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

Filed under: Ancient lives: new discoveries, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 16,352 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Concluding our short series of gold objects from the Museum’s collection is this group of items found in the Fishpool hoard. The hoard was buried in Nottinghamshire sometime during the War of the Roses (1455–1485), and contains some outstanding pieces of jewellery. 1,237 objects were found in this hoard in total. At the time it was deposited, its value would have been around £400, which is around £300,000 in today’s money! The variety of this collection of objects includes brilliant examples of fine craftsmanship. The turquoise ring in the centre was highly valued as it was believed that turquoise would protect the wearer from poisoning, drowning or falling off a horse.
#hoard #gold #jewellery #turquoise #treasure Continuing our exploration of the golden objects in the Museum, this amazing inlaid plaque is from 15th-century China. Lined with semi-precious stones, this piece would have formed part of a pair sewn into a robe. We can tell this belonged to an emperor of the Ming dynasty because only he would have been allowed to use items decorated with five-clawed dragons.
#Ming #gold #jewellery #China #BritishMuseum Our next trio of objects shows off some of the shimmering gold in the Museum’s collection. This stunning piece of jewellery comes from Egypt and was made around 600 BC. It was worn across the chest – this type of accessory is known as a ‘pectoral’. Popular throughout ancient Egypt, pectorals have been found from as early as 2600 BC. This example is made from gold and is inlaid with glass, showcasing the incredible level of craftsmanship in Egypt at the time, and asserting the status of the wearer. Falcons were important symbols in ancient Egypt – the god Horus took the form of a falcon.
#AncientEgypt #gold #jewellery #BritishMuseum In 1991, BMW invited South African artist Esther Mahlangu to make a work of art in their Art Car project to mark the end of apartheid. Her work, with its brightly coloured geometric shapes, draws on the traditional house-painting designs of Ndebele people in South Africa. Under apartheid the Ndebele were forced to live in ethnically defined rural reserves – their designs are an expression of cultural identity, and can be read as a form of protest against racial segregation and marginalisation.

See this incredible Art Car as part of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, which opens 27 October 2016. You can book your tickets now by following the link in our bio.

Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), detail of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives.
#SouthAfrica #history #art #design Mapungubwe was the capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa from AD 1220 to 1290. This gold rhinoceros, alongside four other gold sculptures, was discovered in three royal graves there. They are among the most significant sculptures in Africa today. They depict animals of high status – an ox, a wild cat, and a rhinoceros – and also objects associated with power – a sceptre and a bowl or crown. These treasures were discovered alongside hundreds of gold objects, including bracelets and beads. Gold was mined in the regions around Mapungubwe for trade with the coast, as part of an international trade network stretching as far as China, becoming a status symbol for the kingdom’s rulers.

On loan from the University of Pretoria @upmuseums, these gold treasures will be a highlight of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, opening 27 October 2016. Find out more about the exhibition by following the link in our bio.
#SouthAfrica #rhino #art #history Our special exhibition this autumn will explore the fascinating history of South Africa through art, telling a story that stretches back 100,000 years.

Rock art is one of South Africa’s oldest artistic traditions. It was first made by the ancestors of San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, South Africa’s first peoples, at least 30,000 years ago.

This rock painting will feature in the exhibition. It depicts San|Bushmen running between eland, a type of antelope that is spiritually important. Hunter-gatherer rock paintings such as this are understood to relate to a ritual practice named ‘the great healing’ or ‘trance dance’, which continues today in the Kalahari outside of South Africa. 
The paintings address the relationship between healers, or shamans, and the worlds of the living and the dead. In the painting some eland are bleeding from the nose and frothing at the mouth. Eland do this when they are close to death, and shamans show similar symptoms when they are metaphorically ‘dying’ and entering the world of the dead during the great trance dance.

Find out more about our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition by clicking on the link in our bio.

The Zaamenkomst Panel. Detail of rock art depicting San|Bushmen running between eland. Made before 1900. On loan from Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections and SARADA. Photo: Neil Rusch.
#rockart #SouthAfrica #painting
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 16,352 other followers

%d bloggers like this: