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Art Review

The Linen Age

'Egyptian Treasures From the British Museum,' a fascinating exhibition at Bowers Museum, allows visitors to look back at an ancient world that they may have thought of as a dress rehearsal.

October 16, 2000|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The ancient Egyptians had some wild ideas about the afterlife. But even the most powerful pharaohs couldnot have anticipated the international trips on which some mummies would actually embark, nor how their funerary objects would capture the imaginations of contemporary viewers.

Take, for example, "Egyptian Treasures From the British Museum," a well-selected sampling of more than 100 pieces, including exquisite sculptures, lovely amulets, finely crafted bracelets, luxurious household items, vivid pictures painted on beautifully preserved sheets of papyrus and freakish curiosities now on display at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art.

Before its stop in Santa Ana, this intriguing exhibition traveled to Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. Long before that, its first-rate pieces made their way into the British Museum's collection by more nefarious routes. Like many ancient artifacts in prestigious international collections, most of these passed through the hands of ancient and modern grave robbers, some of whom sought to turn a quick profit while others defended their plunder in terms of the historical scholarship it would produce. All of these works have led many lives, outlasting a culture famous for its millennium-spanning longevity.

The centerpiece of the show, a magnificently painted carved-wood coffin containing a superbly wrapped mummy, attests to the difficulty of reconstructing the original contexts of its objects. Standing upright, the coffin's lid portrays Horaawesheb, an incense bearer from the temple of the god Khonsu in Thebes. The red-brown color of the stylized face and hands identifies him as a man (lighter yellows and fleshy tints were used to represent women, who, confined to homes and palaces, rarely had the suntans of men). The hole in the chin, to which a divine beard was once attached, is another unmistakably male attribute.

Festooned with hieroglyphics, Horaawesheb's extravagantly patterned robe divides neatly into sections reminiscent of comic-strip frames. Prominently displayed are the underworld's denizens, including Horus, Thoth, the Four Sons of Horns, the vulture Nekhbet, the knife-wielding lion-headed Wadjyt and the goddesses Maat, Osiris, Isis and Nephthys. Other sections depict a menagerie of funerary bulls, undulating snakes, kites and beetles. Together, the deities and beasts were meant to usher the robe's wearer safely through the afterlife.

Lying horizontally, the base of the equally detailed coffin contains a mummy that, despite being wrapped in an estimated 448 square-yards of unwrinkled linen, reaches only to the shoulders of the body-shaped container. A wall-label informs viewers that X-rays have revealed that this mummy is that of a young woman. Although various nobles regularly usurped the tombs of members of previous dynasties, it is assumed that this meticulously embalmed body was put into Horaawesheb's coffin much more recently--probably by sleazy middlemen who sought to make a more attractive package for the British Museum's buyers.

The only other mummy displayed is that of a cat, wrapped so that its multilayered strips of dyed linen form a complex geometric pattern. About 800 years younger than Horaawesheb, the cat dates from the Greco-Roman Period, about 30 BC, when it was popular for pilgrims to place mummified pets at the altars of the gods they represented.

Shaped like elongated bowling pins, cat mummies were typically topped with plaster and linen masks, on which skilled artisans rendered unique and expressive faces. The one at the Bowers Museum is no exception. Its up-turned eyes and slightly worn facial features give it the forlorn poignancy of a child's abandoned toy.

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Once again, X-rays suggest something like foul play. To achieve the properly tapered shape, a cat's front legs were folded down its chest and its back legs were folded up. If necessary, limbs were broken. More surprisingly, few of the cats that have been examined were more than two years old when they were mummified; many have broken necks or head injuries. This suggests that they were killed to meet the demands of the market, the fashion for placing these votive symbols on altars having displaced their original religious purposes.

To visit the six theatrically lit, handsomely installed galleries is to feel as if you have one foot firmly planted in the world of scholarly integrity (where knowledge, truth and historical accuracy reign) and the other in that of less savory, more voyeuristic activities (where the awesome beauty or the sheer oddness of the looted booty outweighs civilized ideas about the sovereignty of a nation's cultural patrimony).

Amid artifacts of exceptionally high quality, all but three of which date from 1800 BC to 30 BC, outstanding examples abound. A stylized yet astonishingly lifelike cow's head, carved from a chunk of milky white alabaster around 1450 BC, represents the god Hathor. Paradoxically, its damaged state intensifies its haunting power.

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