Ancient Egypt, the world’s first nation-state, really was “the gift of the Nile.” But much of the form and content of Egypt’s art can be traced far back, beyond the time of pyramids and pharaohs, to a distant age when nomadic peoples migrated from what is now the Sahara Desert to create settled communities along the thin ribbon of fertile “black land” that bordered the northward flowing Nile.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is presenting an exhibition of rare artifacts from what historians call the “Pre-dynastic” period of Egyptian history. This is a conventional, confusion-free way of describing Egypt before there was an Egypt.
Some of the treasures on display in The Dawn of Egyptian Art date back as far as 3800 BC, perhaps even to 4400 BC given an understandable margin of error in radiocarbon dating. It is a sobering thought that if Cleopatra, the last ruler of an independent Egypt, could somehow be restored to life and invited to view this very fine exhibition, she would be examining works of art more ancient to her, than the time she lived in, the 1st century BC, is to us today.
We are dealing with truly ancient history in the case of The Dawn of Egyptian Art. Indeed, most of these precious objects should be considered as pre-historic artifacts. They are relics, moreover, of a shift in the world’s climate, not unlike what is feared to be taking place today with Global Warming.
When we examine one of the earthenware vessels on display in the exhibition, Tall jar with Barbary sheep, dating to 3700 BC, we are glimpsing an artifact which evokes a massive ecological change that altered the course of human history. This was the end of what environmental scientists call the Holocene wet-period. As the name of the animals depicted on the jar suggests, the scene relates to a vast expanse of North Africa reaching to the Atlas Mountains of present-day Morocco. Living conditions across this huge landmass were completely altered and the rise of Ancient Egypt was a result.
At some point, around 9000 BC, a benign shift in weather patterns brought an increase in rainfall to the Sahara. The desert bloomed, becoming vast grassland, with rivers coursing through it and lakes growing to staggering dimensions. Lake Chad, today vastly shrunken in size from what it was even in the mid-twentieth century, at one point exceeded the size of the Caspian Sea, the largest inland water body in the world today.
The Sahara became a wonderland for animal life, gazelles and Barbary sheep, even some giraffes and elephants, along with herds of wild cattle. Hunter-gatherer human beings, some of whom lived in the Nile Valley, migrated to the “Green Sahara.” Tribal groups domesticated the cattle and roamed the Sahara grasslands, leaving amazing rock art, both painted and inscribed, in such places as Tassili n’Ajjer in present-day Algeria, Jebel Uweinat in Libya and the Gilf Kebir caves in Egypt. A sacred site near the border of Egypt and the Sudan contained a complex of megalithic monuments which some have likened to Stonehenge. Known as Nabta Playa, this center of ritual represented the apogee of this amazing chapter in human prehistory, c.5100 to 4700 BC.
A similar “Green Sinai” existed around this time. This probably accounts for the spread of agriculture from western Asia to the Nile region in the shape of crops of emmer wheat and barley. There is, however, little evidence of a mass population movement into Egypt across the Sinai, as was once thought. The people of the first documented farming communities, 5450 BC, who lived around the Nile-fed Lake Fayum, were native to the region or related to the pastoral clans of the Sahara. Since there were several periods when rainfall diminished and the Sahara grew arid, there is likely to have been much back-and-forth movement between grasslands and river valley.
The development of agriculture in the Nile Valley was extremely important because climate shifts, beginning around 4900 BC, brought the Holocene wet-period to an end. By 4400 BC, the Green Sahara was no more. Seeking refuge, the pastoral clans drove their herds of cattle toward the Nile. Villages and eventually small cities rose along its banks. Though hunting the remaining game animals, like Barbary sheep, went on for a little longer out in the now bleak, arid Sahara, the old nomadic way of life was over by 3800 BC.
Echoes of this hunter-gatherer epoch continued in the art produced in early Egypt. Animal or hunting-themed works of art were still produced after the settled life in communities along the Nile had commenced. Many of the best examples were excavated at the site of the city of Naqada. Known as Nubt, “the Golden,” in antiquity, because of its proximity to gold mines, Naqada was located in the great bend of the Nile in Upper Egypt. The discovery of ancient graves at Naqada in 1892 by Flinders Petrie was one of the great moments in Egyptology.
Three phases of Naqada art have been delineated. The first, (ca. 3800– 3650 BC) is represented by the pottery jar painted with Barbary sheep. Found in a tomb, it is an example of what is called White Cross-lined Ware and evokes the rock art of the Sahara. Later artifacts from Naqada II (ca. 3650-3300 BC) and Naqada III (ca. 3300 –3100 BC) point towards Egypt’s future as well as the nomadic past. What is more, these outstanding works of art show the increasing skill of the rising Egyptian artisan class in virtually every facet of art.
Amulet in the shape of an elephant’s head from Naqada II is worthy of the Faberge workshop in Imperial Russia. Less than two inches high, this piece evokes the curving tusks and commanding bulk of a charging bull elephant. A superb blend of abstract design and visceral realism, this is an indisputable masterpiece, one of the earliest in Egyptian art.
Another work of peerless skill is a statue of a jackal, Naqada III vintage, carved from slate. Even at this early date, the Egyptians were obsessed with the proper burial of their dead and the peaceful enjoyment of the afterlife. As their ancestors had no doubt discovered out on the Saharan grassland, jackals are no respecters of shallow graves. During their nomadic days, the wandering tribes had learned to bury their dead in deep pits to protect them from scavenging jackals.
But the Egyptians regarded the matter of the afterlife so seriously that they created a jackal god, Anubis. It was a case of turning an adversary into an ally. Sometimes portrayed in animal form and painted in the pose of a faithful dog protecting the entrance to a tomb, Anubis was also portrayed as a jackal-man. Anubis was frequently depicted embalming the dead, mummification being one of his principal tasks.
This representation of a jackal may be considered a stage in the creation of Anubis, one of the earliest gods in the Egyptian pantheon. No doubt crafted as a totem, it was found in a tomb where it had likely been placed to protect the deceased during the afterlife.
The adaptation of the Egyptians to life in the Nile valley is exemplified by another piece of White Cross-lined Ware from Naqada. The depiction of a man spearing a hippopotamus gives an insight into the problematical relationship of the Egyptians with the natural world. These river-living animals were an important source of meat and could be dangerous foes if a hunter did not land a lethal first thrust. But hippopotami are among the only creatures capable of killing crocodiles, the most deadly of predators to human beings in Africa. The ancient Egyptians knew that the presence of hippopotami nearby in the Nile meant that they could fish, forage or even take a swim in the river in relative safety. Consequently, they created protective figurines of hippopotami and placed them among the tomb possessions of their deceased.
Another indication of the sheer antiquity of the objects on display in the Metropolitan Museum exhibition is the presence of several small female figures, almost certainly fertility “goddesses.” It has been contended that the place of women in early societies was enhanced by the rise of agriculture. The vital role that women played in nurturing wild grasses into cereal crops led, according to this theory, to a corresponding increase in their social influence.
If so, this might give some insight into the identity of the otherwise enigmatic “Bird Woman” from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. This famous piece of painted pottery dates to the Naqada II period. Its beak-like face is the source of its nickname. It has been characterized as a celebrant figure and may be a depiction of a priestess or religious cult leader.
The Naqada period saw the rise of naturalistic depiction of human beings in art. The standard pose in Egyptian painting and bas-relief was perfected, where the face is depicted in profile, looking to the right, with the torso and body parts displayed in ways to heighten their visibility. This ancient “beauty shot” would dominate the canons of Egyptian art down through the age of Cleopatra. But The Dawn of Egyptian Art shows that Egyptian artists could do full justice to the correct proportions of the human figure when conventions dictated it.
A heavily restored limestone statue of an Egyptian woman, perhaps of royal status, provides a revelatory glimpse of the degree to which Egyptian art developed. It also gives insight into the way that Egyptian society grew rigid during the final centuries covered by the exhibition.
The statue is nicknamed “The Lady of Brussels” because its home museum is in Belgium. It is one of the oldest free-standing statues in the world, dated to around 2695 BC. The “Lady” certainly has her charms. She is wearing one of the extraordinary wigs that were such a noteworthy item of feminine beauty in Ancient Egypt. But her restrained, submissive pose somehow disappoints when contrasted with the energy and mysticism of the mysterious “Bird Woman,” created a thousand years earlier.
“The Lady of Brussels” raises some very profound questions about the status of women in Ancient Egypt. It also points to other disturbing trends of social organization as the Pre-dynastic period came to an end. By the time the statue was sculpted, the first dynasties of the pharaohs had extended the reach of their divine right authority throughout Egypt. The Great Man as ruler was now the rule.
Statues of individual women are very rare in Egyptian art. Often they are posed next to their husbands, either kneeling or in a reduced size as a token of subservience. Even when they are of equal height, as in the case of the wonderful statue of King Menkaure and his wife, c.2460 BC, in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the woman seldom stands alone. Indeed in the case of the Boston statue, there is a wide-spread belief that the woman portrayed is the Goddess Hathor. A similar statue of Hathor posing with Menkaure is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Given the lowly status of women in Ancient Egypt, one can only wonder why there is not a “Lord of Brussels” to match the “Lady.” The height of the “Lady,” 29 inches, seems small for an independent statue. But it is an appropriate size for one if positioned next to a much taller statue of a husband or king, according to the conventions of Egyptian art. Given that the “Lady” had to be restored from fragments, could a matching male statue have been smashed to bits in a political purge? Such an event occurred at the end of the 18th Dynasty when the militaristic pharaoh, Horemheb, c. 1306 BC, destroyed the monuments to his predecessor, Akhenaton, but did a less than thorough job on the images of his queen, Nefertiti.
We are not likely to have an answer to this riddle, as the provenance of the “Lady of Brussels” is not known. But this enigmatic statue and a number of other unsettling pieces in The Dawn of Egyptian Art certainly show that the birth pangs of Ancient Egypt were a very painful ordeal.
In political terms, the three phases of Naqada art coincided with the “era of state building.” Quite a few scholars have tried to put a positive gloss on the process by which Egypt, the first nation-state, was created. But Toby A. H. Wilkinson in a brilliant recent book, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, contends that the creation of the Egyptian state was marked by internecine warfare leading to the installation of an autocratic central government.
The carved slate panel known as The Battlefield Palette, from the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford University, is Exhibit A in support of Wilkinson’s thesis. But its grisly scenes of wounded and captives being devoured by lions and vultures does not make pleasant viewing.
Another piece, Door socket in the form of a bound captive, from the collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, is visually stunning. But this ancient Egyptian carving had a utilitarian, as well as symbolic, purpose. As a door jamb, it was intended to be a constant reminder of the fate of those who opposed the will of pharaoh.
When the first of Egypt’s pharaohs, Narmer, forcibly united all of Egypt by the traditional date of 2950 BC, the “state building” had been going on for centuries. The foot-loose days of wandering the Green Sahara were long gone, but not forgotten. As Wilkinson notes, the scepter of the Egyptian pharaoh was shaped like a shepherd’s curved staff or crook. In his other hand, the pharaoh held a flail, once used to whip cattle. Only now, with the dawn of the Egyptian state and of Egyptian art, it was human beings who were being herded, willing or not, into a state of subjection we call civilization.
The Dawn of Egyptian Art April 10-August 5, 2012 The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York, NY 10028