Chapter 37: The Complexity of Egyptian Art

Egyptian art is indeed complex and its 3,000 year evolution makes it practically impossible for any expert to master completely its many phases. In particular, Amarna art is perhaps the most complex in all the history of ancient Egypt. At times, art stylists, historians and art dealers differ greatly on the nature of a given object as far as the period, subject, or other factors are concerned. Note that I have added to the art stylists and historians, "art dealers" since many of them do research the artifacts they handle. To give an idea of how complex Egyptian art is, given below are a few examples of artifacts that were attributed to a certain period by some scholars, yet were attributed to a completely different period by others. It goes without saying that certain objects authenticated by some could be labelled spurious by others.

The first example is a painted limestone head, the "Salt Head," (illustrated and mentioned in several publications).

"Head of a Young Man (the Salt Head). IV Dynasty (?) The so-called Salt Head -named after its former owner - has been dated to periods as much as fourteen centuries apart, a startling difference of opinion which is explicable only in the case of art like Egypt's, where the artistic language crystallized at dawn of its history and remained uninflected by the passing of the centuries. This head is problematic because of its relative independence of the Egyptian aesthetic code. It has a naturalism characteristic of just two phases in Egyptian art - the Old Kingdom, with its nascent realism, and the Amarna phase, with its markedly realistic trend. The Salt Head seems to fit better into the second of the two because of its "Life-mask" quality typical of certain works from the Amarna epoch."

Question: Which period does the "Salt Head" really belong to? IV, V Dynasty or Amarna Period? (XVIII Dynasty)? A startling difference of circa 1,400 years apart!

The second example is in the catalogue of The Brooklyn Museum, 1960, "Egyptian Sculptures of the Late Period." This catalogue was compiled by Dr. Bernard Von Bothmer - a scholar who specialized in the Late Period - in collaboration with Professor Herman De Meulenaere, on the occasion of an exhibition held at the Brooklyn Museum.

Sculptures in the round and some reliefs of the Late Egyptian period were loaned by a total of fifty-seven museums, collectors and "art dealers" from around the world. The foreword of the catalogue was written by Dr. John D. Cooney, Curator of Ancient Art at the Brooklyn Museum, who concluded the following: "The dates and attributions listed in the catalogue are frequently at wide variance with those of the owners or with those found in earlier publications. Praise or censure for these rests with the compiler of the catalogue, Bernard V. Bothmer." - "frequently at wide variance." This catalogue is impressive and the work of Dr. Bernard V. Bothmer, in this instance, is quite remarkable and deserves the praise and admiration of all.

The catalogue refers (pp.6-7) to a limestone relief of Akhamenru, High Steward of Shepenwepet II, of the end of Dynasty XXV, about 660 B.C., which "is a fine example of the classicist tendencies prevailing in private relief work of the XXVth Dynasty." A little further, Bothmer wrote: "Were it not for the inscription, one might wonder if this relief did not come from a tomb of the Middle Kingdom [Dynasty XI-XII, 2052-1786 B.C.], and indeed it is so fine that it might well baffle an expert." (Baffle! And how many years between 660 and 2052-1786?)

Although not relevant to this particular chapter, two other examples are cited from the 1960 Brooklyn catalogue.

"A replica"!

The 1973 Catalogue of the Brooklyn Museum, "Akhenaten and Nefertiti" by Cyril Aldred, deals only with the Amarna Period.

Aldred wrote concerning a relief (Fig. 125, p. 193): "Only the lower part of the face and part of the shoulder and right arm with hand grasping stalks of grain are here shown in sunk relief, but the complete portrait must have been nearly life size. This incomplete portrait has been identified by Cooney (see bibliography) as that of a man and by Roeder (see bibliography) definitely as Akhenaten. To this writer, however, the soft features and short, firm chin suggest a woman, and the wig, evidently of the short Nubian type, confirms this view, for coiffures of this fashion were virtually a monopoly of royal ladies at Tell-el-Amarna. The life-size scale of the carving and its high quality reflects the importance of the person represented, who possibly was Nefertiti but more likely Merytaten (No.120)."

Thus three scholars differ greatly about the relief studied. Does it represent a man, or "definitely" Akhenaten, or "possibly" Nefertiti, or "more likely" Merytaten?

Another interesting - possibly intriguing - example in the catalogue is Fig. 128, p. 195, a relief of a "Head of a Young Girl, Late Period (?)": "Gunther Roeder identified the subject as a Nubian raising his hands in adoration, but H.W.Muller has seen in the representation a princess with the delicate face of a young girl, and with him the present writer is in agreement. The features show none of the grim lines given to Nubians in the Amarna Period (No. 37), and the shocks or tufts of hair characteristic of people from the south are entirely lacking."

Here again, scholars disagree: Is the subject a Nubian male or an Amarna princess, an Egyptian? Do Nubians have Egyptian features or characteristics? Or is Amarna art and style baffling or puzzling? And the interrogation mark "(?)" after "Late Period" is noteworthy. Could this relief really be of the Late Period? It certainly may or may not, since a great scholar marked it so.

Another example is the relief No. 121, p. 190, of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. In his Commentary, Aldred writes: "The authenticity of the Brooklyn relief has been doubted by some who feel that it does not possess the true 'Amarna vibrancy.' Since Charles Edwin Wilbour purchased the model at Tell-el-Amarna on December 21, 1881, six years before the discovery of the cuneiform archives had brought notoriety to that site, there is no doubt of the antiquity of the piece." Mr. Aldred confirms the authenticity of this relief not on a stylistic study but on the fact that it had been purchased by Wilbour in 1881. In an article published in KMT, A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, winter 1993-94 issue, Dr. Richard A. Fazzini of the Brooklyn Museum, declared that this famous "Wilbour Plaque" had been purchased by Wilbour at Amarna in 1890 for $5.00. Whether Wilbour purchased the relief in 1881 (according to Aldred) or in 1890 (according to Fazzini) and since the authenticity of the Brooklyn relief has been doubted by some who feel that it does not possess the true "Amarna vibrancy," doesn't it make sense that this relief should have been subjected by the Brooklyn Museum to scientific tests to settle the matter as the Mansoors did with their sculptures not once, but more than fifteen times?

And just for the record: The Tell-el-Amarna site was known long before the discovery of the cuneiform archives (the Amarna tablets). A fragment of a royal head presumably portraying Akhenaten (Fig. 2, p. 90) had been presented to the British Museum in 1853, by a gentleman named John Shae Perring, a British civil engineer who lived and worked in Egypt from 1836 to 1840. One must assume that he had acquired this head during his stay in Egypt (see Who Was Who in Egyptology, 1972). Butt even if Mr. Perring had acquired this fragment after he had returned home to England, the fact remains that the fragment had been presented to the British Museum in 1853, thirty-four years before the discovery of the Amarna tablets. Also, in 1843-45, a Prussian expedition headed by the famous German Egyptologist, Richard Lepsius, had visited the Amarna region twice, and had made copies and a squeeze of boundry of stelae "N." This also took place at least forty-two years before the discovery of the Amarna Tablets.

Copyright © 1995 Christine Mansoor

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