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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Amara West excavations 2013: expecting the unexpected and a ‘Howard Carter moment’

The 'Howard Carter moment'. Physical anthropologist, Michaela Binder gets a first peak into the  chamber(s) of Grave 244Neal Spencer, British Museum

The latest excavation season at Amara West in Sudan began three weeks ago, with a wide range of excavations and associated research excavations taking place in this 3,000-year old ancient Egyptian town on the banks of the Nile.

Amidst the chilly 6.30am starts, logistical challenges, strong winds, plagues of biting nimiti-flies (and one crocodile sighting), we’ve been posting daily updates on our work – in the town, cemetery and research at the expedition house – on the project blog with more updates on Twitter: @NealSpencer_BM.

Sandpit: workmen seeking the south part of building D12.5

Sandpit: workmen seeking the south part of building D12.5

A desirable residence?

The full plan of house E13.5 was revealed in a matter of days, but the real surprise was the presence of stone doorways throughout the house, three of which were built re-using inscribed architecture from an earlier phase, including one doorjamb naming an official, Horhotep.

A five-chambered tomb discovered

The 'Howard Carter moment'. Physical anthropologist, Michaela Binder gets a first peak into the  chamber(s) of Grave 244

The ‘Howard Carter moment’. Physical anthropologist,
Michaela Binder gets a first peak into the chamber(s)
of Grave 244

Earlier this week, Michaela Binder had one of those moments that, as she put it, reminded her “that this can be the best occupation in the world”.

Removing sand from the top of a grave shaft, discovering a small opening, then another and more digging until the flash of a torch reveals five chambers in the largest tomb yet to be found at Amara West.

Read more about the discovery of a five-chambered tomb, by Michaela Binder, physical anthropologist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Initial discoveries in the eastern burial chamber of G243

Two beer jars and a plate in the north-western corner of a chamber burial

Two beer jars and a plate in the north-western corner of a chamber burial

Having discovered a new chamber tomb, Barbara Chauvet set about the task of excavating it to reveal, and record its contents. Read about initial discoveries in the eastern burial chamber of G243.

Fertility figurines and ancient architecture re-used

Clay fertility figurine (F2284) found in villa D12.5

Clay fertility figurine (F2284) found in villa D12.5

Among the hundreds of objects revealed in excavation (and thousands and thousands of pottery sherds), a fragment of a female figurine offers a glimpse into the beliefs and concerns of the town’s inhabitants. Modelled in clay, and sometimes referred to as “concubines of the dead”, fertility figures are thought to relate to conception, rebirth or sexuality, as explained by Marie Vandenbeusch, our finds registrar.

The discovery of a door lintel inscribed for Ramses II, re-used as a shelf in a modern Nubian house, was one of the more unusual ways an object comes to light.

Ash, ovens … and faience?

Brushing back the surface to reveal ancient ovens

Brushing back the surface to reveal ancient ovens

While villa D12.5 is slow to reveal its secrets, outside house E13.5 we have discovered a room provided with six large bread ovens and grinding emplacements, now being excavated by Shadia Abdu Rabo from the Sudan National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums.

Further north, in an area we did not plan to excavate, Sarah Doherty is excavating a building (E13.16) that might be a house or a bakery, along with interesting finds, from hieratic ostraca to a well-preserved necklace. The last few days have seen an earlier phase emerge, with large ceramic ovens surrounded by waste that might relate to faience production.

Looking forward

It already feels like the end of the season is approaching too fast. With so much more work to be done, our days will become longer and longer: we’re re-organising our object storeroom, hoping to reveal the full plan of villa D12.5, wondering if the five-chamber tomb can be fully excavated this season, and about to commence detailed micromorphological sampling of floor layers.

Two new programmes of research will also start: Susie Green (UCL) will be joining us to capture 3D visualisations of the housing neighbourhood (E13.3), while Alexandra Winkels (University of Fribourg) will be investigating the technology of ancient wall-plastering in the houses.

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Find out more about the Amara West research project
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Opening up an ancient Egyptian library


Richard Parkinson, curator, British Museum

For many years before joining the British Museum as a curator in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, my life was tied up with the so-called ‘Ramesseum papyri’: a library of ancient Egyptian papyri that were discovered in 1895-6 under the temple of Ramses II, now known as the ‘Ramesseum’. As a school boy I had bought Alan Gardiner’s 1955 partial publication of some of the papyri and my doctorate was a commentary on one of the poems preserved in them, The Eloquent Peasant.

With Mme Nelson examining new finds from her excavations at the site of the Ramesseum in 2006

With Mme Nelson examining new finds from her excavations at the site of the Ramesseum in 2006

The 24 papyri are an almost unique surviving example of an ancient Egyptian library that was buried in its owner’s tomb around 1680 BC, but although some of them have been much studied they are extraordinarily fragmentary and fragile. Over the years, Bridget Leach, the Museum’s papyrus conservator, and I have helped many students and scholars examine them, and every time we have worried about their extreme fragility. And so we were eager to have a full visual record made in high resolution colour, so that the papyri could also be studied remotely without being disturbed too often, as well as enabling a global audience to access them. Nothing can substitute for working on an original manuscript, of course, and this will continue, but a good visual record allows much of the preliminary work to be done virtually, before a final collation with the actual fragile originals.

The British Museum’s Online research catalogue format offered a marvellous tool for this visual presentation, especially as it is linked to the collections database with its descriptions and bibliographies. Unlike a print catalogue it is continually updatable (and it needs to be: in May I am in Geneva to examine a new doctoral thesis by Pierre Meyrat on the previously untranslated magical texts in the library). Many of the fragments have not been fully published, some have never been published in photographs before, so this format will open up the library for study – as a whole and for the first time in its modern history.

Lisa Baylis photographing the papyri in Berlin in 2007

Lisa Baylis photographing the papyri in Berlin in 2007

Most satisfyingly for me, the catalogue includes all of the papyri. Two of the most important manuscripts are now in the great Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection in Berlin (including the poem of my doctorate). Thanks to their immensely kind collaboration, I was there with Lisa Baylis, a British Museum photographer, in 2007, and these two papyri now sit together with the London papyri in this new virtual version of the ancient library. The excavator had distributed the objects that he found with the papyri to the various institutions that had funded him, and they are now in Manchester, Cambridge and Philadelphia, but the catalogue has links to these items in their various institutions, and so reunites not only the papyri but the whole surviving tomb-group.

Underlying the project is the sad and rather irritating fact that Egyptologists often study texts away from their material context – both their physical reality as manuscripts and their archaeological findspot – and I hope that the catalogue will help change this and encourage a more grounded and theoretically informed approach in line with the so-called ‘Material philology’ school of textual studies. But my dominant memory of the whole enterprise is simpler: the sheer fun and overwhelming kindness I’ve encountered with so many helpful friends, students and colleagues in Britain, France, Germany, America and Egypt, who all have helped us get to this point in a common project.

But this is only a beginning, simply one step in encouraging people to start re-reading these texts that have miraculously survived (only just!) from 1680 BC.

Find out more about the Ramesseum papyri project and read the catalogue

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Amara West 2012: excavating one last tomb


Mohamed Saad, Inspector, National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums, Sudan and Amara West Field School participant

I spent the end of the season excavating a chamber tomb, Grave 319. The tomb features a two metre-wide burial chamber on the western side of a shaft cut into the alluvial surface; no above ground architecture is preserved.

A moment of contemplation: Mohamed recording G319

A moment of contemplation: Mohamed recording G319

On the east side, we found the top of a doorway to another chamber, but this proved to be only 10 cm deep – for some reason plans to cut an eastern chamber were never completed. Some very large schist slabs found lying in the shaft must once have covered the grave.

Glazed steatite scarab (F8365)

Glazed steatite scarab (F8365)

As often at Amara West, these heavy stones did not protect this grave from looting in ancient times. Nevertheless, we recovered the skeletal remains of four individuals within the sandy deposit inside the western chamber.

Remnants of the funerary equipment buried with the deceased individuals indicated the range of original burial goods: pieces of wood and painted plaster (showing at least one individual was buried in a decorated coffin), ostrich egg shell, an Egyptian-style beer jar and a fragment of a wooden headrest.

Standing out among this material was the bright blue of a glazed scarab, bearing the inscription: ‘Ramesses, beloved of Amun-Ra and Ra-Horakhty, born of the gods, who founded the Two Lands’.

While this inscription mentions Ramesses II, the scarab might have been made after his long reign. Furthermore, we will never know which of the four individuals was buried with the scarab.

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Amara West 2012: meanwhile, back at the house….


Elisabeth Greifenstein, University of Wuerzburg and Marie Vandenbeusch, University of Geneva

Our team of archaeologists and osteologists excavating in the houses and graves of Amara West unearth a wide variety of finds – nearly all of which are brought back to the expedition house on the afternoon of discovery, even when very heavy

What then happens with all these objects?

The expedition house is very busy during the day. Marie Vandenbeusch registers the finds and is responsible for their storage in the magazine; Elisabeth draws pottery and objects, while Marie Millet is responsible for the ceramics, helped by Sallah who washes the masses of incoming sherds. Sallah, who lives nearby on the island of Ernetta, is also being trained to sieve botanical samples, which will provide insights into the food that the town’s inhabitants were eating.

Sandstone doorjamb (F990) with badly eroded hieroglyphs

Sandstone doorjamb (F990) with badly eroded hieroglyphs

All this work is providing us with a better understanding of the settlement of Amara West, and helps us date and interpret the buildings, features and objects we encounter.

For example, Elisabeth’s drawings have helped confirm the reading of the royal name at the end of the eroded inscription on a sandstone doorjamb (F990) found exposed on the surface east of the town wall. The signs written in the cartouche were not readable until seen in a variety of different lights, but also with a torch during the dark hours of the early morning. We are now confident it bears the name of Ramesses II. The jamb is likely to come from the town’s temple, or perhaps a smaller chapel, but could have been re-used in a house.

 

The anticipation builds as the excavators return to the house at around 2.30pm each day…

Find out more about the Amara West research project

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Born #onthisday in 1486: Arthur Tudor, brother of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon's first husband #art #history #tudor 600 years ago #onthisday in 1414, the Sultan of Bengal sent a giraffe as tribute to the Yongle emperor of China. The animal arrived at the Ming court to great acclaim and was thoroughly documented in words and images, like in this hanging scroll from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Many exotic animals were sent as tribute to the Ming court from lands visited by the imperial fleet and its admiral Zheng He.

You can see this hanging scroll and much more of China’s amazing craftsmanship from the period in our new exhibition #Ming50Years, until 5 Jan 2015.
#china #art #scroll #giraffe Born #onthisday in 1867: Arthur Rackham. Here's his illustration to A Midsummer Night's Dream #art #illustration #shakespeare It's #TalkLikeAPirateDay so here's R take on it... Our new exhibition #Ming50Years is now open! Discover 50 years that changed China #china #history #art #exhibition Just 2 days until #Ming50Years opens! Here's one of the beautiful highlight objects.

Gilded bronze figure of Śākyamuni, the historical Buddha. Nanjing, China, Ming dynasty, Yongle mark and period, 1403–1424.
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