The Life of Ancient Egyptians
Immortality Through Art
Ancient Egypt has bequeathed us an enormous testimony to the skill and genius of its artists -- draughtsmen, painters, relief-carvers and sculptors. The coming pages testify to their creations, but here we shall focus on the men themselves, their working techniques and conditions, and the place they occupied in society.
It must be stressed at the outset that in their working tools, technical procedures and way of life the artists of ancient Egypt did not greatly differ from the artisans. Woodcarvers shared the tools and techniques of carpenters and joiners, sculptors in stone drew on the skills of stone masons and stone vessel makers, artists who worked with metal learned from the experience of metal-beaters. We often see an artist at work in the craft shop specializing in his chosen medium.
The work of the draughtsman and the painter, on the other hand, had a close affinity to that of the scribe.
Works of art, again, did not spring from the hands of single individuals; they were invariably the product of collective effort by a number of men. The contribution of one artist linked up with that of another, a painting or a relief being based on another man's drawing while a sculpture was passed on to the painters to be colored. It is only for descriptive convenience, then, that we shall be dealing with the various specialization in terms of present-day classification.
We may well start with the sculptors, as it is they whose working methods are most fully documented. In most cases we are shown a sculptor standing in front of a finished work, normally a life-size male or female figure, standing or seated, less often the lying figure of an animal. Whatever the medium, any such figure is regularly referred to in captions as tut. Often we are shown several figures being sculpted side by side in the same workshop; in the 5th-dynasty tomb of Ty at Saqqara, for instance, there are eight in various stages of completion.
The early stages, by contrast, are seldom depicted. There is one example in the f 12th-dynasty tomb of Khnumhotep at Beni Hasan where a sculptor is hacking stone from a block with his long-handled axe to approximate the shape of a statue. And in Ty's tomb we see two men chipping at the surface of an emerging statue with oval stone hammerheads wedged into forked wooden shafts.
Sometimes a monumental stone statue would be roughly shaped even while being quarried, like that of Osiris that still lies in the granite quarry where it originated, near Shellal south of Aswan. The finer work on a sculpture was done with chisel and mallet, the latter club-shaped during the Old Kingdom and subsequently either club-shaped or round-headed. This method made it easier to determine the force of a blow and, by adjusting the angle of the chisel, to alter the thickness of the flakes removed. To achieve a smooth finish the sculptor used an adze, familiar from our description of woodworking, followed by grinding and polishing with the oval stone or with silicate powder, leather and water. The work would then be passed to the painters for polychrome treatment.
It is difficult from extant illustrations to determine the kind of material being used in any given scene. Only occasionally is there a dappled texture indicating granite. Sometimes we can draw conclusions from the juxtaposition of other scenes. Sculptors shown alongside stone vessel makers were probably using stone too, and the linkage is reinforced by the general predominance of stone statues in archaeological finds. Again, the use of carpenters' and joiners' tools will suggest that a soft stone such as limestone was being employed. And this is consistent with the prevalence of limestone, as against the harder granite, diorite, breccia etc., in statues occurring in tombs and temples. If, however, we are shown sculptors actually working alongside the carpenters and joiners themselves, we can infer that it was wood they were working in. True, far fewer wood than stone statues have been excavated, but this may simply be because a much higher proportion have succumbed to the ravages of time. Only rarely have metal statues been found. The figure of King Pepy I exhibited in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, is made of copper plates beaten and riveted together and was made in a metal-beater's shop. Not till the New Kingdom do we find depictions of bronze figures being made.
There are Old and Middle Kingdom reliefs showing statues of commoners being made - the owners of the tombs and their families - but none showing a statue of royalty. In the New Kingdom, by contrast, the bulk of sculpture work shifted to temple studios where numerous figures of kings were turned out both for the temples themselves and for royal tombs.
It was the sculptor's aim in ancient Egypt to reproduce the subject's appearance as faithfully as possible. He did not however have in mind a portrait in the modern sense, exhibiting a particular person at a particular moment in his life, but the presentation of salient features at an ideal age, usually in youth or in full maturity.
The art of making death-masks was known as early as the Old Kingdom. Casts could be used as technical aids in making figures for tombs, particularly for the special chambers called in modern times the serdab. These were thought to embody the spirit ka of the deceased, the symbol of his individuality, and certain funeral rites accordingly centered round them. Similarly the so-called 'reserve' heads of 4thdynasty dignitaries from Giza were probably placed in the tomb to ensure that the deceased's likeness should survive even if his mummy disintegrated, and these were executed quite realistically despite a degree of idealization.
At all periods statues of royalty exhibit, however idealized, characteristic features that enable us to identify the subject. A unique collection of masks, evidently cast from living persons, was found in the studio of the sculptor Thutmose at Akhetaten. They evidently assisted the artist in making realistic or naturalistic portraits, but unfortunately few of these have survived. After a further phase of idealization the realistic tradition was fully re-established in the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods.
The term kesty for sculptors also covered the carvers of stone and wood reliefs. The latter are shown on several fine reliefs chipping away with mallet and chisel on scenes already traced out by draughtsmen. Relief-carving was in fact one of the most frequent commissions given to artists. From the Old Kingdom up to the time of King Sethos I most temple and tomb reliefs were of the raised kind where the figures stood out, fully contoured, with the surrounding areas cut away. In the other, sunk reliefs, also represented in the Old Kingdom, the background is left uncut but the figures are carved in and beneath it. Sunk reliefs dominated temple walls from the time of Ramesses II, and exceptionally deep-cut reliefs are typical of the Ptolemaic Period.
The distinction between draughtsmen and painters is reflected in the ancient Egyptian nomenclature. Draughtsmen are called sesh kedut, 'writers of outlines', showing the close affinity between drawing and writing. The old Egyptian script had, after all, evolved through the standardization of diagrammatic drawings, and scribe and draughtsman used the same instruments. The word for painter, sesh, denotes also a scribe.
The activities of draughtsmen and of painters were closely associated. But as their pictures contain no information about their creative environment and methods, we have to rely on archaeological evidence and on partly-finished work. In addition to possessing originality and a flair for design, the ancient Egyptian artist needed to be fully conversant, not only with objects and events around him, but with various established and immutable religious preconceptions. These included the figures of the gods with all their attributes and the prescribed content of divine, ritual and royal scenes. But he was less bound by stereotypes when it came to portraying the lives of ordinary people.
We get some idea of the artist's preliminary work from the ostraca used for practice by trainee draughtsmen and painters as well as by apprentice scribes. Even qualified craftsmen used them as cheap 'sketch pads' when preparing to work on the walls of tombs or temples, or to write on costly papyrus scrolls. These sketches furnish more testimony to the creative genius of artists, in fact, than do their final products, subject as these were to meticulous regulation of form and content. They often give a livelier rendering of movement - witness for example the picture of two cheetahs attacking an antelope on an ostracon in the Naprstek Museum in Prague, or the famous figure of a dancing-girl bending over backwards in the Egyptian Museum, Turin.
On ostraca there are often sketched (cartoon-like) scenes which illustrate fables. There also occur ostraca with realistic preliminary sketches of human figures, even showing the use of perspective in their drawing, on which the final correction in black line reverts to the normal canonical style, to which we will return later.
Another sketch-pad surrogate consisted of a little wooden board coated in stucco and marked out with a rectangular grid on which the artist made his drawing. In doing so he would adhere to the strict rules and then, having copied the grid onto a wall on a larger scale, transfer the design square by square.
Use of a grid also ensured adherence to the basic rules of figure proportion that have been revealed by Erik Iversen and recently revised by Gay Robins. Up to the end of the Third Intermediate Period artists applied the 'first canon of proportion' based on the 'short cubit', that is the distance from the elbow to the tip of the thumb, conventionally set at 45cm. A human figure standing would be drawn onto a grid of 18 squares, each side of a square equaling the width of a clenched fist. Thus the length of a forearm was three squares, of a hand one-and-a-half and so on.
The Saitic Period saw the introduction of the 'second canon of proportion' based on 21 squares. This had to do with the wider acceptance of the longer 'royal cubit' 52.36cm from elbow to tip of middle finger) which had previously been used only in architecture. The basic modulus, the width of a clenched fist, remained the same. So there were now three extra squares from top to foot of a human figure, of which one was assigned to the lower leg and two to the trunk, sometimes resulting in an unnatural elongation of the upper half of the body.
In some cases the artist took the risk of sketching the figure straight on the wall-plaster while it was still wet, without a grid. An example occurs on the east wall of the South chapel in the 5th-dynasty tomb of Princess Khekeretnebty at Abusir, where the outline of a seated figure was drawn in white on the dark gray plaster. Usually, however, sketching was done in red, as we see in several scenes planned for the tomb of Horemheb in the Valley of the Kings (18th dynasty).
The final drawing was then executed in a strong black line, ready for relief carving or coloring in. There are examples of this for instance, in other parts of Princess Khekeretnebty's tomb, in that of Horemheb and in the fine profile of a young princess in the I 8th-dynasty tomb of Kheruef at Asasif on the west bank of the Nile near Luxor. In addition to the canons of proportion there were other established conventions that the draughtsman had to follow. Successive scenes were arranged according to their content and prescribed order in 'registers', usually several one above another.
Figures of important personages, usually the owner of the tomb and sometimes his wife as well, are as a rule drawn several times larger than their children and servants or the offering-bearers, reflecting the hierarchic structure of both family and society. The human figure is usually represented as seen from several angles, blended into a single form. The head, face and limbs are shown in profile, the eyes and shoulders frontally, while the trunk twists from a frontal view at the top to a profile position below. This was intended to combine the most lifelike aspects of each area of the body, but sometimes produced inaccuracies and blunders.
Instead of perspective treatment, objects were shown overlapping or arranged one above another. Sometimes two characteristic views of the same thing were combined, a front view combined with a bird's eye view from above, or front view with a side view next to it.
Like the scribes, draughtsmen and painters used brushes made of reed stems with one end frayed out by chewing, a palette with six to eight recesses and a conch-shell or ceramic bowl to mix the paint. The choice of colors used also followed rules and had its own symbolism. White (plaster of Paris or chalk) denoted light, dawn, luxury and joy: yellow was used for gold, the bodies of gods and eternity; pale yellow (ochre or arsenic sulfate) for the female complexion and brownish-red (also ochre) for the male; red (ochre with a high ferric content, or haematite) for blood and life, but also evil and violence; green (malachite mixed with lime) for water, turquoise, youth and freshness; blue (copper silicate or cobalt salts) for the sky, the hair of gods and lapis lazoli; black (charcoal and soot) for the black earth, fertility, riches and the life to come. Colors were water-based, with gum Arabic and white of egg added as a bond. From the 18th-dynasty beeswax was sometimes used. The finest examples are the encaustic portraits of the Roman Period in the Faiyum.
Drawing was usually followed by relief-carving and then by painting. This sequence was occasionally ignored under the Old Kingdom, but more frequently under the New. Poor quality of the stone probably made relief-carving sometimes impossible, and painting on the flat had to suffice. In that case the rock wall was either smoothed and directly painted over, or covered with a roughcast of mud-clay and chopped straw, followed by a layer of fine white plaster which took the painting.
There are excellent Old Kingdom paintings in the 3rd-dynasty tomb of Princess ftet at Meidum, and in that of Princess Khekeretnebty. Flat paintings predominated in the Middle Kingdom tombs at Beni Hasan and in the mastabas of New Kingdom dignitaries on the West bank at Luxor. The walls of the royal palaces were also painted. In those of Amenophis III at Malqata and of his son Akhenaten at Akhetaten pictorial fragments have survived showing plants (notably papyrus), giraffes, birds and geometric designs.
Painters, as we have said, also found employment in sculptors' studios during the last stage of statue making. There are several fine illustrations that show the artist with a goblet of paint or a palette in one hand and a brush or spatula in the other. Some of the scenes show the front of a statue being colored, others the back and the column behind with its hieroglyphic inscription. A white stucco undercoat was also used for polychrome work on statuary.
Close though the artists were to the artisans in their technology, they undoubtedly stood higher on the social ladder. This fact was once seen as an acknowledgement of the artistic quality of their work, but more recent research attributes the artist's prestige to his working more specifically than any others 'for eternity'.
By making likeness of a tomb's owner he was guaranteeing the person's survival after death. In this way he secured his patron's goodwill, perhaps even his gratitude, like a doctor who has prolonged his patient's existence on earth. This is why the artist is portrayed in the honorable function of offering-bearer in the tombs of commoners, or accompanying the deceased at banquets or in the chase, more frequently than he is shown at work. The figure of the artist is sometimes eloquently labeled 'his (the master's) beneficiary, his beloved, his revered . . .' and so on.
Further evidence of the artist's exalted status in ancient Egypt is that his title never includes the expression per en djet (mortuary estate, endowment) so often applied to craftsmen in workshops outside the royal circles. What distinguished the artist was that he worked in his patron's house only for as long as was required to make a statue or decorate a tomb, in contrast to the craftsmen whose wares were indispensable for the everyday running of an estate. The great majority of artists, it seems, worked in royal studios from which the king lent them out to temples or private persons as a mark of favor.
Their status enabled quite a few artists to afford their own tombs and, incidentally, to tell us their names. Sometimes these appear in scenes depicting them at work or at leisure. Even as early as the Old Kingdom the 5th-dynasty vizier Ptahhotep allowed the sculptor who had decorated his tomb at Saqqara to include a portrait of himself in the reliefs and to append his own name. He is shown on a boating trip, being served with food and drink. We also find self-portraits of artists near the edges of some New Kingdom tomb paintings. The creator of the famous scene of the Battle of Qadesh, and the sculptor who carved it in relief in the temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel, also put their names to it for posterity.
According to their experience and achievement, artists were ranked in categories from the lowest up to the leading masters. Outstanding ones were accorded such titles as 'painter of the palace library of sacred books', or 'chief painter of the temple of Amun'. The pharaoh might even reward them with gifts of land, 'people' (servants or slaves), cattle or treasure. Court records and legacies show that artists often acquired considerable wealth.
It would seem, then, that the life of an artist in ancient Egypt was endowed with the luster of high status, celebrity, material riches, public honor and, no doubt, work-satisfaction. Apart from the risk of silicosis among sculptors their work was not unhealthy. Only the draughtsmen, relief-carvers and rock-tomb painters of the New Kingdom suffered difficult working conditions in those deep corridors, lit only with dim and primitive candles which used up much of the available oxygen. Their heads must often have ached. The warm Egyptian air, made still warmer by the candles and humidified by the workers' sweat, must have made breathing difficult during the long hours of toil. Yet these inconveniences left no traces in the quality of the works of art created there.