Thanks to the many artifacts of Ancient Egypt found mainly in tombs, we know many aspects of the habits of ancient Egyptian people.
However, the archaeological remains need also to be interpreted.
For instance, why was the mummy buried sometimes with small female figurines? Any text says a clear explanation, but we can assume that they had a regeneration goal, so we consider them as ancient Egyptian fertility statuettes.
The mummy of Djedptahiufankh, Fourth Prophet of Amoun, dates from XXI dynasty and was discovered by Gaston Maspero, among many other ancient Egyptian mummies, in the cache DB 320 of Deir el-Bahari.
Maspero found the corpse intact and he partially unwrapped it. He found some amulets typical of the Ancient Egyptian burial custom: a lotus flower, a heart scarab, a figure of a hawk made of silver… According to the sources, he also found the figure of two serpents made of some unspecified material on the neck of the mummy.
The snake was a very common symbol in Ancient Egypt, but why had Djedptahiufankh a pair and on his neck? No inscription, no text…so we have to look at what we know about the funerary ritual in Ancient Egypt and the coincidences we can find when thinking of it.
We have been lately writing about the artwork in general. The artwork is a human production conditioned by the author’s skills, by the historical moment and the place where it is produced. Ancient Egypt was not an exception.
The big question also for us is, can we speak about artwork in Ancient Egypt? Or must we talk about craftwork?
According to the experts, an artistic creation needs the following five properties which mark its nature:
- Artificiality. It has to be the result of an intentioned human activity, not something spontaneous.
- It has to have an intentioned esthetic, thought to be contemplated and perceived through he senses, the emotions. It has to have the intention of transmitting something to an observer.
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In Ancient Egypt common mourners taking part in funerary cortege were depicted making many different gestures.
These women could raise their arms as if they were praying to the gods the return of the dead.
Some times their hands appear over their heads as beating them in an evident show of despair.
The ancient Egyptian mourners also put their hands in front of their eyes, maybe in an intention of showing the human reflect of covering the eyes (and also the face) when crying.
The artist of Ancient Egypt found also the way of depicting the sadness movements of those women by drawing their hands holding their back of the neck, crossing their arms on their chests, kneeling and/or bending their bodies forwards.
The wife is kneeling and crying, Isis stands on the left and Nephtys on the right. Painting from the tomb of Samut in Assassif. XIX Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net
But those gestures were usual in common mourners. What about the two professional mourners in the role of Isis and Nephthys?
These two women shared with the formers ones many of these gestures, but not all of them.
The art of Ancient Egypt has a very big interest from the esthetical point of view. But its composition, its scenes, its colors… have always a specific meaning.
Before getting into the art of a moment of the history, we should mention some theoretical matters about art and history. Because any artistic expression needs to be understood in space and in time. Ancient Egypt is not an exception.
Pyramid of Meidum. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo
In every artistic production there are two main components: esthetic (the appearance the artist wants to give to the work) and the technique (the work procedures). But the art is closely united to the human feeling, his conception of the world, his religious and/or spiritual beliefs. At the same time the artwork is integrated into a country, a region, a city…
Marx and Engels. Berlin. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo.
Many statues spread in our nowadays cities are a good proof of it. For instance, the monument of Marx and Engels in Berlin is a result of some techniques, but there is also in it an intention of political propaganda. This artwork of the sculptor Ludwig Engelhart would not have existed out of the Marxist historical moment.
Isis and Nephthys overlaped behind Osiris in a Papyrus from Turin.
The artists of Ancient Egypt had a particular conception of perspective, which affected in the way they depicted groups of living beings and amounts of things.
In our last posts we saw how in Ancient Egypt the funerary scene of Osiris being flanked by Isis and Nephthys was usually depicted with the two mourners of Osiris juxtaposed. It allowed to draw Isis always preceding her sister Nephthys and to make both images complete, so effective for the dead’s resurrection.
Isis and Nephthys juxtaposed behind Osiris. Book of the Dead of Khonsumes.
But the ancient Egyptian artisan could also use the technique of superposition for drawing collectives of people (troops, groups of workers…), of animals (for instance flocks) or amounts of objects (offerings, vases…).
The superposition was also applied to the scene of Isis and Nephthys behind the resurrected Osiris on his throne. We can see it for instance in the famous Papyrus of Ani from the XIX Dynasty and in many others.
During the New Kingdom the dead was buried with rolls of papyrus containing passages of “The Book of the Dead”. That meant that the artist of the Ancient Egypt applied over this new surfaces a decoration took from the general corpus of images they had.
One of the most common scenes in those papyrus was the one with Osiris resurrected over his throne and followed by the images of Isis and Nephthys. Our focus is on how these two professional mourners were depicted.
The artists of Ancient Egypt drew on papyrus with the same techniques they used in other surfaces. Very usual were the superposition and the juxtaposition for depicting pairs, groups (of people, animals…), and amounts of things…. The first one consisted in drawing every single image just besides to another, this way we can see clearly all shapes; the second one consisted in making every image one over another, so just the one on first sight is completely drawn while the artist made just some contours of the rest.
In Ancient Egypt groups of common mourners walked during funerary processions making many gestures of lament: raising arms, beating their arms…One of the most typical gestures of these mourners was to pull from their lock of hair.
We can watch this typical mourning movement in two dimensional depictions, as for instance the mastaba of Mereruka (Saqqara) or the tomb of Ramses IX (KV6).
The religious texts of Ancient Egypt mention the fact of pulling from the lock of hair with the locution nwn m.
Mourners in the tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín
We usually considered this gesture as “pulling the front lock of hair”, due to the act that the artists of Ancient Egypt depicted the mourners always pulling from a lock of hair that hanged from their front.
However, there is an exception. The wooden anthropoid coffin of Amenemipet, from the XXI Dynasty, presents in its outer decoration a group of common mourners crying, bending their bodies, raising their arms… It is interesting to notice how the artist of Ancient Egypt introduced here the frontal perspective for depicting one mourner in the center of the group, so she raises her two arms at each side.
Common mourners in the coffin of Amenemipet. XXI Dynasty. British Museum.
At left of the image in a smaller scale a mourning woman pulls with both hands not from a front lock of hair, but from a lateral lock of hair.
In Ancient Egypt the lateral lock of hair was a distinctive of childhood.
For the ancient Egyptian artist of the Old Kingdom, the lateral lock of hair pending from the scalp was, joint with nudity, an iconographical resource applied mainly to boys. Many familiar statues from the Memphite cemetery show how the male was the one with that hairstyle.
Also the two dimensional art presents many images of young boys with the side lock of hair, as for instance in the reliefs from the tomb of Ptahhotep.
But, was this ancient Egyptian rule always like that? No.
The group statue of Nikare with his wife and his daughter is one good exception. This statue comes from Saqqara (?) and is dated in the V Dynasty. Nikare’s daughter is represented in an unusual way for the rules of Ancient Egypt.
The two Drty (two kites), offering nw vases to the four pools. Relief from the tomb of Pahery in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net
In Ancient Egypt a couple of two professional women in the role of Isis and Nephthys were actively involved in the dead’s resurrection. They appear usually at both ends of the coffin, during the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony or, from the New Kingdom, kneeling and offering two globular vases nw at the end of that funerary ceremony.
At the beginning we thought that this scene of the professional mourners offering the vases nw was something exclusive of the New Kingdom and of the Theban area. However we were maybe wrong; Ancient Egypt reveals always something new.
In some tombs from the Old Kingdom and from the Memphite area the artists of Ancient Egypt included an iconography, which remembers that one from later periods and from the south.
That is the case of the tomb of Iasen in Gizah (G2196) from the Old Kingdom. In the funerary chapel, to the left of the niche with the statue of the deceased, there is an image of Iasen seated and facing the offering table. Underneath two unidentified kneeling men are facing the dead and offering nw vases. Their position clearly reminds the one of the two professional mourners at the end of the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, which will become so common during the New Kingdom.
The iconography in Ancient Egypt was not gratuitous. Every image had a reason to be, but also every space.
From the Old Kingdom the two mourners in the role of Isis and Nephthys were accompanying the dead until the tomb at both ends of the mummy. The hieroglyphs of the wooden coffins from the Middle Kingdom tell how Isis was located at the feet and Nephthys at the head. This position could be due to a will of reproducing the moment of the rebirth of the deceased.
Later on the art of Ancient Egypt found in the coffin a new surface for including several icons, as the two professional mourners. From the XXI Dynasty became common to include these two female figures upside down in the in the external feet surface of the lid of the anthropoid coffin.
The inner part of the coffin offered also the artists of ancient Egypt a great surface for the sacred iconography. So, what was outside could also be drawn inside. At that point is emblematic the outer coffin of Nesykhonsu (XXI-XXII Dynasty), in whose interior…
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