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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Here’s a great close-up of Esther Mahlangu’s BMW Art Car by @rosh.thanki. It really emphasises the strong geometric lines that characterise Ndebele patterns. Mahlangu used traditional house-painting designs of the Ndebele people from South Africa to decorate the car. The patterns can be said to be an expression of cultural identity despite marginalisation and the car was painted in 1991 to mark the end of apartheid. You can see Mahlangu’s signature in the yellow part of the bumper.
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This stunning car is part of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition which has just opened! You can book your tickets by following the link in our bio. 
Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), detail of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives. 
#BMW #ArtCar #Ndebele #SouthAfrica #geometric #pattern #BritishMuseum #regram ‘Colour is important in South Africa – we make it important. Colour places you, colour tells where you are within the geography of South Africa. And when I thought of colour, I realised that I cannot ignore the incident that happened in 1989.’ Mary Sibande

This 2013 work is called ‘A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (The Purple Shall Govern)’. Sibande cast these figures from her body. The one in Victorian dress, called Sophie, refers to her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who were maids in white South African households. The second figure, in purple, represents Sibande herself.

The Purple Shall Govern relates to the statement ‘the people shall govern’, from the 1955 Freedom Charter and post-apartheid constitution. It also refers to the Purple Rain Protests of 1989, when protesters captured the police water cannon being used to spray them with purple dye and turned it on their assailants. Over the following days the slogan ‘the purple shall govern’ was painted on walls around Cape Town. Although a tension remains, Sibande is saying goodbye to Sophie, her past, and confronting the ‘purple’ present and future.

See this incredible work in our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, which is now open! (See the link in our bio for tickets)

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Mary Sibande (b. 1982), A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (The Purple Shall Govern). Mixed media, 2013. © Mary Sibande. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery MOMO. 
#modernart #MarySibande #purple #SouthAfrica #BritishMuseum #exhibition Here @edoardofanfani captures the youthful look and friendly expression of this statue of Amenhotep III. The colossal limestone statue originally stood with hundreds of others in the temple of Amenhotep III, which was on the west bank of the River Nile near the ancient city of Thebes. 
Statues depicting the pharaoh often show him with his eyes appearing to look down on the viewer, and a slight smile emerging from his lips. He is wearing heavy makeup, with sweeping eyeliner that nearly touches the temples, and stylised eyebrows. Share your photos with us using #myBritishMuseum 
#AncientEgypt #Sculpture #Statue #Pharaoh #Egypt #eyebrowsonfleek This great photo by @comertcomi shows one of ancient Egypt’s most highly respected animals. Cats were associated with the goddess Bastet and she is often represented as a domestic cat. This statue is a particularly fine example, with gold rings and silver decoration. The collar also contains a silver wedjat-eye and sun-disk which are protective symbols. It also has a scarab on its head – scarabs were associated with rebirth in ancient Egypt. The eyes were perhaps originally inlaid with glass or stones. 
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#AncientEgypt #Sculpture #Statue #Cat #Egypt #🐱 #catsofinstagram #regram #repost This week we’re focusing on Egyptian statues and sculpture at the Museum. This great shot by @sisterofpopculture shows the majestic statue of Ramesses II. Made of pink and grey granite, the sculptor has skilfully used the natural colours in the stone to suggest the difference between the face and body. 
This colossal statue was originally part of a pair that stood outside the Ramesseum (the pharaoh’s huge memorial temple). He is also known as ‘Ramesses the Great’ – he ruled for 66 years and his influence reached to the furthest corners of the realm. 
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#AncientEgypt #Sculpture #Statue #Pharaoh #Egypt #regram Opening in March 2017, our #AmericanDream exhibition presents the Museum’s outstanding collection of modern and contemporary American prints for the first time. These will be shown with important works from museums and private collections around the world.

From Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to Ed Ruscha, Kara Walker and Julie Mehretu – all boldly experimented with printmaking.  With over 200 works by almost 70 artists, trace the creative momentum of a superpower across six decades. Click the link in our bio to book your tickets now! 
Edward Ruscha (b. 1937), Made in California. Colour lithograph, 1971. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist.
#print #printmaking #art #🇺🇸
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