Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 27, 2019
Campbell Price Pocket Museum: Ancient Egypt New York: Thames & Hudson, 2018. 288 pp.; 250 color ills. Paper $17.95 (9780500294086)

Pocket Museum: Ancient Egypt by Campbell Price is the fourth book of Thames & Hudson’s series Pocket Museum, preceded by volumes devoted respectively to ancient Rome, ancient Greece, and the Vikings. The book brings together nearly two hundred ancient Egyptian artifacts, spanning more than five thousand years (ca. 5300 BCE–395 CE), scattered in museum collections all over the world. The volume attempts to outline and reconstruct the history, system of beliefs, and social practices of ancient Egyptian civilization through the analysis of its material culture. The great potential of this volume lies in its innovative approach, based on the examination of a wide range of objects, which the author connects to one another in order to present and explain the character of ancient Egyptian society. Price demonstrates broad and deep knowledge of Egyptian material culture, and alongside some of the most famous masterpieces of ancient Egypt (the Rosetta Stone, the bust of Nefertiti, and the mummy mask of Tutankhamun) he discusses many less famous artifacts; he also often provides little-known anecdotes about the discovery of the pieces discussed. Each object is briefly described, contextualized, and then examined within an articulate network of relations that help the reader to understand more about the people who made, commissioned, and used the artifacts, as well as about their society.

A brief three-page introduction opens the book. There the author explains the aim of his work and describes the history of collecting ancient Egyptian artifacts, a practice that traditionally started on a large scale after Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798–1801 and the publication of the Description de l’Égypte (1809–29). In addition, the author draws attention to how the fashions of certain periods and the personal aesthetic preferences of collectors have affected modern knowledge of specific categories of objects, and consequently the ways in which the objects are displayed in museums and presented to the public. After the introduction the book provides a useful map of Egypt with the main archaeological sites mentioned in the following chapters, along with a timeline of the most relevant events of ancient Egyptian history.

The core of the work consists of seven chapters, which cover the material in a chronological order. Each chapter opens with a general overview of the relevant historical events, outlining the religious and funerary practices of the time, trade networks and routes, and issues of technology and craftsmanship. Within each chapter, objects are arranged according to themes: items of daily use and those related to the household, objects associated with the pharaoh and the state, jewelry used as adornment during life and/or for the afterlife, objects connected with religious practices, and items related to the funerary sphere. The author provides the date, materials, dimensions (both metric and imperial), provenance, and place of preservation for each object discussed. The book also includes a color image and a brief description for each artifact. Next to each object, little silhouettes of hands and human figures offer an idea of its size and scale. 

The first chapter, “The Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods (ca. 5300–2700 BCE): Egypt at Its Origins,” presents items related to the birth and development of the ancient Egyptian state. Price discusses the available information with which scholars have tried to shed light on these historical periods, which are characterized by the almost complete lack of written sources. His narrative of the Predynastic Period rests on objects that mainly belonged to funerary contexts rather than settlements, describing the funerary typologies and practices that revolved around the natural preservation of bodies due to the desiccating effect of the desert. He selects twenty-four distinctive objects related to these periods, including masterpieces like the Narmer Palette and the mace head of a Scorpion king. The funerary equipment presented here, such as jewelry, pottery vessels, graywacke palettes, and weapons, suggests that expectations about the afterlife already played a significant role in Egyptian thought and that funerary practices followed forms of social differentiation.

Next is “The Old Kingdom (ca. 2700–2055 BCE): The Pyramid Age and After,” which investigates the period that is mainly known for the building of the pyramids around sites close to the ancient capital, Memphis. Price describes how the ideology of kingship developed and introduces the typology of the royal tombs of the time, starting from the mud-brick mastaba tombs of the First and Second Dynasties through the step pyramid of King Djoser at Saqqara and up to the most famous monuments on the Giza plateau. An increase in the power of local governors characterizes the end of the Old Kingdom, resulting in a fragmented and regionalized state without a single pharaoh reigning over Egypt, or the First Intermediate Period (ca. 2160–2055 BCE). Twenty objects are described in this chapter, including an extremely rare wooden panel from the tomb of Hesire at Saqqara and the first examples of sculpture representing pharaohs, such as a statue of King Djoser and one of pharaoh Khufu.

Through the analysis of twenty-four objects in the third chapter, “The Middle Kingdom (ca. 2055–1550 BCE): A Cultural Renaissance,” Price examines the flourishing period known as the Middle Kingdom, conventionally starting when the ruler Mentuhotep Nebhapetre reunified the country, establishing Thebes as the political and religious center. What distinguishes this era is a significant innovation in the iconography of royal sculpture (see, for instance, the heads of Amenemhat III and Senwosret III) as well as the preservation of literary texts (e.g., the tale of Horus and Seth) and administrative texts that help us, alongside the archaeological record, to understand the society and bureaucracy of the time. Moreover, a wealth of information about military activities and religious beliefs during the Middle Kingdom is provided by biographical texts inscribed on tomb walls and religious texts on rectangular coffins, such as the box coffin of Seni.

In the fourth chapter, “The New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1069 BCE): Egypt’s Golden Age,” the author brings together forty-six items in order to illustrate the imperialistic phase of Egyptian history. Numerous objects from daily life are described, mainly from burials, as well as items from the workmen’s village of Deir el-Medina and from Amarna, such as a cuneiform tablet found in Amarna’s royal palace, which confirms the existence of diplomatic exchanges with the Near East.

The fifth chapter, “The Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1069–747 BCE): Egypt’s Silver Age,” presents nineteen objects related to this transitional era, during which the New Kingdom declined and regionalization emerged again as a distinctive feature of Egyptian political life. In the south, the power was held at Thebes by the high priests of Amun, who presented themselves as kings. In the north, power rested instead with the Delta-based Libyan kings and the region was fragmented into autonomous centers ruled by local potentates. By presenting a selection of objects, the author considers changes in funerary equipment, such as the increasing popularity of cartonnage mummy cases, shabtis (funerary figurines), and canopic jars.

The sixth chapter, “The Late Period (ca. 747–30 BCE): Egypt in an International Age,” describes thirty-eight items dated to the so-called Late Period. In those centuries, extended periods of foreign domination, such as by the Nubians, Assyrians, Persians, and Greeks, followed one another. These multiethnic cultures brought with them distinct iconographic features that Egyptian material culture soon assimilated, as is apparent, for instance, in the statuary of the Kushite kings or that of the Ptolemaic period. With his selection of artifacts, Price describes the new cultural affinity for mummified animals, usually donated as gifts to the gods, as well as the highest elite’s widespread practice of self-presentation in the form of statues dedicated in temples or placed in burial grounds.

The final chapter, “The Roman Period (ca. 30 BCE–395 CE): Rome in Egypt,” takes into consideration the historical period that traditionally begins with the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE by Octavian, the future emperor Augustus. Augustus and his successors maintained good relationships with Egyptian religious hierarchies, representing themselves on the walls of temples as pharaohs and in acts of devotion to the Egyptian gods, thus implicitly supporting the Egyptian religion and customs. Twenty-one items are presented here, showing relevant changes in iconography and material culture. Artifacts of this period, such as the statue of Anubis in the Vatican Museums or the Osiris-in-hydria jar, show how the beliefs and customs of the two civilizations merged.

The book then closes with a two-page glossary, a general index, and a museum index, which provides a full list of the objects presented throughout the volume, organized by place in alphabetical order. A compact and attractive volume, Pocket Museum: Ancient Egypt is illustrated with large, high-quality, full-color images; they are reproduced with good contrast and are well integrated with the text. Price’s book can be enjoyed by specialists, but the volume will be most beneficial to those nonspecialist audiences interested in deepening their knowledge of ancient Egyptian art and society. The combination of a chronological approach and the descriptions of famous artifacts alongside less well-known items is an inspiring and engaging way to present ancient Egyptian art within the fabric of its political, social, and economic history to a larger public. The inclusion of bibliographic references and accession numbers for each work would have helped the readers to improve their knowledge of specific subjects and objects, but overall, the author provides an excellent, comprehensive picture of Egyptian material culture as a means to understand broader social questions.

Elena Tiribilli
Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Archaeology, Durham University, United Kingdom