Egyptian Art: Old, Middle and New Kingdoms Art historians, Egyptologists, and archeologists have made fascinating discoveries about the artifacts, pharaohs, and culture of Egypt since the discovery in 1799 of the Rosetta Stone. It led to the decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Pharaonic names, dates, places, and events could then be reliably organized for linear presentation of ancient Egypt’s long 4, 000 year history. Egyptian innovations in burial architecture, mummification, picture language, and huge monument building had both amazed and puzzled scholars for nearly 1, 500 years.
Pyramid building, obelisk lifting and colossal statue carving reveal a sophistication and simplicity which are at once both attractive and intriguing. This paper will review several specific aspects of Egyptian art ranging from 4000 to 30 B. C. E.
First will be, a brief discussion of Egyptian history, kings, geography and art. They will be followed by an examination of invention and innovation. Next, the decoding of hieroglyphics will be reviewed and followed by an overview of ancient Egyptian fascination with the afterlife. Finally, the major discovery in 1922 of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings and its exquisite treasures will be offered. The Old Kingdom, from about 4000 to 2280 B. C.
, was the age of the great pyramids such as Cheops (wonder of the ancient world), Chefren, and Mycerinus. Also on the Giza plateau is the largest freestanding statue in Egypt, the Sphinx. The Sphinx was a sculpture of a lion’s body with the face of Chefren. The statue is sixty-five feet high and about 240 feet in length, making it the largest freestanding statue in Egypt. The Nile River was key in the development of these Ancient Egyptian cities the Nile would flood in the summer which fertilized the crops and making the desert lush and fertile. Its most important role was it supplied clay for bricks and pottery for transporting water.
The Nile was even an asset to the prehistoric’s. The Egyptians developed their agricultural economy from prehistoric communities such as Hierakonpolis. Menes, the first recorded king of early Egypt, had an architect named Imhotep. Imhotep built and constructed many types of pyramids such as the mastaba, step, bent, and smooth-sided. The next era of the Egyptian kingdom is known as the Middle Kingdom. This kingdom lasted from about 2065 to 1785 B.
C. In this era, the city of Thebes was built. Thebes was known as the most influential city of the ancient world. The city was split into two parts, the right and left side of the Nile. The right side was the city of the living, it was built for the sun god, Amen-Ra. It consisted of many architectural masterpieces such as the two 90-foot obelisks, the colossal statues of Ramses, the three statues of Amon Hotel, the sphinx-lined avenues, and the many columns.
Also in the city of the living is the temple of Karnak. In this temple were hundreds of columns, a hippo-style courtyard and the tallest obelisks in the world. The left side of the Nile was the city of the dead. This is where the Valley of the Kings, the temple of Ramses III, and the tomb of King Tutankhamen were found. The final empire was known as the New Kingdom.
It lasted from 1580-1085 B. C. It was during this era that Egypt became an empire because of its conquests of lands. Also during this era was the rule of Akhenaten.
He changed a lot of things during his reign. For example he discarded polytheism (Amen) for monotheism with the one and only god being Aten. Akhenaten also changed the style of art. He used a head and legs profile. The side view with the eyes looking to the side was changed to a more realistic and casual look. During Akhenaten’s reign the capitol was changed from Thebes to Amarna.
The Egyptians did not like all the changes that were taking place. Throughout all three kingdoms there were a total of 330 monarch, starting with Menes and ending with Cleopatra. These monarchs were referred to as pharaohs which means ‘Great House.’ Pharaohs came from a dynasty, where successive Pharaohs came from one family (incest was common. ) A Pharaoh was the political leader and a living Egyptian god. They were believed to have command over nature, thought to be immortal, and also believed to be a living descendant of the sun god.
Therefore they held unlimited and absolute power. Some of the most important pharaohs were the following: Namer because he politically and economically united upper and lower Egypt. Cheops because he ordered and financed construction of the world’s largest pyramid. Then there was the great warrior, Ramesses II, who built colossal statues at Abu Simbel, temple of Thebes.
He had eight wives, 100 concubines, and fathered 82 to 162 children. Next, there was Amenhotep III. He constructed the temple of Amun-Mut-Khon su, the largest in the world. Following him was Hatshepsut, the first female pharaoh, who was famous for her great Funerary Temple at Deir-el-Bahar i. Another pharaoh that cannot be forgotten is Akhenaten who changed the polytheism belief to one single god named Aten. He also changed the formal art style to a casual style and moved the capitol from Thebes to Amarna.
Tutankhamen, better known as King Tut, is probably the best known of all 330 pharaohs. He was the youngest, and his tomb, found by Carter, was the richest tomb ever found. Finally there was Cleopatra, the pharaoh who attempted to expand the Egyptian empire by one-third, but as a result actually ended the empire. The Egyptian period demonstrated the cunning and the craft of ancient people who built the largest stone monuments in the history of mankind.
Perhaps the most important innovation of the Egyptians was hieroglyphics. It was the beginning of recorded information in the western world. It was also referred to as picture writing and would ultimately reveal the names, places, religion, and history of ancient people. The Egyptians also invented the clay brick. While seemingly very unimportant, they produced mass amounts of sun-dried bricks which would allow ancient architects to build columns, walls, burial structures, arches, and even barrel vaults. The Egyptians were the inventors of pottery or ceramics.
By using Nile river clay, they were able to construct containers using the slab and coil forms. These massive containers were used to transfer precious water for the Nile river. Bronze was the first alloy produced in the ancient world. By smelting copper and tin, the Egyptians created bronze, an alloy that was stronger than both copper and tin. They had the strongest swords, spear tips, armor and shields in the world.
Bronze was unbeatable for nearly 2, 000 years until the invention of iron. The Egyptians modified the prehistoric raft to a full sized keel hull boat, woven from grass and reeds. Cleopatra’s boat as well as the transportation boats were made from gr ass. These boats transported items from the Giza plateau to Thebes, which was about 400 miles. The rudder was important to navigation because it allowed a boat to travel upstream as well as downstream. This was accomplished along with the sail which saved a lot of manpower.
Egyptian architectural inventions included the column, arch, barrel vault, pyramid, and the obelisk. The Egyptians were the first to shape granite stone blocks. They used these blocks to build their pyramids. Many present day historians and architects believe that Egyptians built stonehenge, because of the shaped stone technique and tenor and mortise (hole and pin) method. The Egyptians were the first to preserve their dead by means of embalming. They believed that by preserving their dead they would have a better chance of a longer afterlife.
The Egyptian’s numerous inventions played a major part in making the Egyptian empire the longest ever recorded. Hieroglyphics were picture writing and the first form of written communication in the western world. This language was written by either painting them or deeply engraving the pictures into stone. From 3000 B.
C. to 400 A. D. , the Egyptians wrote their history and their culture in this strange picture language.
After 300 A. D. , every living Egyptian priest who was able to decode the language had died. Then, from 300 A. D.
until 1799, no western man was able to read Egyptian picture language. In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Egypt. One of his soldiers knocked over a wall in the city of Rosetta, Egypt. From the crumbled stone, Napoleon discovered a four foot stone that was engraved with three languages. The languages were Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyph. The stone was called the Rosetta Stone and researchers took 22 more years to decipher the code.
In 1822, Cham poleon decoded the language for the first time in 1, 500 years. The reason it took so long to decode was because the Egyptians wrote from left to right, right to left, up to down, and down to up. They also didn’t use any vowels. A new science broke out in the western world, called Egyptology. The Egyptians called the God of Wisdom, Thoth, the God of Hieroglyphics. The writing made their dreams come true and they believed they were real.
Hieroglyphics would lead to the development of the written word as opposed to memory. Egyptians always fantasized and focused a massive amount of energy in their belief of an afterlife. During the early kingdom of Egypt no less than ninety huge granite stone pyramids were built to provide a gateway from this life into the afterlife for Egyptian pharaohs. One of these monumental structures remains a wonder of the ancient world simply because of its huge dimensions.
The pyramid of Cheops on the Giza plateau, when measured from it’s underground foundation to it’s top, is 451 feet high. Taller than a forty-story building and covers an area of nearly thirteen acres. To build this tomb, over one million laborers took more than twenty-three years to cut and stack 2. 3 million granite rocks weighing from 4000 to 30, 000 pounds apiece. Inside the tomb are thirty granite rooms, many precious gems, weapons, and massive amounts of gold. We will never be sure of the amount of precious items in the tomb because it was broken into and everything was stolen, even King Cheops’ corpse.
Therefore one can imagine how focused the pharaoh and workers were on the afterlife. The Egyptians strongly believed in the ‘Ka’ or the soul of a human being. The ‘Ka’ could be preserved by embalming a dead body and preserving it’s tissue and organs for the afterlife. The normal procedure, depending on the amount of money the family had, was to remove the internal organs and place them in can opic jars.
After this, they filled the body with either straw or sand. This was followed by wrapping the body with muslin and placing it in the sarcophagus. This whole procedure was done to dry the entire body and to prevent as much rot and decay as possible. If the body was to decompose, no Egyptian could be assured of everlasting life after death. Therefore huge emphasis was in preserving, embalming, and mummifying the corps. Not only were humans mummified, but pets were as well.
Cats were considered sacred. Over 500 million ancient Egyptians were mummified by recent counts, which indicates a fascination and a perception of life after death. Western man owes the Egyptian culture a great deal of respect and gratitude because we used their ‘Ka’ and their belief in a afterlife as the foundation of our Christian faith. The October of 1922, the burial tomb of King Tutankhamen was discovered after six long years of digging in the Valley of the Kings.
Dr. Howard Carter, an English archeologist, made the discovery with his financial supporter, Lord Carnavon. The tomb had been covered by sand and rock for nearly 3, 000 years before it was opened. King Tut who died at around age twenty, was mummified and his tomb had been unmolested during its entire rest, since 1361 B. C. This unimportant king of Egypt became the most well-known king of Egypt over night simply because of the tomb’s intact discovery.
The mummy of King Tut was not reached until three years after the dig began in 1922. Carter had to catalog, photograph, wrap, and safely ship 5000 ancient gold objects to Cairo before opening the king’s coffin. The king was sealed inside four coffins which were inside a deep underground chamber. Each coffin layer was composed of 24 k gold. An artificial inner coffin cover concealed the mummy.
King Tut’s embalmed corpse was wearing the famous Egyptian Death Mask, which covered the upper half of his body. The treasure of King Tut still remains the largest riches found by Western man. Unexpected was the death of Lord Carnavon, his wife, and many diggers. Also several distant family members of Howard Carter died as well. This caused the belief in the Mummy’s Curse. Lord Carnavon had been working on the tomb for about six years.
A mosquito bite was the real cause of his death. Today in Egypt, the U. S. continues to dig in the Valley of the Kings for untold treasures, the most current dig is called the KV 5 (Kings Valley 5), which has revealed underground tombs of over thirty pharaohs, but no treasure. Several specific aspects of Egyptian culture and ancient art have been discussed.
Egyptian artists were extremely loyal and dedicated stone cutters, sculptors, and painters who left a visual record of their 4, 000 year evolution on the wall of Pharaonic tombs, religious temples, and huge obelisks. These tough and rugged ancestors, competed, sweated, and toiled to produce colossal monuments to perpetuate their name and the names of their gods. Egyptian art endures as testimony to the remarkable passion for continuing the pleasures and beauty of the immortal in the timeless eternity of and after-life.