PRINT Summer 1966

Ancient Egyptian Art at the Lowie Museum

DURING THE HUNDRED YEARS between the acquisitions gathered by Napoleon’s expeditions in 1799 (and ceded to the British after the French defeat at Alexandria in 1801) and the University of California’s excavations at Gizeh in 1899, Egyptian archaeology had been almost exclusively a European pursuit, and except for the Cairo Museum after 1858, the principal, or at any rate ultimate, beneficiaries of both private and institutionally sponsored excavation had been the great national museums of Europe, with the British Museum, the Louvre and the Berlin Museum definitely in the lead.

It is to Auguste Mariette, the great French Egyptological scholar of the mid-19th century, that Egypt owes the supremacy of her own Cairo National Museum among the world’s Egyptological collections. For it was Mariette who in 1858 negotiated the institution of the Service of Egyptian Antiquities as a bureau of the Egyptian government, and who became its first administrator. Under Mariette and his successors the Antiquities Service assumed sweeping powers of regulation and license over all archaeological activities in Egypt, restricted excavation franchises to accredited scientific archaeologists sponsored by museums, universities and governments, and secured government al enactment of regulations giving the service the option to retain not only the largest portion of all finds, but the choicest of all finds for the Cairo Museum, which was organized and administered by the Antiquities Service. Only whatever was left, after the Service exercised its option, was allocated to the sponsoring institution or government.

Thus, the 150 year span of cosmopolitan Egyptian archaeology falls into two principal periods: the “free-for-all” era between 1800 and 1858, and the subsequent period of conservationistically-oriented government control. Dilettante exploration, as practiced in the earlier period, was an expensive hobby involving the leisure and means to travel in some style, to engage native labor on at least a modest scale and to sustain the expenses of shipping. Amateur Egyptology became a fashionable pastime of the English nobility. Baronial taste, however, ran more to ostentation than scholarship, and obelisks, small sphinxes, mammoth sarcophagi and the like, of whatever period, became favored acquisitions. Fortunately the aristocratic flare for archaeology persisted and, at a time when amateurs were no longer permitted to engage directly in excavation, wealthy English peers, like Lord Carnarvon, encouraged professional explorations with enthusiastic and liberal financial backing. Before Mariette instituted the much-needed reforms, amateur excavation techniques had often trammeled sites rich in fragments of apparently trivial value, but of interest to the scholar, and had often disrupted, without record, potentially informative contexts from which finds were expropriated; professional archaeology on the other hand had been gradually evolving its own specialized technology with respect to excavational engineering methods and the systematic documentation and correlation of data and findings.

It was not until the late 19th century that there appeared a first generation of outstanding American Egyptologists, barely in time, as it were, to create, for a very small number of American museums, significant Egyptological collections. However, prior to large-scale American sponsored excavations in Egypt, a few of the major East Coast museums possessed modest inventories of Egyptian holdings consisting of purchases and of items acquired through participation in the archaeological program of the London-based, internationally subsidized Egypt Exploration Fund. As in any branch of museological collecting, spotty miscellaneity even when fortified with one or two choice items hardly attains rank as a collection: overall quality, and diversity within an interrelated context of selective specialization, in order that a collection may possess informativeness-in-depth concerning some aspect or period of the culture represented, is what is important. With respect to Egyptology, only collections which have been nourished by the fruits of extensive and sustained excavations in Egypt can meet these criteria.

The five years (1899–1904) during which the American Egyptologist, Dr. George Andrew Reisner, conducted excavations at Old Kingdom sites around Gizeh under the sponsorship of the University of California with the liberal financial subsidy of Mrs. Phoebe A. Hearst, pioneered a new era for American Egyptian collections and resulted in the Lowie Museum’s acquiring the most significant collection of Egyptian antiquities west of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, which, in turn, has the most important such collection west of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

While Berkeley is able to exhibit a scattering of objects representative of nearly every period of ancient Egyptian history, its collection achieves comprehensive density only for the pre-dynastic and Old Kingdom period, largely due, of course, to Dr. Reisner’s fascination with the culture of the early dynastic epochs. This, however, is no trivial achievement since solid inventories in this area—even ones that are modest in extent—are rare indeed. Such Fourth Dynasty items as the wooden statue of a boy, the magnificent diorite bowl, the Wepemnofret Stele or the limestone head of Ka-nofer would alone distinguish any collection, and could have been acquired only by deep and intensive professional excavation. By contrast the XVIIIth Dynasty diorite bust of the lion-headed goddess, Sekhmet, from Karnak, or the XXVIth Dynasty basalt sarcophagus, impressive as they may be, are the sort of Egyptological commonplaces that characterized the dilettante era of relatively surface expropriations. Writing of that era an English archaeologist once complained that the British Museum was saddled with dozens of figures of the lion-headed goddess, Sekhmet, from Thebes, when two or three would have sufficed. As this comment indicates, a surplus of such items so glutted museum basements and the baronial private collections, that they ultimately became available on the commercial market, to become stock items in the dozen-piece Egyptian representations of relatively provincial museums, together with the inevitable cases of run-of-the-mill ushabti figurines and scarabs.

Returning to the solid and specialized excavational nucleus of the Berkeley collection, three rooms in the current exhibition have been devoted to artifacts of a high order from the pre-dynastic and early dynastic periods arranged in chronological sequence. The evolution of decorative motifs in pre-dynastic pottery is exhaustively traced and, in a fairly spacious glass enclosure, the museum’s technical staff has spread a sand bed and by pain staking cross-referencing with excavation records, has carefully reassembled the relics—including human bones—of a pre-dynastic burial much as it was first uncovered by the excavators. The late pre-dynastic artifacts are of particular interest as throwing light on the apparently sudden emergence of monumental civilization in Egypt with the advent of the dynastic era. These artifacts clearly testify to the high level of craftsmanship that had been attained by artisans, particularly with respect to working in stone, in late pre-dynastic times. One can infer that arts, crafts and various techniques had by then reached a sufficiently high state that it required only the mobilization of manpower, skills and resources, effected by the unification of many local communities of Egyptian culture into a nation under a central authority, to produce the works of large-scale building that characterized the dynastic period. The artistic work of the Old Kingdom achieved a simple elegance and refinement which was to be admired by the Egyptians themselves in later times, for Old Kingdom art-styles were repeatedly revived with more or less success in later periods after epochs of fresh invention and stylistic in novation.

Unfortunately when Mrs. Hearst terminated her subsidy of Reisner’s excavations in 1905 the University of California abandoned sponsorship of the project. However, the excavation franchise for the Gizeh sites was promptly taken over by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard University, and Reisner’s work at Gizeh over the next two and a half decades was to create for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts the finest collection of Old Kingdom antiquities next to those of the Cairo and British Museums. Following closely in the foot steps of the University of California and the Boston Museum, two other American institutions sponsored excavations under the directorship of American Egyptologists. The Metropolitan Museum in New York built one of the finest collections of Middle Kingdom antiquities from its sponsorship of H. E. Winlock’s extensive excavations at Middle Kingdom sites, while the University of Chicago acquired substantial Egyptian holdings of a high order through diversified excavations under the directorship of the eminent American Egyptologist, James Henry Breasted, noted for his still-standard “History of Egypt.” Only last year, however, a final chapter was written to the University of California’s turn-of-the-century project when, as Volume VII of its publications in Egyptian archaeology, the University published Albert M. Lithgoe’s exhaustive excavation notes on the pre-dynastic cemetery N 7000 at Naga-ed-Dir, edited by Dows Dunham, curator emeritus of the Egyptian Department of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Mr. Lithgoe had been Dr. Reisner’s able assistant during the Hearst excavations, and the notes just published were his documentation of excavations done at that site under University of California sponsorship.

The history of Egyptology and of Egyptological museology and collecting, as on-going spheres of active discovery and acquisition, is practically at a close. Even if the United Arab Republic had not discouraged activities by European and American archaeologists on its soil, the fact is that except for prehistoric levels of more interest to the anthropologist, Egypt has been effectively mined. It has assuredly been dug dry of significant finds from the great periods of its historic ancient past on a scale, with respect to extent and spectacularity, that characterized a bygone archaeological era. The major work for Egyptologists of today and of tomorrow will properly be in the libraries, universities and museums—sifting, refining and correlating; re-analyzing, resynthesizing and reassessing the tremendous corpus of collections, bibliography and excavation records produced by archaeologists and scholars between 1800 and the present—an inventory so prodigious that its digestion and assimilation could well require another two generations of Egyptological specialists. The definitive encyclopedia of ancient Egypt, its history, language, religion, life and customs, incorporating all that is now known or susceptible of being known from work already done, has yet to be written. Perhaps the consolation, or even the incentive, for future Egyptology is that the task is at least possible since the field is limited to the finite and now nearly exhausted remnants of a determined and narrowly localized segment of human history.

Palmer D. French