Written by Tom | 1st May 2020
The recent world-tour of Tutankamun’s treasures has sparked global interest and revived our interest in the lives of the Pharaohs. Why exactly are we still so fascinated by the ancient Egyptians? We asked our Ancient Art and Archaeology expert, Peter Reynaers, to help us investigate.
Peter: One of the many reasons the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb was so important is that it was mostly intact, compared to other tombs, which were frequently looted. Howard Carter made sure to photograph and note the precise place of every object in the tomb. Carter created a complete inventory; including everything from the golden mask to the baskets that held grain to sustain the dead king in his afterlife. Tutankhamun, for a while, was only known by some minor objects. When Carter opened up the tomb, he revived the memory of a lost pharaoh from one of Egypt’s most prosperous times.
Peter: Tutankhamun was the son of the so-called "heretic" pharaoh Akhenaton and his successors actually attempted to erase him from history. All of Tutankhamun’s statues and other works of art in the temples, as well as any texts that were written on temple walls bearing his name, had been repurposed or removed by his successors to make their own.
The reason why came down to the belief system he reinstated during his rule. Tutankhamun, reversed every change to the Ancient Egyptian belief system his father made and returned to the old gods of the empire, with Amun as the most important of them, and reinstated the clergy of Amun in Karnak. His immediate successors wanted to be seen as hailing from a line of great kings that ruled before this period, which is now dubbed: "the Amarna intermezzo".
The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun helped restart interest in the ancients
Peter: Egypt has always mesmerised people. Beyond the architecture, like the pyramids and the temples, Egypt has biblical interest as it has been linked to the history of the people of Israël and is mentioned throughout the Bible. There’s also a sense of mysticism in the art and rites of the ancient Egyptians, that has long been a point of fascination throughout the ages – from the ancient Greeks to the middle ages. But Egyptology really took off in the 19th century, after a Frenchman named Jean Français Champollion went to Egypt with a scientific group formed by Napoleon and completed the first and most correct translations of the ancient Egyptian language.
While I’d say the interest in Ancient Egypt has never stopped, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the prospect of further treasure-laden tombs helped refuel modern interest. Take an excavation in April 2020, when a very unusual, small wooden obelisk was found in another tomb. We never thought that we’d ever see that kind of object being found in a tomb. It’s proof that the ancients still amaze us every single day.
Peter: I’ll quote my university professor of ancient Greek history, Herman Verdin: "to study ancient cultures does not imply that you deify those ancient peoples nor their writings, nor their art, nor their feelings. What is important is to see how they saw the world, how they coped with existence and how they reacted to nature or a crisis. Not to copy them in a blind way as if they were better in doing things, but to understand how they made choices and mistakes and how to not make the same mistakes or make different choices in our time."
Peter: Absolutely. When I began studying ancient art, the main interest was the timeline and the way the mighty shaped their world. Nowadays, the lives of the common people, those that are the engine of a culture, those that went to worship the gods in the temples, is becoming increasingly important.
We’ve found that the workers that constructed the pyramids and the tombs, previously thought to have been slaves, actually received official titles that designated them as men of arts and crafts. The tombs near old village settlements proved this and showed that the dead were actually buried with utmost respect.
The way we look at archaeological data now reflects a shift in attitudes towards who was important at the time, namely the working people.
Of course, the lure of gold and the beauty of the zen-like faces we find in ancient Egyptian art will always be inspiring for people initially. But working people are being given back their voices courtesy of the way we now look at archaeological data.
Peter: The mystery! However much you learn about this ancient culture, you are always hit by its mystery. Take for example the shabti from a man called Pakharu. The shabti have been in circulation in museums and galleries throughout the world since they were discovered in a tomb in 1891, in which the most of the important members of the clergy of Amun [Ancient Egypt’s most important god] in Thebes was brought together in ancient times.
These diminutive statuettes are a favourite among collectors, though their story is less known
Pakharu's statuettes are small but made from brilliant blue faience, another invention of the ancients and the forerunner of glass. Pakharu was a son of a high priest of Karnak, also to become an important priest later and was responsible for what was called ‘the gates of heaven’, the courtyard of the Karnak temple. And it’s said that if you hold a shabti, you’ll be able to imagine you’re right there accompanying him, in his gold and blue temple, paying respects to the god Amun, the ancient world alive and thriving. There’s always a story, that’s what I love.
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