Tuesday 26 August 2008

Egyptian Letters from the British Museum

click on the slideshow to get to Picasa album that can be viewed full screen

We are quite priveleged to have institutions such as the British museum, where you can not only enjoy the exhibits but also photograph them. It was with a sense of anticipation that I therefore entered the imposing museum in London. I had no preconceptions subject wise and soon discovered the first delight at the inner Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, designed by Foster & Partners.

The giant quartzite 1400BC head of Amenhotep III in the courtyard led to the lower Eqyptian Gallery. Low light was the main challenge without a tripod. Using a telephoto lens (80mm-300mm equivalent) almost exclusively led to appreciation of a few individual objects, from the limestone Horus head to the giant scarab.

With a lifelong interest in Calligraphy, however, I was drawn to the hieroglyphs in stone and later, on wood and papyrus in the upper galleries. the added challenge to low light was reflections on the protective glass casings or frames on the latter exhibits. Again, rather than necessarily photograph entire subjects, I concentrated on elements or details.

Three trends immediately became apparent; the existence of parallel scripts (hieroglyphics & hieratic) right from 3000BC, the effect of different substrates and media and the considerable variation in quality and style.

Indeed the biggest surprise was that rather than the hieroglyphics preceding the invention of a more abstract writing, the hieratic script used for legal and priestly documents was already developed and in use at the start of the first dynasty 3000 yrs ago. Hieroglyphs existed in parallel and were mainly used in monuments and religious documents, where there was also a cursive hieroglyph script.

Writing in stone using a chisel or scraper versus painting or writing on a surface with ink also impacted on the representation of the hieroglyphs. Glyphs could be carved into the stone or made to emerge in bas-relief. Soft stone like limestone presented different challenges to working on granite. On papyrus or wood, the thickness of the pigment, the nature of the brush or pen allowed a wide variety of strokes that could be millimeter precise or flow more cursively with the hand in the act of writing.

Egyptian scribes and artists worked as part of a team and there was a trememendous millenial tradition of utilising consistent styles to demonstrate continuity and timelessness. And yet a closer look reveals tremendous variation in skill, style and attention to detail! One set of carvings exude sophistication and quality, whilst another is much coarser. Composition and style might be set but the slight changes in the proportions and spacing of glyphs or letters and the subtle flow of the strokes by different scribes are recogniseable.

New knowledge impacts on perception and a return visit to the Museum would now result in a different set of photos, perhaps following up on some of the themes discovered.

Mind you, there are also other ancient scripts contemporary with the Egyptions to pursue such as the Cuneiform and Meroitic, not to mention the derivative Demotic.


1. Wikipedia gives an excellent introduction to all the scripts mentioned here.

2. Cyril Aldred " The Egyptians" 3rd edition 1998, ISBN 0500280363, pp 204-207 gives an insight to the artists and scribes and how they worked, including 4h morning shift, lunch break 4h afternoon shift, skyving optional and servants to do the houseowrk.

3. Denys A Stocks "Experiments in Egyptian Archaeology" 2008, ISBN 0415306647 p96, available online on Google books, describes how flint tools might have been used to cut hieroglyphs.

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