Alison Jones discovers the reality of Ancient Egypt at an exhibition aiming to quash some of the more bizarre Hollywood theories.
Were the pyramids the work of aliens? Are the tombs of the Pharaohs cursed? And why would Raiders of the Lost Ark get a thumbs up from an Egyptologist when it comes to accuracy? A new exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry sets out to unravel some of these millennia old myths and mysteries, and also to expose visitors to pieces that have been packed away in storage, away from the public eye, for decades.
Secret Egypt has been curated by Chris Kirby, an Egyptologist and Head of Collections at the Herbert, together with his co-curator, and Keeper of Collections, Ali Wells.
Their aim was to create a showcase that stood out from other exhibitions, from the conventional displays of art or religious and historical objects.
“We wanted to take a subject that is generally well known but just approach it in a provocative and exciting way,” says Chris.
He was inspired by how much resonance the period still has today, that it continues to be a source of ideas for everything from blockbuster films, like Raiders, Stargate or The Mummy, to adverts for comparison websites.
“It has a got a lot of power in our society, it is something that people relate to. But there are misconceptions and misunderstandings about Ancient Egypt. In the exhibition we look at some of these enduring myths and at the evidence behind them, then we ask the visitor to reassess that evidence.”
The display will be divided into six themes, one of them sensationally titled “Did aliens build the pyramids?”, a tabloid-esque phrase that, Chris admits, got the British Museum a little rattled when he came asking for items to borrow.
“I think they were worried we were going to have some strange fringe theory going on but when I explained it they understood the approach.
“What the question does is demonstrate that there are some quite fantastic ideas about how ancient Egyptian monuments and pyramids were built, as if we had to find some science fiction explanation because it’s not possible for “primitive” people to have been able to build something as spectacular as the great pyramids.
“We say look at the evidence of Egypt a thousand years before the very first pyramids were built. They were quite a sophisticated society even then. They had complex religious beliefs. Technologically they were making beautiful pottery and carvings. If they could do that a thousand years earlier does it actually seem so surprising that they were able to achieve what they did?”
The Herbert only has a handful of Egyptian objects, not enough to put on a meaningful exhibition. For the past 18 months Chris has been “excavating” treasures from the stores of other galleries and museums, where they have so much they cannot put the artefacts on permanent display but keep them packed away in boxes, only making them available for research purposes.
More than 200 items have been amassed and will be on show at the Herbert from February 11 to June 5. Among the prize exhibits are a colossus of Ramesses II, on its first showing outside the British Museum for 40 years, and a never before displayed sandstone portrait of Queen Nefertiti from the Ashmolean.
“It is really unusual because it shows her as an older woman, with wrinkle lines,” reveals Chris,
There is also the remains of a mummy from Manchester Museum, though an alternative route round has been mapped out for those who don’t want to look.
However, there is really no escaping death at the museum – one of the highlights will be the recreation of a tomb for visitors to walk around.
Chris points out that the Ancient Egyptians weren’t a particular gloomy race and in fact they were obsessed with life or, more precisely, the afterlife.
“An awful lot of what we have from Ancient Egypt relates to death because it preserves better. The wonderful displays of artefacts will often be tomb goods – they are the things that survived the best because they were in the desert. Things that people had in their villages or houses have now been destroyed under later settlements, so you have that distortion.
“We want to show that actually the Egyptian tomb and the objects in it were designed to work as a machine that ensured the deceased was protected from all destructive outside forces and would survive in the next world.
“They had all these spells, images relating to food – so that magically the deceased was being fed – bedding, clothing, all things they’d need in the afterlife. There were special funery books, like the book of the dead, a guide book which allowed the deceased to go through to the next life.
“Putting all this together you’d think the Egyptians must have been pretty obsessed with death because of all the resources they put into it. But the end result of this was eternal life, that was what they were obsessed with.”
Though it is the lavishly decorated resting places of the Pharaohs that have captured the public imagination, even the humblest of their subjects would do what they could to ensure their passage to the hererafter.
“Occasionally what we find is you get very poor graves containing just the body, not properly mummified, and you might just have a simple string of beads. That might have been the best they could do but it demonstrates that, even for poor people, their hope and aspiration was to go through to the next life and take their tomb goods with them.”
The Egyptians also had quite a fixed idea of what eternity looked like.
“Images of it tend to show fields, canals, rivers, marshes with birds and fishes. It is clear that for them their ideal afterlife was Egypt – without the disease and nasty bits.”
We have been intrigued with Ancient Egypt ever since Howard Carter cracked open the tomb of Tutankhamun back in 1922. The discovery was embraced by the popular media. A dance was named after the young king. Stylistically its influence could be felt in everything from fashion to furniture.
The bright young things were not the first to fall under its thrall, however, even early foreign invaders were seduced.
“The best example of that is Alexander the Great, the Macedonian Greek, who came in and you got a dynasty of Greek rulers.
“People are very familiar with Greek culture, how powerful that was, but they completely adopted Ancient Egyptian motifs. They wore the clothes of Pharaohs, used hieroglyphs and built Egyptian temples.
Tourists going to Egypt today, a lot of the temples they are seeing were built by Greeks but they are completely Egyptian in style.”
One of the popular myths about the civilization is that anybody who disturbed a mummy would be cursed. When Chris was planning the exhibition he set out to debunk this but realised the evidence indicated that the Ancient Egyptians did believe in protecting the dead with spells and magic.
“One of our star pieces is a beautiful piece of jewellery from Manchester Museum. It is a pectoral, like a pendant that somebody would wear on their chest. It is gold open work with inland lapis lazuli and carnelian
“It was excavated in 1912. A skeleton was discovered crushed on top of the mummy and under the skeleton was this piece.
“It’s thought the skeleton was a thief who got into the tomb, ripped open the bandages to get this pectoral out and as they did the roof fell in on top of them and that’s the way they were found. That is why we have the piece because otherwise it would have gone. You might think that is quite a potent example...”
This macabre fascination with the idea of curses and re-animated bandage-swathed bodies lurching about has been fuelled by what we see in films and novels. Chris admits that he is unable to watch most of the movies that deal with the mythology as he is left cringing at the inaccuracies.
There is one that gets the professional nod of approval and that is Raider of the Lost Ark.
“The idea of the complete model of Tanis that the sun hits, nothing like that has been found. However, we know the Egyptians built temples where the alignment of the sun was very important and we know they built models.
“They (the filmmakers) have taken the evidence and ideas and produced a not unreasonable synopsis. It is quite impressive.
“I think that film did a lot for the whole romance of archaeology and for Ancient Egypt in particular.
“For some reason – I wish I could live up to it – I am called the Indiana Jones of the Herbert.
“I’m assuming I am the version of Indiana in the fourth film.”
* Secret Egypt is on at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum from February 11 to June 5. For more details go to www.secretegypt.org.uk