At the weekend, we went to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to see the touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt. The exhibition contains a range of objects from the British Museum, and is arranged by themes which seem to lend themselves to an easy understanding of the tombs of the Pharaohs, and what their contents tell us about their lives. Perhaps if you know a lot about the subject, the notices might be unnecessary, but I know very little about ancient Egypt so was glad to be told what the artefacts were, and their sociological significance.
The exhibition makes it clear that the Pharaohs were seen as ‘gods on earth’, an idea perpetuated by works of art, carvings and sculptures etc, which depict the Pharaohs as gods. This reinforced their right to rule – literally a ‘divine right of kings’ – and elevated their status, and, while ruling Egypt was a difficult job, they clearly lived lives of considerable luxury. Much of what we know of ancient Egypt has been derived from the excavation of tombs (and obviously you had to be pretty important to have an impressive tomb), so most of the artefacts come from these tombs: scarab beetles, associated with a sun-god, Khepri, representing constant birth and rebirth; and shabti, or ‘answerers’, tiny figures who were kind of servants in the afterlife; the little amulets, or charms, worn by the living and the dead for luck. These small, beautifully carved objects are fascinating in their craftsmanship, and it’s amazing to have the opportunity to look close-up at something so old, and so exotic – so removed from our own culture.
And yet, the exhibition made me think that there are a few obvious parallels to be drawn with our own culture: the way in which the fashions and traditions of the monarchs are copied by those further down the social scale; the obsession with ceremony and ritual, with clothing and appearance, as well as complex administration systems and corrupt officials. Yet overall, it remains so exotic, so removed from us, that it is doubly fascinating to see these objects. I found particularly appealing a small statue of Senenmut, an official, holding Princess Neferure, the daughter of Pharaoh Tuthmosis II and Hatshepsut. There’s something quite touching about the way the small figure seems to grow out of the larger one, which makes one wonder why he was sculpted holding her, if he had some particular fondness for the child.
The Egyptian belief in the afterlife is evident, but also the extent to which the Egyptians believed that the next world operated in a similar way to this one: there are ‘mummy sandals’ in the exhibition, ready for the deceased to wear in the next life. Especially revealing are the stela, or memorial stones, which commemorate the dead and tell us so much about the deceased. Perhaps the two objects which seemed to attract most attention when I was there was an impressive, painted mummy case or coffin, which is exactly the kind of thing one expects to see at such an exhibition, and a tomb guardian – a wooden statue of Pharaoh Ramses I (1295-94 BC), now black with bitumen but once covered in gold leaf and precious stones. I was impressed, slightly scared, and convinced that he looked like Darth Vader without his cape on.