When I tell people that I’m an Egyptologist, I get a lot of different reactions (including ‘what is that?’), but one thing I’ve never been asked is ‘but why would you want to do that?’ - it seems that the lure of Ancient Egypt is so strong that no one ever wonders what could possibly attract someone to it as a career.
Why is that? Why does Egypt hold such power over our imagination? What is it about ancient Egypt that makes it so attractive and popular, and why don’t we hear as much about other cultures of the ancient world?
Names from ancient Egyptian history and culture are so well known - Nefertiti, Akhenaten, Ramesses, Cleopatra, Isis, Amun-Re. Archaeological sites in Egypt, such as Giza, Saqqara, Abu Simbel, and the Valley of the Kings are familiar to many of us, and are on the itinerary of many holiday tours to Egypt.
However, names from other ancient cultures, like Gilgamesh, Sargon, Emperor Yao, and places such as Gonur-Tepe and Gunung Padang aren’t so instantly recognisable - and they don't get as many column inches or front covers or sightseers. There are other cultures as ancient, as distant, and as fascinating as ancient Egypt, but they are often overlooked. Why?
Red Land, Black Land
I remember having a conversation once with a colleague who specialised in the early history of Mesopotamia. He was bemoaning the lack of publicity and press attention on his work and the work of other Assyriologists. One of the things he said, in jest, has always stayed with me: ‘We just have brown. Mud-brick and dirt - but Egypt has all the colours. That’s why people love you more’.
There’s definitely something in that idea. Egypt was a land of vibrant colours. The art preserved in Egyptian tombs is lively, bright and engaging. But it wasn't only indoors that Egyptians wielded their paintbrushes. The traces of colour remaining on monuments such as the Sphinx, show hints of how temples, monuments and statues would have looked originally.
The colours of iconic pieces of art such as Tutankhamun’s golden funerary mask, and the painted bust of Nefertiti make them instantly recognisable, symbolic of ancient Egyptian culture, and, perhaps most importantly, the sort of thing that can and does feature on the front page of magazines and newspapers, and in film and television.
The most recently published research into the ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment (cuprorivaite) found in paintings, faience and mummy portraits and its potential uses for modern science is a perfect example - we’re still fascinated by these ancient colours, and the people who created and used them. We're still amazed that the chemical knowledge necessary to create these artificial colours existed so long ago. And of course, the potential for advances in medical imaging, technologies and even currency security doesn't hurt either!
The ancient landscape of Egypt was a study in colour contrast - the vibrant greens of the Delta, the narrow strip of green cultivated land in the Nile Valley, with its rich, dark alluvial soil, beside the blue-green waters of the Nile, the verdant oases studded into the golden sands of the Western desert. Perhaps this landscape was the reason that Egyptians were very aware of colour, and attached significance to certain colours. Even the names they gave to the landscape are suggestive - Egypt is 'Black Land', the desert is 'Red Land'.
Take a classic Old Kingdom pair statue - pictured left. The colour of the skin of the husband and wife symbolise his healthy, outdoors, prosperous (land-owning) lifestyle; her pallor reflects their wealth, since it represents her life of indoor leisure - her skin is not darkened by the sun, as she is not needed to work outdoors. In addition, the snowy white of their linen costumes is symbolic of the purity of the clothes in which they were buried, another indicator of wealth and social and moral status. These statues are not portraiture, they are symbolic objects which encode multiple ideas, including through their use of colour.
Colour attracts us. As babies, we see in monochrome at first, after which we discern bright primary colours best, which is why children’s books and toys are a rainbow of colour. The contrast of deep colours is one of our earliest memories, and a part of our earliest development. The perceived significance of certain colours is a long and fascinating story - from the Victorians and Edwardians who spelled out words of devotion using coloured stones in jewellery to modern medicine and psychology which uses certain colours in treatments - for example, the use of blue light to treat jaundiced babies. A culture which retains its associations to strong, bold colours, and whose preserved artefacts show those colours is bound to evoke an emotional response. Had the colours of ancient Mesopotamia survived more fully, we might use the names Sargon, Ashurbanipal and Sennacherib in place of Tutankhamun, Nefertiti and Cleopatra.
Gold, Treasure and Curses
Talking of colour, the one that springs to mind perhaps most readily when thinking of Egypt, is gold. The urban myth that Howard Carter’s first words upon opening Tutankhamun’s tomb were ‘Gold, everywhere the glint of gold’ still persist - in fact, when asked what he saw, he replied ‘Yes, it is wonderful' or 'Wonderful things'; the 'glint of gold' reference is from his later publication, and was never presented as his first words. The ‘death-mask’ of Tutankhamun fascinates, at least in part, because of the precious metal from which it is constructed.
In Egypt, gold was the colour of the sun, of the god Re, and of the life-giving force of the sun. The flesh of gods was gold. Gold was obtained through trade with the Kushite kingdom of Nubia, through mining expeditions and through both open-cast and underground mining operations in Nubia and the Eastern Desert.
Gilded furniture, gold jewellery and golden coffins are reasonably common artefacts of ancient Egypt, and the use of gold in artefacts dates back as far as the Predynastic period (c. 3500 BCE).
Gold-fever is something that recurs throughout history. Some of the first white men to set foot in the Americas came in search of that yellow metal, and slaughtered entire civilisations to get their hands on it. For the Conquistadors, gold was a way to fund a campaign to impose religious orthodoxy. For the Incans, Aztecs and Muisca from whom the gold was taken, the metal was valuable only for its religious significance - a rather tragic irony. Until the Ptolemaic era, Egyptians valued gold for its religious and ornamental use, rather than as currency - though for Egyptians, there was great status in owning gold, and being rewarded with gold was a high honour.
'Gold' - and ‘treasure’ - hold great power over the imagination. As an element, gold is inert and therefore does not rust, it occurs in its elemental form in nature, unlike so many other useful and valuable metals. Gold is supremely dense - a cubic foot of it weighs half a tonne. It is also extremely malleable in its pure form, allowing it to be worked, shaped, beaten, drawn out and formed.
Words like 'gold' and 'treasure' conjure up images of romantic, far-distant lands, chests spilling over with riches, secret hoards, men driven mad by the lust to own it, even dragons. The idea of the ‘pot of gold’ at the end of a rainbow, the pirate with his treasure chest, Indiana Jones and his quests for treasure (thinly disguised as archaeology) - the images are everywhere. The first American Gold Rush of 1848-55 incited men to murder, theft, corruption, and genocide. The discovery of rich deposits in the Transvaal of South Africa in the late 19th century led to unimaginable prosperity for mine owners, and unimaginable danger for the miners.
As for the idea that treasure is cursed, well, that’s not new, either. Despite the newspapers of 1922 trying to stir up belief in an ancient curse, awoken by the disturbance of Tutankhamun’s tomb, there is no evidence that anyone associated with the excavation died of anything other than bad luck and natural causes. If we look back at the English Civil War of the Seventeeth Century, we see that treasure hoards were considered to be cursed, and that if you found one, the presence of a member of the 'cunning-folk' would be required to lay the unquiet spirits before one could take possession. In fact, the trope of 'cursed treasure' can be traced back even further - at least to Anglo-Saxon narrative. The psychology seems somewhat Puritanical in origin - the treasure is ‘too good to be true’, therefore there must be a catch - a curse, but the reason might well have been more practical - the ownership of wealth attracts envy and malice, which can be destabilising. The 'curse' is therefore a way to neutralise the effects of treasure, and gold.
The ‘Rational’ Character vs. the 'Mystic'
In popular sources, the mysticism of ancient Egypt is often emphasised, and this can be seen in many places - particularly in the 'Romantic Oriental' and 'Egyptianizing' movements of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. In some cases, the invoking of 'ancient' sources is done to confer a sort of mystic authority, and can be misleading at best - as with this misreading of a single word in an 'Egyptian parchment'.
On the other hand, since the Renaissance, the ‘scientific', the ‘rational mind’ has been highly valued in Western societies. The mystic, the shaman, the magician, the witch - these were all shunned in favour of science, rationalism, experimentation, observation, mathematics, precision and above all, reason.
Thus, it is no surprise that the earliest known interest in Ancient Egypt from the outside world comes in the shape of an interest in their science. Herodotus writes 'the Egyptians were the first of all men on earth to find out the course of the year', while Plutarch commented on the 'reason (logos)' underlying Egyptian religion (that it could be interpreted as analagous to the Greek belief system)'. In fact, one source of our fascination with ancient Egypt seems to lie in this tension - between the Romantic, orientalising view of the 'mystical' nature of Egypt and the Hellenic observation (and approval) of the rational and scientific nature of the Egyptians.
Egyptian art was schematic, representing the human body according to a canon of proportions with strict conventions; representations of gardens, laid flat, are bizarre to our modern eyes, accustomed as we are to the use of perspective - they seek to show the layout of a garden, and everything in it, rather than a view of it. However, Egyptian art was also highly decorative, and its beauty was much valued (as we see from the Egyptianising architecture of the 1920s) - perhaps the power of Egypt lies in bridging the gap between 'exotic' and 'familiar'.
The Pyramids of Giza have inspired thousands - and theories as to their construction are countless. Why? Inside, they consist of narrow, smelly corridors, with no inscriptions or reliefs, leading to mostly empty chambers. There’s little there to hold the imagination, surely? Indeed - most visitors don’t enter the pyramids, but instead only look at them from outside. It is the monumental scale of the pyramids that entrances. Their sheer size, etched against the horizon, is one of the enduring images of ancient Egypt. Had the Giza pyramids been the size of a small bungalow, would they have inspired the same wild devotion? Probably not. We have an innate fascination with the gigantic (see the recent ‘Superhenge’ story - which is little more than ‘Here's something bigger than Stonehenge’) - and with other extremes. Oldest, biggest, longest, highest, deepest - we love a superlative, and Egypt provides plenty: a gift to headline writers everywhere.
The appreciation of physical beauty goes back a very long way. Some of the earliest evidence we have of hominids is their art - expressions of what they saw around them, carved and painted onto rock surfaces.
Egypt’s reputation for beauty is built on its art - the purity of the artistic form, the representation of most adults as beautiful, youthful and vigorous, and the detailed decorations of tombs, temples, monuments and objects is one that appeals to our aesthetic sides. Nefertiti is considered beautiful by modern standards - if we take the Berlin bust (left) as a portrait of her. The discussions about the supposed beauty of Cleopatra have gone through numerous incarnations, including comparisons of her to modern actresses such as Jennifer Lawrence.
However, Egyptian art is not portraiture. They did not want to record an image or snapshot of how a person actually looked. Instead, they immortalised an idealised image of the person, in order that their existence in that body in their Afterlife would be just as perfect. Since the existence after death was eternal, why would one not choose to face it in a youthful, perfect body? That is not to say that images of Ancient Egyptians look nothing like their actual faces/bodies, only that the intent of artistic representations of the human form was not to record, but to create an image with multiple meanings. It is simply not possible that every statue showing young, athletic kings and noblemen striding out, their washboard stomachs tight, their profiles clean-cut is a portrait. There were also reasons of status and politics to think of - showing a king in his prime would be a more intimidating image to enemies than a frail, elderly monarch.
Of course, there are exceptions - statues of wealthy men shown with symbolic rolls of fat, the statue of Seneb (right) which appears to document his dwarfism, the possibility that the odd form of Akhenaten in statuary and relief is indicative of some deformity or illness. On the whole, though, Egyptians wanted to be beautiful - so they made themselves perfect for eternity. The smooth, inscrutable features of Nefertiti (whose name means 'the beautiful one has come') still appeal, where the ideals of beauty in other ages do not - powdered wigs, artificial beauty spots, chalk-white complexions, shapely ankles cross-gartered: none of these are widespread today.
Part of the appeal is not just in the unlikely perfection, but in the mystery it enshrines. Amenhotep III gazes inscrutably down on visitors to the British Museum’s Egyptian Sculpture Gallery, but who was he really? We now take the idea of portraiture so much for granted that the idea of not actually knowing what someone looked like is anathema, and many reconstructions of Egyptian rulers have been attempted, with varying degrees of success. Not knowing what they looked like gives Egyptians an extra veil of mystery, and that is irresistible to us. We all love puzzles, mysteries and conundrums. How many people spend their leisure hours doing puzzles - crosswords, Sudoku, jigsaw puzzles, wordsearches? How many more read murder mysteries, or watch detective dramas on television? We love mysteries - we want to solve them. By posing us the mystery of ‘who are we’ across the ages, ancient Egyptians guaranteed that we would want to know more - whether through deciphering their writing systems, unwrapping their mummies or discovering their 'lost' tombs.
This enduring, colourful, mysterious, beautiful, contradictory ancient culture never fails to grab the headlines - or our attention.