From elaborate reliefs in their pyramids and tombs, the rich symbolism found in their unique form of writing to the artifacts uncovered in the tombs of Pharaohs, studying the history of Ancient Egyptian art offers insight into one of the world's most powerful cultures.
The Language of Hieroglyphics
One of the quickest ways to get a snapshot of the life of an Ancient Egyptian is through art.
Whether you are exploring a tomb, admiring a piece of pottery or trying to decipher the Book of the Dead, it is not difficult to find examples of hieroglyphs throughout Ancient Egypt.
Hieroglyphs are the small symbols used by the Egyptians to communicate with one another. These small images depict everything from animals and birds to objects and people, and when combined, they create words, sentences and phrases that allowed people to communicate with one another.
Two types of hieroglyphs were used by the Ancient Egyptians. Ideograms are individual hieroglyphs that represent the object depicted (for example: a scepter). On the other hand, by combining the sounds or syllables of multiple Phonograms, people were able to create entire words.
These symbols and the way in which they were used resulted in a language that was distinct to the Egyptian culture, and which has left a lasting legacy that continues to inspire awe and interest in historians and history buffs everywhere.
Ancient Egyptian Pottery - Function and Funerary Art
Hieroglyphs were not exclusive to the written word. These symbols can be found in many works of art, such as sculpture and pottery.
When someone died, their remains were usually mummified. However, their internal organs were removed and preserved in special funerary vases called canopic jars.
Pharaohs and other important Egyptians were buried with these jars, so that when they were reborn in the afterlife, they would become whole again with all of their body parts intact.
The bodies of the jars were often made from wood, stone or pottery while the lids were sculpted to represent the four sons of the god Horus, each of which was said to be associated with and protect a particular organ.
Imsety was said to protect the liver; Hapy protected the lungs; Duamutef was associated with the stomach, and Qebehsenuef guarded the intestines.
Carved hieroglyphs can often be found on the fronts of the jars, in the form of inscriptions asking the gods for protection, or listing the name of the owner.
Ancient Egyptian Sculpture on a Grand Scale
One of the most famous sculptures ever created by the Ancient Egyptians is The Sphinx.
A mystical beast portrayed with the head of a man and the body of a lion, The Sphinx is a monolithic symbol that is considered to be the Guardian of the Necropolis of Giza.
With a body that measures 200 feet in length, 65 feet in height and a face that is 13 feet wide, the Sphinx is one of the largest stone monuments found in Egypt. Built from soft sandstone, the Sphinx spent much of its time buried beneath the sands of Egypt, which may be one of the key factors in its longevity in the harsh climate of the Egyptian desert. Even today, the great statue continues to crumble due to the damage from the wind, sand, smog and humidity of Cairo.
Sculptures and Small Relics
Not all sculptures were created on such a large scale. Some of the smallest relics discovered in ancient tombs are the ushabti.
Ushabti were small statuettes that were said to be representations of slaves or helpers who would accompany the soul of the departed Pharaoh into the afterlife. There, the ushabti would act as helpers and perform tasks for the deceased, such as craftsman, agricultural workers and laborers.
Depending on the historical period, the ushabti were prepared and placed in different ways.
In the First Intermediate Period, the ushabti were placed on or in the coffin of the deceased. These ushabtis differed from later ones in that they were not inscribed with a magical formula which would activate them.
In the Middle Kingdom, the ushabti were wrapped in linen and placed in miniature coffins. These shabtis were meant to represent the deceased, so usually there was only one shabti in any given tomb.
By the time of the New Kingdom, it was not uncommon for the deceased to be buried with upwards of forty shabti. However as the end of the New Kingdom approached, craftsmanship declined as the shabti were mass-produced and more Egyptians, not just the rich or royalty, could afford to purchase shabti for their own tombs.
Regardless of social status, the ushabti were a symbolic talisman that played an important role in the culture and history of Ancient Egypt.
A Lasting Legacy
The Great Pyramids of Ancient Egypt are perhaps the most well-known ancient wonders of the world. But any history enthusiast knows that the diverse legacy of this ancient civilization can be found in thousands of artifacts, stone, and paint.
With a legacy that spans centuries, the history of Ancient Egyptian art is a varied display of the culture, religion and beliefs that shaped one of the most powerful regions of the world.