ETERNAL EGYPT Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum

By Johnson, Mark M. | Arts & Activities, May 2001 | Go to article overview

ETERNAL EGYPT Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum


Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities


The history and culture of Egypt, one of the earliest of the world's l great civilizations, can be traced back more than 5,000 years. While Europe and America were still inhabited by primitive tribes, Egypt was already unified as a great nation. It is difficult to comprehend from our perspective--living in a country just 225 years old--that a sophisticated government and society emerged so long ago and then thrived for three millennia.

Indeed, ancient Egypt was regarded as "ancient" even by many other civilizations that we today regard as being ancient. For instance, Egypt was a powerful nation 1,000 years before the Minoans of Crete built their palace at Knossos; 900 years before the Israelites followed Moses out of bondage; and while tribesmen still dwelled in huts along the Tiber River. To further put it in context, Egypt was viewed by the Greeks and Romans in much the same way that we look back on the classical era.

Partly because of its ancient history, Egypt has always been regarded with a certain amount of awe and amazement. The great Greek historian, Herodotus, after a tour of Egypt, wrote of its "wonders more in number than those of any other !and and works it has to show beyond expression great." This sentiment has been born out time and again by writers from numerous countries over many centuries.

Travelers to Egypt are still impressed with its great pyramids, slender obelisks and avenues of monuments. The sheer size of these ancient buildings and public sculptures reduces all else to insignificance, while their enigmatic hieroglyphics intrigue both old and young alike. Egypt's magical and mystical other-worldly presence captivates our curiosity with an appeal that crosses all boundaries of time, geography and culture.

It has often been said that history begins with the invention of writing. Hieroglyphics describe the foundation of Egypt's civilization, and now testify to an illustrious past. Of course, for many centuries, this extraordinary writing was indecipherable, and the knowledge of the ancients remained a mystery. That is, until 1799, when a military expedition led by Napoleon discovered the now-famed Rosetta Stone.

This unique tablet includes three different registers of inscriptions: one in Greek, one in "Demotic"--the language of the Egyptian people--and one in priestly hieroglyphics. Within 20 years of the tablet's discovery, the French linguist, Jean Francois Champollion, deduced that these glyphs were not simply pictographs, but rather characters of a once-spoken, yet long-forgotten, language.

This remarkable discovery opened a new window on Egyptian history, and also elevated Champollion to a key position as a leader in the new science of archeology and the related field of Egyptology.

The art and history of this ancient civilization is now revealed in a spectacular exhibition titled Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum. Comprising over 145 objects selected from one of the foremost collections of Egyptian antiquities in the world, this presentation will travel to seven museums across America over the next three years.

The works are arranged chronologically to reveal artistic development over 35 centuries, from about 3100 B.C. through the Roman occupation in the 4th century A.D. The four major periods of Egyptian history--the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, the New Kingdom and the Late Period--are explored in depth. As such, this exhibition and its accompanying catalog provide the first comprehensive survey of the art of this great culture.

Included are masterworks in a variety of media such as stone, wood, terra cotta, ivory, gold, glass and papyrus. The full range and significance of pharonic art is examined, as is the development of portraiture, a major Egyptian contribution to art history.

To modern viewers accustomed to constant and rapid changes in every aspect of life, 3,500 years of Egyptian art might seem somewhat static. …

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