When the French archaeologist Pierre Montet discovered the royal tombs atTanis.
near Cairo in 1939—40. he opened the tomb ofthe Pharaoh Psusennes I, which had
lain undiscovered for nearly 3000 years. Inside. lying on the mummified face ofthe king. was a magnificent and incredibly fragile gold mask. It was the image ofthe Pharaoh which he hoped to take with him into eternity, for the ancient Egyptians believed that they could defy death. Sally Kinnes looks at this unique civilisation.
The mask of Psusennes l. the highlight of the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition, was never intended to be seen. It was buried in the innermost part of Psusennes' tomb within a silver coffin. a black sarcophagus and a pink granite chest. Placed over the face ofthe mummified Pharaoh it had — like all Egyptian art — a specific purpose: to ensure the survival of the Pharaoh in the world beyond.
Death held many fears and problems for the ancient Egyptians. It was the ultimate contradiction in what they believed was a static. unchanging world. What was held to be ofsignificance was what had always been. It was a philosophy which in many ways accorded with their experience for the Pharaohs enjoyed an extraordinary political stability which continued virtually without serious political challenge for nearly 3000 years.
All their art suggests a solemn. unhurried and unalterable calm. One ofits most striking characteristics is that it didn‘t accept an infinity ofideas. A form of representation was established which was as true to a certain style at the beginning of the period as it was at the end — several thousand years later. There were ofcourse ﬂuctuations in detail and skill (and a remarkable period of aberration around 1370 BC when the 'heretic‘ Amenophis IV was king) but by and large its approach. purpose and aesthetic continued unchanged. Artists— and this is as true as the craftsman of Psusennes’ mask as it is ofany other — were not engaged for their originalin of thought.
What is astonishing about this incredibly fragile (it is a mere lmm thick) and centuries old mask. is not the individuality of its features— indeed the Pharaohs are distinguished by nothing so much as their apparent anonymity — but the extraordinary. highly organised and sophisticated civilisation of which it is a part.
It was a society distinguished by a rigorous hierarchy and not so much a supreme confidence as an intuitive. and therefore unshakeable. belief in the rightness ofthings. The
Pharaohs. it was believed. were descended from the original creator and the social and political order was therefore not a reflection ofthe cosmic order. It was part ofit.
The Pharaohs took their divinity very seriously. There were grave robbers even in antiquity and certainly when the French
GThe List 5 — 18 February 1988
archaeologist Montet discovered this tomb in 1939 he found thieves had been there before him. But no where is there the suggestion that the Egyptians tried to cheat their gods and bury false treasures.
What survives from the tombs impresses by its gravity. wealth and an endless capacity to take pains. Perhaps most touching ofall the objects in the exhibition are the hollow gold toe and finger-stalls. designed to be slipped over the mummified digits so the deceased could still use his hands and feet. Each is fashioned with a nail and a ring and they look like the snipped off ends of a pair ofgloves. (cat no 57)
The death mask of Psusennes was intended to eternalise his image though it is a deliberately stylized rendering. It was not that the craftsman lacked skill in observation - birds and fish in tomb paintings can still be identified according to their species. so accurate is the drawing. But a canon of rules was laid down which was strictly suited to the Egyptians' funerary purpose.
In making an image ofa man the main consideration was not to render his accurate appearance. but his completeness. As much information as possible is given as clearly and as unambiguously as possible. They knew for example that all the fingers of the hand were there even when they were partially obscured when grasping an object: so they drew them all. The characteristic view of the head. legs and feet was thought to be the profile and the body was inevitably shown from the side. The eye is always drawn from the front. — its most familiar and lifelike form. The shoulders. an acknowledged symbol ofstrength. should be shown to their best advantage. also from the front. As Gombrich points out in The History of Art. it was a method which obeyed a certain logic ‘for how could a man with his arm ‘foreshortened‘ or ‘cut off‘ bring or receive offerings to the dead?
As it was assumed that the deceased would continue to need the physical body in the afterlife. the body had to be carefully preserved. Mummification was standard. if rather gruesome. practice. It followed that the vital functions. breathing and eating. would need to continue. and the liver. lungs. stomach and intestines were. considerately. mummified too. A plaque (cat no 23) was placed over the abdominal wound to seal the body and the viscera. each
separately embalmed were transferred to individual miniature silver coffins (cat no 22) and placed in four canopic jars or receptacles (cat no 21) in the tomb.
After death the ancient Egyptians were imagined to be no less active in this life than they were in the next. Feast days were regularly held at the tombs and with their occupants apparently in attendance. Corridors and passages for communication with the world were built into some tombs and it was not unknown for the living to write to the dead in moments of great stress or difficulty. Yet they acknowledged no contradiction in the fact that the dead were also believed to return to the cosmos and take their place among the stars.
The plurality of contradictory beliefs and the profusion of their gods is characteristic of ancient Egypt‘s civilisation. The historian Frankfort explains it by saying that. in their multiplicity of approaches. they acknowledged the complexity of the problems facing man. ‘They did not attempt to solve the ultimate difficulties by a single and coherent theory but admitted side by side certain limited insights which were held to be simultaneously valid. each in its own proper context.” Other historians like Manchip White acknowledge that ‘the Egyptians believed the life spirit was protean. They believed in a ﬂuid life force that could be poured at will into any mould so. for example, the sky could become the belly of a cow.‘
Certainly they had no problem in finding gods manifest in animals. All animals seem to have held a religious significance. from Sobek who was found in the crocodile and symbolised the power of the Nile to flood the land in what was an almost rainless country, to Nut. the sky goddess who appears both as a woman and as a cow.
Strangely to us. the religion ofthe Pharaohs doesn’t seem to have had a moral dimension. The gods were heeded for their magical. not their moral properties and they were apparently untroubled by the concept of ‘sin‘ in any biblical sense. That they felt they had nothing to atone for makes only the more remarkable the fact that this astonishing civilisation should have piled up such treasures for their gods under the ground.
The (fold ofthe Pharaohs runs at the (try A rls Centre. Edinburgh. until April. Entry price is f I (65p).
CAPTIONS Above: Funerary Mask of Psusennes l. c 1000 BC. XXlst Dynasty.
The stylized beard. incised wig and the cobra at his torehead. poised and ready to strike at his enemies. are all traditional symbols olltingship. Since it was believed the Pharaoh returned to the gods from whence he came after death the maskwas fashioned in untarnishable gold. the very ‘llesh otthe gods'.
ll Psusennes was to live on in the beyond it is evident that he was going to do so in the splendour oi eternal youth. the ancient Egyptians being apparently no less preoccupied with youth than successive