Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Getting to Know Ancient Egyptian Art

There is a perception in some quarters that few Ancient Egyptian artistic rendering tell us about reality or literal interpretation of situations as they actually appeared, especially when it came to portraiture or statuary of Egyptian figures. This perception therefore interprets Egyptian art as abstract or idealized art. How true is this perception? The answer to this will unfold as discussion here progresses.

One aspect of Egyptian art that has frequently been the subject of willful or unwitting misunderstanding, is the bitonal color convention used in the depiction of Egyptian male and female figures on wall murals, and at times, on statuary. A popular example of this would be the "brownish" tone used regularly for male figures and the "yellowish" color convention applied on female figures. There are advocates who have interpreted this color convention as a reflection of the gender-oriented occupational differences between ancient Egyptian males and females. Accordingly, as the argument goes, the females supposedly retained the default or original epidermal skin tone of the core Egyptian population since they primarily carried out their daily chores indoor, while the males developed tans due to regular exposure to outdoor occupational activities. Of course, this is seized upon as one way to circumvent the dark skin color conventions of Egyptian figures; that is to say, they would not otherwise have been dark skinned, had it not been for their tanning due to exposure to the Sun. However, to adjudge which skin color convention truly captures that of the core ancient Egyptian population, the best avenue to turn to, is that of miniature sculptures depicting scenes of Egyptians engaging in daily occupational activities, as well as the same for royalty figures being accompanied by their entourage. In these miniature sculptures, every class of the society, be it royalty, men or women, they are all generally portrayed in dark brown (chocolate-like) skin color conventions. In these same miniatures, women just as men, are depicted engaging in routine occupational tasks both indoor and outdoor. This falsifies not only the notion that women are depicted in "yellowish" pigmentation on some wall murals because they stayed indoor, and so, retained their original "yellowish" skin coloration, but also that said "yellowish" pigmentation captures realism. Women are portrayed working indoors, and yet, still as dark brownish in skin coloration as their male counterparts.

As a matter of fact, both men and women are almost always portrayed in dark brownish pigmentation in these miniature sculptures. These miniature sculptures are generally meant to capture empirical or realistic situations [rather than abstract], as they are understood by their artists. Just to visually demonstrate what is being talked about, consider the following ancient Egyptian items; click on all images for greater resolution:

The first couple of images immediately below date to ca. 1985 B.C.E.; Dynasty 12, early reign of Amenemhat I. Miniatures depicting Official Meketre's voyage. Ship crew are mainly male workers. In the right-hand image, Meketre (seated) appears to have been accompanied by a female companion, visibly standing amidst the crew:

Below, on the left, are the figurines of Cancellor Nakhti of the 12th Dynasty and his crew, and on the right, are figurines of female bearers, reportedly found in the tomb of Niankpepy ca. 2289-2255 BC, the 6th Dynasty:

The next set of images posted below feature mainly male workers slaughtering cattle in one room while tending to them in another, carrying goods into a granary, and baking & preparing food in another room. These miniatures were also found in Meketre's tomb, and date to ca. 1975 BC:

Below we have a female figure grinding or flattening dough, and on the right, miniature featuring men at work, in food storage:

In the image below, close inspection shows that women workers are featured amidst male workers, near the top left hand end of the image, engaged in what appears to be flattening dough with a "roller pin", not unlike a male figure doing the same thing in the preceding image; again, the miniatures were found in Meketre's tomb, and date to ca. 1975 BC:

In the images above, we have both male and female figures both outdoor and indoor, with the chocolate skin pigmentation crosscutting gender lines. Conversely, some observers are of the mindset that it was the women who worked outdoors, while the men stayed indoors and undertook household chores. Again, as can be clearly seen from the artwork examples above, this is not an accurate assessment of the Kemetian (ancient Egyptian) social relations. We see men working outdoors, just as we see them indoors, event though in several instances, the workforce appear to be gender-segregated, while not so in other cases. The last image above, for example, is a clear example of both genders working in the very same setting, side by side, and indoors. If the skin pigmentation was a function of either occupation indoors, or that of outdoors, then one would expect figures working indoors to have a different, i.e. lighter pigmentation, than those outdoors. This is clearly not the case. Therefore, the idea that the chocolate-like pigmentation of Kemetian figures can be attributed to tanning is not grounded in objective reasoning. Rather, females in yellowish skin tone, accompanying chocolate colored male companions, is an idealized rendering, as opposed to an attempt to mimic the lifelike skin tone of the subject at hand.

In another matter, there is an idea out there that "Nubians" were generally distinguished from Kemetians, in that the former were generally shown in darker pigmentation. Again, while this is certainly the case in certain instances, it does not hold water in other instances. Below, are a few examples of how the so-called "Nubians" appear not only in the same body pigmentation as their Kemetian counterparts, but also look no different facially. The only major distinctions made between them, is generally the attire:
Image caption: The Kemetian figures are uniformly shown in white loincloths while the "Nubian" figures sport loincloths with leopard-skin tone patterns. Putting that aside, the body pigmentation of the so-called "Nubian" figures are clearly within the same range as their Kemetian counterparts. This is in contrast to "Asiatic" figures in the register right below the "Nubians" and Kemetians.

Here's yet another wall mural showing "Nubians" in similar body pigmentation as the Kemetians, with only attire distinguishing the two groups:

Below, is reportedly a commemoration piece for a "Nubian" military figure in Egypt, named "Nenu", dating back to the First Intermediate Period (2250-2035 B.C.) and located at Jebelein, Egypt:
Notice that the figure is virtually indistinguishable in side facial profile from that conventionally ascribed to Kemetian figures. He and his female companion not only have that chocolate-like body tone talked about above, but also sport the conventional Egyptian attire.

In many of the Old Kingdom artwork before Kemetian geopolitical and military penetrations further south, i.e. beyond the 4th cataract, and when their venture into the southern territories was largely limited to the 3rd cataract, so-called "Nubians" generally had facial features similar to those conventionally associated with Kemetian figures, including as just exemplified above, similarities in body pigmentation. During this time, even when "Nubian" figures are occasionally seen in "darker" pigmentation when compared to the Kemetian figures, they still had facial profiles no different from those of the Kemetian figures. To provide examples of this, consider the following renditions:
Maiherpri, a Nubian prince educated at court with the royal princes, one of which became Amenhotep II. Subsequently Maiherpri held office under that king. 
Book of the Dead of Maiherpri; Papyrus photos are from the Official Catalogue: The Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Despite his darker body pigmentation, prince Maiherpri has a side facial profile that would be no different from any conventional rendition of Kemetian figures. One cannot even be certain whether the figure above is not gratuitously assumed to be a "Nubian" only because of the darker body pigmentation, given the way "westerners"  have traditionally sort to dichotomize Kemetians and "Nubians". Unless the accompanying hieroglyphs specifically state the geographical origin of his ancestry, this sort of sloppy research cannot be ruled out, especially given the fact that there was no such polity or people as "Nubians" known to the ancients of the Nile Valley. The figures color could just as well nominally represent a "sacred" personification of the prince. In any event, the figure's side facial profile is no different from that seen on conventional renditions of Kemetian figures on wall murals. In a perhaps more reassuring example, this phenomenon can be noticed in figurines of Kemetian troops from the 11th-12th Dynasty, as shown here earlier; here's another glimpse of the sculptures in question:
On the left, is a regiment comprising Kemetian figures, while on the right, is a regiment comprising of so-called "Nubians", a modern "western" construct in reference to ethnic groups beyond ancient Egypt's southern border. The figurines reportedly date back to the early 12th Dynasty (ca. 2000 - 1950 B.C.)

A close-up look at the troop figurines above shows that the general facial manifestations of the Kemetian troops is no different from those of their "Nubian" [generally understood to be "Medjay" in some circles] counterparts. Beyond that, in a close-up, one can see the artist's attempt at individualizing each soldiers look in terms of their faces, both for the Kemetian regiment and the "Nubian" regiment of the Kemetian army. The same theme can be seen in the individual soldiers' heights—soldiers sporting different heights and varying facial expressions, and even the weaponry they are holding, while similar in overall shape, differ in the way they stick out or bend. The Kemetian regiment can be viewed here: Kemetian soldiers. The Kemetian regiment and the "Nubian" regiment are again distinguished by garment and weaponry. Here is a close-up look at the "Nubian" regiment; click on the image for a greater resolution:

As one moves away from the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom and into the New Kingdom, when Kemetian venture into the southern territories extends to the 4th cataract and beyond, one starts to see an even more diversified portrayal of "Nubians", as far as physiognomy goes. During this period, one sees certain "Nubians" sporting attire conventions different from those of another group of "Nubians". One also see an interesting mix of body pigmentations amongst "Nubian" groups, ranging from chocolate-brown [as that generally used on Kemetian figures] to black pigmentation. Perhaps, a visual aid of this trend is in order; see below, courtesy of nubianet.org:

The nubianet.org site caption says that the "Nubians" in the right-hand image are "prisoners", although it is not clear how they arrived at that conclusion; the nubianet.org caption for the image on the left reads as follows: Fragment of a wall painting from an Egyptian tomb, late Dynasty 18 (ca. 1400-1300 BC). Courtesy of the British Museum, London. The image caption provided for the right-hand image went like this: A group of Nubian men, women and children taken prisoners of war and brought before Pharaoh, from the Theban tomb of Amenhotep-Huy, Viceroy of Kush under Tutankhamun (ca. 1333-1323 BC) Note their skin loincloths and the red- or yellow-ochred hair. Photo: T. Kendall. The said "Nubians" are certainly not held together by chains/rope as seen elsewhere. What is however clear, is the differing body pigmentation and attires amongst the so-called "Nubian" personalities.

It has been said elsewhere that while the skin pigmentation variation amongst Upper "Nubian" figures may be suggestive of the range of variation among them, it could have also been the artists way to make individual "Nubians" standout, presumably from one another, so as to satisfy "aesthetic" tastes. Although there may be a little bit of that going on in some instances wherein figures are closely clustered and overlap one another, this explanation is absurd, for Egyptian artists had no qualms about portraying "Nubian" figures in uniform "black" or darkly pigmented tones in many occasions on the wall murals. One comes across battle scenes where there are clusters of Upper "Nubian" figures in uniform dark skin colors; a good example of this can be seen in the commemorative battle scenes for Tutankhamun, which we shall see in due time. A look at the wall murals featuring Upper "Nubian" figures in multiple skin tones, display skin pigmentation ranging from brick red-brown, dark brown to black. "Nubian" individuals will stand in clear distances apart from another, yet still display differing skin tones from one another; this belies any intention to make such individuals standout presumably from another. Furthermore, a bitonal theme would be enough for any idealization effort to make individuals standout from one another, but as just noted, said "Nubians" are seen in as much as three different layers of pigmentation, which generally goes hand in hand with their differing attire. In fact, we've already seen examples of "Nubians" in uniform brown tones very similar to their Kemetian (ancient Egyptian) counterparts. For its part, the Oriental Institute of Chicago's site notes, as follows, with regards to scenery in Amenhotep-Huy's tomb:

Egyptians see Nubians as subjects - These paintings from the tomb of Huy, the Egyptian governor of Nubia during the reign of King Tutankhamun (1336–1327 BC), pictures Nubians bringing tribute for Egypt’s pharaoh. The scene shows a wide variety of Nubians. Some are in Egyptian dress, including a woman riding in a cart. Others, including children, appear in Nubian dress. The skin color of the Nubian men ranges from dark red to brown to black; skin tones for some of the women are lighter.

Perhaps just writing about it doesn't do it enough justice; the diversity of  Upper "Nubians" in Kemetian wall murals can best be realized with visual aids:

Immediately below, we have a repro-demonstration of the entire wall mural scenery at hand...

Following, are segments of the above wall mural, so as to zero in on the details of the scenes in the different registers...

Show similar trends, below is a fragment of a commemorative scenery dedicated to Sebekhotep of the 18 Dynasty, ca. 1400 BC. The figures are reportedly part of the bearers of gifts from the Upper Nile Valley and "Near East" respectively, with Sebekhotep accepting said gifts on behalf of Tutmose IV; click on the images for higher resolution:

Recalling a scenery concerning a trip back from "Pwnt" ("Punt"), "southerners" (likely including Upper "Nubians") were featured in similar tones as their Kemetian counterparts, dark or brick-red brownish hue, dating to the 18th Dynasty, during Hatshepsut's reign; see:

Note the garments of "southern" groups, like for example, animal-skin [e.g. leopards] color patterns on the kilts of some figures.

One also begins to see "Nubians" with visibly more distinct facial profiles from those conventionally ascribed to Kemetian figures. Examples like those below, come to attention:
The image on the left is courtesy of Oriental Institute of Chicago, and the one on the right is courtesy of Museo Civico Archeologico. The left-hand image features a wrestling match between an Upper "Nubian" wrestler and a Kemetian figure, while the right-hand image features seated Upper "Nubian" figures, possibly captives (?), with figures wearing different loincloths standing in the background . Note the distinctive ear rings among these group of "Nubians" that is noticeably absent in the earlier images of Lower "Nubians" figures.
The varying facial manifestations of "Nubians" appears to be an effort on the part of Kemetian artists to capture a modicum of realism. This is observed in other art, such as the sculpture below, thereby refuting attempts to invariably portray Kemetian art as just symbolic and hence futile in serving as valuable material for bio-anthropology:
Menkaure and his female companion, Khamerernebty, likely serving as the heiress queen (ca. 2490-2472 BC). A close-up look at Menkaure's face shows peculiarities which indicate that the face is actually a portraiture of the living figure, as opposed to an idealized rendering of the figure.
The metmusuem.org website described the statue above like this:

 "The group was not finished, since the lower part has not been fully smoothed. Paint was applied, as seen in the traces of red on the king's ears, and sheet gold may once have covered the woman's wig and the king's headdress. The coverings would have incorporated a cobra above the king's forehead and, possibly, a vulture headdress above the queen's wig. For the first time in Egyptian art, both royal heads are not images of idealized royalty but portraits of specific holders of the offices. The king's bulbous eyes, hanging flesh on the cheeks, and drooping lower lip are unmistakably features of an individual, as are the queen's long full neck and small mouth. While the king's body is ideally youthful and athletic, one might see hints of maturity in the woman's breasts."

Each time frame had its own peculiarities in art. Unlike some charges made about Kemetian artwork, it was not static. We see evolution of the art from one dominating trend to another one in succeeding Dynasties. For instance, as just commented on above, attempts to capture unique expressions of the real subject (Menkaure and his heiress queen, Khamerernebty) were made, which clearly distinguishes him as a specific individual from other subjects, while the body muscle and youthfulness on the other hand, *might* have been a little exaggerated, to lend some youthfulness to the pharaoh. The latter type of post-cranial body idealization was the trend in the old kingdom. In the old kingdom, pharaohs were given athletic/muscular post-crania body builds, while in the New Kingdom, under say, Akhenaten, one starts to see the feminizing of the post-cranial body on male pharaohs, as well as their female companions. In the New Kingdom, we see yet another shift under the Ramseses, wherein the post-cranial body of pharaohs goes back to the masculinity, while that of the royal females retains its femininity. Other images of Menkaure and his female companion(s):
In the image on the left, we have Menkaure now with two female companions, with the one to his left very likely being Khamerernebty, again serving as the heiress queen, so as to legitimize Menkaure's reign. The other female companion to his right hand side may well have been his intimate wife, pending any substantiation to the contrary. In the image on the right, the Menkaure-Khamerernebty sculpture being uncovered. There is a good degree of duplicity and consistency in the faces of Menkaure and Khamerernebty in the image of the trio in the image on the left, to those seen in the duo-sculpture of Menkaure and Khamerernebty in the image posted earlier, above.  
In contrast, a good example of highly idealized rendering of the subject can be seen in a comparative analysis of several artwork specimens of the pharaoh Khufu:
Image caption for the image on the left, courtesy of metmuseum.org: Head of King Khafre. Giza; Fourth Dynasty, reign of Khafre (ca. 2520–2494 B.C.E.). As for the image on the right, courtesy of metmuseum.org, we are told: King Khafre Seated. Giza; Fourth Dynasty, reign of Khafre (ca. 2520–2494 B.C.E.).
Metmuseum.org site put it this way, with regards to the bust in the left image:

"This face is broader than most representations of Khafre and the features are idealized and distant. Alabaster, often slightly translucent, sometimes with warm tones, was popular during the reigns of Khafre and Menkaure."

It is not clear whether the face is actually broader then other representations of Khafre as the metmuseum.org notes say, but there is certainly this almost feel of perfectionism in the visage of the bust, and hence, relative blank expression on the face. This may account for the "distant" feel of the bust, as the metmuseum.org claims. The seated full-body sculpture of a seated Khafre on the other hand, is relatively more lifelike, with a less generic facial build and expression, and in tune with many of the other available portraiture of this ruler.

Other instances, where we can get a glimpse of efforts to capture the real essence of the subject at hand, as opposed to idealized rendering:

In the renditions of Queen Tiye above, one notices the duplicity in the frown-like feel to the mouth, and the busts have a reasonable degree of reminiscence with one another, and the faces are certainly peculiar to Queen Tiye. There is a feel of a certain level of maturity characterizing the bust on left. These serve as signs that the artists of the busts are trying to capture a life-like face of the queen, rather than idealize her personality.

Likewise, in the following bust of Tutankhamun, the visage is pretty much personalized to boy king, and lifelike feel of his skin pigmentation and youthfulness have effectively been captured in the artwork:
Tut's portraiture bust. Courtesy of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Shifting gears, we turn to a myth that crops up every now and then in the 'west', that Kemetians were physically like their contemporaries in the so-called "Near East" and across the Mediterranean sea. This viewpoint would thus render them distinct from sub-Saharan Africans. Of course, bio-anthropological data disqualifies the notion. However, even from the artistic standpoint, the viewpoint doesn't hold water; Kemetian artists generally made it a point to show stark distinctions between Kemetian figures and the "Aamu", who are equated with "Asiatics" in modern 'western' discourse. Earlier above, we had already seen an example of this, but here are even more:
Some have claimed that this is a scenery of "Hebrews" first entering Kemet with their goods, but there are no archeological or empirical evidence of "Hebrews" in Kemetian record, at least not until well after the New Kingdom.
Notice how much more darker the Kemetian figures are in this black and white rendition, in comparison to "Asiatic" figures, and generally shaven in contrast to "Aamu" ("Asiatic") figures. This theme noticeably contrasts that between Kemetians and "Nubians", wherein we've already seen Kemetian and "Nubian" figures rendered in similar tones and facial profiles.When one goes still further south along the Nile Valley, beyond Kush, there are yet other Africans who sport similar facial profiles and skin pigmentations as the Kemetians. Many of us know them by the name "Puntites", from the "Land of Punt" (Pwnt). The "Land of Punt" is thought to have at least extended to the African Horn. The actual color photo of the rendition above can been seen below:

More "Aastic" renditions:

As part of commemorative art, "Nubian" figures are sometimes seen being trampled on or under captivity. Some ideologues have sought to interpret such antagonistic scenery as "racially" driven wars between the Kemetians and Kushites. Yet, similar scenes showing Kemetian figures smiting or trampling over "Asiatic" figures are ignored, and not seen as "racial" conflict between Kemetians and "Asiatics". In the image above, the one on the left particularly, "Asiatic" figures are apparently under captivity, but had these figures been "Nubians" instead, some ideologues would have dismissed the latter as mere "slaves", rather than fallen combatants under captivity. The following scene shows what is reportedly Tutankhamun in battle with "Asiatic" and possibly Kushitic figures...

Tutankhamun in battle with "Asiatic" figures:

Tutankhamun now in a battle scene against what could well have been Kushites:

Another scene featuring "Asiatics" being crushed:

And now, a scene featuring the trampling of both "Nubian" and "Asiatic" figures:

The image above is particularly interesting, since it makes it harder for ideologues to misinterpret the situation as a "racially"-driven conflict or a gesture of a lopsided disgust against one "foreign" race.

Similar themes can be found in the Rameside era, such as the following scenes of the Kadesh battle between the Kemetians and Hitites under Rameses II's leadership:

Along the lines of racialist ideologues, one might well dismiss the scenery above as that of a racialist war against Hitites; with 'blacks' or 'darkies' fighting against 'whites' or 'lighties'.

Even Kushite figures adopted similar themes of commemoration against foes; as an example, below—on the left, we have a Kushitic ruler smiting enemies in a fashion reminiscent of those of Rameses and other Kemetian rulers. On the right, is a scene involving Pharaoh Den's smiting of what appears to be an "Asiatic" enemy:

—For the next section of this topic, go here: Getting to Know Ancient Egyptian Art - Continued

Related reading: Ancient Nile Valley Influences in Extra-Nile Valley Art

—Note that terms like "Nubians" and "Asiatics" are presented in quotation-marks because they do not represent empirical historic entities; rather, these are modern "western" constructs to generically described ethnic groups and/or polities beyond Kemet's (ancient Egypt) southern border, and generically describe populations from territories east of Kemet, like the Levant, respectively.


DirectInstruct said...

Excellent essays with a great juxtaposition of pictures. I did not know the story behind the carvings of the soldiers myself. Usually on the web they are called "Nubians" when in fact they are all Egyptian- again exposing the dubious categories and "spin" so prevalent in the field. But above and beyond this issue, the information you post stands by itself a useful resource in understanding the art of ancient Egypt.

In part 2 you say:

"In summation, Kemetian art cannot summarily be dismissed as primarily idealistic, and therefore, of little bio-anthropological value, where human and other organic subjects go; rather, as demonstrated here, there was a general trend of capturing empirical observations in art. Nor was Dynastic Egyptian art chronically conservative and rigid in form. It was visibly dynamic, while at the same time, featuring certain traditions or codes in specialized areas that withstood the test of time for duration of the Dynastic era, especially concerning commemorative material celebrating figures of the ruling class."

How does the art of the Sahara and nearby areas like the Sudan relate to the conventions you mention in both pieces?

And on what basis do various claimants say that AE art is rigid and unchanging? Compared to whom?

Mystery Solver said...


The description of Saharan art depends on reference point of time frame. Earlier Saharan art featured stick-like human figures, which gives way to the more conventional-looking human figures. The change in human caricaturization coincides with introduction of new fauna, as beasts of burden, like say - horses. Likewise, in the Nile Valley, art in the early predynastic stratigraphical layers feature stick-like human personalities, which give way to the more conventional-looking types in the upper layers of the predynatic stratigraphy. From thereon of course, Nile Valley renderings take a distinctive turn of their own, while supplementing earlier artistic traditions. One notices bi-tonal color renderings used to contrast human figures of two distinct indigenous African populations in Saharan Rock Art; this tradition features prominently in Nile Valley art as well, as seen in Ancient Egyptian wall murals. Saharan art can therefore be reasonably characterized as dynamic in nature over time, just as seen with regards to Nile Valley conventions described in the blog post. Sudanese art, particularly Lower Sudan, can be placed in the same sphere as the ancient Egyptian examples. Elements of Ta-Seti, Qustul, seem to have seeped into Dynastic Egyptian art, and likewise, one observes Egyptianization of Kushitic art over the course of Kemetian/Egyptian control and influence in that complex, and particularly during the 25th Dynasty, when the Kushites extend their rule into Kemet/Ancient Egypt.

As for the proponents of Ancient Egyptian art being "rigid", these are generally Eurocentric ideologues who justify the claim, supposedly on the account of comparisons with classical Greek Art, which they describe as "dynamic". These ideologues generally dismiss Ancient Egyptian art as being "conservative".