Reviewed by Alice Stevenson
Pp. xii + 275, figs. 246. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2011. $60. ISBN 978-0-300-17952-1 (cloth).
Between April and August 2012, the Metropolitan Museum of Art showcased 183 examples of Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egyptian visual culture drawn from both its own rich collections and via loan from 12 other institutions. This lavishly illustrated volume was produced to accompany that exhibition. Yet this is far more than simply a catalogue or an attractive coffee-table book. Through a series of 10 thematic essays, this publication offers a refreshing set of perspectives on the imagery of early Egypt, with the stated purpose to "examine and reflect upon the finest representations created by the early Egyptians . . . and to investigate why these objects were made" (3). Patch and colleagues thoughtfully tackle this goal in their scholarly yet accessibly written contributions.
The book is loosely structured into five parts. Within these sections, all 183 objects in the exhibition are integrated into academic discussion, from decorated pottery to freestanding figures, and from carved ivories to unique fragments of painted textile. The opening section consists of an introduction by Patch, providing an account of the archaeological discovery of Egypt of the late fifth to early third millennium B.C.E., together with useful background information on spatial and temporal terms. Section 2 includes three contributions. The most extensive of these is "From Land to Landscape" (Patch), which explores representations of the flora and fauna of the Egyptian Nile River valley and its desert surroundings. This is followed by a 10-page overview by Friedman describing the discoveries made in recent years at the site of Hierakonpolis and the unique examples of early art found by investigators in the late 19th century. While the inclusion of an active archaeological field site is a welcome addition to the volume, it seems a little odd that no complementary chapters are provided for other key sites that are equally informative about the contexts in which early Egyptian iconography were displayed, such as the important Predynastic and Early Dynastic elite cemeteries in Umm el-Qa’ab at Abydos (although discoveries made here are cited elsewhere in the book). A final short contribution by one of the museum’s conservators on a painted representation of a weaving scene completes this section. The human figure is the subject of a single, in-depth chapter by Patch in section 3, while section 4 extends the discussion of early artistic representations to the early third millennium B.C.E. (the Early Dynastic period), with chapters covering Early Dynastic art generally (Patch), a treatise on Early Dynastic sculpture (Eaton-Krauss), and a consideration of early Egyptian representations of divinity (Roth). The final section offers an overview of early Egyptian writing (Silverman) and a short description of a 2nd-Dynasty royal stele (Roehrig and Serotta).
Of all these chapters, those by the editor herself are the most thought provoking, often offering original challenges to commonly held assumptions or interpretations. A case in point is her reinterpretation of the elegant pottery figurine from el-Ma’mariya currently accessioned into the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This evocative object is frequently described as a "bird lady" on account of the abbreviation of the head to what has been inferred to be a "beak." As Patch argues, however, this might plausibly be a convention that simply emphasizes the nose as a channel of breath and life (113). Similarly, stylized amulets that are usually categorized as "bull-head" amulets are instead identified as representations of elephants (52). There will be many who disagree with these suggestions, but the debates that these reopen are certainly welcome. What is perhaps more problematic in these sections is the use of unprovenanced artifacts whose authenticity is open to question. So, too, are the dates attributed to such pieces on art historical grounds. For example, a few of the Metropolitan Museum’s own figurines are tentatively suggested to be of a late Naqada II date, despite the rarity of provenanced figurines for that period.
The strength of the thematic approach that is adopted throughout this volume is that it underscores the fluidity of decorative forms that extend across different media. But such an approach can obscure diachronic trends and the changing social circumstances within which these images were created. Insufficient emphasis, for instance, is given to the shifting social contexts of display, which over the course of the Predynastic period resulted in the restriction of many aesthetic forms to elite circles of activity. The constriction of visual repertoires and the establishment of new modes of communicating elite ideology is one of the key trends in the latter part of the Predynastic period. Yet because of the reliance on pharaonic analogies, this volume tends to give slightly more emphasis to the continuities in artistic representations between Predynastic and Dynastic times rather than to the many notable discontinuities.
Overall, this book is fairly successful in addressing the first of its aims, to "examine and reflect upon the finest representations created by the early Egyptians" (3), in large part because the authors take their cues from traditional art historical and Egyptological frames of reference that are in many respects well suited to such an endeavor. In grappling with the far more ambitious aim to "investigate why these objects were made" (3), however, such frameworks can be too narrow, particularly given the prehistoric subject matter. Conspicuous by their absence, for example, are any illustrations or discussions of the contexts within which many of the objects exhibited were originally found, such as graves and the associated assemblages. Such spaces were integral to ancient meaning making and a crucial aspect of the construction and reception of early iconography. Ascertaining the content of such beliefs may often elude the modern viewer, but prehistorians have made great strides in recent years in modeling how such things possibly came to be meaningful to ancient communities through manufacture, manipulation, circulation, and consumption. Such approaches could have been more productively explored in the accounts presented here. Similarly, a broader, more anthropologically informed narrative would have provided much-needed interpretive caution for the discussion of prehistoric imagery. For instance, the identification of triangles and wavy lines on the decorated pottery of Naqada IIC–D as references to specific features of Egyptian topography—such as mountains (73) and water (67)—cannot always be uncritically assumed.
Nevertheless, this volume is a valuable addition to discourses on the enigmatic images that survive from early Egypt. It also provides a much-needed visual resource for the study of early aesthetic culture in Egypt, one that will appeal as much to the scholar as to the interested layperson.
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
University College London
London WC1E 6BT