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ART : Can You Dig It? : LACMA's 'American Discovery of Ancient Egypt' brings achievements of U.S. archeologists to light.

November 05, 1995|Hunter Drohojowska-Philp | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Indiana Jones notwithstanding, when the subject of ancient Egypt comes to mind, whether it is the opening of King Tut's tomb or the deciphering of hieroglyphics, Europeans have most often been in the spotlight. But during the 20th Century, Americans have had more than their share of the action. That is the subject of "The American Discovery of Ancient Egypt," opening today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

To bring to light the achievements of American archeologists and present more than 250 objects spanning 4,500 years, Nancy Thomas, LACMA curator of ancient and Islamic art, and Gerry Scott III, curator of ancient art at the San Antonio Museum of Art, worked with scholars from around the country and the American Research Center in Egypt.

From the Pre-Dynastic Era, about 4000 BC, to the end of the Roman occupation of Egypt in AD 395, the Egyptians produced a stunning array of sculpture, jewelry, tools, vessels and other objects, which they often buried with their dead in private tombs. Because of the dry desert climate, many of these objects, even complex sculptures and hieroglyphic reliefs, have survived in surprisingly good condition, down to bright paint that looks as though it was applied yesterday.

Unlike their European counterparts, American archeologists did not confine their explorations to Egypt proper but included the entire Nile Valley. An important aspect of LACMA's exhibition is the attention to the culture of Nubia, now Sudan, which developed parallel to Egypt but with different customs.

"The focus on America is new for an exhibition," Thomas says, "and a subject that has never been explored. There was a burst of American activity from 1899 to the early 1930s and then a lull until the mid-'60s, when there was a resurgence of American projects in Egypt. That was a result of the Nubian Salvage Campaign, when scholars from around the world rushed to save valuable sites from flooding as the Aswan High Dam was to be completed. "It seemed logical to step back and look at both those periods of activity," she says.

Currently, she said, there are about 42 excavations by American scholars under way in Egypt, such as the tomb of the sons of Ramesses II that made international news last May. But she points out that there is an emphasis on conservation that outweighs the acquisition of objects today. "These sites are being destroyed slowly, due to weather, the rising water table, wind and salt. It is urgent to conserve them and record the facts for the future."

She mentions the tomb of Nefertari, which was deteriorating rapidly before the recent intervention of the Getty Conservation Institute. Photomurals documenting such conservation efforts are included in the show.

At the entrance to the exhibition, as a symbol, Thomas has placed a 26th Dynasty sarcophagus purchased in 1900 by William Randolph Hearst. It represents a dividing line between a time when major pieces were purchased in Egypt without much regard for the culture, and the start of the American excavations when knowledge of what these objects meant became important.

"It sets up the theme of the American collector going to Egypt in the 18th and 19th centuries and acquiring objects that eventually wound up in museums," Thomas says. "There were people like Charles Wilbour, who was the first American scholar to deal with Egypt in an appropriate way, learning the language, reading hieroglyphics. He made invaluable contributions to the study of Egyptology and the objects he collected wound up in the Brooklyn Museum."

The first galleries of the exhibition include objects purchased by Wilbour and others, as well as objects that came to the United States as the result of American patronage of British excavations led by Flinders Petrie for the Egypt Exploration Fund and the British School of Archeology. The rest of the exhibition proceeds chronologically to document the cultural history of Egypt and Nubia and to demonstrate the role of American archeologists.

At the turn of the century, California played a significant role. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, wife of mining millionaire George Randolph Hearst, was the first to underwrite an American expedition to Egypt, in 1899, led by George Andrew Reisner, then associated with UC Berkeley. She continued to sponsor the excavations until 1903.

As Hearst decreased funding, Reisner was lured away by Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Many objects discovered by Reisner are on loan to the exhibition, including a Pre-Dynastic slate palette from around 3900 BC, shaped like twin birds and used to grind eye pigments. The pigments were used not only for cosmetic reasons, but also to diminish chances of eye disease, Thomas says.

The Early Dynastic Period beginning in 2920 BC developed after Upper and Lower Egypt were unified and the culture first achieved literacy. While still at Berkeley, Reisner excavated copper tools--an ax, chisel and adz--from the Second Dynasty of this period.

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