Ancient Egypt: c. 3100 – 30 B.C.E.

Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for more than 3000 years and showed an incredible amount of continuity. This consistency was closely related to a fundamental belief that depictions had an impact beyond the image itself. For example, tomb scenes of the deceased receiving food, or temple scenes of the king performing perfect rituals for the gods, were functionally causing those things to occur in the divine realm. Egypt’s impact on later cultures was immense. You could say that Egypt provided the building blocks for Greek and Roman culture, and, through them, influenced all of the Western tradition. Today, Egyptian imagery, concepts, and perspectives are found everywhere; you will find them in architectural forms, on money, and in our day to day lives.

When we think of the language of ancient Egypt, the first thing that springs to mind is hieroglyphs carved on temple and tomb walls, yet this could not be further from the truth.

Multilingualism along the Nile

Mummy portrait of a woman, c. 55-70 C.E., 41.6 x 21.5 cm, Hawara, Egypt © Trustees of the British Museum
Ancient Egyptians made little use of naturalistic portraits, but this changed following capture by Rome.

Egyptian mummy portraits

Portrait of the Boy Eutyches (Faiyum)
These mummy portraits are unlike anything from ancient Egypt, combining Roman naturalism with Egyptian function.

Faiyum mummy portraits

The Rosetta Stone, 196 B.C.E., Ptolemaic Period, 112.3 x 75.7 x 28.4 cm, Egypt © Trustees of the British Museum.
The key to ancient Egyptian language, the Rosetta Stone allowed scholars to unlock the secret of hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone

The mummification process
To prepare a body for the afterlife, ancient Egyptians removed organs, dried the body, wrapped it, and more.

The mummification process

Standing Hippopotamus, ca. 1961–1878 B.C.E., Egypt, Middle Kingdom, faience, 7 7/8″ x 2 15/16″ x 4 7/16″ / 20 cm x 7.5 cm x 11.2 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
This hippopotamus, found in a tomb, carries symbols of life and death, regeneration and chaos—why was it broken?

Standing Hippopotamus

Portrait Head of Queen Tiye with a Crown of Two Feathers, c. 1355 B.C.E., Amarna Period, Dynasty 18, New Kingdom, Egypt, yew wood, lapis lazuli, silver, gold, faience, 22.5 cm high (Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection at the Neues Museum, Berlin)
Tiye was a powerful figure, but her royal life was complicated, as demonstrated through this changing statue.

Portrait Head of Queen Tiye

Seated Scribe​, c. 2620-2500 B.C.E., c. 4th Dynasty, Old Kingdom, painted limestone with rock crystal, magnesite, and copper/arsenic inlay for the eyes and wood for the nipples, found in Saqqara
Seated cross-legged, with rolls of belly fat, this painted statue differs from the ideal statues of pharaohs.

The Seated Scribe