example, symbolized fertility, birth, and the life-giving waters of the Nile. Blue and green were the colors of vegetation, and hence of rejuvenation. Osiris could be shown with green skin; in the 26th Dynasty, the faces of coffins were often colored green to assist in rebirth.
This color symbolism explains the popularity of turquoise and faience in funerary equipment. The use of black for royal figures similarly expressed the fertile alluvial soil of the Nile from which Egypt was born, and carried connotations of fertility and regeneration. Hence statues of the king as Osiris often showed him with black skin. Black was also associated with the afterlife, and was the color of funerary deities such as Anubis.
Gold indicated divinity due to its unnatural appearance and association with precious materials. Furthermore, gold was regarded by the ancient Egyptians as "the flesh of the god". Silver, referred to as "white gold" by the Egyptians, was likewise called "the bones of the god".
Red, orange and yellow were ambivalent colors. They were, naturally, associated with the sun; red stones such as quartzite were favored for royal statues which stressed the solar aspects of kingship. Carnelian has similar symbolic associations in jewelry. Red ink was used to write important names on papyrus documents. Red was also the color of the deserts, and hence associated with Seth.
Glass and faience
Egyptian faience, made from silica, found in form of quartz in sand, lime, and natron, produced relatively cheap and very attractive small objects in a variety of colors, and was used for a variety of types of objects including jewelry. Ancient Egyptian glass goes back to very early Egyptian history but was at first very much a luxury material. In later periods it became common, and highly decorated small jars for perfume and other liquids are often found as grave goods.
Ancient Egyptians used steatite (some varieties were called soapstone) and carved small pieces of vases, amulets, images of deities, of animals and several other objects. Ancient Egyptian artists also discovered the art of covering pottery with enamel. Covering by enamel was also applied to some stone works. The color blue, first used in the very expensive imported stone lapis lazuli, was highly regarded in ancient Egypt, and the pigment Egyptian blue was widely used to color a variety of materials.
Amphora; 1295–1070 BC; glass; height: 10 cm (4 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
Small amphoriskos; 664–332 BC; glass; height: 7 cm (2.8 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art
William the Faience Hippopotamus; 1961–1878 BC; faience; 11.2 × 7.5 cm (4.4 × 3 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Egyptian blue is a material related to, but distinct from, faience and glass. Also called "frit", Egyptian blue was made from quartz, alkali, lime and one or more coloring agents (usually copper compounds). These were heated together until they fused to become a crystalline mass of uniform color (unlike faience in which the core and the surface layer are of different colors). Egyptian blue could be worked by hand or pressed into molds, to make statuettes and other small objects. It could also be ground to produce pigment. It is first attested in the Fourth Dynasty, but became particularly popular in the Ptolemaic period and the Roman period, when it was known as caeruleum.
While not a leading center of metallurgy, ancient Egypt nevertheless developed technologies for extracting and processing the metals found within its borders and in neighbouring lands.
Copper was the first metal to be exploited in Egypt. Small beads have been found in Badarian graves; larger items were produced in the later Predynastic Period, by a combination of mould-casting, annealing and cold-hammering. The production of copper artifacts peaked in the Old Kingdom when huge numbers of copper chisels were manufactured to cut the stone blocks of pyramids. The copper statues of Pepi I and Merenre from Hierakonpolis are rare survivors of large-scale metalworking.
The golden treasure of Tutankhamun has come to symbolize the wealth of ancient Egypt, and illustrates the importance of gold in pharaonic culture. The burial chamber in a royal tomb was called "the house of gold". According to the Egyptian religion, the flesh of the gods was made of gold. A shining metal that never tarnished, it was the ideal material for cult images of deities, for royal funerary equipment, and to add brilliance to the tops of obelisks. It was used extensively for jewelry, and was distributed to officials as a reward for loyal services ("the gold of honour").
Silver had to be imported from the Levant, and its rarity initially gave it greater value than gold (which, like electrum, was readily available within the borders of Egypt and Nubia). Early examples of silverwork include the bracelets of the Hetepheres. By the Middle Kingdom, silver seems to have become less valuable than gold, perhaps because of increased trade with the Middle East. The treasure from El-Tod consisted of a hoard of silver objects, probably made in the Aegean, while silver jewelry made for female members of the 12th Dynasty royal family was found at Dahshur and Lahun. In the Egyptian religion, the bones of the gods were said to be made of silver.
Iron was the last metal to be exploited on a large scale by the Egyptians. Meteoritic iron was used for the manufacture of beads from the Badarian period. However, the advanced technology required to smelt iron was not introduced into Egypt until the Late Period. Before that, iron objects were imported and were consequently highly valued for their rarity. The Amarna letters refer to diplomatic gifts of iron being sent by Near Eastern rulers, especially the Hittites, to Amenhotep III and Akhenaten. Iron tools and weapons only became common in Egypt in the Roman Period.
Statuette of Amun; 945–715 BC; gold; 17.5 × 4.7 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art
Because of its relatively poor survival in archaeological contexts, wood is not particularly well represented among artifacts from Ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, woodworking was evidently carried out to a high standard from an early period. Native trees included date palm and dom palm, the trunks of which could be used as joists in buildings, or split to produce planks. Tamarisk, acacia and sycamore fig were employed in furniture manufacture, while ash was used when greater flexibility was required (for example in the manufacture of bowls). However, all these native timbers were of relatively poor quality; finer varieties had to be imported, especially from the Levant.
Figurine of a female servant carrying provisions; 1981–1975 BC; painted wood and gesso; 112 × 17 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
Duck-shaped box; 16th–11th century BC; wood and ivory; Louvre
Lapis lazuli is a dark blue semi-precious stone highly valued by the ancient Egyptians because of its symbolic association with the heavens. It was imported via long-distance trade routes from the mountains of north-eastern Afghanistan, and was considered superior to all other materials except gold and silver. Coloured glass or faience provided a cheap imitation. Lapis lazuli is first attested in the Predynastic Period. A temporary interruption in supply during the Second and Third Dynasties probably reflects political changes in the Near East. Thereafter, it was used extensively for jewelry, small figurines and amulets.
Scarab finger ring; 1850–1750 BC; diameter: 2.5 cm (1 in), scarab: 1.8 cm (0.7 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
Cult image of Ptah: 945–600 BC; height of the figure: 5.2 cm (2 in), height of the dais: 0.4 cm (0.16 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Jasper is an impure form of chalcedony with bands or patches of red, green or yellow. Red jasper, symbol of life and of positive aspects of the universe, was used above all to make amulets. It was ideal for certain amulets, such as the tit amulet, or tyet (also known as knot of Isis), to be made of red jasper, as specified in Spell 156 of the Book of the Dead. The more rarely used green jasper was especially indicated for making scarabs, particularly heart scarabs.
- Serpentine is the generic term for the hydrated silicates of magnesium. It came mostly from the eastern desert, and occurs in many shades of color, from a pale green to a dark verging on black. Used from the earliest times, it was sought specially for making heart scarabs.
- Steatite (also known as soapstone) is a mineral of the chlorite family; it has the great advantage of being very easy to work. Steatite amulets are found in contexts from the Predynastic Period on, although in subsequent periods it was usually covered in a fine layer of faience and was used in the manufacture of numerous scarabs.
- Turquoise is an opaque stone, sky blue to blue-green. It is a natural aluminium phosphate colored blue by traces of copper. Closely linked to the goddess Hathor, it was extracted mainly from mines in Sinai (at Serabit el-Khadim). The Egyptians were particularly fond of the greenish shades, symbolic of dynamism and vital renewal. In the Late Period, turquoise (like lapis lazuli) was synonymous with joy and delight.
Head from a spoon in the form of a swimming girl; 1390–1353 BC; travertine (the head) and steatite (the hair); 2.8 × 2.7 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art
Not all Egyptian reliefs were painted, and less-prestigious works in tombs, temples and palaces were merely painted on a flat surface. Stone surfaces were prepared by whitewash, or if rough, a layer of coarse mud plaster, with a smoother gesso layer above; some finer limestones could take paint directly. Pigments were mostly mineral, chosen to withstand strong sunlight without fading. The binding medium used in painting remains unclear: egg tempera and various gums and resins have been suggested. It is clear that true fresco, painted into a thin layer of wet plaster, was not used. Instead, the paint was applied to dried plaster, in what is called fresco a secco in Italian. After painting, a varnish or resin was usually applied as a protective coating, and many paintings with some exposure to the elements have survived remarkably well, although those on fully exposed walls rarely have. Small objects including wooden statuettes were often painted using similar techniques.
Many ancient Egyptian paintings have survived in tombs, and sometimes temples, due to Egypt's extremely dry climate. The paintings were often made with the intent of making a pleasant afterlife for the deceased. The themes included journey through the afterworld or protective deities introducing the deceased to the gods of the underworld (such as Osiris). Some tomb paintings show activities that the deceased were involved in when they were alive and wished to carry on doing for eternity.
Egyptian paintings are painted in such a way to show a side view and a front view of the animal or person at the same time. For example, the painting to the right shows the head from a profile view and the body from a frontal view. Their main colors were red, blue, green, gold, black and yellow.
Paintings showing scenes of hunting and fishing can have lively close-up landscape backgrounds of reeds and water, but in general Egyptian painting did not develop a sense of depth, and neither landscapes nor a sense of visual perspective are found, the figures rather varying in size with their importance rather than their location.
Block from a relief depicting a battle; 1427–1400 BC; painted sandstone; height: 61.5 cm (24.2 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art (US)
Scene from the tomb of Tutankhamun in which appears Osiris
The monumental sculpture of ancient Egypt's temples and tombs is well known, but refined and delicate small works exist in much greater numbers. The Egyptians used the technique of sunk relief, which is best viewed in sunlight for the outlines and forms to be emphasized by shadows. The distinctive pose of standing statues facing forward with one foot in front of the other was helpful for the balance and strength of the piece. This singular pose was used early in the history of Egyptian art and well into the Ptolemaic period, although seated statues were common as well.
Egyptian pharaohs were always regarded as gods, but other deities are much less common in large statues, except when they represent the pharaoh as another deity; however, the other deities are frequently shown in paintings and reliefs. The famous row of four colossal statues outside the main temple at Abu Simbel each show Rameses II, a typical scheme, though here exceptionally large. Most larger sculptures survived from Egyptian temples or tombs; massive statues were built to represent gods and pharaohs and their queens, usually for open areas in or outside temples. The very early colossal Great Sphinx of Giza was never repeated, but avenues lined with very large statues including sphinxes and other animals formed part of many temple complexes. The most sacred cult image of a god in a temple, usually held in the naos, was in the form of a relatively small boat or barque holding an image of the god, and apparently usually in precious metal – none of these are known to have survived.
By Dynasty IV (2680–2565 BC), the idea of the Ka statue was firmly established. These were put in tombs as a resting place for the ka portion of the soul, and so there is a good number of less conventionalized statues of well-off administrators and their wives, many in wood as Egypt is one of the few places in the world where the climate allows wood to survive over millennia, and many block statues. The so-called reserve heads, plain hairless heads, are especially naturalistic, though the extent to which there was real portraiture in ancient Egypt is still debated.
Early tombs also contained small models of the slaves, animals, buildings and objects such as boats (and later Ushabti figures) necessary for the deceased to continue his lifestyle in the afterlife. However, the great majority of wooden sculpture have been lost to decay, or probably used as fuel. Small figures of deities, or their animal personifications, are very common, and found in popular materials such as pottery. There were also large numbers of small carved objects, from figures of the gods to toys and carved utensils. Alabaster was used for expensive versions of these, though painted wood was the most common material, and was normal for the small models of animals, slaves and possessions placed in tombs to provide for the afterlife.
Very strict conventions were followed while crafting statues, and specific rules governed the appearance of every Egyptian god. For example, the sky god (Horus) was to be represented with a falcon's head, the god of funeral rites (Anubis) was to be shown with a jackal's head. Artistic works were ranked according to their compliance with these conventions, and the conventions were followed so strictly that, over three thousand years, the appearance of statues changed very little. These conventions were intended to convey the timeless and non-ageing quality of the figure's ka.
A common relief in ancient Egyptian sculpture was the difference between the representation of men and women. Women were often represented in an idealistic form, young and pretty, and rarely shown in an older maturity. Men were shown in either an idealistic manner or a more realistic depiction. Sculptures of men often showed men that aged, since the regeneration of ageing was a positive thing for them whereas women are shown as perpetually young.
Statuette of Anubis; 332–30 BC; plastered and painted wood; 42.3 cm (16.6 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art
A stelae is an upright tablet of stone or wood, often with a curved top, painted and carved with text and pictures. Numerous examples were produced throughout Egyptian history for a variety of purposes, including funerary, votive and commemorative. Funerary stelae, attested from the early 1st Dynasty, typically bore the name and titles of the deceased. This basic form, which served to identify the tomb owner, evolved into a key component of the funerary equipment with a magical function. Hence, from the 2nd Dynasty onward, the owner was usually shown seated before an offering table piled with food and drink; in the Middle Kingdom, the offering formula was generally inscribed along the top of the stela. Both were designed to ensure a perpetual supply of offerings in the afterlife. Votive stelae, inscribed with prayers to deities, were dedicated by worshipers seeking a favorable outcome to a particular situation. In the Middle Kingdom, many hundreds were set up by pilgrims on the "terrace of the great god" at Abydos, so that they might participate in the annual procession of Osiris. One particular variety of votive stela common in the New Kingdom was the ear stela, inscribed with images of human ears to encourage the deity to listen to the prayer or request.
Commemorative stelae were produced to proclaim notable achievements (for example, the stela of Horwerra, recording a mining expedition to Serabit el-Khadim, and the Restoration Stela of Tutankhamun, celebrating the restoration of the traditional cults at the end of the Amarna period); to celebrate military victories (for instance, the Israel stela of Meren-Ptah); and to establish frontiers (for example the Semna stela of Senusret III and the boundary stelae around Amarna).
Stela of Nacht-Mahes-eru; 664–610 BC; polychromy on wood; 42 × 31.5 × 3.5 cm; National Museum in Warsaw (Poland)
A pyramidion is a capstone at the top of a pyramid. Called benbenet in ancient Egyptian language, it associated the pyramid as a whole with the sacred benben stone. Pyramidions may have been covered in gold leaf to reflect the rays of the sun; in the Middle Kingdom, they were often inscribed with royal titles and religious symbols.
Pyramidion of Iufaa; 664–525 BC; painted limestone; height: 36 cm (14 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
Different types of pottery items were deposited in tombs of the dead. Some such pottery items represented interior parts of the body, such as the lungs, the liver and smaller intestines, which were removed before embalming. A large number of smaller objects in enamel pottery were also deposited with the dead. It was customary for the tomb walls to be crafted with cones of pottery, about 15 to 25 cm (6 to 10 in) tall, on which were engraved or impressed legends relating to the dead occupants of the tombs. These cones usually contained the names of the deceased, their titles, offices which they held, and some expressions appropriate to funeral purposes.
Hathor-shaped jar; 1390–1353 BC; painted pottery; height: 24.5 cm (9.6 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Ancient Egyptian architects used sun-dried and kiln-baked bricks, fine sandstone, limestone and granite. Architects carefully planned all their work. The stones had to fit precisely together, since no mud or mortar was used. When creating the pyramids, ramps were used to allow workmen to move up as the height of the construction grew. When the top of the structure was completed, the artists decorated from the top down, removing ramp sand as they went down. Exterior walls of structures like the pyramids contained only a few small openings. Hieroglyphic and pictorial carvings in brilliant colors were abundantly used to decorate Egyptian structures, including many motifs, like the scarab, sacred beetle, the solar disk, and the vulture. They described the changes the Pharaoh would go through to become a god.
The three main pyramids at Giza, together with subsidiary pyramids and the remains of other structures at the Giza pyramid complex
Illustration of various types of capitals, drawn by the egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius
The ancient Egyptians exhibited a love of ornament and personal decoration from earliest Predynastic times. Badarian burials often contained strings of beads made from glazed steatite, shell and ivory. Jewelry in gold, silver, copper and faience is also attested in the early Predynastic period; more varied materials were introduced in the centuries preceding the 1st Dynasty. By the Old Kingdom, the combination of carnelian, turquoise and lapis lazuli had been established for royal jewelry, and this was to become standard in the Middle Kingdom. Less sophisticated pieces might use bone, mother-of-pearl or cowrie shells. The particular choice of materials depended upon practical, aesthetical and symbolic considerations. Some types of jewelry remained perennially popular, while others went in and out of fashion. In the first category were bead necklaces, bracelets, armlets and girdles. Bead aprons are first attested in the 1st Dynasty, while broad collars became a standard type from the early Old Kingdom. In the Middle Kingdom, they had fallen from favor, to be replaced by finger-rings and ear ornaments (rings and plugs). New Kingdom jewelry is generally more elaborate and garish than that of earlier periods, and was influenced by styles from the Ancient Greece and the Levant. Many fine examples were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Jewelry, both royal and private, was replete with religious symbolism. It was also used to display the wealth and rank of the wearer. Royal jewels were always the most elaborate, as exemplified by the pieces found at Dahshur and Lahun, made for princesses of the 18th Dynasty, favored courtiers were rewarded with the "gold of honor" as a sign of royal favor.
The techniques of jewelry-making can be reconstructed from surviving artifacts and from tomb decoration. A jeweler's workshop is shown in the tomb of Mereruka; several New Kingdom tombs at Thebes contain similar scenes.
Signet ring; 664–525 BC; gold; diameter: 3 × 3.4 cm; British Museum (London)
An amulet is a small charm worn to afford its owner magical protection, or to convey certain qualities (for example, a lion amulet might convey strength, or a set-square amulet might convey rectitude). Attested from the Badarian period onward, amulets were produced both for the living and the dead. Particular amulets were placed at specific places in the mummy wrappings. The heart scarab was a specialized form of amulet to protect the heart of the deceased in the afterlife. Amulets were made from a wide variety of materials, including faience, glass, and precious stones - with color often playing an important symbolic role - and in a wide variety of forms. They might depict sacred objects (such as the Djed pillar, Tyet girdle or Wedjad eye); animals (bull's head amulets were particularly common in the late Predynastic period); or hieroglyphs (for example, Ankh or Sa). From the New Kingdom onward, deities – especially household deities such as Bes and Taweret – were popular subjects for amulets.
Amulet depicting Taweret; 664–332 BC; faience; 9.7 cm (3.8 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Djed pillar-shaped amulet; 664–30 BC; faience; 4.5cm (1.7 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art
The protective amulet for the heart was in the form of the scarab beetle, the manifestation of the creator and solar deity Khepri. It was a symbol of new life and resurrection. The scarab beetle was seen to push a ball of mud along the ground, and from this came the idea of the beetle rolling the sun across the sky. Subsequently, the young beetles were observed to hatch from their eggs inside the ball of mud, hence the idea of creation: life springs forth from primordial mud.
The heart scarab was a large scarab amulet which was wrapped in the mummy bandaging over the deceased's heart. It was made from a range of green and dark-colored materials, including faience, glass, glazed steatite, shist, feldspar, hematite and obsidian. Black was also associated with the afterlife, while blue and green were associated with the birth and the life-giving waters of the Nile.
Heart scarab of the singer of Amun Iakai; 1550–1186 BC; glass; length: 4.8 × 3.5 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
Commemorative scarab of Amenhotep III, recording a lion hunt; 1390–1352 BC; blue-glazed steatite; 8 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art
The back of a commemorative scarab of Amenhotep III, recording a lion hunt; 1390–1352 BC; blue glazed steatite; 8 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Egyptian writing remained a remarkably conservative system, and the preserve of a tiny literate minority, while the spoken language underwent considerable change. Egyptian stelas are decorated with finely carved hieroglyphs.
The use of hieroglyphic writing arose from proto-literate symbol systems in the Early Bronze Age, around the 32nd century BC (Naqada III), with the first decipherable sentence written in the Egyptian language dating to the Second Dynasty (28th century BC). Egyptian hieroglyphs developed into a mature writing system used for monumental inscription in the classical language of the Middle Kingdom period; during this period, the system made use of about 900 distinct signs. The use of this writing system continued through the New Kingdom and Late Period, and on into the Persian and Ptolemaic periods. Late use of hieroglyphics are found in the Roman period, extending into the 4th century AD.
Bas-relief with hieroglyphs from the Edfu Temple
Hieroglyphs of the Stele Minnakht from c. 1321 BC, in the Louvre
Hieroglyphs from the tomb of Seti I
Although, by modern standards, ancient Egyptian houses would have been very sparsely furnished, woodworking and cabinet-making were highly developed crafts. All the main types of furniture are attested, either as surviving examples or in tomb decoration. Chairs were only for the wealthy; most people would have used low stools. Beds consisted of a wooden frame, with matting or leather webbing to provide support; the most elaborate beds also had a canopy, hung with netting, to provide extra privacy and protection from insects. The feet of chairs, stools and beds were often modeled to resemble bull hooves or, in later periods, lion feet or duck heads. Wooden furniture was often coated with a layer of plaster and painted. Royal furniture was more elaborate, making use of inlays, veneers and marquetry. Funerary objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun include tables, boxes and chests, a gilded throne, and ritual beds shaped like elongated hippos and cattle. The burial equipment of Hetepheres included a set of travelling furniture, light and easy to dismantle. Such furniture must have been used on military campaigns and other royal journeys. Egyptian furniture has highly influenced the development of Greco-Roman furniture. It also was one of the principal sources of inspiration of a style known as Empire.
Chair of Hatnefer; 1492–1473 BC; boxwood, cypress, ebony & linen cord; height: 53 cm (21 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Artistic representations, supplemented by surviving garments, are the main sources of evidence for ancient Egyptian fashion. The two sources are not always in agreement, however, and it seems that representations were more concerned with highlighting certain attributes of the person depicted than with accurately recordings their true appearance. For example, in art created for men, women were often shown with restrictive, tight-fitting dresses, perhaps to emphasize their figures.
As in most societies, fashions in Egypt changed over time; different clothes were worn in different seasons of the year, and by different sections of society. Particular office-holders, especially priests and the king, had their own special garments.
For the general population, clothing was simple, predominantly of linen, and probably white or off-white in color. It would have shown the dirt easily, and professional launderers are known to have been attached to the New Kingdom workmen's village at Deir el-Medina. Men would have worn a simple loin-cloth or short kilt (known as shendyt), supplemented in winter by a heavier tunic. High-status individuals could express their status through their clothing, and were more susceptible to changes in fashion.
Longer, more voluminous clothing made an appearance in the Middle Kingdom; flowing, elaborately pleated, diaphanous robes for men and women were particularly popular in the late 18th Dynasty and the Ramesside period. Decorated textiles also became more common in the New Kingdom. In all periods, women's dresses may have been enhanced by colorful bead netting worn over the top. In the Roman Period, Egypt became known for the manufacture of fine clothing. Sandals of leather or basketry are the most commonly attested types of footwear. Examples of these, together with linen shirts and other clothing, were discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Use of makeup, especially around the eyes, was a characteristic feature of ancient Egyptian culture from Predynastic times. Kohl (eye-paint) was applied to protect the eyes, as well as for aesthetic reasons. It was usually made of galena, giving a silvery-black color; during the Old Kingdom, green eye-paint was also used, made from malachite. Egyptian women painted their lips and cheeks, using rouge made from red ochre. Henna was applied as a dye for hair, fingernails and toenails, and perhaps also nipples. Creams and unguents to condition the skin were popular, and were made from various plant extracts.
Cosmetic dish in the shape of a tilapia fish; 1479–1425 BC; glazed steatite; 8.6 × 18.1 cm (3.4 × 7.1 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Perfume vase in shape of an amphoriskos; 664–630 BC; glass: 8 × 4 cm (3.1 × 1.5 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art
On secular and religious occasions, music played an important part in celebrations. Musicians, playing instruments such as the castanets and flute, are depicted on objects from the Predynastic Period. A wide range of percussions, wind and string instruments were known to the ancient Egyptian. They include rattles, clappers, drums, tambourines and the sistrum; pipes, flutes and trumpets; and harps (particularly popular at feasts). The lyre and lute were introduced from the Levant. Musical notation is not attested until the early Ptolemaic Period. Groups of musicians, either mixed gender or female only, are known from the Old Kingdom. Women singers and sistrum-players had an important role in temple cults, especially those of Hathor and Isis. Tomb decoration from all periods indicates that, as today, groups of workers sang to generate a sense of solidarity and to maintain their enthusiasm.
Arched Harp (shoulder harp); 1390–1295 BC; wood; length of sound box: 36 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
Detail of a freize from TT52 in which are depicted three musicians
Illustration of a harper playing in front of god Shu
A sistrum (plural: sistra) is a rattle used in religious ceremonies, especially temple rituals, and usually played by women. Called a "seshsehet" in Egyptian, the name imitates the swishing sound the small metal disks made when the instrument was shaken. It was closely associated with Hathor in her role as "lady of music", and the handle was often decorated with a Hathor head. Two kinds of sistrum are attested, naos-shaped and hoop-shaped; the latter became the more common.
Sistrum inscribed with the name of Ptolemy I; 305–282 BC; faience; 26.7 × 7.5 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art
The earliest purpose-built funerary containers for bodies were simple rectangular wooden boxes, attested in the 1st Dynasty. A coffin swiftly became an essential part of the burial equipment. Known euphemistically as the "lord of life", its primary function was to provide a home for the Ka and to protect the physical body from harm. In the 4th Dynasty, the development of longer coffins allowed the body to be buried fully extended (rather than curled up on its side in a foetal position). At the end of the Old Kingdom, it became customary once more for the body to be laid on its side. The side of the coffin that faced east in the tomb was decorated with a pair of eyes so that the deceased could look out towards the rising sun with its promise of daily rebirth. Coffins also began to be decorated on the outside with bands of funerary texts, while pictures of food and drink offerings were painted on the inside to provide a magical substitute for the real provisions placed in the tomb.
In the First Intermediate Period, decorated coffins became a substitute for tomb decoration; in the Middle Kingdom, coffin texts made their first appearance, sometimes accompanied by detailed maps of the underworld. Middle Kingdom coffins show a number of distinct regional styles, echoing the cultural fragmentation of the preceding period. In the 17th and early 18th Dynasties, the Theban area produced characteristic anthropoid rishi (feathered) coffins. These were replaced (except for kings) by other styles of anthropoid coffins which became the standard form throughout the country for the remainder of Egyptian history. The predominance of decorated tombs in the New Kingdom removed the need of object friezes, so coffins were generally undecorated on the inside. However, this situation was reversed again in the Third Intermediate Period when new types of coffin decoration focused on the Osiris myth and extracts from the Book of the Dead, to aid the resurrection of the deceased. In the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, a cartonnage mask was often fixed directly onto the mummy wrappings as a substitute for a coffin.
Coffins were generally made of wood; those of high-status individuals used fine quality, imported cedar. From the Middle Kingdom onward, wealthy individuals were often provided with a set of two or three nested coffins. The most sumptuous coffins might be inlaid with glass or precious stones, while royal coffins were often made from gold or silver.
Inner coffin of Amenemopet; 975–909 BC; painted wood & gesso; length: 195 cm (77 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Coffin of Irtirutja; 332–250 BC; plastered, painted and gilded wood; length: 198.8 cm (78.3 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Vessels were used for storing the internal organs removed during mummification. These were named after the human-headed jars that were worshiped as personifications of Kanops (the helmsman of Menelaus in Greek mythology) by the inhabitants of ancient Canopus. The practice of evisceration is first attested in the burial of Hetepheres in the early 4th Dynasty. Her organs were stored in a travertine chest divided into four compartments. Later, each organ – the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines – was provided with a separate jar, of stone or pottery, and placed under the symbolic protection of one of the Four sons of Horus. During the First Intermediate Period, the stoppers of canopic jars began to be modeled in the form of human heads. From the late 18th Dynasty, they were more commonly modelled to resemble the heads of the protecting genii (baboon, jackal, falcon and human). This became the standard for canopic equipment in the 19th Dynasty. In the Third Intermediate Period, the mummified organs were generally returned to the body, but wealthy burials could still include a dummy set of jars. The last known royal set of canopic jars were made of Apries. The manufacture of canopic equipment continued into the Ptolemaic Period but ceased by Roman times.
Funerary masks have been used at all periods. Examples range from the gold masks of Tutankhamun and Psusennes I to the Roman "mummy portraits" from Hawara and the Fayum. Whether in a funerary or religious context, the purpose of a mask was the same: to transform the wearer from a mortal to a divine state.
The Mask of Tutankhamun; c. 1327 BC; gold, glass and semi-precious stones; height: 54 cm (21 in); Egyptian Museum
Ushabtis (a.k.a. shawabti or shabti) are funerary figurines. Their purpose was to act as a substitute for the deceased when he was called upon to perform agricultural work or corvée labor in the afterlife. Ushabtis evolved in the Middle Kingdom from the servant statues included among funerary gods. The earliest examples were crude statuettes in wax, clay or wood; later, they were fashioned as mummiform figures and, from the end of the 12th Dynasty, they were customarily inscribed with the "ushabti text" (chapter 6 of the Book of the dead which specifies the ushabti's duties).
Shabti of Sennedjem; 1279–1213 BC; painted limestone; 27 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art
Four ushabtis of Khabekhnet and their box; 1279–1213 BC; painted limestone; height of the ushabtis: 16.7 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art
Art of Meroë
Ancient Egypt shared a long and complex history with the Nile Valley to the south, the region called Nubia (modern Sudan). Beginning with the Kerma culture and continuing with the Kingdom of Kush based at Napata and then Meroë, Nubian culture absorbed Egyptian influences at various times, for both political and religious reasons. The result is a rich and complex visual culture.
The artistic production of Meroë reflects a range of influences. First, it was an indigenous African culture with roots stretching back thousands of years. To this is added the fact that the wealth of Meroë was based on trade with Egypt when it was ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty (332–330 BC) and the Romans (30 BC – 395 AD), so Hellenistic and Roman objects and ideas were imported, as well as Egyptian influences.
Votive plaque of king Tanyidamani; c. 100 BC; siltstone; 18.5 × 9.5 (7.3 × 3.7 in); Walters Art Museum
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