Object Worlds in Ancient Egypt: Material Biographies Past and Present

Object Worlds in Ancient Egypt: Material Biographies Past and Present

Object Worlds in Ancient Egypt: Material Biographies Past and Present

Object Worlds in Ancient Egypt: Material Biographies Past and Present

Synopsis

Egypt looms large in the Western imagination. Whether it is our attraction to pharaonic art, the pyramids or practices of mummification, Egypt's unique understanding of materiality speaks to us across space and time. Is it because the ancient Egyptians fetishized material objects that we find their culture captivating today? And what exactly do Egyptian remains tell us about biography, embodiment, memory, materiality, and the self?Object Worlds in Ancient Egypt takes New Kingdom Egypt (1539-1070 BC) as its starting point and considers how excavated objects reveal the complex ways that ancient Egyptians experienced their material world. From life to death, the material world instantiated, reflected and influenced social life and existence for ancient Egyptians. Thus, in Meskell's unique approach to the materiality and sensuousness of subjects and objects, we uncover the philosophical, spiritual and human meanings embedded in these cultural artefacts. Meskell's book explores the fundamental existential questions that not only preoccupied ancient Egyptians, but continue to fascinate people today. What is the essence of persons and things? How might we understand the situated experiences of material life, the constitution of the object world and its shaping of human experience? How might objects successfully mediate between worlds? In the final analysis, Meskell moves forward through time and examines the consumption and appreciation of these Egyptian material objects in the contemporary world. Materiality is our physical engagement with the world, our medium for inserting ourselves into the fabric of that world and our way of constituting and shaping culture in an embodied and external sense. From that perspective it is very much the domain of anthropology and archaeology.Drawing on a wide range of objects, artefacts, and artwork, from Valley of the Kings through to Las Vegas, Meskell provides an elegant analysis of the aesthetics of ancient Egyptian material culture and insights into some of its more intriguing mysteries, including our ongoing fascination.

Excerpt

We constantly drift between the object and its demystification, powerless to render its wholeness. For if we penetrate the object, we liberate it but we destroy it; and if we acknowledge its full weight, we respect it, but we restore it to a state which is still mystified.

Roland Barthes, Mythologies

In this book I engage with issues of materiality in a well-documented ancient context and demonstrate that archaeology can provide a sophisticated disciplinary medium for that worldly engagement. It is not a dialogue with the usual objects archaeologists have previously described to make their analogies, including favorite coffee mugs, madeleines, wedding rings or art works by Duchamp (e.g. Knappett 2002). These forms of cathexis, or the libidinal energy we invest in objects, are extremely personalized and subjective meditations that ultimately reflect little upon ancient experience. Potentially they collapse cultural difference and may even instantiate unhelpful distinctions around ancient and modern sophistication. Clearly, what we have lacked are substantive archaeological accounts of materiality in ancient contexts. There is a growing body of scholarship on materiality, produced in fields including anthropology, sociology, communication, and media studies (Schiffer 1999:4–5), much of which has yet to be translated productively into archaeology. Archaeologists have yet to deal with the implications of materiality, with the constitution of the material world in antiquity, although they have delved into contextual studies of material culture (Chilton 1999; Hodder 1989; Schiffer 1999). Semiotic approaches have also been popular as a strategy for reading archaeology as a textual enterprise (Bauer 2002; Hodder 1991; Preucel and Bauer 2001; Tilley 1990). Following a relatively independent French intellectual tradition Leroi-Gourhan (1993), Lemonnier (1992, 1993) and Latour (1991) pursued the material aspects of technology, interrogating the cultural . . .

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