Thursday, October 27, 2011

Masterpieces of Ancient Egypt

Nigel Strudwick
The British Museum Press
ISBN-10:  0-7141-1972-5

Masterpieces of Ancient Egypt opens with a standard run through of ancient Egyptian history through to the Arab conquest of 642 AD, with a particularly informative inclusion of the history of the Kingdom of Kush to Egypt's south. The author includes an explanation of how the British Museum acquired its collection and the provenances of the pieces.

Mr. Strudwick begins with the collections earliest pieces from the Predynastic and earliest dynasties including the small ivory statuette of a king (EA 37996), perhaps Dynasty I found by Flinders Petrie in the ruins of an early temple at Abydos. The picture cannot do justice to this little piece as I found when I last stood in front of it in 2004 and for me a favorite piece in the collection.

The I'st or II'nd Dynasty relief of two kings on limestone (EA 67153), is a rarely seen piece in pictures and may actually be a practice slab used be an artist to perfect his/her craft. The shame that today we can only see fragments of the first rate fresco's that once decorated the funerary chapel of Itet at Meydum.

I have always loved the Old Kingdom husband-wife statues and the limestone statue of Kaitep and Hetepheres (EA 1181), is no exception. Mr. Strudwick puts forth in his choice of an object from the First Intermediate Period the stela of Inyotef (EA1203).  When I saw this piece last I did not like it, in fact, I was unable to appreciate it but my mind has now been changed with a better understanding of a complex piece of provincialism put forward by the author.

The brewery (EA40915), from tomb 3 in the temple of Mentuhotep II at Deir el Bahri is a gem of simple  complexity containing 28 figures making bread and beer. From the island of Elephantine comes a royal stela of King Senwosret I (EA 963), ca.1940 BC of enormous importance in the Middle Kingdom collection.

Mr. Strudwick picks the colossal head of Amenemhet III (EA 1063), and I am in complete agreement an awe-inspiring head, the eyes of which give it a ghostly presence. I have always been fond of the Middle Kingdom block statues and Mr. Strudwick's choice of the block statue of Sennefer (EA 48), is a fine addition to the book.

The simple wooden mummiform figures of Qenamun (EA 56929-30), are rarely published gems from the reign of Amenhotep II in the last quarter of the fifteenth century BC.  Qenamun is the owner of Theban tomb (TT93) and was a powerful official during that king's reign. The paintings from the tomb chapel of Sebekhotep (TT63), are sophisticated and possess great merit.

This point in the book Mr. Strudwick turns to the sculpture from the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III a king who's reign is viewed as an epoch of the XVIII Dynasty and possibly in Egyptian history. Clearly outside of Egypt, the British museum's collection of statuary from this king's mortuary temple is unrivaled in the world being acquired very early in the nineteenth century by men like Belzoni and counsel general Salt,s first collection in 1823.

The authors choice of Amarna period objects for the book only included three picks and though the stela of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye (EA 57399), is a wonderful piece to stand in front of as is the glass tilapia fish (EA 55193), still I found myself wanting more.

The wooden protective figures from a kings tombs in the Valley of Kings capture a fearsome presence and the feeling of what the ancient burial party would have thought of such figures though I might imagine they were in black shrines and unseen by the mourners? I was glad to see the XIX'th Dynasty unknown couple carved in limestone (EA 36), which sculptor Henry Moore liked so much and am in full agreement with him as they possess a real charm and dignity and are beautifully crafted.

While the silver cult image of Amun (EA 60006),  I make a departure from the author in the reality the photographs always seem to make this piece look impressive but that in fact besides its material of silver and gold the statuette is very cheap looking and wonky in his position. For me, it is not good enough to be the actual cult figure but more likely a votive offering of the late period?

I loved the ostrakon bearing attendance of the workmen in the Valley of Kings (EA 5634) besides being very attractive the information is of an interesting personal nature of the workers responsible for the creation of the kings tombs. The seated statue of Seti II (EA 26),  has taken a gentle journey through the millenniums it's excellent state of preservation and is impressive, the statue having been found by the famous Belzoni in the temple of Mut at Karnak in 1816.

A sketch on an ostrakon (EA 5620), said to have been found in the Valley of Kings of Ramesses IX with a prince and vizier is exquisite in detail of complexity. The author has chosen the museums XXI'rst Dynasty mummy board (EA 22542), known as the "Unlucky mummy" . Though a fine work of art of the period of 950 BC, the mummy board is enhanced further by modern fantasies.

I love that the author goes on to the British museum's oracular shabti decree (EA 16672), which may have come from the royal cache of Db320 at Thebes. Mr. Strudwick follows this with the museums Third Intermediate Period receipt for a set of shabti (EA 10800).

Fascinating is the Late Period coffin of Menkaure (EA 6647), which colonel R.W.H. Vyse found in the pyramid of that king in 1837 and of course the museums star piece "The Rosetta stone" (EA 24), is certainly on a first level importance in this collection.

The stela of Taimhotep (EA 147), is a wonderful example of autobiographical information complete with a prayer to Imhotep to bring her a son. I often complain in my reviews of Egyptian books which lack mummies this book is very different in that a good selection of mummies from the collection are represented.

The mummy portrait of an elite lady found at el-Rubayat (EA 65346),  is a work of immense beauty so much so that when I saw her in the British museum show "Eternal Egypt" she hung in a corner of a gallery while the public formed a human whirlpool in that corner of the room as everyone tried to get close as they could to her while the rest of the objects in the room remained overlooked and unappreciated including the mask of Satdjehuty (EA 29770), on this book's cover, so small.

The mysterious Merotic stela (EA 1650), is of great interest and hopefully, archaeology will one day bring it's language to life. The book ends with the fourteenth century AD iron cross removed from the body of bishop Timotheus at Qasr Ibrim (EA 71955).

 As I expected from the start that a British Museum publication by Nigel Strudwick would be good I was right the book is a great edition to any one's library with particular notice that the book is suitable to those readers 10 years to 100 years and are interested in the Masterpieces of Ancient Egypt.

1 comment:

Stuart Tyler said...

Thanks for sharing. Sounds like a worthy book for anyone's collection.