Ancient Egyptian Art

I. Architecture

The early Egyptian builders used the materials closest to hand, mud and reeds, and as the climate was almost ralllless the early settlers needed only lean-to shelters to protect them against the wind U:I winter and the sun in summer. Thus wattle and daub, used even today in parts of Egypt for walls of yards and shelters in fields, was the basis of Egyptian architecture, and this material influenced all later buildings. Another example is the interlaced palm fronds of the lattice which when tied together formed a waving coping to the wall, producing a characteristic shape which, when translated into stone, became the frieze called kheker, to be seen in many of the royal and private tomb-chapels. Wood has always been scarce and the larger timber has always had to be imported. None of the very early buildings has survived but there is a contemporary clay model of a Naqada II house showing it to be of lattice and mud, and many representations of 1 Dyn. shrines made of the same material have been found at Abydos.

The latter, which seem to have been of a more open latticework pattern, formed the basis for the shrines of Upper and Lower Egypt, the national sanctuaries used throughout the historic period made in many different materials. Reeds proved too pliant to act satisfactorily as supports for later roofs even when coated with mud, and thus the question of suitable supports arose as soon as sizeable houses were constructed. The front of the porch of the houses needed columns which were made by tying together bundles of papyrus stems.

These have a triangular section, and. to form a column the Egyptians tied several together, lashing them with cord just below the heads. When these were later copied in stone, an unexpected result was that the architects duplicatedeverything, including the curve at the top where the original supported the roof: this was the capital. Below this were the lashings in five stylised bands. The base of the pillar bulged, emulating that in the original.

The use of the stone column in Egyptian architecture dates to the 3 Dyn., although some of the early columns were engaged. There are two main types of column, both of early origin. The first type, the square-sectioned pillar, probably derived from the supporting sections left in the limestone quarries, and was later used in temples and tombs. The second type of column derives from vegetable forms, such as tied bundles of papyrus or lotus and palm trunks. These are first found in papyrus form at Zozer's Step Pyramid Enclosure at ~aqqarah (Rte 25), though engaged, as the craftsmen had no idea of the tensile strength of limestone. At this site there are also polygonal ribbed and fluted columns, again engaged in pairs.

The first step towards turning the square pillar or column into the polygonal must have been the cutting off of the angles of the square pillars as seen at Deir al-Bal;lri in the 11 Dyn. Temple of Menthuhotpe (Rte 36). These, and the 12 Dyn. columns at Beni Hassan (Rte 31) and those of Hatshepsut's temple also at Deir al-Bal;lri, were called 'Proto-Doric' by Champollion. Many of the Egyptian columns fldo not taper upwards like the Greek, and they are not all fluted, many having flat facets. Probably

both Egyptian and Greek polygonal columns developed independently from the same prototype, the quarry support, but the former are over two thousand years earlier than the latter. The shaft of the plant column varied with the different form of plant model, which also produced characteristic capitals.

The papyrus column had the shaft marked with triangles, where it left the base, and a closed capital with the ridges of the original bundled plant form showing on the ribs; the lotus column had rounded stems and the capital could be either open or closed. The palm column had a plain shaft with a palm leaf capital. These were the classic forms of Egyptian column.

In the later Ptolemaic and Roman periods the composite type of column became common; derived from earlier columns but with many added plant forms, they became extremely complicated with as many as 21 different varieties having been noted.

The only type remaining practically unchanged was the palm column. Other types of column used for special purposes were those topped with a sistrum capital, or with a representation of the goddess Hathor, or the god Bes. The column was always furnished with either a rounded or square pedestal to the ground, the capitals were always capped with a simple square abacus which joined them to the architrave.

Although usually of stone, the columns could be of wood, as at al-cAmamah, and were decorated and painted in bright colours-red, blue, green and yellow. While the smaller earlier columns were made from stone monoliths, they were later sectioned with regularly shaped drums, keyed together, with wood, lead or copper.

Many of the joints can be seen today but the key material has been long since stolen. The Egyptians discovered that they could span spaces up to about 3m with limestone, but wider spans required granite. When they adopted building in sandstone in the New Kingdom, the weight it could bear was unknown and so they tended to make the buildings over-heavy and massive, with a greater danger of collapse than there had been earlier when using limestone and granite.

Because of this uncertainty Egyptian architects tended to use a forest of columns to support the roof. In the hypostyle hall at Karnak, for instance, there are 134 columns, the centre aisle being higher to allow for clerestory windows for light and ventilation. The architectural style of Ancient Egypt arose out of a desire to harmonise with the natural landscape, so that the flat roofed buildings appeared as if they grew out of the background. The arts of sculpture and wall painting developed as adjuncts of the builder's craft. There are two main kinds of architecture in Egypt, domestic and religious. Domestic Buildings.

The remains of domestic constructions are limited as the ancient towns lie in many cases beneath modem cities and have not been excavated; or else (where they are away from modem settlements, as in the Delta) they have been largely removed by the sabakkin who take soil from the ancient sites to spread on fields to act as fertiliser. It is possible, however, to reconstruct the appearance of Ancient Egyptian houses, as we have many illustrations in the tombs, partici.tlarly of the is Dyn. They were built of unbaked mud-brick and must have looked very like the village houses seen today.

The better class houses were set in gardens, of which the Egyptians were always very fond, with a pool of water surrounded by sycamore-fig or persea trees.

Houses were constructed of mud-brick because of its availability and because the Egyptians were not concerned with their permanency. This was also true of their palaces ~hich were made of the same material, as in the palaces of Amenhotep III at Malqatta on the West Bank at Thebes and Akhenaten at al-cAmarnah (Rte 32).

The palaces of the ancient world were more than the habitation of the king, they also encompassed vast storehouses where the goods in kind with which the royal retainers were paid-grain, oil, wine and dried fish-were kept. But though the walls were of mud-brick, rooms were large and decorated with painted walls, and domestic quarters were carefully separated from state apartments. Religious Buildings.

From the remotest historic period temples and tombs were built of stone, to last forever. From the earliest times there were two types of temple, the state temple erected to the principal god of the region, and the mortuary temple devoted to the worship of the dead king. In the Old and Middle Kingdom, the latter was attached to the king's pyramid, but in the New Kingdom it became divorced from the tomb, which was at that time cut into rock, and became a copy of the main state temple.

The original mortuary temples, as at Maydum (Rte 27) and Dahshur (Rte 26), were very simple structures of one or two rooms, joined to the valley temple by a causeway, but during ssed vast sthe 4-6 Dyns they developed an entry court, a main colonnaded court, store rooms, five niches for statues and a sanctuary. No two mortuary temples were exactly alike, but all were stone-built, with walls of limestone or granite, columns of granite, and floors of alabaster, with the windows set high in the walls.

By the New Kingdom the mortuary temples consisted, like the state temples, of one or more pylons, or ornamental •gateways, leading to colonnaded courtyards which in tum led to one or more hypostyled halls followed by vestibules and finally the sanctuary; the inner rooms were surrounded by store rooms or treasuries.

The most complete is at Edfu (Rte 37), though the most impressive hypostyle hall is that at Karnak (Rte 36). The Old and Middle Kingdoms used limestone as the main building material along with granite, the New Kingdom sandstone. The planning of each templ~alled pr-ntr (house of the god) or hwt-htr (castle of the god)-was divinely guided and was laid out by the king with the aid of the goddess Seshat.

The ground was carefully prepared and purified, and a large pit dug covered with fresh sand in which were placed the temple foundations. Scenes of the rituals concerned with the founding of the temple were usually shown in the hypostyle hall. Under the comers and at the doorways were placed foundation deposits consisting of faience and metal bricks, animal and bird offerings and metal tools.

Each temple was constructed so that the floors rose from the front to the sanctuary at the rear: thus each chamber had a ramp or steps at a slightly higher level than the one below. This was so that the sanctuary, theoretically built above one of the primaeval mounds that rose from the original flood, would be at the highest point of the building. To mark the difference between the sacred and the profane areas the sanctuary was isolated as though it was an independent building, a kind of box inside the main structure, with a roof and cavetto cornice distinct from the main roof. In the sanctuary stood the travelling boats of the deities in which they journeyed from temple to temple.

Many of the temples had crypts with beautifully carved walls, where much of the best regalia was kept. All temples must have had chapels on their roofs, but they now only survive in the late temples of Dendarah (Rte 34) and Philae (Rte 39) though Denderah was an early foundation whose original building goes back to the Predynastic period.

One of these roof chapels was connected with the 'Union with the Disk', when the statues of the gods worshipped were brought up on days such as the New Year Festival, and revitalised by being exposed to the rays of the sun. Other chapels on the roof were connected with the resurrection of Osiris.

All temples were surrounded by temenos walls of mud-brick or stone, and within the enclosure lived the priests. There was also a sacred lake or well, and numerous storerooms and there must also have been stabling for the animals. The slaughter court attached to the temple for the killing of the sacrifices was usually entered from the outside. Sculpture was an integral part of the temples. Statues of the kings were made, often of colossal size to stand inside or in a row at the entry.

These were thought to guard the entrance and to act as constant intercessors with the gods, as were sphinxes, usually with a human head on a lion's body (see Giza, Rte 23). Tombs. Originally the tombs were mere graves cut in the soil or in the sand on the desert escarpment.

However, as time went on the desire to preserve the body after death led to tombs of one or more chambers being constructed. The early royal tombs at ~aqqarah had substructures consisting of several chambers, with the burial chamber at the centre. This was surrounded by store rooms, in which have been found hundreds of stone and pottery vases.

They were roofed with timber beams and had a superstructure also consisting of several rooms filled with offerings. Both these and the similar cenotaph-like buildings at Abydos have been burnt, so that it is difficult to see what the full royal collections would have been. These tombs are now called mastabas (Ar. bench) from their similarity to the mud-brick seat found outside most Egyptian peasants' houses. By the 3 Dyn.

These mastaba tombs were used also for the burials of nobles and high officials, the superstructure built of stone instead of mud-brick, and the body placed in a chamber at the foot of a shaft leading down from either the courtyard, or from a room containing the false door which usually contained the name and titles of the deceased. Alternatively the upper class citizens could be buried in rock-cut tombs, as they were in the provinces; again the upper chamber, or chambers, served as a chapel, and the body was placed at the foot of a shaft leading down from one of these rooms.

The servants and officials of these nobles were later buried in shaft graves cut near to their masters. In the same way the king's officials and members of his family were buried round the king's pyramid. These were known as mastaba fields or pyramid cities, but they were really cities of the dead.

The pyramid was the logical development from the mastaba. The ease with which mastaba tombs were robbed prompted the kings to build larger and heavier structures which the tomb robbers would not be able to enter.

This trend had already started by the 2 Dyn. but the first stepped pyramid was not built at ~aqqarah until the 3 Dyn.; this was built to Zozer's order by the chief of works Imhotep and was the first building in Egypt to be constructed entirely in stone. In many ways it is unique, with a large enclosure, the walls representing 'the white walls of Memphis' recessed and buttressed like the facade of the earlier mud-brick mastabas. Within the enclosure was a mortuary temple, but no causeway has been found so that there may not have been a valley temple.

Beginning with a mastaba, Imhotep built a stepped pyramid with seven stages, standing at one end of the sacred enclosure. The bulk of the enclosure is empty but there are a large number of religious buildings to the east of Zozer's temple and a vast complex of underground passages terminating in a granite chamber which was the king's burial place. It took the Department of Antiquities three years to empty the underground galleries of the large number of stone vases. Many of the galleries and the 'Southern Tomb' are lined with blue faience tiles and the pyramid was laced with Lebanese cedar to strengthen it.

The best known pyramids are those at Giza, but between these and the Saqqarah Step Pyramid stretched a series of monuments, starting with the second unfinished Step Pyramid of Sekhemket, also of the 3 Dyn. and probably built by Zozer's son or brother (Rte 25). The last pyramid of this dynasty was that of Hu, who built a splendid monument on the edge of the desert at Maydfun (Rte 27). Snefru, first king of the 4 Dyn., built two stone pyramids at Dahshur, almost as impressive as those at Giza. However, nothing can compare with the size and impressiveness of the three pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkhaure, built on the desert edge at Giza. These were built with the aid of ramps, and the size of the stones had greatly increased Ofrom the small blocks used at Saqqarah.

Although stone continued to be used throughout the 5 and 6 Dyns the great period of pyramid building was over. Attempts had been made in these pyramids to defeat the tomb robbers by the use of portcullises, but without success. Equally unsuccessful was the use of supposedly impenetrable granite for the burial chamber. The rulers of the 11 Dyn. at Thebes used rock-cut tombs but those of the 12 Dyn. returned to the pyramid.

These were built at Lisht (Rte 27), Hawarah (Rte 29), Lahfrn (Rte 29) and Dahshiir (Rte 26) of brick, faced with stone. The outer casing of these has been robbed and the mud-brick core is in many cases very ruined. The tombs of the New Kingdom rulers were cut into the rock and extended sometimes for hundreds of metres into the limestone hillside, as in the Valley of the Kings (Rte 36) at Thebes.

These tombs were decorated with scenes from the 'Book of the Dead' or 'That which is in the Am-Duat' or the 'Book of the Gates' and the scenes were entirely concerned with the journey to t)he Afterworld.

The tomb-chapels of the nobles were also painted and decorated but in the 18 Dyn .. portrayed scenes of their everyday life. Funeral scenes were also included, but it was not until the 19-20 Dyns that the officials' tombs became almost entirely concerned with the Afterworld. The tombs of the workmen who were engaged on the royal tombs consisted of a small chapel with pyramid roof at the top of a shaft leading to one or more painted chambers.

Pyramids, which went out of fashion for royal burials after the 12 Dyn., were revived by the 25 Dyn. but, as these rulers came from Kush, these tombs were built not in Egypt proper, but in the Sudan at Napata. Very few royal burials after the 20 Dyn. have been discovered, except for a few built tombs at Tanis dating to the 21-22 Dyns (Rte 45).

This is because the capital was moved from Thebes to different Delta cities, and most of the royal tombs seem to have been destroyed. Fortresses. The earliest surviving fortress structures appear to be at Abydos and Korn Ahmar (Hierakonpolis). They were built of mudbrick, and have only survived because of the dry Egyptian climate.

The finest group of fortresses was in Nubia between the First and Second Cataracts, and in the Second Cataract region. These were built either on promontories overlooking the river, or on islands, and had every kind of defensive device, moats, glads, round towers with archery slits, drawbridges and ramps leading up to the ramparts for rapid movement. Inside they were laid out in an orderly manner, with roads and two- or three-roomed houses for the soldiers, and a slightly larger one for the commander.

There was usually a temple and store rooms, as these forts served a double purpose, protecting the frontiers and as trading posts. Unfortunately with the building of the new High Dam these unique 2 mill. BC structures have been destroyed, as there was no means of moving them. Architectural developments.

The Egyptians constructed flat-topped buildings not because they did not know of the arch or dome but from aesthetic preference. The entrances were u&sually crowned by a cavetto cornice surmounted by a flat band and this architectural device, so common in Egyptian temples and tombs, was even translated into small objects as many pectorals are of this form.

Although the vault and arch were used for house building, they were rarely employed for religious buildings, and this is one of the reasons that so few have survived. The arch was known from the 2 Dyn. and the corbelled vault from the 3 Dyn.; they are found within the pyramids of Hu at Maydiim (Rte 27) and Sneferu at Dahshiir (Rte 26).

The Egyptian architects evolved the rounded arch as early as the 3 Dyn. but it was never used where it could be seen externally. It was built of mud-brick, and was a true arch made by setting the voussoirs in their correct place, but the bricks were not shaped to fit, and the gaps between them filled with mud mortar. In stone a kind of false arch was used, as at the temple of Seti I at Abydos (Rte 36), where a flat block of stone was cut into an arch shape.

The corbelled arch is not known in ancient brickw,ork, but appears in stone by the 3 Dyn. Tombs were built in the desert where the ground was firm, but temples and dwelling houses were built on ground that was annually innundated, causing many problems to the Egyptian builders. The walls were built of moulded sun-dried mud-brick of standard size (different sizes denoting various periods), but not till Roman times did baked bricks occur in large numbers.

In building mud-brick walls the surface was usually made with a batter upon one side, so that the base was considerably wider than the top to counteract the movement of the ground. When the Egyptians started building in stone in the 3 Dyn. They copied this form, thus giving the later architecture its characteristic appearance.

They also counteracted the effects of ground water by building the walls in sections, without bonding them together, thus enabling them to rise and fall independently, as with the walls at Karnak. Another method was 'pan-bedding', with curved courses of bricks; walls of this type can be seen at Denderah (Rte 34). II.


Sculpture in the round evolved early in Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians were fortunate in that many of the rocks required for the raw material of their work were indigenous to the country. Thus limestone was available through a large part of the valley, diorite was obtainable in Nubia, while the best form of alabaster came from the Hatnub quarries near al-cAmamah, and red granite came from Aswan.

Once sculpture developed from the small statuette to the full-sized figure, it became part of architectural decoration. Statues were not regarded as an end in themselves but only as part of the whole and thus are found only in temples, or tombs serving a religious purpose. They were not meant to be seen close up, or in a good light and usually conform to the rectangular setting of the building for which they were designed.

The Colossi of Memnon (Rte 36) were never intended as free-standing figures, but to front the Temple of Amenhotep III, now completely destroyed. Because they were intended as architectural pieces on a scale that matches the landscape they are not dwarfed. Royal figures sculptured in the round are either solitary, usually walking, or seated with their hand on their knees, or paired with their wives, both seated, standing or kneeling and usually holding some offering.

Private statues that come mainly from tombs have certain forms that do not appear in the royal work, like the kneeling or seated scribe, and the family, father, mother and small children. Many of these in the Old Kingdom are of limestone, painted to represent life, or of wood.

There must have been many more wooden statues, but few have survived due to destruction by termites, which have also damaged many of those which have lasted. Colossal statues, although known from the Old Kingdom onwards, do not become common, until the New Kingdom, post-1575 BC. Composite statues are also common in the New Kingdom. As well as stone, wood and metal, usually copper, were used for life-size figures, but only fragments of most of this type remain.

An exception is the statue of Pepi I, 2332 BC, slightly more than life-size, now in the Cairo Museum. There is a certain amount of controversy as to whether Egyptian sculptures were portraits or not: some certainly were, but the royal ones in the 18 Dyn. were probably somewhat idealised. Ill.

Reliefs Llke sculpture, relief was also architectural in inspiration. In the Old Kingdom wall sculpture was usually in bas-relief, where the background is cut away. The figures were then worked up until the right amount of modelling had been achieved and finally painted. Several forms of sunken relief were also used, the outline and model cut as in raised relief but without lowering the background.

Thus only the highest parts of the modelled surface are on a level with the background, while the outline can be cut down to any depth, sometimes as much as 2-3cm. This was a much quicker operation than bas-relief and consequently cheaper, and outright sunken relief was used particularly for inscriptions ption is thfrom the Old Kingdom onwards. For instance, by convention the interior decoration of the hypostyle hall was done in bas-relief, the outside walls in sunken relief.

Under the New Kingdom nearly all Seti I's work was done in bas-relief, whereas that of his son Ramesses II was done in sunken relief. In the Old Kingdom sunken relief was used for the outer rooms of mastabas and for the inscriptions on the false doors, whereas bas-reliefs was used if possible for the chapel. All were intended to be painted, although this was not always done.

In the Old Kingdom most of the decoration was in relief, little of it merely painting, but in the Middle and New Kingdoms painting greatly increased. It was even quicker and cheaper than sunken relief and was used for ceilings and for the painted mats that decorated tombs from the 1 Dyn. onwards. Painting was never an art in itself, but always subordinate to sculpture and reliefs. IV. Painting Egyptian wall paintings are often described as frescoes but this gdtechnique was never used in Egypt and all paintings were executed on a dry surface.

The earliest paintings were made on mud-coated plaster, the later ones on gypsum or lime plaster. The colours used were all natural minerals, malachite for the greens, ochres or haematite for reds and yellows, white from gypsum, black from soot, and blue, a royal colour, from pounded lapis, faience or carbonate of copper. Sometimes egg white was used as a bond. Much more work needs to be done analysing the colours and methods used.

In drawing, the first sketch -was made in red by the master craftsman, corrections were shown in black, and the Egyptians early became masters of the straight line. Corrections were difficult to hide: they could be cut away or plastered over and painted, but sometimes the plaster has fallen away and the original mistakes exposed: these are clearly seen in several scenes shown on the walls of Madinat Habu (Rte 36).

Although the Egyptians squared out the walls of the temples and tombs they were about ue was neveto decorate, they had considerable difficulty in representing the human form. There was little true perspective, although it does occur in isolated instances,. as at alcAmarnah in the painting of the two princesses, and in the temple of Seti I at Abydos.

Distances were shown by representing the scene in registers, the desert at the top, the main scenes in the middle, and the river at the bottom. The craftsmen drew from memory and human figures were almost invariably represented with the face in profile, very few figures are ever shown full face, but they had much more success with animals and plants. Although the names of many of the Egyptian architects are known, the same is not true for the artistcraftsmen who adorned the temples and tombs. CANON. A canon of proportion was followed by the Egyptians which varied slightly at different periods.

The measurements were never taken to the top of the head, but from the hairline, or where the headdress began: on the upright standing or walking male figure this was the standard. In the Old Kingdom it was 9 units from the head to the foot, calculated as follows: hair to shoulder 1 unit, shoulder to the hem of kilt 5 units, hem of kilt to ground 3 units. In many of the tombs where the paintings are unfinished the squared background can be observed.

Thus in the Tomb-Chapel of Ukht-hetep at Meir there are 18 squares from the edge of the hair to the foot. The Middle Kingdom figures are not so squat as those of the Old Kingdom but in the New Kingdom there is a return to the 9-unit form with an extra half unit for the upper part of the head. At al-cAmamah the proportions are slightly different as the head is much larger than the standard one ninth of the body. In the 26 Dyn. the canon changed from 18 to 21 squares, the head occupying just over two squares and thus being smaller in proportion. COSTUME.

There is considerable variety in the headdresses and kilts of the various periods, so that even without an inscription, usually on the back pillar and the base, it is quite easy to make ascriptions to the correct period. In the Old Kingdom wigs were usually tightly curled close to the head, or parted in the middle and worn shoulder length, while kilts were of a plain and simple design. Women wore plain long skirts with two straps over the shoulders.

In the Middle Kingdom the design of the knotting on the wig changed, and although shoulder length hair was still worn the proportions were not the same as the Old Kingdom. In the New Kingdom hair styles became much more elaborate, lotus buds and flowers were often worn in the hair, and the kilts became loRger and more closely pleated.nThe kings wore a great variety of headdresses. The most usual was the nemes head cloth, a blue and white striped linen covering with lapetts.

These are even in the Old Kingdom, irregular in the Middle Kingdom, and on seated figures from the latter are unstriped. In the New Kingdom many headdresses were worn, including the blue war helmet or crown (khepresh) Q and the royal head-cloth (afnet).

The main crowns were the white crown (hedet) of Upper Egypt tJ , the red crown (desret) of Lower Egpyt 'ef, and the two combined to form the double crown (shemti; Gk pschent) 'f'! .

The gods also wore crowns such as the atef crown of Osiris, which consisted of the white crown, two ostrich plumes and a sun disk on top. Towards the end of the period under the Ptolemies the numbers of crowns increased very greatly and the divine and the royal ones became hopelessly mixed up. V. Stone Vases Because stone vases were so much used in Egypt, the hieroglyphic sign for workman was the craftsman making them. Vases occur in large numbers from Predynastic times onwards. Under the 1 Dyn., as well as the softer limestones and alabasters, a large number of very hard stones were used, including porphyry, red breccia, marble, basalt, diorite, granite, syenite and serpentine, and even quartz.

Later in the Dynastic period use of some of these very hard stones, such as porphyry, was abandoned and did not come into fashion again until the Roman period. Most of the vases were in simple bold shapes and were made with the bow-drill. In some of the tombs models of vases made of wood, but painted to represent stone, have been found. VI. Pottery Unlike that of Greece, Egyptian pottery never developed into a fine art.

The best vases are to be found in the Predynastic period, where the forms are sufficiently distinct to serve as criteria for the change of period, as between Naqada I and Naqada II. In Dynastic Egypt all the pottery tends to be of brown or red fabric with little stylistic variation except for some fine painted pieces in the late 18 Dyn.

Even in the Hellenistic period the Egyptians did not move entirely into the main-stream of Greek pottery design. During both the Ptolemaic and Roman periods the bulk of the wares was locally produced, although there were some red-figured imported pots and a vast number of hellenistic jar stamps, originating from the Greek islands which exported their wines to Egypt; in fact more have come to light here than elsewhere in the Greek world.


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