British Museum blog

The sands of time: ancient Egypt and early film

Bryony Dixon, curator of silent film, British Film Institute

From Cairo to the Pyramids ( Pathé, 1905).

From Cairo to the Pyramids ( Pathé, 1905).

The British Museum’s new exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries uses the latest imaging technology to help us understand the realities of life and death in ancient Egypt. We have all seen computer-generated images of mummies brought to life in film and TV, for example in The Mummy film franchise that produced 6 films between 1998 and 2012. But if we go back to the late 19th and early 20th century, the Museum visitor would have had a similar preparation. When cinema was born in the 1890s, audiences that came to see the latest novelty would already have been thoroughly familiar with images of ancient Egypt after a century of Egyptomania – Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798, high profile excavations, public mummy unwrappings and Champollion’s well publicised decipherment of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone in the 1820s.

Illustrations of pyramids and tombs littered the illustrated press, and mummies and other artefacts displayed in museums all meant that the iconography of ancient Egypt was instantly recognisable, just as it is today. Elements such as palm trees, sphinxes, hieroglyphs, lotus flowers, the eye of Horus, feathered fans, camels and papyrus scrolls were endlessly recycled for interior décor and stage and film sets. The imagery is very adaptable and very reducible. A simple backdrop of sand, a pyramid and a palm tree and there you are! In the 1890s, ancient Egypt was a source of fascination across the Western world, but particularly in the United States, which adopted it to represent a continuity between ancient civilisation and the emerging status as a superpower: Egypt was preferable to the iconography of ancient Greece and Rome as it neatly side-stepped the legacy of the later civilisations of Europe; the USA wanted something new and unfamiliar, and so ancient Egypt rather ironically becomes associated with modernism. The Western Electric Company built an Egyptian Temple display, complete with glowing electric lights at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, complete with telephone exchange operated by scantily clad Egyptian maids, and a group of men of the same period laying telegraph lines. Ancient Egyptians seem to have been blessed (or cursed) with the power of time travel for hundreds of years. In England, the connection between ancient Egypt and early film is neatly encapsulated in the fact that the first building in England to be influenced by the Egyptian style – the legendary Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly (completed 1812, demolished 1905) – was the site of the public showings of some of the earliest films.

Not only a decorative scheme, ancient Egypt was packed full of stories with great potential for literature and the screen: Bible stories about pharaohs and Exodus, but particularly queenly power, such as the figure of Cleopatra incorporating the exotic, the erotic, and a certain level of allowable nudity. Other narratives had a horror element: talented architects (such as Imhotep) who end up walled up inside tombs, over-mighty kings, slaves, obsession with death and the afterlife (reserved for the powerful), mummification and reincarnation. A recurring theme is one of magic and transformation – mummies come alive, they turn into other things, scarabs and jewels of Egyptian princesses are cursed and change people or carry people across time. Cinema’s unique property is the ability to show these transformations and visualise stories of past civilisations as if they were really happening.

As ancient Egypt was discovered through its archaeological remains, so the stories we have are very focused on architecture and particularly the architecture of death, which lends itself well to film adaptation. Film’s ability to revivify scenes lost in time, both past and future, can re-people an environment that is generally speaking one of dessiccation. Ancient Egypt is the furthest great civilisation that 19th-century man could get back to in historical terms – the point where history met myth. The bleak romance of those cold sands of time – in which a man’s footprint makes an impression that is instantly obliterated by the wind – lent a gravitas to stories which could be exploited by popular culture including film echoing the pharaohs themselves, who left no linear history of their civilisation, just an endless succession of repeated histories, each king trying to destroy the past of his immediate predecessor. Only with the supreme effort of an over-mighty ruler with thousands of slaves could some permanent impression on the landscape be made.

Statue of Ramesses II, the 'Younger Memnon'. The head inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write Ozymandias: ... My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

Statue of Ramesses II, the ‘Younger Memnon’. The head inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write Ozymandias:
… My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

That grandeur and melancholy about Egypt that we find in Shelley’s Ozymandias lends a gravitas to films set in Egypt, as it plays on our long-term preoccupation with our origins, the rise and fall of civilisations, and the fear that everything we hold dear will one day be dust. This epic quality is probably only equalled by stories set in the distant future, in space.

The reason that ancient Egypt is endlessly recycled through film, starting from these earliest examples, is that it plays to the strengths of cinema itself; the bringing closer of the real landscape seen in travelogues and newsreel report and cinema’s greatest magic trick, rendering the familiar stories through the instantly recognisable iconography and visualising the romanticised past.


The British Film Institute (BFI) exists to promote greater understanding and appreciation of, and access to, film and moving image culture in the UK.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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