One of my main research interests is in the ancient Egyptians’ attitude to their own monuments, in particular to statues. Modern Western society tends to dismiss people, past or present, that place significance in the power of the sculpted image. Although we are perfectly happy to acknowledge, for example, the psychological impact of two-dimensional messaging, sculpture is difficult for many modern people to relate to.
The recent, very public removal of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston – and the intense revaluation of other public statues of contentious figures – highlights that the lives (and significance) of statues extend well past their creation, erection and dedication. Sculptures are endowed with different meanings as time goes on, making them dynamic, active agents in the social landscape – not simply passive observers as some might imagine. We are often used to thinking of statues in the sense of a children’s game: once-moving people suddenly fossilised, stock-still as if in attempt to deflect attention. But statues represent – whether intentionally or not – ideas, and not just people.
One of the most persistent fantasies about ancient Egyptian sculpture is that it presented people as they actually appeared. There are various sinister theories – related to eugenicist comparison of ‘races’ – that underlie this assumption; these require separate discussion. Suffice it to say here that in no way were Pharaonic statues intended to be mimetic likenesses of living people. In an important sense statues were three-dimensional hieroglyphs, showing the essential components of a person in order for the statue to function as a vessel for a god, king, or non-royal person for eternity. Neither were statues simply ‘commemorative’ in the modern Western sense (remember, Edward Colston’s statue was created over 100 years after the subject’s death; a not uncommon situation in more modern times).
Yet statues are special. While they can personify idea(l)s, they take the form of people. And we find the human form – particularly the face – particularly alluring. Egyptologists have been fascinated by the faces of Pharaonic sculptures to the detriment of understanding the functions of statues in context.
The ancient Egyptians did not – as far as we can tell – have public spaces as in Greece and Rome in which statues were displayed. Statues were chiefly restricted to (elite) tomb and temple spaces, the latter only open to properly purified and initiated people. Regular contact with statue forms was a privilege.
Egyptian statues required a ritual known as the ‘opening of the mouth’ to activate them for use by a spiritual entity (I have previously been misquoted on this by the press, *eyeroll*). Yet they were also routinely adapted, reinscribed, reused, deactivated, damaged, destroyed – and then reactivated all over again. They offer an object lesson in the dynamism of sculpture, a set of lessons that many in the West may not have considered given our detached attitude to the sculpted form. Take two examples of Pharaonic sculptures in the form of a sphinx; a hybrid lion-man, with leonine body and the head is almost always of the king (sometimes a royal woman) wearing a royal headress.
The first belongs to the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (c. 1473-1458 BCE). As a sculptural statement of super-human power, the form was favoured by Hatshepsut perhaps because it offered a way to obscure her female sex and make her at once more ‘kingly’ – and divine. Yet at some point attitudes to her changed. This sculpture, like countless others, was dragged out of the queen’s impressive temple at Deir el-Bahari, hacked up into hundreds of pieces and flung into a pit – almost as much work as carving and installing the sculpture itself – only to be discovered by Egyptians working for an American expedition in the early 20th Century. Hatshepsut’s various sculptures were pieced back together, making judicious restorations to elide the extensive damage, and the results are exhibited as great works of sculpture. The destruction of Hatshepsut’s statues was not the result of popular protest against her rule (as some early, misogynist commentators supposed of a powerful female ruler); rather, it was a ritual requirement, to remove her presence from the temple and refocus its ritual energy on another king.
Compare that with another, maned sphinx originally carved some 400 years before Hatshepsut. This example has a full lion’s mane rather than a royal headcloth, and the striking features of a king of the late Middle Kingdom – most likely Amenemhat III. The sculpture is one of an identical set of such sphinxes found at Tanis, in the Nile Delta, where it was likely moved towards the end of its ritual life in Pharaonic times. This sphinx, however, carries the names of at least three subsequent kings: Ramesses II, his son Merenptah and a later king called Psusennes. None of these later kings meant any ill-will to the original king the sphinx was carved to represent; it was a way if not of honouring that king then of harnessing some of his divine power. This suggests a deep belief in the power of the materiality of the sculpted image – a power restricted largely to the elite, never intended for dissemination to (or debate by) a wider ‘public’.
Today our attitude to sculptured human images is usually rather more detached. Yet not all statues stand passively in public spaces, blending into the urban backdrop – they can still be powerful agents, flashpoints of feeling, living images. With our digital saturation of the human image in two-dimensions, perhaps we have forgotten the power of the three-dimensional.
As the University of Manchester’s Professor of Public History, David Olusoga, has argued the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston does not constitute an attack on history, it is history in action. The lives of Pharaonic sculptures are reminder that this dynamism has been ongoing for millennia; it is our changing attitudes to statue forms that make ‘history’ – not the statues themselves.
For more thoughts on this, see my chapter on ‘Statuary’ in I. Shaw and E. Bloxam (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Egyptology (OUP, published this Summer); an article in press on “public” access to statues in Pharaonic Egypt in C. Dickenson (ed.) Public Statues Across Time and Cultures (Routledge); and a book in preparation – Perfected Forms. Contextualising Elite Sculpture in Late Period Egypt (Brepols).
I will be delivering a 5-day course on ‘An A-Z of Ancient Egyptian Statues’ for the Bloomsbury Summer School, July 27-31st 2020. Places still available here.