IN THE AGE OF THE PYRAMIDS
of King Djoser
H: 211..3cm (83 1/4 in.)
Egyptian Museum, Cairo
NEW YORK, 20 December 1999 - Even ancient
Egypt was once young. Young, and therefore a bit hesitant, sometimes
fantastic, tender or even mocking, but already showing the talent of a
child prodigy. It is this unexpected Egypt, among others, that was on
view at the Grand Palais in Paris last summer before moving on to the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until 9 January 2000 and the
Royal Museum of Ontario in Toronto from 13 Februrary through 22 May
The exhibition is the result of several decades of
fruitful digs at Giza, Saqqara and Meidum, south of Cairo, where the
majority of the funerary groupings of the Old Kingdom (2700-2200 BC) can
be found. Alongside the work of the archaeologists, recent scholarship
has also reexamined earlier notions and allows us to attribute certain
works to periods even earlier than had been supposed. The Fourth
Dynasty, for example, that of the Pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure,
has thus reacquired a number of statues and reliefs previously thought
to be of a later period. Generally speaking, it is the art of the Old
Kingdom, considered by the public at large to consist simply of
monumental architecture, that has gained in artistic diversity with more
intimate works often touching in their humanity.
no exhibition has previously been devoted to this particular period of
Egyptian art. The high quality of the works present, their number (more
than 200) and variety, make this exhibition an event not to be missed by
anyone who loves ancient Egypt.
Even though we have no trace of
important political or military machinations, it is impossible to reduce
the history of the Old Kingdom to a peaceful succession of forty
monarchs incarnating in turn an unchanged royal tradition. The
reutilization by the pharaohs of the Sixth Dynasty of bas-reliefs
removed from the pyramidal complexes of earlier dynasties shows easily
enough that the tombs and temples of the ancient kings were already
being pillaged and desecrated two centuries after their construction,
and that royal continuity was not so strongly felt that the newly
empowered respected or restored the damamged monuments of their glorious
Two blocks signed by Djoser, builder of the first
pyramid (ca. 2690 BC), were thus found in the middle of the pavement of
the funeral temple of Queen Ipout (wife of Teti, ca. 2340 BC) at
Saqqara. This recent discovery (1993) may be credited to the team of
Zahi Hawass, representative of a young and talented Egyptian
archaeology. This is the first time the piece has been shown abroad.
It is most likely part of a broken doorjamb, originating in
Djosers famous funerary complex at Saqqara. It is probably an
element of the oldest stone architecture in the world. The jamb is
divided into registers under two identical cartouches that give us one
of the names of King Djoser: Netjeri-khet, "holy is his body".
A crowned falcon, symbol of the god Horus, surmounts the cartouche.
Identical registers alternate below, showing a jackal seated on an
invisible prey and a lion at rest. These delicate relief figures have
not yet been satisfactorily interpreted. On the sides of the blocks
realistic scaled serpents undulate, their tongues sticking out, a motif
that we find almost three thousand years later on the lateral faces of
the porticos of Sudanese temples.
Dynastie Pyramid : Group of Archers
H : 25.4 cm (10 in.) ; w. 37.5
(14 3/4 in. )
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
type of reutilization of older material explains the presence in the
ruins of the pyramid of Amenemhat I at Lisht (ca. 1950 BC) of decorated
blocks that came from the large funerary complexes of Giza, pillaged and
then transmported some 50 kilometers to the south.
preserved fragment, even though we cannot see the composition of the
scene in its entirety, allows us to guess the complexity by the curious
mixture, barely visible, of extended arms, superposed bodies, tensed
bows and arrows in reserve.
The exceptional quality of the
execution allows us to link this fragment to the best royal reliefs from
the period of Khufu and Khafre: the rendering of materials (twisting
cords, feathers on the arrows, vitality of the flesh emphasized with
ochre) and the delicacy of the chiseled faces are admirable and allow us
to assume that the decorative aspect of the funerary complexes at Giza
were at the same high level as the architectural rendering, the only one
visible today in its original site. We should be grateful to the
unscrupulous architects of Amenemhat for preserving a number of examples
Dynasty Pyramid of Pepi I
Limestone, green paint
of Egyptian Archaeology, University College, London
Dynasty: Two Bracelets of Queen Hetep-heres I
Egyptian Museum, Cairo
is unlikely that the pyramids of the Sixth Dynasty were decorated on the
interior, and the reliefs stolen by the builders of Lisht probably come
from nearby funerary temples. We must wait for the end of the Fifth
Dynasty and King Unis for the first appearance of the "Pyramid
texts", the oldest long composition transcribed in hieroglypics;
magic texts linked to the path taken by the soul of the late king. The
green color of the drawings is that of the resurrection, associated
later with the god Osiris. The fragments shown in the exhibition come
from the ruined pyramids of Pepi I and Pepi II at Saqqara, and are
dispersed between the Louvre, Brussels, Cambridge and London. The royal
cartouche is easily dstinguished, followed by "this Pepi ", a
frequent formulation in magic incantations. An exhaustive publication of
these texts, undertaken by the French team at Saqqara and the
Egyptologist Bernard Mathieu should soon shed new light on these
documents whose content is still obscure and subject to controversy.
In 1925, three years after the discovery of the tomb of
Tutankhamun, the only royal grave of the Old Kingdom to remain intact
was discovered, that of Queen Hetep-heres, mother of Khufu (ca 2600 BC).
A mastaba (rectangular funerary edifice) was prepared for her near the
pyramid of her husband Snefru at Dahshur, followed by a secondary
pyramid to the east of the large pyramid of her son at Giza. But it was
only at the bottom of a well, 27 meters below ground, that her furniture
was found, a sedan chair (a copy of which may be seen in the
exhibition), and some jewelry, valuable examples of Ancient Egyptian
jewelry making, especially twenty precious bracelets presented in a
gilded wood screen.
bracelets are also rare because they are of silver. If gold, thought to
be the flesh of the gods, was relatively common in Egypt, silver,
thought to be the bones of the gods, was rare and valuable. It is only
with the New Empire and the development of international commerce that
the hierarchy of these two metals was inverted. The decoration of these
bracelets is also rare, depicting butterflies, an exceptional motif in
Egyptian art. Head, wings and throat, in turquoise and lapis lazuli, all
shades of blue and green, brightened up by a touch of red carnelian for
the abdomen and the circles that separate the insects.
Reliefs From the Tomb of Itet
100 x 114 cm ( 39 3/8 x 44 7/8 in.)
NY Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
son of Snefru, Nefer-maat, was buried with his wife, Itet, in a large
mastaba at Meidum. From Itets "chapel" come serveral
decorated blocks that are as astonishing for the technical prowess
demonstrated as for the scenes depicted. Egyptian art, once a formal
mastery had been achieved, here attempts to do even more. The owner
moreover proclaims on the walls of the mastaba: "he had these
images drawn to be indestructible". In effect, the artist carved
deep reliefs, then introduced colored pastes made of pigments mixed with
resin. The expected result was the creation of a decor that seems to
have been painted on canvas but of which the carving and colors seem to
defy the millennia. One block of the mastaba preserves the intact
figures of geese of an inestimable quality, but "Geese of Meidum",
one of the jewels of the Cairo Museum, alas is not included in the
exhibition. Some fragments are shown, however, that have partially
retained their original incrustations, as the block from the Ny
Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. It is obvious that the audacity is
not merely one of technique, but also iconographic.
level depicts and names two of Nefermaâts sons who are
capturing ducks, but there is also a lower level, a humorous scene
depicting an ape, a child and another ape following one another in a
circle and holding hands. The first primate himself grabs the feathers
of a crane apparently embarrassed by such familiarity, but that has kept
its plumage and incrustations. It is only in the amarnienne era, a
thousand years later, that official or funerary art once again, during
the course of a single reign, demonstrates similar humor and freshness.
There will always be enough Egyptologists who are as serious as the
crane in that image to explain that it is a symbolic representation, but
we know that the Egyptians were capable of gratuitous humor, even on the
walls of their tombs.
way to preserve the colors, rather unusual for us who cannot conceive of
invisible paintings, was to protect the stele with a concrete tile. Such
a process indicates the magic value of Egyptian funerary art, in no way
destined for living eyes. It is to these precautions that we owe the
astonishing state of preservation of two superb steles from the time of
Khufu: that of Nefret-iabet, preserved at Munich, and another from a
different mastaba at Giza preserved at Berkeley, that of "Prince"
Wep-em-nefret, probably the husband of Nefret-iabet. The paintings have
retained a marvelous freshness and restore the colorful and shimmering
aspect of funerary decor of the period. The decisive choice of pigments
and modulations between nuances in the midst of the same element avoid
the gaudiness that such a chromatic variety might have evoked. The image
of the dignitary takes up only the left lower corner of the stele. All
the rest of the field is covered with admirable hieroglypics, some of
which are in themselves small pictures, like the frog in the first line
that indicates the name of the goddess Heket or the quail with which the
name of the deceased begins, above his head
Stela of Prince Wep-em-nefret - Fourth Dynasty
Painted Limestone -
45,7cm x 66cm x 7,6 cm (18 in. x 26in. x 3 in.)
Hearst Museum of Anthroplogy, University of California at Berkeley
text lists the titles of this high official: Overseer of the Royal
Scribes, priest of Seshat, of Heket, of Anubis, among others. This is
followed by the list of offerings: bread, beer, meat, fabrics, vases,
but also incense, perfumes, makeup, each time followed by the ideogram "thousand",
all that was necessary for a prince to maintain his station in the Other
more modest but perhaps more touching are the belongings of the
carpenter Inti-shedu. This tomb, discovered at Giza by Zahi Hawass ein
1992, of a craftsman of the Fourth Dyansty yielded four statues
representing different periods in his life. These working class effigies
demonstrate by the vigor with which they are drawn and the exactness of
their execution that the artistic quality of the pharaonic production
filtered down through all of Egyptian society.
Three of the
statues are of the seated artist, holding something (a roller or fabric)
in his hand, the fourth is a standing figure, dressed in a simple
loincloth and a multicolored gorgerin,the whole topped off by a wig.
Increasingly broad shoulders and the stronger features and body allow us
to follow the models life, from a somewhat soft adolescent (medium
seated statue) to the grown man (large statue). The "Overseer of
the Boat of of the Goddess Neith, Royal Acquaintance, Inti-shedu"
(as indicated by the inscriptions on the bases) probably did not have
the time to get any older.
Statues of thr Artisan Inti-shedu, Egyptian Museum, Cairo
remains the eternal portrait of a man of the people in all his dignity:
Egyptian, just a man, since the two words are the same in the language
of the Nile.
for or to complement the exhibition, the following books are
Egyptian Art in the Age
of The Pyramids - exhibition catalogue. The Metropolitan Museum of
Art, New York. Distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York (536 pages
Multi-authored work including 500 superb illustrations,
slightly erratic syntheses depending on the author, and extremely
practical maps, index and tables.
Egypt by Vivian Davis
and René Friedman: (British Museum Press 1998)
A recent work
by two specialists .
The Art of Ancient Egypt by Gay
Robins: (Trustees of the British Museum, British Museum Press 1997)
recent work, superbly illustrated, about architecture and sculpture.
Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt by W. Stevenson Smith, revised
by William Kelly Simpson: (Yale University Press, Pelican History of Art
Third Edition 1998).
THE reference work, especially for sculpture
during the Old Kingdom.
Ancient Egypt by David P.
An excellent work analysing daily life and
religious concepts in ancient Egypt.
When The Pyramids
Were Built: Egyptian Art of The Old Kingdom
by Dorothea Arnold
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rizzoli International Publications,
Inc. 1999) 144 pages, 130 full colour illustrations
book by the Lila Acheson Wallace Curator in Charge of the Department of
Egyptian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and pubished to accompany
In French -
au temps des pyramides - catalogue de l'exposition. Réunion
des Musées nationaux (416 pages - ff. 290, 00) :
work including 500 superb illustrations, slightly erratic syntheses
depending on the author, and extremely practical maps, index and tables.
" le magazine du voyage culturel "
N° 66 :
L'Egypte au temps des pyramides (82 pages - ff. 35,00)
special issue of a magazine that has long been one of the best includes
articles by and interviews with some of the biggest names in Egyptology,
but also has an excellent article about Egypt today. Indispensable.
L'Egypte, sur les traces de la civilisation pharaonique,
édité par Regine Schultz et Matthias Seidel, Ed. Könemann
(537 pages - ff. 300,00)
A recent work translated from German,
offering a rich and original iconography, and first-hand information on
digs and research through 1995.
ART IN THE AGE OF THE PYRAMIDS
New York - The Metropolitan
Museum of Art
16 September 1999 - 9 January 2000
Royal Museum of Ontario
13 February - 22 May 2000
Rilly is a professor of classical languages and literature in Paris. He
is also an egyptologist and specialist of meroitic language and
civilisation. Claude Rilly has contributed on Greek archaeology in GEO
(France), and on meroitic phonology in the Göttinger Miszellen
(Germany). He is archaeology editor of Culturekiosque.com.