1 November 2009
Slow turning wheels on which craftsmen shape their moist clay into pots, artists dyeing the pots and decorating them with various colours, men brewing beer while others prepare flasks for the beer, are all part of the busy marketplace of the ancient city of Athribis.
Thus begins Ramose’s trip into the professional world. The young trainee Ramose is guided by Superintendant of the Draftsmen and his father’s friend Neferho to find and follow a profession.
The young trainee’s journey continues to the artists’ village, where he sees and learns from the artists decorating tombs, sculptors chiselling statues, painters working on tomb walls and craftsmen carving their holy language of hieroglyphs on walls for eternity.
The busy work scene which Ramose explores is right in the heart of the Australian Museum in Sydney. It is the exhibition of Egyptian treasures: Arts of the Pharaohs.
The exhibition features 250 ancient Egyptian antiquities from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. These treasures have been on display in a world tour to Singapore, Korea and Australia, according to exhibition curator, Elizabeth Cowell.
The design of the exhibition is based on the journey made by Ramose and Neferho, who were real characters who lived about 350BC. The museum’s treatment of this exhibition of Egyptian treasures took a different turn from their previous exhibitions.
“We wanted to do this differently we wanted to concentrate on the artist and craftsmen to try and build on the layers of information they already have, this is another way of looking at the ancient artefacts.” Ms Cowell says.
Upon entering the exhibition one sees silver square panels that make up the gate grow smaller giving the effect of a tightening tomb entrance. Once inside, sounds of chiselling, carving, and marketplace trading are echoed throughout the exhibition emphasising the ambience of the busy ancient Egyptian town of Athribis.
The exhibition is divided into three rooms each featuring specific treasures that represent different professions. The further we go in, the more sophisticated the profession becomes.
The first room, which represents the marketplace features tools that were used in this era as vessels, pots, beer flasks and ushabtis (votive figurines) as well as mummified animals such as cats and small crocodiles. The antiquities on display represent simple uncomplicated work of artistry that didn’t require much skill or talent.
Moving up the scale of professions, Ramose moves further into the artists’ village to learn professions of higher skill as writing, sculpting, carving, jewellery making and painting.
These skilled professions where limited to creative artists because their work was essential in recording everything and their sculptures and carvings made life eternal. Because of their outstanding artistry these craftsmen had their own village dedicated for their work.
As they toured in the village of artists Neferho explained to Ramose, “Through sculpture and carving, you will speak to our gods and give the king a suitable place for his ka and make him justified and beautiful in rest.” Here a variety of artwork, that used to be placed in tombs as funerary cones as well as tools that were used for work such as mallets, is on display. An ostracon (clay tablet) is on display with a mirror behind to show drawings on the back of it. The drawing shown was used as a model for them to carve through.
“You see here a lot of detailed workmanship that the workmen from the villages put into the tombs and the decorations. The work is beautiful, absolutely beautiful. The stelae particularly are just lovely to look at and beautifully carved. How they managed to carve same figures back to back, if they were left handed or right handed, I just don’t know; but they sure managed to make the figures identical even though they are back to back” a visitor, Nicholas Christian, says.
Leading the way into the third room of more sophisticated artistry are two Serapeum sphinxes, made of limestone and dating from the Ptolemaic Period.
Ms Cowell explains that they were placed alongside mirrors to give the same visual effect as the sphinxes lining the procession pathways before temples.
Larger than life statues such as a pair statue of the god Horus and Pharaoh Horemheb and a statue of an elephant, dating back to 3500 BC the oldest piece in the exhibition, stand in the middle of the third room with mirrors showing artists’ inscriptions at the back of the statues.
Contrary to most Egyptian depictions of lions at rest, a statue of a lion in the full action of devouring a bull with its teeth in the bull’s neck is on display. The statue represents the lion god Miysis, the principal god of Leontopolis in the eastern Nile delta.
Last but not least the master craftsman takes Ramose through to show him where the coffin is done.
“As a painter, you will add colour, depth and realism to tomb walls and carvings: a noble job indeed. As the heavens and the earth are ruled by divine order, your brush will create harmony and clarity with balanced forms and clear outlines.” Neferho explains to Ramose.
As Ramose goes further to learn more sophisticated professions so do visitors as they enter the third segment of the exhibition where three mummies are on display and x-rays of the mummies show how one of the mummies had two babies inside.
“So far it looks really good I like to watch movies about mummies and things so it’s amazing to actually see that they really did exist and how true to life the cinematographers made it.” Laura Kelly, a visitor at the museum says.
Families with children have expressed admiration at the antiquities and the preservation of mummies across the years.
Stephen and Natalie Byrne visited the museum and explained to their children Isaac and Mia the mummification process as they admired the mummies.
“It has made me realise how little I know about the Egyptian history and all of this … Isaac is going to talk about his visit to the museum at school,” Natalie Byrne said.
Pointing to the lying coffin of a mummy, Mia said it was so amazing and it was the thing she liked the most.
“I like the cultures” Isaac Byrne said.
“We’re trying to appeal to all levels so you’ve not only got the under 5s but you’ve also got the adults who are really culturally aware of Egypt and its historic value and so on.” Ms Cowell says.
Ramose finishes his trip by visiting the jewellery section where jewellery in ancient Egypt was an important craft because it provided protection. As Neferho explained to Ramose “Our jewellery must be beautiful as it protects us from the dark gods who cause chaos and sickness.”
The exhibition combines jewellery antiquities from ancient Egypt with modern day jewellery designs to emphasize the influence of modern day designs by ancient art.
“I looked at the jewellery from ancient Egypt and I kept thinking about some of the jewellery that I see in the shops today and I couldn’t believe the similarities in the colours and the shapes and so on so it was that juxtaposition that I wanted to introduce into the exhibition because it also shows how relevant ancient art can be in today’s design.” Ms Cowell says.
The exhibition is held from 13 September to 6 December. Antiquities are not the only feature of the Egyptian treasures exhibition, there are many activities that would involve kids and adults as well as lecturers invited to give speeches on topics involving ancient Egyptian treasures.