As an education leader, I have loved doing handling sessions with the school children who come to the Egypt Centre. Their excitement is infectious. This handling class is a wonderful extension of that shared experience, as I am able to look closely at gems from the museum collection. This week focused on five pieces from the First Intermediate Period (fig. 1). Ken took us all carefully through the political and artistic background to this still slightly neglected time of turmoil, with dynasties containing competing dynastic power groups and cultural fragmentation ensuing (Seidlmayer 2000).
|Fig. 1: Reading the text of EC148 (photo by Molly Osborne)|
What seized my attention was the connection he established between this turbulent context and the artistic forms that were emerging within the period—with looser political structures came a kind of freedom. When we examined the five objects the interesting claim that “there was a loss of formal clarity and precision in the art of the period” became evident right before our eyes. For me this was exciting. One way to explain this is via grid lines. We were focusing on stelae and it is well known that throughout ancient Egyptian history representations of figures conformed to a tight grid system, only changing very slightly over time (Robins 1995). These stelae were exceptions to this convention. They were quite markedly different to the clear, formal, somewhat austere and dignified air of examples from the Old Kingdom. There were three stelae: EC62, EC148, and W1366.
|Fig. 2: “Soldier stela” (EC62)|
Initially they looked worn and almost damaged with relief carving lines having to be teased out as our group of three co-operated to identify features. However, as we began to use the torches on our phones to expose them to a much closer examination, they did, literally, come to life (my mind jumped to imagining the fierce, piercing ancient Egyptian sun doing exactly this). These were the self-promoting images of quite powerful people. The bow in EC62 (fig. 2) and the proud weaponry in W1366 were stunning affirmations commonly found in “soldier stelae” of the period (Vandier 1954, 468–469). Additionally, the “breakdown” of rules didn’t just result in slightly elongated figures, a foot too long, stretchy arms: here also, was a wife in EC148 (fig. 3) actually leading her husband in the ritual offering. Perhaps the women of Coptos (where this W148 is possibly from) were quite assertive and demanded a prominent role on stelae (Fischer 2000)!
|Fig. 3: Stela of a woman (EC148)|
The detail revealed in W1366 (fig. 4), which was purchased form the 1906 Robert de Rustafjaell sale, was wonderfully intriguing and again my imagination took flight. Yes, there were loosely carved figures—a tall warrior, his wife beside him—but there was a lot more to be seen. The carving of the hand on the bow and on the sheath of arrows was fabulously clear. Here was a man ensuring that representation of his martial prowess struck the viewer. His wife looked like a super-thin model with long stretchy arms, but…. if you looked closely enough the disproportional left arm had stretched round her husband’s back to provide caressing support! Immediately adjacent to this tiny hand was a “floating” servant bringing a cup. Look, we have servants!
|Fig. 4: “Soldier stela” (W1366)|
It was this desperate, but entirely endearing attempt to strain to look important that intrigued me. However, the most moving item from the collection came as a surprise. It was an offering tray (W476a), part of a funerary religious ritual (fig. 5). It had the raised roughish parts of a bull on its concave interior and a strange hole which did not reach the outside. Ever keen to speculate I found myself thinking of the modern best dinner service, possibly inherited from grandparents, brought out on special family occasions. I felt I was holding a piece of magic from ancient Egypt. Along with the stelae, it set me loose on the culture of the First Intermediate Period where it seems art was free to be domestically aspirational in a most captivating manner.
|Fig. 5: Offering tray (W476a)|
Fischer, H. G. (2000) Egyptian women of the Old Kingdom and of the Herakleopolitan Period. New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. second edition.
Robins, G. (1995) Proportion and style in ancient Egypt. Austin; London: University of Texas Press; Thames and Hudson.
———. (2000) The art of ancient Egypt. London: The British Museum Press.
Seidlmayer, S. J. (2000) ‘The First Intermediate Period (c. 2160–2055 BC)’. In The Oxford history of ancient Egypt, ed. I. Shaw. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 118–147.
Sotheby, Wilkinson, & Hodge. (1906) Catalogue of the collection of Egyptian antiquities formed in Egypt, by R. de Rustafjaell, Esq. Queen’s Gate, S. W. London: Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge.
Vandier, J. (1954) Manuel d’archéologie égyptienne II. Paris: Éditions A. et J. Picard.