Egyptian Society during the Ramesside period, Dynasties XIX and XX

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Cultural life

5.1 Art: sculpture, jewellery, wall paintings

See also Laura's presentation for this topic

Egyptian art throughout all periods was essentially functional in nature. Most art forms had a religious or funerary purpose. The following forms were common:
  • Tomb painting and relief.
  • 'Sculpture in the round', including statues, amulets and ushabtis.
  • Illustrated papyri and ostraka.

Other key characteristics included:
  • No distinction made between art and craftwork.
  • Materials such as wood, bronze, gold, faience and pottery.
  • Objects represented as the 'ideal' rather than as they appeared in reality.
  • Art forms created according to strict rules or guidelines known as 'canons'.
  • Formal images reserved for temples and tombs.
  • Informal styles used in palace painting and on domestic objects.

Features of Ramesside art:
  • Return to classic styles but not as spontaneous
  • Foreign influences e.g. Babylonian, Aegean
  • Ordinary people depicted with individual features in tomb art
  • Deeply incised relief work but poorly executed
  • Greater use of bronze and silver
  • New sculptural forms, including figures holding a naos or sistrum

(The following is from Joyce Tyldesley, Ramesses: Egypt’s Greatest Pharaoh, 2000)

Artistic style – pp 54-55

Egypt's geography encouraged an innate conservatism that manifested itself in a highly distinctive and decidedly self‑referential culture. The visual arts proved particularly resistant to change with Egypt's painters and sculptors looking backwards rather than outwards, rejecting foreign influences and seeking instead inspiration from their country's past. The early development of the 'canon of proportion', a means of ensuring that the appearance of the depicted human body remained constant throughout the pharaonic age, did nothing to lessen this impression of artistic stagnation, so that to the untrained eye the artistic style of the Old Kingdom does not differ markedly from that of the New. However, it would be entirely wrong to project from this limited evidence a dynastic Egypt existing in total cultural isolation.

Temple and tomb walls may well persuade us that a pure, all‑Egyptian lifestyle managed to survive uncontaminated by outside influences for thousands of years, but it would be a mistake to base our understanding of daily life in ancient Egypt on these scenes alone. The vivid tomb vignettes were never intended to be an accurate representation of the present and should not be read as such. They were instead idealized religious images, designed to predict the traditional joys of life after death, which would, by their very presence in the tomb, enhance the chances of the deceased experiencing these joys. In these scenes there is precious little realism: the principal players show no signs of disease, ugliness, hunger or pain and only in the minor figures do we see variation away from this ideal. Instead we see the beautiful rich adhering to a tightly prescribed formula; clothed in shining white linen, garlanded and spark­ling with jewels, they enjoy life to the full in the perpetual sunshine of the Kingdom of Osiris. In their rigid adherence to an idealized past these images are conforming to a universal pattern; religious tradition of all cultures is notoriously slow to reflect contemporary fashions so that even in our own modem society priests, nuns and monks adopt anachronistic medieval garments.

The Tomb of Queen Nefertari – pp 129-131

The beautifully decorated tomb of Nefertari (QV66) was discovered in 1904 by an Italian archaeological mission from Turin Museum directed by Ernesto Schiaparelli. Unfortunately, it had been emptied in antiquity. The systematic clearing of the tomb and its immediate area has, however, been rewarded with unexpected finds including resin‑coated wooden shabti figures, the knob bearing the cartouche of King Ay, and, poignantly, a pair of Nefertari's delicate woven sandals.

In plan the tomb was relatively simple, although it employed the 'bent‑axis' which was to mark the more important Ramesside burials including that of the king himself. Beyond the entrance a stepped passage led to a small square antechamber and side chamber from which a stairway descended to a burial chamber furnished with four pillars and three small side rooms. It was the decoration of the tomb which was extraordinary. The poor quality of the limestone in this part of the necropolis had prevented the workmen from carving directly into the rock. Using a technique which was to become more and more common as the 19th and 20th Dynasties progressed, they had been forced to coat the tomb walls with a thick layer of plaster. This had first been carved in raised relief and then painted with some of the most remarkable scenes ever to be recovered from the dynastic age. Schiaparelli recognized that the tomb was in a highly fragile state with the plastered walls showing considerable deterioration, the result of an unhappy combination of local landslides, the low situation of the tomb and the formation of crystallized salt deposits. Essentially, salt crystals were forming on the surface of the rock, pushing the plaster off the walls and so destroying the beautiful paintings. To make matters worse, several areas of paintwork were experiencing their own specific deterioration caused by the decomposition of the paint or its binding medium.

After decades of debate, recording and experimentation by many experts, the Nefertari conservation project, a joint enterprise conducted between the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation and The Getty Conser­vation Institute, has been able to mount a remarkable rescue operation, restoring many of the paintings to their original glory while avoiding the use of modem paint. The scenes once again glow with colour and life and, somewhat contrary to the advice of the conservators, the tomb of Nefertari has once again been opened to the public.

The artists who painted the tomb were not afraid to experiment with their medium. The introduction of shading ‑ the darkening of folds of garments and skin, and the use of red to emphasize the contours of the face and arms ‑ plus the use of a deep red for the lips brings a new life to the images. The carving in the tomb is of an extraordinarily high standard. Nevertheless, like so many Ramesside monuments there remain some signs of sloppy workmanship; paint‑splashes, misplaced guide‑lines, and un‑retouched smudged edges all speak of rapid painting and it is obvious, and curious, that the ceiling was painted last, allowing blue drips to sully the paintwork beneath. The differences in the workmanship of the various gangs who painted the tomb are obvious to the modern eye.

The ceiling of the tomb is a dramatic dark blue night sky spangled with golden stars while the walls detail, in logical progression from antechamber to burial chamber, Nefertari's arduous progress from death as an embalmed mummy to perpetual life in the Kingdom of Osiris. Chapters from the Book of the Dead, the essential spells which would guarantee Nefertari eternal life, are inscribed as an aid to the queen on her travels. In the antechamber we are shown the recently dead queen. Nefertari's mummified body lies on a bier protected by the divine mourners, Isis and Nephthys, who take the form of birds. Anubis, and the Four Sons of Horus, the divine beings most involved with the preservation of the body, are all present and Osiris himself appears to speak to the queen: 'I grant you eternity like Re, my father.' Here, too, in a separate scene we see Nefertari seated alone before her senet board; senet was a game enjoyed by the living but it was a game with strong religious undertones which would assist the deceased in the journey to the Afterlife. Within her tomb Nefertari is playing an invisible adversary and her victory ‑ the victory of her goodness and purity ‑ will help her to survive her forthcoming ordeals unscathed.

The entrance to the burial chamber is guarded by Maat, who opens her winged arms wide to protect the deceased. Within the chamber are representations of five of the twelve gateways to the Kingdom of Osiris, each guarded by three malevolent spirits. Nefertari must be able to name each of the gates, each of the gatekeepers and each of ten guards who squat, armed with large knives, in underworld caverns. Fortunately hieroglyphic inscriptions provide the correct answers. Finally, all ordeals successfully completed, the four columns surrounding the pink granite sarcophagus represent the resurrection of the queen. Here Horus appears as a priest to bring life to the deceased.

The Temple of Amun at Karnak – pp86-88

Seti's workmen were already well on with the decoration of the walls and columns. The exterior was eventually to be embellished with scenes of battle, including the ubiquitous Kadesh triumph, plus a copy of the Hittite peace treaty, while the interior was, as tradition dictated, to show scenes of a more religious nature, including the divine coronation of Ramesses. Now the workmen, busily carving the interior surfaces in the delicate raised relief favoured during Seti's lifetime, were ordered to adopt the faster, less elegant sunken relief which characterizes almost all of Ramesses' monuments.

This abrupt change in style seems somewhat shocking to modem observers, but the temptation to equate the raised relief with good artistry and the sunken relief with bad is one which should be resisted as a modem value judgement. To Ramesses, artistic standards were of secondary importance; his priority was to see the work completed in his own lifetime, if possible in a way which would prevent others from usurping his carvings. In this aim he succeeded. However, the difference in styles must have been obvious, even when covered in layers of paint, and Ramesses later returned to re‑carve sections of the raised relief so that it would appear that he had been responsible for the decoration of the entire hall. That his intention was to usurp rather than enhance is indicated by the alteration of Seti's cartouches to those of Ramesses.

Statues of Ramesses II – pp 99-102

The temples were, to the vast majority of the population, secret structures whose gates seldom opened and whose gods rarely ventured beyond the safety of their own shrines. The outer temple walls and gateways, decorated with scenes of the triumphant pharaoh defeating the enemies of Egypt, were all that the man or woman in the street could reasonably expect to see of the buildings which dominated his or her city, although during festivals the great wooden gates might be opened to allow access to the first open court. The chambers beyond this were unknown territory.

If the state gods remained hidden, and the king rarely appeared before his people, colossal images of Ramesses were everywhere. Ramesses commissioned at least fifty self‑portraits to grace his new capital, and all were life‑sized or larger. These statues, each of them named, were placed either in front of the temple pylon or within the first, public, temple court. Unfortunately almost all of these figures are now irredeemably fragmented, but we know from literary sources that Ramesses variously towered over the people of Pi‑Ramesse as ‘Montu [god of war] in the Two Lands’; ‘The God’; ‘Appearing Among The Gods’; ‘Beloved of Atum’; ‘Son of Rulers’; ‘Ruler of Rulers’; ‘Ramesses II Effective for Amen/Atum/Seth/Re’.

These statues were not merely enormous works of art. Highly visible to the ordinary people, each figure, like the king it represented, was seen as an intermediary standing partway between mortal man and the remote gods of the state pantheon. The colossi therefore became the focus of royal cults, developing their own hereditary priesthoods and supporting a full complement of cult officials including female singers and musicians. Citizens of all classes dedicated stelae to these statue cults. In theory the people were expressing their devotion not to the king himself, but to the office of kingship personified in the form of his colossal image. In practice it seems likely that many of the uneducated citizens, unaware of the complexities of Egyptian theology, were simply worshipping the statue.

Ramesses, by erecting his colossi, was providing his people with a simple, accessible focus for their religious feelings which official religion denied them. Furthermore, he was providing them with a means of expressing ‑ most publicly ‑ their loyalty to the crown. In this he was following well‑established tradition.

Although much of Ramesses' attention was focused on the building of Pi‑Ramesse, Memphis, too, benefited greatly from his generosity. Here he made substantial improvements to the Temple of Ptah, a temple founded by Amenhotep III and embellished by Seti I, which soon rivalled in size, beauty and possibly plan the complex of Amen at Thebes. Memphis was now dominated by giant images of the king, and at least eleven colossi ‑ whole or in pieces ‑ have been recovered from the environs of the Ptah Temple. These were statues built on a truly impressive scale; it has been estimated that the largest known example, represented by a massive fist now housed in the British Museum, would have stood some 70 feet (21 metres) tall. Of the two most complete a 35‑feet (10.5 metres) granite figure now stands in Ramesses Square, Cairo, where it dominates the entrance to the railway station, while a 42‑feet (12.5 metres) limestone Ramesses lies flat on its back in its own museum at Memphis. A third statue, rediscovered in large fragments in 1962, was restored in 1986 by an American team of conservators and sent on temporary loan to Memphis, Tennessee, where it formed the centrepiece of an exhibition dedicated to the life and times of Ramesses the Great.

Ramesses' workmen were armed only with saws (firstly copper, then bronze), drills, chisels and ball‑shaped hard‑stone hammers. His statues and obelisks were cut laboriously from the living rock by teams of workers who bounced their hammer‑stones again and again against the rock surface to dent it. Once the required shape had been substantially formed the colossus was dragged to the canal and loaded on to a barge. Pliny, like all classical authors, was deeply impressed by the size of Egypt's sculptures, and described in some detail the technique used for loading an obelisk:

A canal was dug from the River Nile to the spot where the obelisk lay and two broad vessels, loaded with blocks of similar stone a foot square ‑ the cargo of each amounting to double the size and consequently double the weight of the obelisk ‑ was put beneath it. The extremities of the obelisk remained supported by the opposite sides of the canal. The blocks of stone were removed and the vessels, being gradually lightened, received their, burden.

The barge was towed first to the Nile, and then to its intended destination. Here the removal of the figure from the barge, and the erection of the sculpture, posed major engineering problems. The exact method used has not yet been confirmed, but it is likely to have involved the construction of an earth bank which would allow the figure to be raised and then dropped, base forward, into position. The whole process was both laborious and time consuming; no wonder Ramesses preferred to adapt the monuments of his predecessors!

Cult statues need not be colossal. One beautiful granite statue, a 'mere' 7.5 feet (2.31 metres) tall, shows Ramesses in the form of a plump child crouching before the Semitic god Hauron who in turn takes the form of the Egyptian falcon god Horus. Ramesses appears as a typical boy. He is naked, has his hair dressed in the 'side‑lock of youth' and holds his right index finger to his mouth. In his left hand he holds the plant which symbolizes Upper Egypt. Only the sun disc and cobra at his brow betray his exalted status. His figure, however, if read as a series of hieroglyphs, is a visual pun on his name: Ra the sun god is represented by the solar disk; Ramesses assumes the attitude of mes, the hieroglyphic symbol for child; su the plant is held in his hand. The cult of this statue long outlived Ramesses; having started life at Pi-Ramesse it was eventually recovered from a Late Period mud‑brick shrine within the temple enclos­ure of King Psusennes I at Tanis, and is now housed in Cairo Museum.

Group statues ‑ statues showing Ramesses in association with one or more gods ‑ were manufactured as objects of worship to be placed in the sanctuaries and side chapels of the major temples, thus firmly associat­ing the mortal king with the worship of the divine gods . It is probably no accident that in many of the surviving examples the king is frequently better modelled, and more substantial, than his divine companions so that he effectively dominates the group. In many of the groups recovered from Pi‑Ramesse the deity even bears Ramesses' name, being labelled 'X of Ramesses', as in, for example, 'Ptah of Ramesses'. This direct association of Ramesses and god is found at other Ramesside cities, so that at Memphis we again encounter 'Ptah of Ramesses', at Hermopolis 'Thoth of Ramesses' and at Karnak 'Atum', 'Re', 'Amen' and 'Ptah of Ramesses'. These gods were worshipped alongside, rather than instead of, the more traditional Ptah, Amen, Aturn and Re. The precise meaning of the phrase 'of Ramesses' is not obvious, although it might simply indicate that the god was a resident of or welcome visitor to Pi‑Ramesse (Ramesses being used as an abbreviation of Pi‑Ramesse) or indeed that Ramesses, rather than the temple, owned the figure? Art historians have suggested other, more subtle interpretations: did they allow Ramesses to merge his identity more firmly with that of the particular god shown.


In ancient Egypt, gem carvings (glyptic art) in the form of scarab beetles and other sacred objects were worn for their religious significance. Both men and women wore jewellery as protection from evil and as a symbol of wealth and status as well as for adornment. Jewellery was worn by wealthy Egyptians in life, but it was also worn by them in death in order to assist in the journey to, and serve as comforts in, the afterlife. Unfortunately, tomb-robbers plundered much of Egypt's ancient treasures, some of which were recycled by successive Kings for their own use in the afterlife.

Although many treasures were lost to tomb-robbers and piracy, one insignificant king's treasure remained intact and unmolested for thousands of years. That king was the now famous Pharaoh Tutankhamun, son of either Amenhotep III or Akhenaten. His short reign as Pharaoh began at age 9. Although he ruled for only 9 years (1336 BC to 1327 BC), he was able to amass a legacy of wealth and treasure that lives on today. Given the size and scope of his wealth it is hard to imagine the vast wealth accumulated by long reining kings like Seti I or Ramesses II.

Although the Egyptians had access to precious gemstones, they preferred the colors they could create in glass over the natural colours of stones. For nearly each gemstone, there was a glass formulation used by the Egyptians to mimic its color. The coloration of the jewellery was very important to the Egyptians, and different colors had different meanings. Green coloured jewellery symbolized fertility and the new growth of crops. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead it was stated that the necklace of the God Isis around a mummy’s neck must be red to satisfy Isis's need for blood.

Most of the raw materials used for jewellery were found in or near Egypt, but silver and lapis lazuli were imported from other lands such as Afghanistan. Scarab or beetle-shaped amulets were associated with rebirth because dung beetles are noted for rolling dung into spherical balls, which are used as brooding chambers from which newborn beetles emerge.

from The History of Jewelry