July 2016

This is an index and summary of the things I've talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it's before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.


Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom - exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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"Howard Carter: An Alternative View of the Man Through His Art" Lee Young - talk at the July EEG Meeting.

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At the beginning of this month Lee Young came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk about Howard Carter as an artist (rather than as an archaeologist). She is an independent researcher associated with the Griffith Institute in Oxford where the bulk of Carter's notes and archives are kept. Although she was talking to us today about Carter she said that her real research interest is in the female artists whose works are represented in the Griffith Institute collections.

She began by sketching us a quick verbal picture of Howard Carter's character: he was contrary, stubborn, opinionated and sometimes rude. He was short-tempered and didn't suffer fools gladly. He also had a chip on his shoulder about his humble origins - going so far in later years as to re-write his background into something that he felt was more "suitable". But to offset this picture of a proud man Young pointed out that Carter's work recording the Egyptian reliefs required a great degree of artistic humility as he had to bury his own skill & artistic style in the service of accurately recording the ancient artists' skills.

Howard Carter was born on 9th May 1874 in London, as the youngest son of a large family. His parents, Samuel Carter and Martha Joyce Carter were both originally from Swaffham in Norfolk. His grandfather (Carter) was a gamekeeper there, and parts of the family still lived there. Samuel Carter had moved to London to work as an artist, and the whole family were very artistic. Samuel Carter painted in a high Victorian style and his work was well regarded at the time. He mostly painted animal portraits for the gentry but he also worked as the principal animal illustrator for the London Illustrated News for 20 years.

Howard was a sickly child, and as a result of this was poorly educated. What schooling he did get was in a day school rather than a public school, which caused friction in his dealings with the Victorian elite in later life (and contributed to his embarrassment at his origins). As an older child he was sent to live in Norfolk with some of his aunts and he learnt to love nature there, spending a lot of time painting the wildlife. He was particularly interested in birds (and I think Young also said insects). However he wasn't able to follow up on this interest, instead returning to London to work in the family business painting pets. Apparently despite generally liking animals he loathed lapdogs, which were often the subjects he was hired to paint.

In 1890 the Egypt Exploration Fund (precursor of the Egypt Exploration Society) were setting up a project to archaeologically survey the monuments in Egypt because there were fears that they would also soon be so damaged there'd be nothing left. The first season a team headed by Percy Newberry went to Beni Hassan to begin work there, and initially it was hoped they'd finish that site in a season and move on the following year. However the work took much longer that anticipated and it was decided to spend the following year there as well, and take along another artist. Howard Carter got the job - through the recommendation of Lord Amherst, who Carter had painted pictures for and who had encouraged Carter's interest in Amherst's Egyptian collection. Carter was considered particularly suitable for the job as he was not a gentleman - the job was unpaid but expenses were covered and the EEF thought a gentleman might run up larger bills than they wanted to pay!

Before Carter went to Egypt he was given time to study for his new role - he had a pass to permit him to draw in the British Museum and he also studied the work of Robert Hay. Hay had recorded several monuments & inscriptions in the early 19th Century, and after studying those records Carter regarded Hay as better than many of Carter's contemporaries. In 1891, at the age of only 17, Carter travelled to Egypt for the first time. He first stayed in Cairo for a while - visiting the Pyramids of course, and the Museum and also spent a lot of time drawing and painting animals in the zoo. He also met Petrie for the first time in Cairo, and liked him & his attitude.

Once in Beni Hassan Carter was put to work by Percy Newberry on recording the reliefs in the Oryx Nomarch tombs. Young told us that Carter liked the views at Beni Hassan, and the archaeological site, but the accommodation was just "good enough for those who aren't too fussy"! However Carter didn't approve of the methods used by Newberry to record the reliefs - the technique he was using involved tracing the reliefs then sending them back to England to be inked in in black by people who'd never seen the originals and weren't trained artists. The drawings were then reproduced at a much smaller scale for publication and so even those fine details that he had managed to record were lost. At first Carter did as he was told, and impressed Newberry with his diligence and the speed with which he worked. As the work was progressing quickly Carter was also instructed to paint watercolour facsimiles of parts of the scenes. Young showed us several examples of these, including many birds and other animals. The photo below is one I took when the EEG visited the Egypt Exploration Society a couple of years ago - during that visit we saw several of Carter's drawings that the EES have in their archives.

One of Howard Carter's Drawings

The next site Carter went to was Deir el Bersha, which is near Beni Hassan - one of the scenes at this site is the famous one that shows an extremely large (6.8m tall) statue being moved by a large team of Egyptian workers. While working on recording the reliefs here he was able to exercise more control over the finished product. The figures were no longer blacked in as they had previously been, and Carter managed to arrange for the published drawings to be a larger scale so the fine details were more visible. His paintings and drawings from this site are still very useful to archaeologists today as they show details that no longer exist - the site at Deir el Bersha has suffered a lot of damage over time from rock falls to vandalism.

In the late 19th Century the big goal of Egyptologists was to find Akhenaten's tomb. When it was found Petrie went to see it, and took Carter with him. Young said that one of the drawings that Carter made at the site was his first published archaeological drawing. After this trip Carter went to Amarna with Petrie to work as his apprentice. He got the job by accident - the original candidate, Marcus Blackden, had been sent home in disgrace and Carter was the available person. Petrie was, famously, initially unimpressed with Carter - too much an artist, too little an archaeologist. But Carter turned out to be more useful than that initial impression.

In 1893 Carter was assigned by the EEF to Deir el Bahri as the principle epigrapher. Young reminded us at this point of how little time had passed - Carter is still only 19 years old. But as principle epigrapher he had a lot more control over how the work was done. He used his artistic abilities to draw the scenes freehand, and was able over the 6 years he was at the site to employ assistants who were also artistic enough to work in the same fashion (including one of his brothers). The EEF eventually published 6 volumes of plates from Carter and his team's work at Deir el Bahri, to great acclaim, and the standard of work was much better than previous expeditions had produced.

After his time at Deir el Bahri Carter was appointed as the Chief Inspector of Antiquities for Upper Egypt - a prestigious appointment that served to reinforce his liking for archaeology. During these years he was still working as an artist - in particular he did the drawings for Theodore Davis's publication of Yuya & Tuya's tomb. Carter was regarded as very efficient and capable in his position as Inspector, but after he was transferred to Lower Egypt he famously fell out with the authorities. Young told us the story briefly, as it's so well known - some French tourists went on a rampage damaging both monuments and their Egyptian guardians. Carter took the side of the Egyptians, feeling that they were doing their jobs and the tourists were undeniably causing damage. However permitting the guardians to defend themselves was regarded as insulting to French dignity. When Carter refused to apologise he was transferred to a less prestigious post and then subsequently resigned feeling humiliated.

From his resignation in late 1905 to 1909 (when he started work for Lord Carnarvon) Carter lived off his wits and through selling paintings. Young showed us several examples of the sort of work he did. This ranged from landscapes and the major monuments for tourists, through to work destined for archaeological publications. She told us that a lot of the information about Carter during these years comes from his correspondence with Mrs Mars, a wealthy client of his for whom he painted several paintings.

Carter joined Lord Carnarvon's third season in Egypt, although for some of time initially he was actually working doing drawings for a project of Alan Gardiner's. This didn't suit Carter, as he was not fond of Gardiner - Young explained that Carter thought Gardiner had been making insinuations against Carter's friends. Gardiner's project was never finished, but he kept the drawings and they are now in the Griffith Institute. Young said that not only are they still a useful reference for modern archaeologists but they also showcase Carter's maturity and skill as an artist.

In 1922 Carter made the discovery that made him famous - that of Tutankhamun's tomb. Young said that Carter drew everything during the excavations. His record cards for every object have little sketches of said object, carefully annotated and also beautiful. As well as showing us several of these cards Young also showed us some of the newly colourised versions of Burton's photos of the excavation - a little tangential but interesting to see!

Young finished her talk by telling us Carter's own thoughts on the copying of reliefs. In later life he wrote several essays with a view to a possible autobiography. These included his firm opinion that the epigraphy work needed to be done by a proper artist - that this was the only way to not only capture all the detail but also give a proper appreciation of and respect for the skill of the ancient artists. As Young pointed out, it's not clear that he would approve of modern techniques - which are a return to the tracing of reliefs that he'd so disapproved of when he first went to Egypt.

This was an interesting talk - often one hears about Carter as archaeologist with a footnote that he was an accomplished artist, but here Young showed that you can tell the story of his life with the opposite emphasis with just as much justification.


When we visited New York last year we timed our visit to coincide with the opening of an exhibition that the Metropolitan Museum of Art was putting on: Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom was regarded by later Ancient Egyptians as their "classical" age - for instance one of the teaching texts from the New Kingdom is about this era. It was probably composed in the 18th Dynasty, but it tells of a vision that Senwosret I has of his father Amenemhat I after Amenemhat's death. In that vision Amenemhat I talks about the proper ways to be a king. We often almost overlook the Middle Kingdom nowdays, as being "just" that bit between the Giza Pyramids and the time of the Valley of the Kings. Certainly I don't think I've been to another large exhibition concentrating on this era.

They let us take photos inside the exhibition, so I have a small set up on flickr here, or click on any photo to go to it on flickr.

The exhibition opened with a room that looked at the history of the early Middle Kingdom, and at the broad sweep of the development of artistic styles over this period. After the end of the Old Kingdom centralised government had broken down in Egypt and although there were Pharaohs in name they didn't rule the whole country in practice. The reunification of Egypt took place during the 11th Dynasty, in the reign of Montuhotep II. Before reunification Montuhotep II's power base was in Thebes, and he ruled the southern part of the country. The art style associated with Montuhotep II is initially a local Theban style, but once he's conquered the northern part of the country there is a change to incorporate Old Kingdom styles and themes into the art. The key features of art from his reign are crisp outlines, thick lips and muscular limbs (I think the first trip I took to Egypt our tour guide referred to a statue of Montuhotep II as "Old Elephant Legs" - he wasn't a fan of this style!). In the 12th Dynasty Amenemhat I moved the capital north to modern day Lisht, which is about 20 miles south of Memphis. This is when the Pharaohs restarted building Pyramids for the tombs. The art from his reign was generally in low relief, and had much more delicate moulding.

Statue of Senwosret III as a Sphinx

The next room of the exhibition covered the later Middle Kingdom, with a particular emphasis on statuary of the Pharaoh. The Ancient Egyptians were fond of seeing the world as made up of dualities, and their theories of kingship were no exception to this. The Pharaoh had a dual nature, and was both divine and human. During the Middle Kingdom the representation of the Pharaoh in this dual manner reached a peak. Many more statues of the Pharaoh were made as compared to earlier periods (which can be seen as a manifestation of the power of the Pharaoh). In these statues the Pharaoh was represented both as a divinity and as a worshipper. During the 12th Dynasty there was a change in representation of the Pharaoh from youthful features to more mature and careworn features (a visual reflection of a change in their ideas about kingship) - for instance statues of Senwosret III display this new style. The last great Pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom was Senwosret III's son Amenemhat III (who ruled as a co-regent with his father for 20 years). After this the 13th Dynasty was composed of several Pharaohs with short reigns, and often not related to their predecessor. And the art changes again, gone are the individualised representations of mature Pharaohs and back are youthful features this time coupled with a more stylised image which doesn't seem to be of an individual.

Model of the Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III, Dashur

Having established the chronology, and the broad changes in the art, the next room of the exhibition looked at how we know about this period. Or rather, specifically how the Met Museum comes to have so many Middle Kingdom artifacts. The Museum has been involved in many excavations in Egypt, of note in this context are their work at Middle Kingdom pyramid complexes at both Lisht and Dashur. In this room there was a video showing some of the excavations, and a large (modern) model of the pyramid complex of Senwosret III at Dashur which I spent some time looking at. A couple of bits of information from the labelling struck me in particular - firstly that evidence from graffiti shows that the complex remained standing until the late New Kingdom. And secondly that despite having this pyramid complex built and a sarcophagus put in it Senwosret III wasn't buried here, he was buried in Abydos. Which seems like an awful lot of effort to go to "just" for the symbolism (I assume), but that does seem a constant of Egyptian culture.

The next couple of rooms looked at the representations and roles of the elite other than the Pharaoh - starting with the royal women. It's noticeable that these women are all defined by their relationship to the Pharaoh - they are all titled things like "King's Wife" or "King's Daughter". Egypt sometimes gets held up as being a "more egalitarian" society by ancient standards, and it was compared to the later Athenian Greeks for instance, but that's a pretty low bar by modern standards. The women acted as the glue that bound the elite to the king (particularly in the 13th Dynasty) as the Pharaoh's wives frequently came from the elite families. They also had a religious role - the mythology of kingship held that the king is the son of his actual mother and a god, so she was an important part of this narrative (if a rather passive one). Royal women were also linked with Hathor, who brings up Horus in various of the myths (and the Pharaoh is an embodiment of Horus). Of the jewellery in this section I was particularly struck by the similarity in styles/motifs between this stuff and some jewellery we'd seen earlier on our visits to the Met belonging to minor wives of Tutmosis III who lived some five centuries after these Middle Kingdom women.

Bracelet of Princess Sithathoryunet

The level of power & the roles of the Pharaoh's officials varied across the time period of the Middle Kingdom. At first the country was still fairly decentralised, much as it had been in the First Intermediate Period. Control was brought more & more into the hands of a centralised government over the 12th Dynasty. Then in the 13th Dynasty the Pharaohs were weak and the elite effectively ran the country. This section of the exhibition had quite a few statues & stelae from the Pharaoh's non-royal subjects - including relatively low ranking officials. The Middle Kingdom was a time when even lower ranking officials and the non-elite were more likely to be able to commission relatively good quality statues.

In the iconography of Egyptian art how the country interacts with foreigners is clear: they are defeated, and then the Pharaoh smites them. Of course the truth is more nuanced and complicated than that. Some conquest (and colonisation) does take place - Nubia is conquered in Senwosret I's time, for instance. But there's also a lot of evidence of co-existence with other peoples. The Egyptians traded with Greece & with the Levant, and foreigners lived within Egyptian borders. One of the pieces in this section was a stela with the Tale of Sinhue carved on it, which is one of the great pieces of Egyptian literature and is set at the time of Senwosret I's accession. The protagonist flees into self-imposed exile outside of Egypt for much of the story, making it particularly relevant for another look at how the ancient Egyptians regarded the outside world. (Of course, the thing I photographed was the battle axe, because battle axe!)

Battle-axe and Stela

The next section of the exhibition was about life in the Middle Kingdom - illustrated using objects from burials, including some tomb models. Of course the Egyptians put them in their tombs to provide themselves with food and other necessities for their eternal afterlife. But from a modern persons' perspective they're useful to tell us what the life of an Egyptian was really like, and how they organised the various production systems - like slaughterhouses, granaries and so on. Burials might also include animal figurines - some to provide food, some for symbolic reasons and some to provide pets in the afterlife. They noted in the labelling that cats weren't yet fully domesticated at this point, although were definitely on the road towards it. Family and community were clearly important to the Middle Kingdom Egyptians - given the way that figurines & stelae generally depict not just the primary tomb owner but also their spouse and children.

Having used tomb goods to look at what they tell us about life the next section was about death - and I was particularly struck by the coffin with a mummy in that they had. For all that I knew already that they laid the dead on their sides during the Middle Kingdom period it was still striking to see it. Death for the Egyptians was a journey between two worlds and although ideas changed during the Middle Kingdom they stayed within that framework of the deceased going to somewhere else. During the early Middle Kingdom the emphasis was on offerings and providing an eternal supply of food. Later on in the Middle Kingdom the emphasis shifts to the rebirth of the dead (and this is when the Coffin Texts start to appear). This period is also when the first shabtis are made, and when the heart scarabs become important. Royal symbols start to appear in the tombs of non-royal individuals, as part of linking the deceased with Osiris.

Model Sailboat

By the Middle Kingdom the Egyptians had come to believe that the god Osiris was buried in one of the tombs at Abydos - we now know that the tomb they picked was the tomb of Djer who was the 3rd Pharaoh of the 1st Dynasty. Abydos therefore became an important cult site during this period, and many people made pilgrimages there. They often left stelae as offerings, or statues, so that they would be a permanent spectator or part of the processions there. This pilgrimage was also represented in the tomb with model boats so that they could continue to undertake it in the afterlife.

The next to last part of the exhibition was about temples. It's always important to remember that temples in the ancient Egyptian religion didn't have the same function as a Christian church - very much not a place where the public worshipped. Instead temples were secluded places where the god resided, and where the king could go and perform the appropriate & necessary rituals. The king was always the "true actor" in temple rituals, even though in practice the priests stand in for him. In some ways it was a mutual appreciation society: the king worshipped the god and in return the god blessed the king. In the Middle Kingdom temples were commissioned by the Pharaoh, for instance the White Chapel of Senwosret I at Karnak, in earlier periods it was less centralised and more down to the local communities. Right near the end of this section was one of my favourite bits of statuary from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, on loan to the exhibition - a head of the god Sobek! Nice to see a "friendly" face from home amongst the treasures the Met Museum owns :)

Head of a Statue of the God Sobek Shedeti

The exhibition finished by considering what happened to the Middle Kingdom monuments and statuary in later years. The statues might be buried once they were superfluous - they were sacred objects so you couldn't destroy them. But there's only space for so many statues of Pharaohs in any given space so after a while you need to move the old ones out to make space for the new Pharaoh. And temples and statues alike might be usurped by a later Pharaoh (particularly Ramesses II) chiselling off the original name and writing his own name in its place. This wasn't just a case of thrift - it was also because the Egyptians looked back to the Middle Kingdom (and the 12th Dynasty in particular) with pride. Claiming its monuments as your own, would link you with this cultural high point.

I'm glad we got a chance to see this exhibition - as I said at the beginning of this post I don't think I've seen another exhibition that focusses on the Middle Kingdom. And of course many of these objects were from the Met Museum's own collections so we wouldn't've had the chance to see them elsewhere anyway.