Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Persistence and Obliteration in Ancient Egypt

Some thoughts on one culture's extraordinary efforts to memorialize itself and so to defeat time, death, and forgetfulness. Pregnant with indirect relevance to my current perplexities.

The Temple of Dendur, early Roman Period, circa 15 BC

The guided tour began with a comment on a large-format photograph of a segment of the Blue Nile. The photo hangs on the wall near the entrance to the Egyptian wing at the beginning of that exhibit's chronological sequence; the exhibit is arranged in a U-shape with the start — the prehistoric period — on the right as you enter from the atrium. The photograph is taken from a rocky hilltop, looking East past a strip of barren land, to a green patch of arable land divided into fields, then the river, then the tilled land on the far side, and finally the desert on the East side stretching to some sand-colored hills on the far horizon. The docent drew attention to this geographical pattern that persists along the whole length of the Nile: the thin strip of fertile land stretching a long way in the north-south direction, though the desert is never far away to the East and West. She referred to the "orthographic" (for "orthogonal"?) conception of space that seems to have been suggested to the Egyptians by this accident of regional geography: a consciousness of the sun's movement from East to West across the perpendicular line formed by the river.

I wondered at the time whether the idea of the thin, tenuous strip of green in the midst of a vast desert might also have served as a metaphor for the brief experience of life viewed against the vast stretches of time preceding and following one's bodily existence. But it might be a mistake to think that the culture would view death, or rather the afterlife, as resembling a desert — a point for further inquiry.

The order and symmetry of the ancient Egyptian conception of geography is reflected in the art and artifacts of the civilization, as the docent had occasion to illustrate with examples from the galleries. Sphinxes typically are found arranged in facing pairs. Hieroglyphic inscriptions are often present in balanced patterns on the right and left of doors or entrances — not that the hieroglyphs are merely repeated on each side; rather, similar patterns, a sort of visual rhyme or echo, are created. We entered a reconstructed tomb or chapel originally built for the interment of a wealthy man or nobleman. A typical feature on the inside of such structures is a false, ornamental door, separate from the actual entrance and imagined as the portal through which the spirit of the dead will enter the underworld or afterlife. In this case the nobleman was represented by an engraved likeness on either side of the door. These images were about four feet above the level of the floor; below them, arranged vertically, were further symbols. To the right of the false door, the representation was of the man in the prime of life, garbed as suited his station; to the left he was depicted as a youth. The hieroglyphs below these depictions (which the docent referred to as "determinants," more about which in a moment) were presumably of the phonetic sort, and also formed a symmetrical pattern — the symbols on the right side approximated the patterns on the left, though without a strict repetition.

It seems that in the reading of hieroglyphs it is necessary to distinguish phonetic symbols from "determinants" — symbols or depictions that give one an idea of what the phonetic symbols are talking about. In a particular case that the docent pointed out, the hieroglyphs seemed to translate to something bewildering — an expression that was nonsensical if taken literally — the meaning could be understood, by reference to the adjacent determinant, as the proper name of the nobleman whose tomb was so engraved.

The reconstructed tomb with the false door had, in its interior chamber, roughly five feet by fifteen feet in plan, a high (nine-foot?) ceiling with elaborate pictorial engravings over every bit, as it seemed to me, of the inner surface. These included, in different areas:

1. An illustration of the process of harvesting and threshing wheat, showing workers performing the various stages, including loading and unloading a donkey and leading beasts of burden around in a circle on a raised threshing floor;

2. A view of the landscape outside of a city, with ships (or riverboats?) in the foreground, then images from the hunt further off, and finally individual plants dotting an otherwise blank space, presumably representing the desert;

3. rows and rows of fowl and animals representing the poultry and livestock that would supply the wealthy man in the afterlife. Two cranes or herons in particular seemed to be engaged in their courtship dance — their necks were crossed and the head of one inclined far backwards. On the walls of the short passage through which one has to walk to enter the tomb, the images included likenesses of cows or oxen trussed for slaughter. On one side the animals were oriented one way (back upwards, I think); on the wall on the other side, they were laid on their backs with their feet upwards — another instance of symmetrical patterning.

The presence of livestock and grain in the engravings provided one of several instances of ways in which, during different periods, the Egyptians attempted to prepare for their needs in the afterlife through their funerary arts and symbols. Apart from the nobleman's attempt to provide himself with supplies and meat, another example from a later period is supplied by a vividly painted set of wooden models of ships or river boats, complete with crews of twenty or more, equipped for tasks such as fishing and shown carrying out these tasks. Displayed behind glass in the same gallery were a set of miniature model rooms, including a garden, a bakery/brewery, a room for slaughtering and butchering livestock, a granary and an accounting room. It was pointed out that some of the accountants were using erasable wax tablets for temporary accounts, while others were inscribing the final draft on papyrus — suggesting that the numbers could be fudged in a double-entry accounting scheme. The imaginary business carried out in these miniature rooms was supposed to supply the needs of the deceased in the afterlife, though the particular means of accomplishing this had changed since the earlier period that had created the engravings on the inner walls of the tomb. In a still later period, we were shown how the emphasis shifted again to the ornamentation and elaboration of sarcophagi, sometimes made with multiple covers, extra thicknesses, and, in this late period, an emphasis on text — prayers — rather than on depictions and likenesses. The written prayers that ornamented the entire surfaces of the sarcophagi of this period were intended to link the departed to this or that particular god who, it was hoped, would be the patron of the individual in the voyage to the afterlife.

The Egyptian pantheon of gods changed and grew over time. The general trend was to assimilate and absorb new gods. Once in, a god would not be dropped from the pantheon, though the fortunes — the eminence — of any particular god were prone to wax and wane over time, and such changes, it seems, could influence artistic expression from one era to the next. It was suggested — not wholly convincingly perhaps — that shifts in style (gauged, for example, along the axis between the natural and realistic mimesis of an individual human face on the one hand, and the abstract and conventional rendering of conventional types on the other hand) could be understood in terms of the arrival, temporary dominance, and finally the eclipse of a particular god; the docent used the example of a particular god of life or nature. This interpretation, it seems to me, would be difficult to prove conclusively. But it could provide an explanation as to why, from a naive modern perspective, it could seem that stylistic shifts over time allow an apparent regression from, or renunciation of, the achievement of a refined realism in favor of the readoption of older figural styles that might seem to us to be cruder and less accomplished. As though the figural style associated with a god who had once been eclipsed but who became dominant once again provided a motive for a shift away from realism or naturalism.

When referring to the periods of Ancient Egyptian art and civilization, the tour guide repeatedly displayed her flattened hand to us and indicated points along the outline of her fingers, from thumb to pinky, as a mnemonic device for the periodization of Ancient Egyptian history. This sequence, beginning with the thumb and including the spaces between the fingers, helps one to recall the divisions of the history as conceived by nineteenth century European scholarship:

Prehistory — thumb
Early Kingdom — index finger
(intermediate period) — space btw. index and middle fingers
Middle Kingdom I — middle finger
(intermediate period) — space
Middle Kingdom II — ring finger
(intermediate period) — space
Late Kingdom — pinky

After this comes the shift to the Graeco-Roman Era — what I think would be called Alexandrian culture / civilization. The intermediate periods saw political instability or crisis that, I gather, did not allow for the production of the greatest works of art. Clearly undertakings like the pyramids or any building and sculptural elaboration on a grand scale require the accumulation of wealth, the ability to organize the labor power necessary, and the luxury of being able to spare workers from subsistence or survival activities.

A few more notes worth recording:

Wood was scarce as a building material in the region — one reason for the heavy use of stone for construction. Wooden sculptures approaching full-scale were often made out of a single large piece of wood that supplied material for the body of the sculpture from the heels to the head, but with additional wood pieces joined to complete an arm extending forward and the part of the feet in front of the heels and ankles. One extraordinary wooden sculpture that we saw, a memorial to the Pharaoh's head carpenter, was carved from a single tree-trunk.

A brightly-painted sculpture of a woman showed her in a tight-fitting, "stylish" dress covered with a regular, multi-colored scale pattern. The scales were said to be a depiction of feathers — as an appropriation of birds' extraordinary (supernatural? divine?) capacity for flight, and thus helping to identify the woman depicted as a goddess. The dress was revealing in its tightness, and the shape of the body seemed to have been rendered with great accuracy — for example the slight protuberance of the hip bones above each leg.

In the miniature model of a granary among the other model rooms that I discussed earlier, there were loose bits of grain on the floor inside the box formed by the room, which the docent said were from the original find, and therefore were, like the model rooms and the wooden figurines that inhabited them, roughly four thousand years old. She told the story of how the archeologist who discovered the models in an unopened tomb — I think in the early part of the twentieth century in a dig sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum — said that when he put his torch (the docent explained that he meant a flashlight) through the hole in the wall and saw the miniature figures, he was overjoyed. He reflected that Julius Caesar lived at roughly the midpoint in time between our present day and the day — roughly four thousand years ago — when these wooden figures had last seen the sunlight.

We saw the stacks of linen, an important item of trade and thus a form of wealth, with which a certain Egyptian Queen had been buried — so this was a way of trying to take her wealth with her. The linen sheets were of fine quality: the thread was very finely spun and equaled a thread count of 400 or so.

Among the miniature model ships/boats, there was only one figurine out of many that depicted a woman in a stylish dress. The dress was white and close-fitting. She was identified as a goddess, present to give her blessing to the boat's work. Two other boats showed a nobleman sniffing or looking at a lotus flower. In one case the flower was open; in the other, closed. The lotus, like the water-lily (apparently — since reference to this fact was also made later in the day when I took a tour in the Impressionist wing of the museum), opens in the morning and closes at night. Thus it provides a metaphor for the transitoriness of human life, which also has its morning and evening. The docent drew attention to the presence, in depictions like the model, of both immediate reference to everyday life and its practices, and a layer of symbolic meaning.

Ancient Egyptian columns were sculpted with a likeness of palm leaves at the top. In this they resemble Greek columns, which often have stylized acanthus leaves in the capital, so that the column is, figuratively, a tree used as a support element. In Egyptian columns, the part of the capital just below the cluster of leaves is encircled with bands carved in the stone, representing rope. Supposedly, at an earlier point in the development of the architectural culture when palms actually were used as columns, their tops would be bound with rope to keep them from splitting under their load; later the practice suggested the ornamental feature of stone columns.

Hieroglyphs can be written in any direction, as necessary. In some early, but quite fine, small-scale carvings of processions of animals, the rows of animals were shown facing one way on the first line, in the opposite direction on the next line, and so on. I recognized this as the boustrophedon — the lines unfolding as the ox turns while plowing the field [< Greek bou 'ox' + strophe 'turn']: the lines proceed first from left to right, then right to left, and so on alternately.

We saw some flat, broad necklaces of two kinds: the kind worn by the living were real necklaces of beads and gold; the kind worn by the dead as funeral attire were mere likenesses, made of thinly-beaten gold and engraved with the surface details of a necklace. At the upper ends of some wide necklaces that we saw, a falcon-headed god was present as a protective symbol. (The god's name was mentioned but I have forgotten it — not to be confused with Horace, who is also falcon-headed, though.) Similarly we saw some sandals that were too delicate to actually use for walking, but were designed as part of a burial costume.

The guided tour lasted for an hour and fifteen minutes. Since beginning this entry I asked myself why I have felt compelled to record every memorable detail at some expense of time and energy — this entry took me several hours to write and revise over several days. For now, let me answer the question by saying that I wished to record the details while they were fresh in my mind — I had neglected to bring a notepad — in order to defeat forgetfulness.... (Cambridge, May 24)

In medias res

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

After procrastinating for eight or nine months, I find this evening that I am in just the state of unhappy agitation necessary to begin my weblog. (Started on the evening of May 21, substantially written on the Fung Wah bus back to Cambridge, May 22, 2005.) Let me begin in the most obvious place: somewhere in the middle.

Today I made an effort of will to get myself out of G’s apartment and into the City. I was soon glad that I did. When I got to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my first move was to go to the Membership counter, where a woman of a certain age inclined her head and invited me to sit down opposite her. She began to help me to renew my Associate’s membership. “Let me warn you,” she said, “I’m not all here today! I’m a little off!” Oh you’re doing fine, I replied.

After filling out the form and signing the credit card slip, she asked me how things were in Cambridge. Oh it’s still there, I said. Still keeping on. “Do you study there?” she asked. I always fumble this question, as often as it comes up. Oh, I… I’m writing a dissertation. And I teach there when I need the money. “It’s nice not to always need the money.” As we concluded the transaction, she smiled and said: “I think that you are the perfect person!” This was a surprise.

Once, years ago, another woman of a similar age – the mother of an acquaintance of mine who was getting married – said about me after meeting me at the reception, “I didn’t know that they still made boys like that!” This was not said to me directly but was reported to me later. In any case, the woman’s remark at the membership counter cheered me up a bit.

I took a look at the list of events for the day and found that I had not arrived too late to join a couple of guided tours in the afternoon. The first, of the Ancient Egyptian galleries, was to begin in a few minutes, at 2 pm....
(continued in the next entry)