Ancient Egyptian Art

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The Art of the Kings

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The Golden Coffin of Tut

Almost everything we know about ancient Egypt we know through its art. Very little of its writing survives, yet the walls of Egypt's tombs and monuments are covered in picture stories of Egyptian life and history. The art the ancients left behind, from their amazing buildings to their stunning jewelry, tells us much about this civilization so old and so dead that we don't even know how to speak its language.

Only one tomb of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs was ever discovered untouched by grave robbers. That was the tomb of King Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings. By the time King Tut ruled in the Egyptian New Kingdom, the rulers had gotten away from grand pyramids as burial places. They were too easy to find and easy to rob. Not only did thieves run off with all the dead pharaoh's gold and other riches, they often stole the king's body. They ground it up and sold it in jars as a magic potion to fight illness. King Tut was buried in the less noticeable cave tombs in the out-of-the-way Valley of the Kings. Even so, all these tombs were robbed as well. Tut's tomb survived untouched only because another tomb had fallen down on top of his, making his difficult to find. Tut's tomb was not opened until 1922.

 

The golden coffin of Tut is one of the greatest works of art from the tomb. It is formed from beaten gold and made in the form of Osiris, God of Death and Rebirth. All pharaohs identified with Osiris. When they ruled on earth, they were believed to be Horus, the son of Osiris. When they died, they were believed to leave this world to rule in the world of the dead as Osiris.

 

The coffin is made not only of gold, but is also inlaid with precious stones such as turquoise and lapis lazuli. In the figure's hands are held the symbols of the pharaoh's power. In his left hand is the flail, which shows his power to enforce his will on the people. In his right hand is the crook, which shows his wisdom to guide his people in the right direction.

The Death Mask of Tut

This deathmask, from about 1350BC, was worn over the dead pharaoh's face. It shows the symbols of Egyptian authority that the king would have worn in life. This mask was beaten from gold and inlaid with lapis lazuli and other precious stones. It is very realistic and beautiful in its show of calm power.

Nefertiti

Nefertiti was queen in Egypt in the late 1350sBC. This was a time when artists worked very hard not just for realism in their works, but to say something about the subject as well. This bust of Nefertiti is very different from portraits from earlier Egyptian art. It is not stiff, solid and weighty. This Nefertiti could be one of the thin, sexy fashion models of today with her long neck and delicate features. Was the artist making a statement about Nefertiti's beauty?

 

The bust is of painted limestone, about 20 inches high.

In 1990, PBS aired this excellent video on how the Great Pyramid of Khufu was built. With facinating information presented by host David Macauley, along with animation that puts you in the center of ancient Egyptian life, this video brings the mystery of the pyramids to life as no other film has.