Beyond Hieroglyphs: The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt




1 – Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Art

1.1 – Overview

Ancient Egyptian art includes the painting, sculpture, architecture, and other arts produced by the civilization in the lower Nile Valley from 5000 BCE to 300 CE. Ancient Egyptian art reached considerable sophistication in painting and sculpture, and was both highly stylized and symbolic. Much of the surviving art comes from tombs and monuments; hence, the emphasis on life after death and the preservation of knowledge of the past. In a narrower sense, Ancient Egyptian art refers to art of the second and third dynasty developed in Egypt from 3000 BCE until the third century. Most elements of Egyptian art remained remarkably stable over this 3,000 year period, with relatively little outside influence. The quality of observation and execution began at a high level and remained so throughout the period.

Ancient Egypt was able to flourish because of its location on the Nile River, which floods at predictable intervals, allowing controlled irrigation, and providing nutrient-rich soil favorable to agriculture. Most of the population and cities of Egypt lie along those parts of the Nile valley north of Aswan, and nearly all the cultural and historical sites of Ancient Egypt are found along riverbanks. The Nile ends in a large delta that empties into the Mediterranean Sea. The settlers of the area were able to eventually produce a surplus of edible crops, which in turn led to a growth in the population. The regular flooding and ebbing of the river is also responsible for the diverse natural resources in the region.

Natural resources in the Nile Valley during the rise of ancient Egypt included building and decorative stone, copper and lead ores, gold, and semiprecious stones, all of which contributed to the architecture, monuments, jewels, and other art forms for which this civilization would become well known. High-quality building stones were abundant. The ancient Egyptians quarried limestone all along the Nile Valley, granite from Aswan, and basalt and sandstone from the wadis (valleys) of the eastern desert. Deposits of decorative stones dotted the eastern desert and were collected early in Egyptian history.

The Prehistory of Egypt spans the period of earliest human settlement to the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt in ca. 3100 BCE, beginning with King Menes/Narmer. The Predynastic Period is traditionally equivalent to the Neolithic period, beginning ca. 6000 BCE and including the Protodynastic Period (Naqada III). The Predynastic period is generally divided into cultural periods, each named after the place where a certain type of Egyptian settlement was first discovered. However, the same gradual development that characterizes the Protodynastic period is present throughout the entire Predynastic period, and individual “cultures” must not be interpreted as separate entities but as largely subjective divisions used to facilitate the study of the entire period.

1.2 – Old Kingdom

Djoser pyramid: Step pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, Egypt.

The Old Kingdom is the name given to the period in the third millennium BCE when Egypt attained its first continuous peak of civilization in complexity and achievement—the first of three so-called “Kingdom” periods which mark the high points of civilization in the lower Nile Valley (the others being Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom). While the Old Kingdom was a period of internal security and prosperity, it was followed by a period of disunity and relative cultural decline referred to by Egyptologists as the First Intermediate Period. During the Old Kingdom, the king of Egypt (not called the Pharaoh until the New Kingdom) became a living god, who ruled absolutely and could demand the services and wealth of his subjects. Under King Djoser, the first king of the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, the royal capital of Egypt was moved to Memphis. A new era of building was initiated at Saqqara under his reign. King Djoser’s architect, Imhotep, is credited with the development of building with stone and with the conception of the new architectural form—the Step Pyramid . Indeed, the Old Kingdom is perhaps best known for the large number of pyramids constructed at this time as pharaonic burial places. For this reason, the Old Kingdom is frequently referred to as “the Age of the Pyramids.”

1.3 – Middle Kingdom

Osiris: The gods Osiris, Anubis, and Horus, from a tomb painting.

The Middle Kingdom of Egypt is the period in the history of ancient Egypt stretching from the establishment of the Eleventh Dynasty to the end of the Thirteenth Dynasty, between 2055 and 1650 BCE. During this period, the funerary cult of Osiris rose to dominate Egyptian popular religion.

1.4 – New Kingdom

The New Kingdom of Egypt, also referred to as the Egyptian Empire, is the period between the sixteenth century and the eleventh century BCE, covering the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth 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.

The Ptolemaic dynasty was a Macedonian Greek royal family which ruled the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt during the Hellenistic period. Their rule lasted for 275 years, from 305 BCE to 30 BCE. They were the last dynasty of ancient Egypt.

2 – The Early Dynastic Period

2.1 – Art in the Early Dynastic Period

The Early Dynastic Period of Egypt immediately followed the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt around 3100 BC. It is generally taken to include the First and Second Dynasties, lasting from the Protodynastic Period of Egypt until about 2686 BC, or the beginning of the Old Kingdom.

During the First Dynasty, the capital moved from Abydos to Memphis, with a unified Egypt ruled by an Egyptian god-king. Abydos remained the major holy land in the south. Before the unification of Egypt, the land was settled with autonomous villages. With the early dynasties, and for much of Egypt’s history thereafter, the country came to be known as the Two Lands, and the rulers established a national administration and appointed royal governors. The hallmarks of ancient Egyptian civilization , such as art, architecture and many aspects of their polytheistic religion, took shape during the Early Dynastic period.

Many of the common aesthetic practices of Egyptian art and architecture were formalized during this era, as Egyptian society grew and advanced rapidly toward refined civilization. Much of Egyptian art revolved around the theme of permanence, from large architectural structures to writing and imagery of the afterlife. Artists endeavored to preserve everything from the present as clearly and permanently as possible.

A new and distinctive pottery appeared during this time, along with the use of copper, the Mesopotamian process of sun-dried bricks, and architectural building principles such as the arch and decorative recessed walls. Ceramic objects were commonly interred with the dead in tombs. Mundane objects such as plates ensured the continuation of activities practiced in the physical world, while other vessels stored the internal organs of the body after it was embalmed. Open-air temple buildings of the central government were constructed of wood or sandstone.

Ceramic plate (c. 3900 BCE): This is a plate from the Early Dynastic Period of Ancient Egypt. It depicts a man on a boat alongside a hippopotamus and crocodile. In this context, the hippopotamus probably symbolizes chaos and destruction in the form of the god Seth (Set), while the crocodile could symbolize the god Sobek, who occasionally served as a protective deity.

It was also during this period that the Egyptian writing system was further developed: Initially composed of a few symbols, by the end of the third dynasty, it had been expanded to include more than 200 symbols, both phonograms and ideograms.

While funeral practices for peasants remained much the same as in predynastic times, wealthier members of Egyptian society began seeking something more. The first mastabas were constructed in the form of a flat-roofed, rectangular structure with outward sloping sides that marked the burial site of many eminent Egyptians. These structures became models for the Step Pyramids that would be developed later in the Old Kingdom.

Sunken relief of the crocodile god, Sobek: Animals were usually also highly symbolic figures in Egyptian art.

Symbolism is omnipresent in Egyptian art, and played an important role in establishing a sense of order. Symbols ranged from the pharaoh’s regalia (signifying his power to maintain order), to the individual symbols of Egyptian gods and goddesses, to animals depicted as highly symbolic figures. The crocodile god Sobek, depicted in the sunken relief below (and possibly in the imagery of the plate above), served a variety of purposes including fertility, military prowess, and protection. On the other hand, the god Seth (also known as Set), sometimes symbolized by a hippopotamus, symbolized chaos and disorder.

Colors were more expressive rather than natural. For instance, red skin painted on characters implied vigorous, tanned youths; yellow skin was used for women or middle-aged men who worked indoors; blue or gold indicated divinity because of its unnatural appearance and association with precious materials; and the use of black for royal figures expressed the fertility of the Nile from which Egypt was born. Stereotypes were employed to indicate the geographical origins of foreigners.

Art forms were characterized by regularity and detailed depiction of gods, human beings, heroic battles, and nature, and were intended to provide solace to the deceased in the afterlife. Media ranged from papyrus drawings to pictographs (hieroglyphics) and included funerary sculpture carved in relief and in the round from sandstone, quartz diorite, and granite. The art displays an extraordinarily vivid representation of the Ancient Egyptian’s socioeconomic status and belief systems.

2.2 – Architecture of the Early Dynastic Period

The hallmarks of ancient Egyptian architecture took shape during the Early Dynastic Period.

2.2.1 – First and Second Dynasties

The stepped pyramid at Saqqara: Large tombs of pharaohs at Abydos and Naqada, in addition to cemeteries at Saqqara and Helwan near Memphis, reveal structures built largely of wood and mud bricks, with some small use of stone for walls and floors.

Due to the scarcity of wood, the two predominant building materials used in ancient Egypt were sun-baked mud brick and limestone. After the end of the Early Dynastic Period , stone became used in tombs and temples, while bricks were used even for royal palaces, fortresses, and the walls of temple precincts.

Ancient Egyptian houses were made of mud collected from the Nile River. The mud was placed in molds and left to dry in the hot sun to harden. Many Egyptian towns situated near the cultivated area of the Nile Valley have disappeared, either by flooding as the river bed slowly rose during the millennia, or the mud bricks of which they were built were used by peasants as fertilizer. Fortunately, the dry, hot climate of Egypt preserved some mud brick structures.

Large tombs of pharaohs at Abydos and Naqada, in addition to cemeteries at Saqqara and Helwan near Memphis, reveal structures built largely of wood and mud bricks, with some small use of stone for walls and floors. Stone was used in quantity for the manufacture of ornaments , vessels , and occasionally for statues. Tamarix was used to build boats such as the Abydos Boats. One of the most important indigenous woodworking techniques was the fixed mortise and tenon joint, where xed tenon was made by shaping the end of one timber to fit into a mortise (or hole) that is cut into a second timber. A variation of this joint using a free tenon eventually became one of the most important features in Mediterranean and Egyptian shipbuilding. It creates a union between two planks or other components by inserting a separate tenon into a cavity (mortise) of the corresponding size cut into each component.

2.2.2 – Tombs and Funerary Practices

Human sacrifice was practiced as part of the funerary rituals associated with all of the pharaohs of the first dynasty. It is clearly demonstrated as existing during this dynasty by retainers being buried near each pharaoh’s tomb as well as animals sacrificed for the burial. The tomb of Djer is associated with the burials of 338 individuals. The people and animals sacrificed, such as donkeys, were expected to assist the pharaoh in the afterlife. For unknown reasons, this practice ended with the conclusion of the dynasty, with shabtis taking the place of actual people to aid the pharaohs with the work expected of them in the afterlife.

Ancient Egyptian temples were aligned with astronomically significant events like solstices and equinoxes, requiring precise measurements at the moment of the particular event. Measurements at the most significant temples may have been ceremonially undertaken by the pharaoh himself.

2.3 – Painting of the Early Dynastic Period

Ancient Egyptian art reached a high level in painting and sculpture , and was both highly stylized and symbolic. Much of the surviving art comes from tombs and monuments, and thus there is an emphasis on life after death and the preservation of knowledge of the past.

Wall painting of Nefertari: Egyptian paintings are painted in such a way to show a profile view and a side view of the animal or person. This painting, for example, shows the head from a profile view and the body from a frontal view. The main colors used were red, blue, black, gold, and green.

All Egyptian reliefs were painted, and less prestigious works in tombs, temples, and palaces were just 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 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 profile view and a side view of the animal or person—a technique known as composite view. Their main colors were red, blue, black, gold, and green.

2.4 – Sculpture of the Early Dynastic Period

2.4.1 – Introduction

The monumental sculpture of Ancient Egypt is world famous, but refined and delicate small works exist in much greater numbers. The Egyptians used the distinctive technique of sunk relief, which is well suited to very bright sunlight. The main figures in reliefs adhere to the same figure convention as in painting, with parted legs (where not seated) and head shown from the side, but the torso from the front, and a standard set of proportions making up the figure, using 18 “fists” to go from the ground to the hair-line on the forehead. This appears as early as the Narmer Palette from Dynasty I, but elsewhere the convention is not used for minor figures shown engaged in some activity, such as the captives and corpses. Other conventions make statues of males darker than females. Very conventionalized portrait statues appear from as early as Dynasty II (before 2,780 BCE), and, with the exception of the art of the Amarna period of Ahkenaten and some other periods such as Dynasty XII, the idealized features of rulers changed little until after the Greek conquest.

A sculpted head of Amenhotep III: Very conventionalized portrait statues manifest idealized features of rulers.

By Dynasty IV (2680–2565 BCE) at the latest, 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. The so-called reserve heads, or 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 necessary for the deceased to continue his lifestyle in the afterworld – and later Ushabti figures. However, the great majority of wooden sculpture has been lost to decay, or probably used as fuel. Small figures of deities, or their animal personifications, are commonly 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 often used for expensive versions of these, while painted wood was the most common material, normally used for the small models of animals, slaves, and possessions that were 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 essentially to be represented with a falcon’s head, while the god of funeral rites (Anubis) was to be always 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-aging quality of the figure’s ka.

2.4.2 – Tomb Sculpture

Early tombs contained small sculptural models of the slaves, animals, buildings, and objects, such as boats necessary for the deceased to continue his lifestyle in the afterlife, and later Ushabti figures. However, the great majority of wooden sculpture has been lost to decay, or probably used as fuel. Small figures of deities, or their animal personifications, are commonly 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 often used for expensive versions of these, while painted wood was the most common material, normally used for the small models of animals, slaves, and possessions that were placed in tombs to provide for the afterlife.

El-Amra clay model of cattle: This model was found in a tomb and was likely intended as a symbolic source of sustenance in the afterlife.

The El-Amra clay model of cattle (c. 3500 BCE) predates the Early Dynastic Period but provides an idea of the appearance and production method of tomb sculptures of the time. Cattle more commonly represented a source of blood, rather than meat or dairy products, but likely symbolized a source of food in the afterlife. The model is small scale (8.2 cm high), was fired at a low temperature, and was originally painted. Remnants of linen on the model suggests that it was either placed under a cloth or completely wrapped in one.

2.4.3 – Palette of Narmer

The Palette of Narmer: On each side of the palette, the first king of a unified Egypt is depicted as an active conqueror and as a victorious son of divinity.

The Palette of Narmer (c. 31st century BCE) is named for the pharaoh who unified Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Egypt and founded the Dynasty I. As in the art of many cultures of ancient times, the palette contains hieratic scale , in which Narmer is the largest figure. Narmer’s headgear symbolizes the historic unification of the two kingdoms. On the recto (front) side of the palette, he wears the bulbed White Crown of Upper Egypt. To the right is a set of papyrus flowers, which symbolize Lower Egypt. On the second register of the verso (back) side, he wears the more geometric Red Crown of Lower Egypt. The figures on both sides of the palette were carved in low relief.

The recto side of the palette depicts the unification of Egypt as a violent one. Narmer wields a mace in his right hand as he grabs a kneeling man by the hair with his left. The king’s right arm is raised in a manner that foreshadows a deadly blow about to be struck to the enemy. Behind Narmer is his servant holding his sandals. In the bottom register, two conquered foes either flee in fear or lie dead or dying. The hieroglyphs to the left of each man’s head respectively represent a walled city and the name of a defeated town. Meanwhile, the presence of the cow goddess Bat on the top register and the falcon god Horus to the right of Narmer suggests that the king acted with divine approval.

The subject matter of the verso side is more complex than that of the recto side. Bat once again flanks each side of the top register. On the second register, Narmer marches between his sandal bearer on the left and a procession of standard bearers. To the far right are ten decapitated corpses of vanquished foes. Above them are the names of towns that have fallen to Narmer. The third register depicts two mythological animals whose intertwined necks symbolize the newly unified Egypt and form a recessed area in which cosmetics were ground. On the bottom-most register, a bull tramples a vanquished foe and knocks over the walls of a city. From the epithet “Bull of His Mother,” the image likely symbolizes the pharaoh, the perceived son of Bat. In later hieroglyphics , the bull with the bowed head would symbolize force.

3 – The Old Kingdoom

Known as the “Age of the Pyramids,” the Old Kingdom was characterized by revolutionary advancements in architecture.

The Old Kingdom of Egypt existed from the third through the sixth Dynasties (2686 BC–2182 BC). A period of political stability and economic prosperity, it is characterized by revolutionary advancements in royal funerary architecture. Both Egyptian society and the economy were greatly impacted by the organization of major state-sponsored building projects, which focused on building tombs for their kings. These tombs were built in the form of great pyramids, and for this reason, the Old Kingdom is frequently referred to as the “Age of the Pyramids.”

3.1 – The Pyramids of the Old Kingdom

3.1.1 – Evolution of the Mastaba

Mastaba schematic: Inside the mastaba, a deep chamber was dug into the ground and lined with stone or bricks. Over time these tomb chambers sank more deeply and were connected by stairs. The above-ground structure had space for a small chapel to which priests and family members could bring offerings for the soul of the deceased.

During the Old Kingdom, royal mastabas eventually developed into rock-cut “step pyramids” and then “true pyramids,” although non-royal use of mastabas continued to be used for more than a thousand years. As the pyramids were constructed for the kings, mastabas for lesser royals were constructed around them. The interior walls of the tombs were decorated with scenes of daily life and funerary rituals . Because of the riches included in graves, tombs were a tempting site for grave-robbers. The increasing size of the pyramids is in part credited to protecting the valuables within, and many other tombs were built into rock cliffs in an attempt to thwart grave robbers.

Example of a Mastaba: Royal mastabas were used to mark burial sites of many important Egyptians.

3.1.2 – Djoser’s “Step Pyramid”

Step Pyramid at Saqqara: Djoser’s step pyramid was the first of the great pyramids built during the Old Kingdom in Eqypt. Unlike later pyramids, it used a step design that is easily recognized.

The first king to launch a major pyramid building project was King Djoser, who ruled in the 3rd Dynasty. He built his famous “Step Pyramid” at Saqqara, not far from the capital city of Memphis (near modern-day Cairo). In the following dynasties, the pyramid design changed from the “step” pyramid to a true pyramid shape as kings continued to build tombs for their kings. Among these, the Pyramids of Giza are considered the greatest architectural achievement of the time.

3.1.3 – The Pyramids of Giza

The Pyramids of Giza, also known as the Giza Necropolis , are one of the oldest remaining wonders of the world. The Necropolis includes three pyramid complexes: the Great Pyramid (built by King Khufu of the 4th Dynasty); the somewhat smaller Pyramid of Khafre (buit by Khufu’s son); and the relatively modest-sized Pyramid of Menkaure.

The Pyramids of Giza: This view shows all three pyramid structures: the Great Pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure.

The Necropolis also includes several cemeteries, a workers’ village, an industrial complex, and a massive sculpture known as the Great Sphinx. The Great Sphinx is a limestone statue of a reclining sphinx—a mythical creature with a lion’s body and a human head. It is commonly believed that the head is that of King Khafra, who ruled during the 4th dynasty. It is the largest monolith statue in the world, standing 241 ft long, 63 ft wide, and 66.34 ft high.

Albumen print of the Sphinx of Giza, partially excavated, with two pyramids in background: The Great Sphinx of Giza is the largest monolith statue in the world and was believed to have been built for King Khafra during the 4th Dynasty.

We still do not know exactly how the huge and impressive stone monuments were built. Most of the stone for the interior seems to have been quarried immediately to the south of the construction site. The smooth exterior of the pyramid, however, was made of a fine grade of white limestone that was quarried from the other side of the Nile River. These exterior blocks had to be carefully cut, transported by river barge to Giza, and dragged up ramps to the construction site. Theorists disagree as to the method by which the stones were then put into place and how possible the method was. It’s also possible that the architects developed their techniques over time.

The sides of all three of the Giza pyramids were astronomically oriented to the north-south and east-west within a small fraction of a degree. To ensure that the pyramid remained symmetrical, the exterior casing stones all had to be equal in height and width. Workers might have marked all the blocks to indicate the angle of the pyramid wall and trimmed the surfaces carefully so that the blocks fit together.

The work of quarrying, moving, setting, and sculpting the huge amount of stone used to build the pyramids might have been accomplished by several thousand skilled workers and unskilled laborers. Evidence from the tombs indicates that a workforce of 10,000 laborers working in three-month shifts took around 30 years to build a single pyramid.

3.1.4 – Mummification and Burial Ritual

In order to preserve the body and, therefore, the soul of the deceased, Egyptians used the process of mummification. This involved removing the internal organs, wrapping the body in linen, and burying the mummy in a rectangular stone sarcophagus or wooden coffin. Because it was believed that the deceased would continue his or her earthly life in the afterlife, accommodations were made to ensure this transition. The Opening of the Mouth Ceremony was a ritual involving the symbolic animation of a mummy by magically opening its mouth so that it could breathe, speak, eat, and drink in the afterlife.

Many mummies were provided with some form of funerary literature, often consisting of spells and instructions for navigating the afterlife. During the Old Kingdom, only the pharaoh had access to this material, which scholars refer to as the Pyramid Texts . The Pyramid Texts are a collection of spells to assure the royal resurrection and protect the pharaoh from various malignant influences.

3.2 – Sculpture of the Old Kingdom

Egyptian artisans during the Old Kingdom perfected the art of sculpting and carving intricate relief decoration out of stone.

Egyptian sculptors created the first life-sized statues and fine reliefs in stone, copper, and wood. They perfected the art of carving intricate relief decoration and produced detailed images of animals, plants, and even landscapes, recording the essential elements of their world for eternity in scenes painted and carved on the walls of temples and tombs. Kings used reliefs to record victories in battle, royal decrees, and religious scenes, and sculptures of kings, goddesses, and gods were common as well. Sculptures from the Old Kingdom are characteristically more natural in style than their predecessors. Toward the end of the Old Kingdom, images of people shifted toward formalized nude figures with long bodies and large eyes.

Egyptian sculpture of the Old Kingdom: This sculpture was created in the Fourth Dynasty, and represents the goddess Hathor, King Menkaure, and the goddess Bat.

The Great Sphinx, located among the Pyramids of Giza, is the largest monolith statue in the world, standing 241 feet long, 63 feet wide, and 66.34 feet high. Carved out of limestone , it represents a mythical creature known as a sphinx, with a lion’s body and a human head. It is commonly believed that the head of the Great Sphinx is that of the Fourth Dynasty (2680-2565 BCE) pharaoh Khafre, whose pyramid stands directly behind the giant sculpture.

The Great Sphinx of Giza: The Great Sphinx, located among the Pyramids of Giza, is the largest monolith statue in the world.

While most sculptures were made of stone, wood was sometimes used as a cheap and easily carved substitute. Paints were obtained from minerals such as iron ores (red and yellow ochres), copper ores (blue and green), soot or charcoal (black), and limestone (white). Paints could be mixed with gum arabic as a binder and pressed into cakes, which could be moistened with water when needed.

By the Fourth Dynasty, the idea of the ka statue was firmly established. Typically made of wood or stone, these statues were placed in tombs as a resting place for the ka, or spirit, of the person after death. Other sculptural works served as funerary art, accompanying the deceased in burial tombs with the intention of preserving life after death. Strict conventions that changed very little over the course of Egyptian history were intended to convey the timeless and non-aging quality of the figure’s ka.

Ka statue of Horawibra

The Fourth Dynasty also witnessed the production of so-called “reserve heads,” plain and hairless naturalistic busts found primarily in non-royal tombs. Each head bears a striking individuality despite many common features, leading to the argument that they were portraits. Some scholars believe that they were intended as the commoners’ equivalent of ka statues, although the exact purpose remains a matter of debate.

Reserve heads (c. 26th century BCE): These individualized busts might have been the commoners’ equivalent of the ka statue, but the exact purpose remains unknown.

Very strict conventions governed the crafting of deity figures, and these rules were followed so strictly that over three thousand years, the appearance of statues changed very little. For example, the sky god (Horus) was to be represented with a falcon’s head, while the god of funeral rites (Anubis) was to be always shown with a jackal’s head.

In addition to funerary art, Egyptians surrounded themselves with objects to enhance their lives in this world, producing cosmetic vessels and finely carved and inlaid furniture. Over time, Egyptian artists adopted a limited repertoire of standard types and established a formal artistic canon that would define Egyptian art for more than 3,000 years while remaining flexible enough to allow for subtle variation and innovation.

4 – The Middle Kingdom

Innovations during the Middle Kingdom included the solemnity evident in portraits of Senusret III and block statues.

4.1 – Sculpture of the Middle Kingdom

4.1.1 – Mentuhotep II

Mentuhotep II receiving offerings: Mentuhotep II, seated, holds the crook as a symbol of power.

The Middle Kingdom (c. 2000-1650 BCE) was marked by the reunification of Egypt following a period of weak pharaonic power and civil war called the First Intermediate. Mentuhotep II restored stability in 2041 BCE after launching an attack that met with little resistance. After toppling the last rulers of the Tenth Dynasty, Mentuhotep II began consolidating his power over all Egypt, completing the process circa 2000 BCE. His subjects considered him to be divine or semi-divine, as suggested in a relief depicting the pharaoh receiving offerings .

4.1.2 – Senusret III

During the Middle Kingdom, relief and portrait sculpture captured subtle, individual details that reached new heights of technical perfection. Some of the finest examples of sculpture during this time was at the height of the empire under Pharaoh Senusret III.

Senusret III (also written as Senwosret III or Sesostris III) ruled from 1878–1839 BCE and was the fifth monarch of the Twelfth Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom. His military campaigns gave rise to an era of peace and economic prosperity that not only reduced the power of regional rulers, but also led to a revival in craftwork, trade, and urban development in the Egyptian kingdom. One of the few kings who were deified and honored with a cult during their own lifetime, he is considered to be perhaps the most powerful Egyptian ruler of the dynasty.

Head of pharaoh Sesostris III, made of red granite, circa 1850 BCE: Some of the sculptures of Senusret III, like this one, portray him as an aging man—a style that deviated from the standard representation of kings.

Aside from his accomplishments in architecture and war, Senusret III is known for his strikingly somber sculptures in which he appears careworn and grave. Deviating from the standard way of representing kings, Senusret III and his successor Amenemhat III had themselves portrayed as mature, aging men. This is often interpreted as a portrayal of the burden of power and kingship. The change in representation as ideological, and not something to be interpreted as the portrayal of an aging king, is shown by the fact that in one single relief, Senusret III was represented as a vigorous young man, following the centuries old tradition, and as a mature aging king.

4.1.3 – Block Statues and Women Patrons

Example of a block statue: Block statues of the Middle Kingdom consisted of a man squatting with his knees drawn up to his chest.

Another important innovation in sculpture that occurred during the Middle Kingdom was the block statue, which would continue to be popular through to the Ptolemaic age almost 2,000 years later. Block statues consist of a man squatting with his knees drawn up to his chest and his arms folded on top of his knees. Often, these men are wearing a wide cloak that reduces the body of the figure to a simple block-like shape. In some cases the cloak covers the feet completely, and in others the feet are left uncovered. The head of the sculpture contains the most detail.

Head and torso of a noblewoman (Twelfth Dynasty): This sculpture, commissioned by a noblewoman, provides evidence of gender equality among the elite during the Middle Kingdom.

The sculpture pictured below—the fact that a private woman could have a sculpture made for herself—speaks volumes for the equality of gender in ancient Egypt. The heavy tripartite wig frames the broad face and passes behind the ears, thus giving the impression of forcing them forward. They are large in keeping with the ancient Egyptian ideal of beauty; the same ideal required small breasts, and in this respect, the sculpture is no exception. Whereas the natural curve of the eyebrows dips towards the root of the nose, the artificial eyebrows in low relief are absolutely straight above the inner corners of the eyes, a feature which places the bust early in the early Twelfth Dynasty. Around 1900 BCE, these artificial eyebrows, too, began to follow the natural curve and dipped toward the nose.

4.2 – Tombs of the Middle Kingdom

Grand and royal tombs continued to be built for the deceased during the prosperous Middle Kingdom.

Royal funerary practices in the Middle Kingdom remained much the same as in the Old Kingdom, with kings continuing to build pyramids for their burials. Unlike the Old Kingdom, however, Middle Kingdom royal pyramids were not quite as well constructed, and so few of them remain as pyramid structures today. Among the tombs built during this time are Amenemhat I’s funerary monument at El-Lisht; Sesostris I’s funerary monument; Amenemhat III’s pyramid at Hawara, which includes an elaborate labyrinth complex; and Sesostris II’s pyramid at Illahun. The construction of pyramids declined toward the end of the Twelfth Dynasty , as instability led to the decline of the Middle Kingdom.

Burial goods continued to be commonplace in tombs. Starting in the First Intermediate period, wooden models became very popular, often depicting everyday activities that the deceased expected to continue doing in the afterlife. The standard coffin was rectangular and brightly painted, often including an offering formula. Unlike the Old Kingdom, objects of daily use were not often included in the tombs; however, they reappeared toward the end of the Middle Kingdom.

Other new objects were introduced toward the end of the Middle Kingdom as well, including the first shabtis (also known as ushabtis) and the first scarabs. Shabtis were funerary figurines placed in tombs of the deceased to help them in the afterlife. Used from the Middle Kingdom until the end of the Ptolemaic Period nearly 2000 years later, most shabtis were of a small size, often covering the floor around a sarcophagus . Exceptional shabtis were of larger size, or produced as a one-of-a-kind master work. They were generally distinguished from other statuettes by being inscribed with the name of the deceased, his titles, and often with spells from the Coffin TextsShabtis were created to act as the deceased’s servants, performing the manual labor necessary for the plentiful existence of the afterlife.

Shabti figures: Shabti were funerary figurines that were placed in tombs along with the deceased to assist them in the afterlife.

Scarabs were popular amulets believed to be protectors of written products. The scarab was also used as a holder or medium for personal name seals. A figurine of a scarab would be carved out of stone, and then on the smooth stomach of the scarab, the engraving of a seal was made.

A modern imitation of an ancient Egyptian scarab amulet: Scarabs were often included in tombs along with other burial goods as protectors of written products.

Another change in funerary practice during this time had to do with non-royal Egyptians. In contrast to elitist Old Kingdom attitudes towards the gods, the Middle Kingdom experienced an increase in expressions of personal piety and what could be called a democratization of the afterlife. In this worldview , all people possessed a soul and could be welcomed into the company of the gods after death.

In the Old Kingdom, the Pyramid Texts, which contained spells to help the dead reach the afterlife successfully, were only accessible to the elite. During the Middle Kingdom, Egyptians outside of the elite levels of society gained access to this funerary literature and began incorporating it into their own burials. Coffin Texts, as they are called by the scholars, expanded upon the Pyramid Texts, introducing new spells and incorporating slight changes to make them more relatable to the nobility. As seen in the image below, Coffin Texts could appear as paintings or inscriptions on the inside of the coffin. Due to the limited writing surfaces of some of these objects, the spells were often abbreviated, giving rise to long and short versions.

Map of the netherworld from the coffin of Gua, from Deir el-Bersha, Egypt (Twelfth Dynasty, 1985-1795 BCE): The map inscribed in this coffin comprises part of the Coffin Texts intended to help the deceased navigate through the Duat.

In contrast to the Pyramid Texts, which focus on the celestial realm, the Coffin Texts emphasize the subterranean elements of the afterlife ruled by Osiris in a place called the Duat. People of all classes had access to this afterlife, in which they would be judged by Osiris and his council according to their deeds in life. This realm is described as containing threatening beings, traps, and snares for which the deceased must be prepared. Spells in the Coffin Texts were intended to help the deceased contend with these impediments.

4.3 – Stelae of the Middle Kingdom

The stelae of Ancient Egypt served many purposes, from funerary, to marking territory, to publishing decrees.

Egyptians were well known for their stelae, the earliest of which date back to the mid- to late third millennium BCE. Stelae are stone slabs that served many purposes, from funerary, to marking territory, to publishing decrees. Images and text were intimately interwoven and inscribed, carved in relief , or painted on the stelae. While most stelae were taller than they were wide, the slab stelae took a horizontal dimension and was used by a small list of ancient Egyptian dignitaries or their wives. The huge number of stelae surviving from ancient Egypt constitute one of the largest and most significant sources of information on those civilizations .

Funerary stelae were generally built in honor of the deceased and decorated with their names and titles. While some funerary stelae were in the form of slab stelae, this funerary stelae of a bowman named Semin (c. 2120-2051 BCE) appears to have been a traditional vertical stelae.

Funerary stelae of the bowman Semin: Funerary stelae were usually inscribed with the name and title of the deceased, along with images or hieroglyphs.

Slab stelae, when used for funerary purposes, were commonly commissioned by dignitaries and their wives. They also served as doorway lintels as early as the third millennium BCE, most famously decorating the home of Old Kingdom architect Hemon.

Annals of Amenemhat II: This drawing represents one of the larger fragments of this stelae.

Stelae also were used to publish laws and decrees, to record a ruler’s exploits and honors, mark sacred territories or mortgaged properties, or to commemorate military victories. Much of what we know of the kingdoms and administrations of Egyptian kings are from the public and private stelae that recorded bureaucratic titles and other administrative information. One example of such stelae is the Annals of Amenemhat II, an important historical document for the reign of Amenemhat II (r. 1929–1895 BCE) and also for the history of Ancient Egypt and understanding kingship in general.

Obelisk of Senusret I: This obelisk is one half of a pair that originally marked the entrance to the temple of the sun god Ra.

Many stelae were used as territorial markers to delineate land ownership. The most famous of these would be used at Amarna during the New Kingdom under Akhenaten. For much of Egyptian history, including the Middle Kingdom , obelisks erected in pairs were used to mark the entrances of temples. The earliest temple obelisk still in its original position is the red granite Obelisk of Senusret I (Twelfth Dynasty) at Al-Matariyyah in modern Heliopolis. The obelisk was the symbol and perceived place of existence of the sun god Ra.

4.2 – Architecture of the Middle Kingdom

When Egypt had military and political security and vast agricultural and mineral wealth, its architecture flourished.

4.2.1 – Overview

As the pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom restored the country’s prosperity and stability, there was a resurgence of building projects. When Egypt had secured military and political security and vast agricultural and mineral wealth, its architecture flourished. Grand tombs in the form of pyramids continued to be built throughout the Middle Kingdom, along with villages, cities, and forts. The reign of Amenemhat III is especially known for its exploitation of resources, in which mining camps—previously only used by intermittent expeditions—were operated on a semi-permanent basis. A vast labor force of Canaanite settlers from the Near East aided in mining and building campaigns.

Ancient Egyptian architects used sun-dried bricks, fine sandstone, limestone, and granite for their building purposes. As in the Old Kingdom, stone was most often reserved for tombs and temples, while bricks were used for palaces, fortresses, everyday houses, and town walls. Mud was collected from the nearby Nile River, placed in molds, and left to dry and harden in the hot sun until they formed bricks for construction. Architects carefully planned all their work, fitting their stones and bricks precisely together. Hieroglyphic and pictorial carvings in brilliant colors were abundantly used to decorate Egyptian structures, and motifs such as the scarab, sacred beetle, solar disk, and vulture were common.

4.2.2 – The “Black Pyramid” of Amenemhat III

Black Pyramid of Amenemhat III: Middle Kingdom pyramids consist of mud brick and clay encased in limestone.

The Black Pyramid, the first to house both the pharaoh and his queens, was built for Amenemhat III (r. 1860–1814 BCE). It is one of the five remaining pyramids of the original eleven pyramids at Dahshur in Egypt. Originally named Amenemhet is Mighty, the pyramid earned the name “Black Pyramid” for its dark, decaying appearance as a rubble mound. Typical for Middle Kingdom pyramids, the Black Pyramid, although encased in limestone, is made of mud brick and clay instead of stone. The ground-level structures consist of the entrance opening into the courtyard and mortuary temple, surrounded by walls. There are two sets of walls; between them, there are ten shaft tombs, which are a type of burial structure formed from graves built into natural rock. The capstone of the pyramid was covered with inscriptions and religious symbols.

4.2.3 – Workers’ Villages and Forts

A view of Buhen from the north: Buhen was an ancient fort built by Senusret III during his multiple campaigns. Its moat, drawbridges, and bastions would have provided good defense against enemy attacks.

Workers’ villages were often built nearby to pyramid construction sites. Kahun (also known as El-Lahun), for example, is a village that was associated with the pyramid of Senusret II. The town was laid out in a regular plan, with mud-brick town walls on three sides. No evidence was found of a fourth wall, which may have collapsed and been washed away during the annual inundation. The town was rectangular in shape and was divided internally by a mud brick wall as large and strong as the exterior walls. This wall divided about one third of the area of the town, and in this smaller area the houses consisted of rows of back-to-back, side-by-side single room houses. The larger area, which was higher up the slope and thus benefited from whatever breeze was blowing, contained a much smaller number of large, multi-room villas, indicating perhaps a class separation between workers and overseers. A major feature of the town was the so-called “acropolis” building; its column bases suggest its importance.

Senusret III was a warrior-king who helped the Middle Kingdom reach its height of prosperity. In his sixth year, he re-dredged an Old Kingdom canal around the first cataract to facilitate travel to upper Nubia, using this to launch a series of brutal campaigns. After his victories, Senusret III built a series of massive forts throughout the country to establish the formal boundary between Egyptian conquests and unconquered Nubia. Buhen was the northernmost of a line of forts within signaling distance of one another. The fortress itself extended more than 150 meters along the west bank of the Nile, covering 13,000 square meters, and had within its wall a small town laid out in a grid system. At its peak, it probably had a population of around 3500 people. The fortress also included the administration for the whole fortified region. Its fortifications included a moat three meters deep, drawbridges, bastions, buttresses , ramparts, battlements, loopholes, and a catapult. The walls of the fort were about five meters thick and ten meters high.

4.2.4 – The Karnak Temple Complex

The White Chapel: The White Chapel of Senusret I at Karnak is a good example of the fine quality of art and architecture produced during the Twelfth Dynasty. Its columns hold reliefs of a very high quality, which are hardly seen elsewhere at Karnak.

The Karnak Temple Complex is an example of fine architecture that was begun during the Middle Kingdom and continued through the Ptolemaic period. Built by Senusret I, it was comprised of a vast mix of temples, chapels, pylons , and other buildings. The White Chapel, also referred to as the Jubilee Chapel, is one of the finest examples of architecture during this time. Its columns were intricately decorated with reliefs of a very high quality. Later in the New Kingdom, the Chapel was demolished; however, the dismantled pieces were discovered in the 1920s and carefully assembled into the building that is seen today.

5 – The New Kingdom

5.1 – Architecture of the New Kingdom

The New Kingdom is known as the golden age of ancient Egyptian history and is the period of Hatshepsut, Tutankhamun, Ramses II, and other famous pharaohs. The wealth gained through military dominance created huge prosperity for Egypt and allowed for the proliferation of monumental architecture, especially works that glorified the pharaohs’ achievements. Starting with Hatshepsut, buildings were of a grander scale than anything previously seen in the Middle Kingdom .

5.1.1 – Luxor Temple

Luxor Temple is a large temple complex located on the east bank of the Nile River in what was ancient Thebes (today the city of Luxor). There are six great temples: four on the left bank known as Goornah, Deir-el-Bahri, the Ramesseum, and Medinet Habu; and two on the right bank known as the Karnak and Luxor. The Luxor temple was built with Nubian sandstone from south-western Egypt. Like other Egyptian structures, common techniques were the use of symbolism and illusionism. For example, a sanctuary shaped like an Anubis Jackal was used as a representational symbol of Anubis. To emphasize height and distance and enhance an existing pathway, two obelisks flanking the entrance were built with the illusion that they were the same height—even though they weren’t.

5.1.2 – Temples at Karnak

This complex is comprised of a vast mix of decayed temples, chapels, pylons, and other buildings. An ancient place of worship for the god Amun, it was part of the monumental city of Thebes. Today, the complex is a vast open-air museum and the largest ancient religious site in the world. The complex consists of four main parts: the Precinct of Amun-Re, the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Montu, and the Temple of Amenhotep IV.

The Precinct of Amun-Re, also referred to as the Temple of Amun, is the largest of the temples and the only one open to the public today. The columns of its Hypostyle Hall imitate lotus plants and contain elaborate sunken relief.

A panorama of the great hypostyle hall at Karnak: The Precinct of Amun-Re is part of the great temple complex at Karnak.

Almost every pharaoh of that dynasty has added something to the temple site. It features large sandstone columns, several colossal statues, and one of the largest obelisks, weighing 328 tons and standing 29 meters tall. Many of the walls were decorated with richly ornamented friezes.

A panorama of a frieze in the Precinct of Amun-Re: Great monuments and temples were often decorated with elaborate relief sculpture during the New Kingdom.

Located to the south of the newer Amen-Re complex, the Precinct of Mut was dedicated to the mother goddess Mut. Hapshepsut helped to restore the original precinct, which had been ravaged during the Hyksos occupation, and had twin obelisks erected at the entrance to the temple; one still stands as the tallest surviving ancient obelisk in the world. The precinct has several smaller temples associated with it and has its own sacred lake, constructed in a crescent shape. Six hundred black granite statues were found in the courtyard to her temple, possibly the oldest portion of the site.

The smaller Precinct of Montu is dedicated to the war-god of the Theban Triad, Montu, and is located to the north of the Amun-Re complex.

The Temple of Amenhotep IV was located east of the main complex and was destroyed immediately after the death of its builder, so its full extent and layout is currently unknown.

5.1.3 – The Valley of the Kings

By this time, pyramids were no longer built by kings, but they continued to build magnificent tombs. This renowned valley in Egypt is where, for a period of nearly 500 years, tombs were constructed for the Pharaohs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom. The valley is known to contain 63 tombs and chambers, the most well known of which is the tomb of Tutankhamun (commonly known as King Tut). Despite its small size, it is the most complete ancient Egyptian royal tomb ever found. In 1979, the Valley became a World Heritage Site, along with the rest of the Theban Necropolis.

5.1.4 – Hatshepsut

Colonnaded design of Hatshepsut temple: Hatshepsut’s temple is most famous for its Djeser-Djeseru, a colonnaded structure of such architectural skill that predates the Parthenon by nearly one thousand years.

The Temple of Hatshepsut was Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple and was the first to be built in the area. The focal point of the tomb was the Djeser-Djeseru, a colonnaded structure of perfect harmony that predates the Parthenon by nearly one thousand years. Built into a cliff face, Djeser-Djeseru, or “the Sublime of Sublimes,” sits atop a series of terraces that once were graced with lush gardens. Funerary goods belonging to Hatshepsut include a lioness “throne,” a game board with carved lioness head, red-jasper game pieces bearing her title as pharaoh, a signet ring, and a partial shabti figurine bearing her name.

5.1.5 – Tuankhamun

Painted walls in the burial chamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb, Valley of the Kings, Egypt (late 14th century BCE): Tutankhamun’s burial chamber contained beautiful works of art, text, and hieroglyphics.

Tutankhamun was an Egyptian pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, who ruled from around 1332 BC to 1323 BCE. Popularly referred to as “King Tut,” the boy-king took the throne when he was nine and ruled until his early death at age nineteen. Tutankhamun was buried in a tomb that was small relative to his status. His death may have occurred unexpectedly, before the completion of a grander royal tomb, so that his mummy was buried in a tomb intended for someone else. His mummy still rests in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, though is now on display in a climate-controlled glass box rather than his original golden sarcophagus . Relics and artifacts from his tomb, including his pectoral jewels and a red granite lion, are among the most traveled artifacts in the world.

5.1.6 – Ramses II

The Tomb of Nefertari, the most famous of Ramses’s consorts, is also located in the Valley of the Kings and is known for its magnificent wall paintings.

The Ramesseum was the great mortuary temple of Ramses II. An enormous pylon representing scenes of the great pharaoh’s reign stood before one of the opening courts, with the royal palace at the left and a gigantic statue of the king looming up at the back. Scattered remains of two statues of the seated king can be seen, one in pink granite and the other in black granite, which once flanked the entrance to the temple. Thirty-nine out of the 48 columns still stand in the hypostyle hall, and part of the gold-and-blue decorated ceiling has also been preserved.

Ramesseum courtyard: The design of Ramses’s mortuary temple adheres to the standard canons of New Kingdom temple architecture. Oriented northwest and southeast, the temple itself comprised two stone pylons (gateways, some 60 m wide), one after the other, each leading into a courtyard.

The ancient temples in Thebes were transformed to reflect honor to Ramses’s power. Later, Ramses moved the capital of his kingdom from Thebes to the newly established city of Pi-Ramses, which he used as a main base for his campaigns. Dominated by huge temples and the king’s vast residential palace, it was complete with its own zoo. Ramses constructed the complex of Abu Simbel and is perhaps best known for his mortuary temple known as the Ramesseum. After his death, he was buried in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings; his body was later moved to a royal cache , where it was discovered in 1881. It is now on display in the Cairo Museum.

5.2 – The Book of the Dead

5.2.1 – Introduction

The Book of the Dead is the modern name of an ancient Egyptian funerary text, used from the beginning of the New Kingdom (around 1550 BCE) to around 50 BCE. The original Egyptian name is translated as “Book of Coming Forth by Day,” or “Book of Emerging Forth into the Light.” According to ancient Egyptian beliefs, it was the ba (the free-ranging spirit aspect of the deceased) that went “forth by day” into the underworld and afterlife, while the ka (life force) remained in the tomb.

Despite the word “book” in the common title, the Book of the Dead was actually printed on scrolls, as opposed to bound texts. The text, placed in the coffin or burial chamber of the deceased, consisted of magic spells intended to assist a deceased person’s journey through the Duat, or underworld, and into the afterlife. At present, some 192 spells are known, though no single manuscript contains all of them. The spells served a range of purposes, such as giving the deceased mystical knowledge in the afterlife, guiding them past obstacles in the underworld, or protecting them from various hostile forces. In total, the spells in the Book of the Dead provide vital information regarding ancient Egyptian beliefs on death, interment, and the afterlife.

5.2.1 – Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts

The Book of the Dead was part of a tradition of funerary texts which includes the earlier Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom and the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom. However, it differed from its predecessors in many ways. For instance, Pyramid Texts were written in an unusual hieroglyphic style , were exclusive to those of royal privilege, and saw the afterlife as being in the sky. The Coffin Texts used a newer version of the language, included illustrations for the first time, and were available to wealthy private individuals. Both were painted onto walls or objects in the funerary chamber. The Book of the Dead, in contrast , was painted on expensive papyrus, written in cursive hieroglyph, and saw the afterlife as being part of the underworld. The earliest examples developed towards the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period, around 1700 BCE, and included new spells among older texts. By the Seventeenth Dynasty , the spells were typically inscribed on linen shrouds wrapped around the dead, though occasionally they are found written on coffins or on papyrus.

5.2.2 – The Book of the Dead

The New Kingdom saw the Book of the Dead develop and spread further. The famous “Spell 125,” the Weighing of the Heart, is first known from the reign of Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III (c.1475 BCE). In “Spell 125,” the heart of the deceased must be weighed against the Feather of Truth before the deceased can pass into the afterlife. The jackal-headed god Anubis weighed the heart, while the ibis-headed god Thoth recorded the results. A heavy heart indicated sin and resulted in the deceased being devoured by a crocodile-like creature named Ammit. On the other hand, a lightweight heart equal with the weight of the feather allowed the deceased to enter the afterlife and enjoy an eternity that, although plentiful, required manual labor. For this reason, the Book of the Dead included spells for statuettes called shebti (later ushebti) to perform in the deceased’s place.

From the fourteenth century BCE onward, the Book of the Dead was typically written on a papyrus scroll and the text was illustrated with elaborate and lavish vignettes. Later in the Third Intermediate Period, the Book of the Dead started to appear in hieratic script as well as in the traditional hieroglyphics. The last use of the Book of the Dead was in the first century BCE, though some artistic motifs drawn from it were still in use in Roman times.

The Weighing of the Heart: In Spell 125, Anubis weighs the heart of Hunefer. This spell is first known from the reign of Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III, c. 1475 BC.

There was no single Book of the Dead, and works tended to vary widely. Some people seem to have commissioned their own copies, perhaps choosing the spells they thought were most vital in their own progression to the afterlife. Later in the Twenty-Fifth and Twenty-Sixth Dynasties, however, the Book was revised and standardized, with spells consistently ordered and numbered for the first time.

Books were commissioned by people in preparation for their own funeral, or by the relatives of someone recently deceased. They were written by scribes, and sometimes the work of several different scribes was literally pasted together. Composed of joined sheets of papyrus, the dimensions of a Book of the Dead could vary from one to 40 meters. Books were often prefabricated in funerary workshops, with space left for when the name of the deceased would be written in later.

Cursive hieroglyphs from the Papyrus of Ani: During the New Kingdom, the Book of the Dead was typically written in cursive hieroglyphs.

The text of a New Kingdom Book of the Dead was typically written in cursive hieroglyphs, most often from left to right, but also sometimes from right to left. The hieroglyphs were in columns separated by black lines , and illustrations were put in frames above, below, or between the columns of text. The text was written in both black and red ink from either carbon or ochre , respectively. The style and nature of the vignettes used to illustrate a Book of the Dead varies widely: some contain lavish color illustrations, even making use of gold leaf , while others contain only line drawings or a simple illustration at the opening.

5.3 – The Sculpture of the New Kindgom

Sculpture in the New Kingdom continued in the traditional Egyptian style , with many great works produced by pharaohs over the years. However, during the later Amarna period, it underwent a drastic shift in style to emphasize more naturalistic (and less idealistic) human figures, such as those with drooping bellies. While reliefs and sculptures in the round continued to be painted, the skin tones of male and female figures was now the same value of brown. Some scholars believe that the shift was due to a new group of artists whose training was different from those trained in the traditional methods at Karnak.

5.3.1 – Hatshepsut

Detail of Hatshepsut (c. 1473–1458 BCE): Hatshepsut is depicted in the clothing of a male king, though with a feminine form—differing from the Osirian statues in which she appears much more androgynous.

Hatshepsut’s (1508–1458 BCE) construction of statues was so prolific that, today, almost every major museum in the world has a statue of hers among their collections. While some statues show her in typically feminine attire, others depict her in the royal ceremonial attire. The physical aspect of the gender of pharaohs was rarely stressed in the art, and with few exceptions, subjects were idealized. The Osirian statues of Hatshepsut, located at her tomb, follow the Egyptian tradition of depicting the dead pharaoh as the god Osiris. However, many of the official statues commissioned by Hatshepsut show her less symbolically, and more naturally, as a woman in typical dresses of the nobility of her day.

5.3.2 – Ramses II

Colossal statues of Ramses II outside of Abu Simbel: This famous work depicts four repeating statues of Ramses II, following the tradition of deifying pharaohs.

Statues typically depicted Egyptian pharaohs, often representing them as gods. In the famous sculptures outside the main temple at Abu Simbel, Ramses II (1303–1213 BCE) is depicted in a row of four colossal statues. Other deities are frequently shown in paintings and reliefs. Most of the larger sculpture survives from Egyptian temples or tombs, where massive statues were built to represent gods and pharaohs and their queens.

5.3.3 – Amarna Art

The style of sculpture shifted drastically during the Amarna Period in the late Eighteenth Dynasty , when Pharaoh Akhenaten moved the capital to the city of Amarna. This 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. Sunken relief was widely used. Figures are depicted less idealistically and more realistically, with an elongation and narrowing of the neck; sloping of the forehead and nose; prominent chin; large ears and lips; spindle-like arms and calves; and large thighs, stomachs, and hips. For example, many depictions of Akhenaten’s body show him with wide hips, a drooping stomach, thick lips, and thin arms and legs. This is a divergence from the earlier Egyptian art which shows men with perfectly chiseled bodies, and there is generally a more “feminine” quality in male figures. Some scholars suggest that the presentation of the human body as imperfect during the Amarna period is in deference to Aten.

Artist’s sketch: Walk In The Garden; limestone, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, c. 1335 BC: A relief of a royal couple in the Armana style. The figures are thought to be Akhenaten and Nefertiti, Smenkhkare and Meritaten, or Tutankhamen and Ankhesenamun.

Like previous works, faces on reliefs continued to be shown exclusively in profile. The illustration of figures’ hands and feet showed great detail, with fingers and toes depicted as long and slender. The skin color of both males and females was generally dark brown, in contrast to the previous tradition of depicting women with lighter skin. Along with traditional court scenes, intimate scenes were often portrayed. In a relief of Akhenaten, he is shown with his primary wife, Nefertiti, and their children in an intimate setting. His children are shrunken to appear smaller than their parents, a routine stylistic feature of traditional Egyptian art.

Relief portrait of Akhenaten (c. 1345 BCE): Akhenaten represented in the typical Amarna period style.

While the religious changes of the Amarna period were brief, the styles introduced to sculpture had a lasting influence on Egyptian culture.

5.4 – Painting of the New Kingdom

Painters for much of the New Kingdom continued to depict the human figure in largely the same manner as their predecessors in previous eras. A significant change, however, occurred during the Amarna Period under the pharaoh Akhenaten (r. 1351–1334 BCE), when the body assumed a less idealized form . While many theories exist as to why this change occurred, the exact reason remains unknown.

5.4.1 – TT52

The tomb known as TT52 houses an official named Nakht and his wife Tawy (14th century BCE). Among the decorations are richly colored paintings that depict the couple in the standard 18 fists-high profile pose, frontal torso, outward palms pose. As in paintings of previous eras, both figures are the same height. Their skin tones also follow the traditions that depict men with dark brown skin and women with light yellow skin.

Nakht and Tawy making an offering: The figures in this painting continue the conventions established during the Early Dynastic Period.

Elsewhere in the tomb, Nakht assumes a more dynamic (albeit still stylized) pose as he hunts and fishes, a convention that also follows the style established during the Early Dynastic Period.

Nakht hunting and fishing in the afterlife: The figures in these paintings convey a sense of dynamism, albeit still stylized as in the past.

During the New Kingdom, religious scenes comprise the majority of paintings in the tombs of the elite. This trend, echoed in the decorative objects in these tombs, is evident in the painting of Nakht and Tawy making an offering . However, scenes from everyday life, such as hunting and fishing, remain an important part of the imagery.

5.4.2 – Amarna-Style Painting

Akhenaten’s daughters: Following the conventions of the Amarna Period, the figures in this painting have protruding bellies, overlap one another, and appear more relaxed than figures in previous eras. Although the depicted figures are girls, their skin tone is the same as their male counterparts.

Art from this period is characterized by a sense of increased movement and activity in images, with busy and crowded scenes and many of the figures overlapping. Male and female figures are depicted with the same dark brown skin tone, a departure from the past in which women are depicted with lighter skin tones. The human body is portrayed more realistically, rather than idealistically, though at times depictions border on caricature. For example, many depictions of Akhenaten’s body show him with wide hips, a drooping stomach, thick lips, and thin arms and legs. This is a divergence from the earlier Egyptian art which shows men with perfectly chiseled bodies, and there is generally a more “feminine” quality in male figures. Some scholars suggest that the presentation of the human body as imperfect during the Amarna period is in deference to the Aten.

5.4.3 – Non-Elite Tombs

Although many non-elite tombs from the New Kingdom were plundered, leaving few images and objects for modern scholars to study, it is evident that the decoration was quite different from previous eras. These tombs did not feature any funerary or agricultural scenes. Images of the tomb occupant were also absent, with the exception of instances in which he or she was depicted with a member of the royal family. Decorations from the Amarna Period clearly worshiped the Aten, with excerpts from the Hymn to the Aten often present in the tombs. There is an absence of other gods and goddesses and no mention of Osiris or the underworld.

6 – Late Egyptian Art

6.1 – Introduction

6.1.1 – Overview

The Late Period of Ancient Egypt (664–332 BCE) marked a maintenance of artistic tradition with subtle changes in the representation of the human form.

Horus as a Child (664–332 BCE)

The Late Period of ancient Egypt refers to the last flowering of native Egyptian rulers after the Third Intermediate Period from the Twenty-Sixth Saite Dynasty into Persian conquests, and ended with the conquest by Alexander the Great and establishment of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. It ran from 664 BC until 332 BCE. Though foreigners ruled the country at this time, Egyptian culture was more prevalent than ever. Libyans and Persians alternated rule with native Egyptians. Despite continued conventions in art, some notable changes in the human form did arise. The sculpture (pictured below) of the god Horus as a child (664–332 BCE) represents a combination of the typical stylized stance of Egyptian statuary with a fleshier body and pensive gesture of the right hand and arm.

The Late Period is often regarded as the last gasp of a once great culture, during which the power of Egypt steadily diminished.

6.1.2 – Twenty-Sixth Dynasty

Brooklyn Papyrus (c. 450 BCE): This papyrus provides the most striking evidence for the closely parallel roles of the physician swnw and the various priests concerned with healing.

The Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, also known as the Saite Dynasty, reigned from 672–525 BCE. Canal construction from the Nile to the Red Sea began. According to Jeremiah, during this time many Jews came to Egypt, fleeing after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians (586 BCE). Jeremiah and other Jewish refugees arrived in Lower Egypt, notably in Migdol, Tahpanhes, and Memphis. Some refugees also settled at Elephantine and other settlements in Upper Egypt (Jeremiah 43 and 44). Jeremiah mentions pharaoh Apries (as Hophra, Jeremiah 44:30) whose reign came to a violent end in 570 BCE. This and other migrations during the Late Period likely contributed to some notable changes in art.

One major contribution from the Late Period of ancient Egypt was the Brooklyn Papyrus. This was a medical papyrus with a collection of medical and magical remedies for victims of snakebites based on snake type or symptoms.

Figure of Pataikos (664–630 BCE): This glazed faience sculpture of the god Pataikos shows a somewhat naturalistic departure from traditional depictions of Egyptian deities.

Artwork during this time was representative of animal cults and animal mummies . The faience sculpture below shows the god Pataikos wearing a scarab beetle on his head, supporting two human-headed birds on his shoulders, holding a snake in each hand, and standing atop crocodiles. The style of this sculpture marks a departure from its predecessors in its fleshiness, positioning of its arms and hands, and slight smile.

Relief of Psamtik III at a chapel in Karnak: Despite changes in the sculptures of Horus and Pataikos, this image of the last pharaoh of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty appears in the more traditional stylized form.

Despite the changes that took place in the sculpture of Pataikos, artists continued to use the traditional canon of proportions. A sunken relief from a chapel at Karnak depicting Psamtik III, the final pharaoh of this dynasty, displays the maintenance of traditional conventions in representing the body.

6.1.3 – Twenty-Seventh Dynasty

Statue of an Egyptian dignitary from the Twenty-Seventh Dynasty: The necklace on this dignitary has been identified as typical of the era of Persian occupation.

The First Achaemenid Period (525–404 BCE) marked the conquest of Egypt by the Persian Empire under Cambyses II. In May 525 BCE, Cambyses defeated Psamtik III in the Battle of Pelusium in the eastern Nile Delta. This basalt portrait bust (pictured below) of an unknown Egyptian dignitary from the period shows little change from convention in the representation of the human form. His necklace is typical of those made in the Achaemenid Period.

6.1.4 – Twenty-Eighth through Thirtieth Dynasties

The Twenty-Eighth Dynasty consisted of a single king, Amyrtaeus, prince of Sais, who rebelled against the Persians and briefly re-established indigenous Egyptian rule. He left no monuments with his name. This dynasty reigned for six years, from 404–398 BCE. The Twenty-Ninth Dynasty ruled from Mendes, from 398–380 BCE.

Horus and Nectanebo II (360–343 BCE): This is believed to be the only surviving annotated sculpture of the last pharaoh of the Thirtieth Dynasty.

The Thirtieth Dynasty took the art style from the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. A series of three pharaohs ruled from 380 BCE until their final defeat in 343 BCE led to the reoccupation by the Persians. Art featuring Nectanebo II, the final ruler of this dynasty, appears largely in the traditional Egyptian style. Except for the small-scale greywacke (sandstone) statue in the Metropolitan Museum, which shows him standing before the image of Horus as a falcon, no other annotated portraits of the pharaoh are known.

Head of Nectanebo II : This portrait features a combination of traditional and naturalistic features.

A fragment of Nectanebo II’s portrait, with its partial smile and sagging chin, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon, is slightly more naturalistic than previous representations of pharaohs.

6.2 – Art and Architecture of the Kingdom of Kush

6.2.1 – Introduction

The Kingdom of Kush was an ancient African state situated on the confluences of the Blue Nile, White Nile, and River Atbara in what is now the Republic of Sudan.

Africa in 400 BCE: Map of kingdoms, states, and tribes in 400 BCE Africa.

Established after the Bronze Age collapse and the disintegration of the New Kingdom of Egypt, Kush was centered at Napata in modern day northern Sudan in its early phase, and then moved further south to Meroë in 591 BCE. After king Kashta invaded Egypt in the eighth century BCE, the Kushite kings ruled as Pharaohs of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty of Egypt for a century, until they were expelled by Psamtik I in 656 BCE. The reign of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty ushered in a renaissance period for ancient Egypt, and art and architecture emulating the styles of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms flourished. Kushite pharaohs built and restored many temples and monuments throughout the Nile Valley, and the construction of Kushite pyramids became widespread. Some of these are still standing in modern Sudan.

6.2.2 – Kushite Arts

The Kushite arts were inspired by the Egyptians, but were drastically African. Most remarkable among these was Kushite relief sculpture, which adorned the walls of palaces or pyramids. The cuts that are on the walls are deeper and more strategic than Egyptian hieroglyphics. There are many reliefs scattered across the land of Africa. They mostly depict scenes from African daily life and animals. Reliefs depicting battle scenes or kings are somewhat less common.

Statues of rulers and other royal individuals emphasize the foreign, non-Egyptian origin of their subjects. The Head of a Kushite Ruler (c. 716-702 BCE), identified by some scholars as King Shabaqa, depicts a man with a typically round Kushite face. Although his eyes bear resemblance to those of Egyptian individuals in art, his hairstyle and regalia are distinctly non-Egyptian. The front of his headband once featured two cobras. While Egyptian pharaohs commonly wore a single cobra on their headgear, the double-cobra motif was unique to the Kushite culture.

Head of a Kushite Ruler (c. 716–702 BCE): This sculpture combines Egyptian and unique Kushite attributes.

Pottery was another important Kushite craft and consisted mostly of pots and bowls that were shaped from clay and then painted in many different colors. Most pottery was initially made for the wealthy, but later on, many commoners also began using pottery in their households. While decoration usually took the form of painted designs, some types of pottery also had stamped designs. Common motifs included geometric and plant-based patterns. The finest pottery was decorated with paintings of animals, such as giraffes, antelopes, frogs, crocodiles, snakes, and a variety of birds.

6.2.3 – Kushite Architecture

Sudan Meroë pyramids : Sudan Meroë pyramids — UNESCO World Heritage.

The kings of Kush adopted the Egyptian architectural idea of building pyramids as funerary monuments. However, Kushite pyramids were built above the underground graves, whereas the Egyptian graves were inside the pyramid. The kings’ tombs were lodged under large pyramids made of stone. For a short time, the Kushite kings were mummified. Ordinary citizens were buried in much smaller pyramids. The most famous examples of Kushite pyramids are located in their capital Meroë. There are three cemeteries in Meroë; the north and south cemeteries are royal cemeteries and house the pyramids of kings and queens, whereas the west cemetery is a purely non-royal site.

6.3 – Egyptian Art after Alexander the Great

6.3.1 – Introduction

Hellenistic art, richly diverse in subject matter and in stylistic development, characterized culture after Alexander the Great.

Alexander the Great bust: Portrait of Alexander the Great, said to be from Alexandria, Egypt. Marble, second to first century BC.

The Ptolemaic Kingdom (332–30 BCE) in and around Egypt began following Alexander the Great’s conquest in 332 BCE and ended with the death of Cleopatra VII and the Roman conquest in 30 BCE. It was founded when Ptolemy I Soter declared himself Pharaoh of Egypt, creating a powerful Hellenistic state stretching from southern Syria to Cyrene and south to Nubia. Alexandria became the capital city and a center of Greek culture and trade.

6.3.2 – Hellenistic Art

Eros Sleeping (Hellenistic, specific date unknown): Nudity in sculptures of gods like Eros signified an increasing humanization of deities during the Hellenistic era.

Hellenistic art is richly diverse in subject matter and in stylistic development. It was created during an age characterized by a strong sense of history. For the first time, there were museums and great libraries, such as those at Alexandria and Pergamon. Hellenistic artists copied and adapted earlier styles , and also made great innovations. Representations of Greek gods took on new forms . The popular image of a nude Aphrodite, for example, reflects the increased secularization of traditional religion. Also prominent in Hellenistic art are representations of Dionysos, the god of wine and legendary conqueror of the East, as well as those of Hermes, the god of commerce. In strikingly tender depictions, Eros, the Greek personification of love, is portrayed as a young child.

Nile Mosaic of Palestrina (c. 100 BCE)

Encouraged by the many pharaohs, Greek colonists set up the trading post of Naucratis, which became an important link between the Greek world and Egypt’s grain. As Egypt came under foreign domination and decline, the pharaohs depended on the Greeks as mercenaries and even advisers. When the Persians took over Egypt, Naucratis remained an important Greek port, and the colonists were used as mercenaries by both the rebel Egyptian princes and the Persian kings, who later gave them land grants, spreading the Greek culture into the valley of the Nile . When Alexander the Great arrived, he established Alexandria on the site of the Persian fort of Rhakortis. Following Alexander’s death, control passed into the hands of the Lagid (Ptolemaic) dynasty ; they built Greek cities across their empire and gave land grants across Egypt to the veterans of their many military conflicts. Hellenistic civilization continued to thrive even after Rome annexed Egypt after the battle of Actium and did not decline until the Islamic conquests.

Sculpture of a Ptolemaic Queen, possibly Cleopatra VII (c. 50–30 BCE): Despite a growing naturalism among portraits of male elites, those of women remained stylized.

One significant change in Ptolemaic art is the sudden re-appearance of women, who had been absent since about the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. This phenomenon was likely due, in part, to the increasing importance of women as rulers and co-regents, as in the case of the series of Cleopatras. Although women were present in artwork, they were shown less realistically than men in the this era, as is evident in a portrait of a Ptolemaic queen (possibly Cleopatra VII) from the first century BCE. Unlike its Classical and Hellenistic counterparts elsewhere in the Hellenic world, this sculpture bears a more stylized appearance.

Ptolemy VI Philometor (c. 186–145 BCE): In this relief from a ring, Ptolemy VI wears the traditional white and red dual crown of Upper and Lower Egypt while displaying the naturalistic and individualized facial features typical of Classical and Hellenistic portraiture.

Among male rulers, portraiture assumed a more naturalistic appearance, even when the sitter was pictured in traditional Egyptian regalia, as in a relief of Ptolemy IV Philopator (r. 221–204 BCE), who wears the traditional pharaonic crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. However, even with this Greek influence on art, the notion of the individual portrait still had not supplanted Egyptian artistic norms among non-elites during the Ptolemaic Dynasty.


Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless Art History under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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