Art in Ancient Egypt: Themes, Ideas, Materials, Subjects, Styles, Reuse and Usurpation

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11th Dynasty funerary statue
Although the ancient Egyptians had no word for “art” they revered beauty and produced architecture, reliefs, paintings, murals, statues, decorative arts, and a variety of crafts. Subjects in Egyptian art included gods, pharaohs, the Nile, gardening and everyday urban and rural life. Human figures, whether they were kings in battle, fishermen catching fish or village women washing clothes are presented in a kind of idealized form: healthy, young and contented.

In most cases we have no idea who the artists were. Artists did not sign their names to works and objects tended to be created by teams who worked in workshops or on site. Stone cutters carved the hieroglyphics. Gem cutters and metal workers inserted precious stones and other objects into the eyes. And painters added the vivid colors. Often artists were employees of the state and their main duty was to make the pharaoh and those who employed him look good. The status of skilled artisans was a little bit below that of scribes.

So many splendid works of Egyptian art have come down to us today because they were made of durable materials like stone and clay and the hot desert air of Egypt has been ideal for preserving them. Most objects were excavated from the tombs of kings, queens and nobility.

The best collections of Egyptian art are found at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Egyptological Museum in Leiden, and the Fondazione Museo delle Antichita Egize di Torino in Turin, Italy. There is so much ancient Egyptian art out there that many museums have fine collections and lots more have at least a few pieces and a lot of art is in the hands of private collectors. Much of the art and artifacts housed in the British Museum came to Britain in the 19th century and were part of the booty of returning diplomats and aristocrats.

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Discovering Egypt; BBC History: Egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt; Egypt’s Golden Empire; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt; Ancient Egypt Magazine; Egypt Exploration Society ; Amarna Project; Egyptian Study Society, Denver; The Ancient Egypt Site; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East; Egyptology Resources

Books: “Hidden Treasures of Ancient Egypt” by Zahi Hawass (National Geographic, 2004)

Ancient Egyptian Art, Death and Unchanging Egypt

Much of the ancient Egyptian art that has made it to us today was oriented towards death, the dead and the quest for the afterlife. The Egyptians believed that artistic renderings of images placed in tombs would become real and accompany the deceased to the afterlife. Some scholars say the Egyptian belief in the afterlife is what helped ancient Egypt survive even after the empire had died.

Plato once said that Egyptian art has not changed in 10,000 years although scholars prefer to use the word "enduring" and "continuous" there is some truth to Plato's remark. One dimensional figures with their left foot forward surrounded by symbols like falcons, papyrus reeds appeared around by 3000 B.C., and endured until about A.D. 500 with few changes.

The earliest wall paintings in tombs which date back to 3200 B.C. looked like glorified stick figures. By 3000 B.C., Egyptian art was in form were are familiar with today.

While ancient Egyptian art is regarded as static there have been some developments over time, with artists findings modes of expression within strict rules. While poses are often the same, faces and expressions can be highly individualized. It can be argued that Christian art was equally static. There are many images of Jesus on the Cross with individual works having their own modes of expression. See Expression Below

Individuality and Ordinary Life in Ancient Egyptian Art

Statues of Shepherd Kings
Souren Melikian wrote in New York Times the remarkable show “Haremhab, the General Who Became King” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the summer of 2011"which zooms in on the time of Haremhab, the military chief who wielded immense power before ruling as a pharaoh from around 1316 to 1302 B.C.”dispels the long-held myth that ancient Egypt was a culture solely concerned with timeless icons of gods and kings in postures dictated by canon even if that is not the purpose of the show. Viewers discover that images of humans lost in their private thoughts and beset by anxiety already appeared in Egypt by the mid-third millennium B.C. [Source: Souren Melikian, New York Times, May 20, 2011]

Among a few works serving as an introduction to Haremhab’s lifetime, the small figure of a scribe, probably from Saqqara in the area of ancient Memphis, is seen seated cross-legged, holding a papyrus scroll unrolled on his lap. The hieroglyphic inscription engraved on the scroll states his name, Nikare, and his title, scribe, one of the highest offices in the ancient Egyptian administration.

At first glance, the granite statue follows the canonical representation of the official who mastered the difficult art of hieroglyphs. On closer inspection, a personalized portrait can be made out. The man, no longer in his prime, is hunched, as if bending under the weight of his concerns. Light furrows come down from his nose. No smile lights up his face. Subtle as it may be, the suggestion of weariness is unmistakable in Nikare’s three-dimensional likeness.

About four centuries later, an artist carving scenes on the limestone walls of a funerary chamber in ancient Thebes, depicted another scribe with his reed brush stuck behind his ear. A tiny fragment, 10.9 by 9.2 centimeters, or 4 5/16 by 3 5/8 inches, is preserved, showing part of the head in profile. Excavated by a Metropolitan Museum team around 1911-12, it is believed to date from 2000 B.C., give or take 20 years. The tomb was that of a pharaoh’s vizir called Dagi who may have employed the scribe. The man stares glumly. His raised eyebrow suggests incredulity. If the sculptor meant to convey the shock of a man who has suddenly been made aware of his mortality, he could not have done it better.

At rare intervals, the private life of ancient Egyptians and the feelings that they experienced moved artists to stray away from the beaten path. An intriguing sculptural group of two men at different stages of life and a young boy at their side was probably carved during the reign of Akhenaten, the pharaoh who revolutionized Egyptian thinking by proclaiming that there is only one God, some time between 1349 and 1332 B.C. On the low reliefs that depict him, Akhenaten is seen with a smile of mystical illumination. But when looking at the father and son, the anonymous artist portrayed ordinary humans.The father, who stands in the middle, embraces his son in a protective gesture, with his hand coming down over the boy’s shoulder. A sense of harmonious intimacy emanates from the happy family scene.

But, even when they set out to portray the great and the good, the ancient Egyptian artists sometimes took note of the sitters’ frame of mind. Idealized as it is, the famous Metropolitan Museum’s statue of Haremhab as a scribe, carved when he was still a general, betrays a certain weariness: hardly surprising in a man who had a full hand — as the commander in chief of the Egyptian army, he organized campaigns against the Hittites in faraway Anatolia to the northeast and Nubia on the southern front.

Lesser characters were prone to be depicted in a more individualized fashion. The small granite figure of an unidentified scribe carved between 1295 and 1070 B.C. shows a man looking alert and concerned. Eyes wide open, with his eyebrows slightly raised, the scribe presses his lips as if he had just been given an admonition about his performance.

Humor, Sarcasm and Prejudice in Ancient Egyptian Art

20120216-Satirical_papyrus 222.jpg “A strong sarcastic strain comes out here and there, mostly in very small pieces,” Souren Melikian wrote in New York Times. “The ancient Egyptians were not above expressing their dislike of foreigners. Warfare repeatedly pitched the pharaohs against the Semitic states of the Near East. The unknown artist who engraved an ivory plaque destined to adorn a piece of furniture clearly did not have much sympathy for the Assyrians.A prisoner wearing the Assyrian princely attire is depicted raising his arms, tied around the wrists. He seems to be wriggling in a curious quasi-dancing posture. The Assyrian’s goggle-eyed stare makes him a figure of fun. [Source: Souren Melikian, New York Times, May 20, 2011]

Relations between the ancient Egyptians and the Nubians who lived south of their territory were not the best either. A small limestone trial piece was dug up at Tell el-Amarna by William Flinders Petrie during his 1891-92 excavation campaign. The sculpture in sunken relief portrays a man with curly hair and exaggerated protruding lips. This is a caricature, definitely not meant to flatter the model.

The museum label dates the small plaque to the reigns of Akhenaten or Tutankhamun, adding that it is “reminiscent of the images of Nubians and West Asians found in Haremhab’s tomb at Saqqara.” At that time Haremhab was still the commander of Tutankhamun’s army. Apparently, the dour general wasted no love on his foes. This was an ethnocentric culture that took an unfavorable view of outsiders.

It is only fair to add that the ancient Egyptians’ sense of fun could sometimes be turned on the sacred symbols of their own religion.Toth, the god of writing, accounting and other intellectual pursuits, was associated with two animals, the baboon and the ibis. A marvelous group on loan from the Louvre, which was carved under Amenhotep III (1389-49 B.C.), portrays the royal scribe Nebmerutef. The official reads a scroll with the faintest smile of concentrated attention. This is a man aware of his power to get things done. Perched on a pedestal next to him, a baboon with bushy eyebrows frowns, creating an irresistibly comical effect.

Artists retained their sense of fun right down to the end of ancient Egypt. A small turquoise faience baboon, 8.8 centimeters high, is a masterpiece of understated irony, so discreetly wielded that one cannot be absolutely sure that mockery was intended. Seated with its hands resting on its thighs and its penis delicately rendered, the animal stares ahead, with a suggestion of defiance and amusement all at once.

Their humor did not desert Egyptian masters when they portrayed themselves. A wooden statuette of Kery, who was active under Ramesses II (1304-1237 B.C.), hails him as the “great craftsman in the place of truth.” Kery was one of the artists chosen to decorate the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The master proudly marches on, carrying the standard of “Horus son of Isis, Lord of the desert” on the staff. His happy expression suggests that his prayer for “a good life, combined with health, gladness and rejoicing every day” inscribed on the base had been fulfilled. With his puffed-up cheeks, the craftsman seems about to laugh, despite the solemn tone of his religious invocation that ends “my two eyes seeing, my two ears hearing, my mouth filled with truth.”

Portraits in Ancient Egyptian Art

Thutmose III

Dimitri, Laboury of the University of Liège in Belgium wrote: “Ancient Egyptian art’s concern with individualized human representation has generated much debate among Egyptologists about the very existence of portraiture in Pharaonic society. The issue has often—if not always—been thought of in terms of opposition between portrait and ideal image, being a major topic in the broader question of realism and formal relation to reality in ancient Egyptian art. [Source: Dimitri, Laboury, University of Liège, Belgium, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“The ideal image comprises many important and problematic issues of ancient Egyptian art history and of the history of the discipline. “Portrait” means a depiction, in any kind of medium, of a specific individual, i.e., an individualized representation of a recognizable person. As opposed to “ideal (or type) image,” portrait implies a pictorial individualization and relates to the notion of realism as an accurate and faithful rendering of objective reality, which stands in contrast to idealization. Even if it is traditionally accepted and used as a fundamental concept in art history as a whole, this key-opposition between realism and idealization (or idealism) is far from being unproblematic from a theoretical point of view.”

“As Sally-Ann Ashton and Donald Spanel have noted, portraiture in ancient Egyptian art “was limited almost exclusively to sculpture”; three- dimensional portraits allow more detailed and subtle rendering, and this is probably why they appear to have influenced two- dimensional representations, and not the reverse; in quantity, as well as in quality, royal iconography is much better documented than private portraiture and often impacted the latter; and finally, as the portrait of an individual and at the same time of an institution—the very central one in ancient Egyptian civilization.”

Thus, “Portraiture in ancient Egyptian art can be defined as a vectorial combination, a tension, or a dialectic between an analogical reference to visual perception of outer or phenomenological reality and a consciously managed departure from this perceptual reality, in order to create meaning or extra- meaning, beyond the simple reproduction of visual appearances and sometimes, if necessary, despite them. As such, portraiture is nothing but the application of the very essence of the ancient Egyptian image system to the individualized human representation.”

Ancient Egyptian View of Images and Identity

Dimitri, Laboury of the University of Liège in Belgium wrote: “The entire monumental culture of ancient Egypt manifests a profound desire to preserve individual identity, especially from a funerary perspective, and thus exhibits a rather strong self-awareness. In this sense, “Portraiture is by far the most important and productive genre of Egyptian art, just as biography is the most ancient and productive genre of Egyptian literature” . But, even with this fundamental principle of self- thematization—as Assmann proposes to characterize it—in order to validate the use of the notion of portrait, the two concepts that theoretically define it, i.e., individual identity and recognizability, have to be assessed in the context of ancient Egyptian art and thought. [Source: Dimitri, Laboury, University of Liège, Belgium, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

Queen Hatshephut as a sphinx

“As in many other civilizations, the word for image in the ancient Egyptian language, twt, implies the notion of likeness since it is related to a verbal root that means “resembling to, being like or in accord (with)”. Thus, the image is clearly conceived as a resembling pictorial transposition of its model. But the numerous usurpations of statues performed merely by the re-carving of the name and without any facial reshaping, the variability in the portraitures of a specific person (either royal or private), and the genealogies of some portraits, in which an individual iconographically and physiognomically associated himself or herself with a predecessor, demonstrate that the ancient Egyptian concept of resemblance was less constraining than in modern western cultures Assmann suggests defining this concept as a principle of non-confusability, i.e., a recognizability that could be fulfilled on multiple levels or just by the sole presence of the name of the depicted person. Furthermore, one cannot underestimate the metaphysical dimension of the concept of resembling image: what is it supposed to resemble? The physical and external—or phenomenological—appearance of its model or his or her actual reality, which could lie beyond appearances? Not to mention the close connection—and so perhaps some sort of permeability—that ancient Egyptian thought established between these two—very western—theoretical concepts of external appearance and inner reality, as is suggested by the customary complementarity between qd (“shape” or “external form”) and Xnw (“inside” or “interior”) and expressions that define inner or moral qualities by an outer description of the face, such as nfr-Hr, spd-Hr, etc.

“Just like “being Egyptian” was not primarily a question of ethnicity but of Egyptian-like or non-Egyptian-like behavior, the ancient Egyptian notion of individual identity appears to be fundamentally conceived as a personal behavioral or functional integration into the societal order. This is substantiated by the importance and persistence of comportment clichés in almost any kind of biographical texts. So, in other words, the individuality of a person with his or her own name, genealogy, and specific fate (SAy) is always defined within the social framework of ancient Egypt, i.e., according to social types or ideals, which shape and often overshadow or absorb the expression of uniqueness and singularity.

“In such a cultural context, the traditional pseudo-opposition or the dialectic portrait versus ideal image needs to be viewed and used as a vectorial combination (as suggested above) or as a tension, which structured and generated different forms of self- thematization, in representational arts as well as in literature.”

Reuse and Restoration in Ancient Egyptian Art

bronze, like that used to make some of the grapes, was highly valued and often recycled

Peter Brand of the University of Memphis wrote: “Like members of all pre-modern societies, ancient Egyptians practiced various forms of recycling. The reuse of building materials by rulers is attested throughout Egyptian history and was motivated by ideological and economic concerns. Reuse of masonry from the dilapidated monuments of royal predecessors may have given legitimacy to newer constructions, but in some cases, economic considerations or even antipathy towards an earlier ruler were the decisive factors. Private individuals also made use of the tombs and burial equipment of others—often illicitly— and tomb robbing was a common phenomenon. Ultimately, many monuments were reused in the post-Pharaonic era, including tombs. Restoration of decayed or damaged monuments was a pious aspiration of some rulers. In the wake of Akhenaten’s iconoclastic vendetta against the god Amun and the Theban triad, his successors carried out a large-scale program of restoring vandalized reliefs and inscriptions. Restorations of Tutankhamun and Aye were often usurped by Horemheb and Sety I as part of the damnatio memoriae of the Amarna-era pharaohs. Post-Amarna restorations were sometimes marked by a formulaic inscribed “label.” Restoration inscriptions and physical repairs to damaged reliefs and buildings were also made by the Ptolemaic kings and Roman emperors. [Source: Peter Brand, University of Memphis, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“In ancient Egyptian society, as in all pre-modern societies, goods and materials were scare and valuable, and thus frequently recycled. Raw materials were expensive due to their relative scarcity (wood, metals, and semi-precious stones, being examples) or to the intense labor and expenditure of materials needed to obtain them, such as that required by the quarrying and transport of all types of stone, and metals. Spent, non-consumable goods were not simply disposed of when broken or obsolete if it was possible to harvest useful raw materials from them. The practice of recycling is attested in the archaeological record and in textual sources. Among the latter are the timber accounts from Memphis from the reign of Sety I. These constitute a city-wide inventory of wood, much of it old ship-parts, found in the possession of various officials. They attest to the value of timber as it was perceived by both the officials who collected it for their own use and by the royal administration, which saw it as a source of taxation. Even papyrus was recycled when texts written upon it became obsolete.

“The most intensively reused substances were metals, all of which were highly expensive and could be melted down and recast to make new objects. Metals were carefully weighed and their use and reuse tracked in administrative documents; the copper chisels used by the tomb workers from Deir el-Medina, for example, were collected and weighed for recasting once they had broken. The illicit recycling of precious metals is attested from sources such as the late Ramesside tomb- robbery papyri.”

Reuse of Building Materials by the Pharaohs

Peter Brand of the University of Memphis wrote: “The most conspicuous form of recycling practiced in ancient Egypt was the reuse of monumental stone building material. Re-employed elements included inscribed and un-inscribed architectural components. Other stone monuments such as stelae, obelisks, sarcophagi, offering tables, false doors, and statuary were also re-employed. This widespread practice was often motivated by expediency: cut and dressed masonry from older monuments near at hand could be had for less cost and effort than that required by new stone quarried and transported from a distance. The most frequent use of older material was in foundations. [Source: Peter Brand, University of Memphis, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

temple materials are often reused

“In some cases, however, the reuse of older monumental elements in new construction had an ideological component. Masonry inscribed for royal ancestors carried a patina of ancient authority and could imbue new constructions with this legitimacy. The best example of this is offered by the pyramid of Amenemhat I at Lisht, which was found to contain hundreds of inscribed blocks taken from the ruined pyramid complexes of several Old Kingdom rulers. This diversity of sources of reused masonry, taken from various Old Kingdom pyramid complexes at Giza and Saqqara, strongly indicates that Amenemhat I was not simply looking for a handy, nearby source of cheap building material. Instead, he seems to have purposefully collected inscribed blocks from various illustrious ancestors to lend credibility to his own reign, the first of the Twelfth Dynasty; both the design of his pyramid complex and the imitation of Old Kingdom relief styles and themes in its decoration confirm this. Official sources do not always approve this practice. The Instructions for King Merikara advise the royal pupil: “Do not despoil the monument of another, but quarry stone in Tura. Do not build your tomb out of ruins, [using] what had been made for what is to be made”.

“During the New Kingdom, when temples were often constructed of stone instead of mud-brick, reuse of masonry became common. There seems to be a degree of tension in Egyptian ideology between “respect for and veneration of the old” and the desire of every pharaoh to surpass what his ancestors had achieved. Indeed, kings might claim to have restored what had fallen into ruin, but they also boasted of having surpassed what their ancestors had done or that “never had the like been done since the primeval occasion”. A good example of this is provided by the Karnak Temple, which was continuously enlarged and rebuilt during the Eighteenth Dynasty (Aufrère et al. 1991: 88 - 98; Larché 2007; UCLA's Digital Karnak Project). The temple complex did not merely grow outwards: pylons, gateways, chapels, courts, and sanctuaries were built, torn down, and replaced by new buildings, sometimes after only a few decades or years.

“One of the primary justifications given by pharaohs for rebuilding or replacing an existing monument was to have found it “fallen into ruin.” Amenhotep I extensively rebuilt the Middle Kingdom sanctuary of Amun at Karnak, parts of which had become dilapidated after a series of high inundations in the Second Intermediate Period. Yet this is clearly not the case with many structures in Eighteenth Dynasty Karnak. A suite of chapels, built of fine limestone for the royal cult, was dedicated by Amenhotep I, only to be replaced by Thutmose III with a nearly identical set. Hatshepsut rebuilt large portions of central Karnak only to have many of her constructions torn down or replaced by Thutmose III. Her bark sanctuary, the Red Chapel, was replaced by a new one, built later in Thutmose III’s independent reign, and her cult rooms north of the sanctuary were rearranged by this king. To make way for his Third Pylon, Amenhotep III dismantled several monuments at Karnak, including a festival hall of Thutmose II and Thutmose IV, reusing masonry from these and earlier monuments, including material dating back to the Middle Kingdom, as fill for the foundations and solid cores of the pylon towers. Blocks recovered from the pylon in the twentieth century form the main collection of the Karnak Open Air Museum, which includes a number of complete buildings dating from the Twelfth through the Eighteenth Dynasties.

“At the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Akhenaten raised several new temples, at Karnak and throughout Egypt, dedicated to the solar cult of the Aten. Eschewing reuse of older masonry—perhaps because of the taint of its association with gods he rejected— Akhenaten constructed his monuments with small stone blocks called talatat that could be carried by a single man. This permitted rapid construction and equally speedy dismantling. Hundreds of thousands of these blocks were quarried and used quickly to build temples all over the country; several of these temples at Karnak were hurriedly erected within the first three years of the king’s reign. With his death and the repudiation of his religious ideas, Akhenaten’s successors in the post-Amarna era and the early Nineteenth Dynasty found his derelict temples a most convenient source of building material. At Karnak, Horemheb was primarily responsible for dismantling the Aten temples, and the solid masonry cores of his Second, Ninth, and Tenth Pylons were stuffed with talatat as well as larger blocks taken from the memorial temple of the now-discredited Tutankhamun. Sety I employed talatat in the foundations of the Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak. Akhenaten’s talatat were recycled all across the country as late as the Ramesside era; many blocks from his temples found their way across the Nile to Hermopolis . Unlike the examples of reuse presented by the Third Pylon at Karnak, or the pyramid of Amenemhat I at Lisht, the reuse of Amarna Period masonry was not a case of “pious recycling,” for surely blocks inscribed for the “heretic” Akhenaten gave no legitimacy to the monuments of those successors who discredited him. Instead, reuse of the talatat was both an economic expedient and a convenient way to banish vestiges of the Amarna Period from sight.

“The Ramesside kings frequently reused masonry from older monuments. Some of these truly had “fallen into ruin,” such as Amenhotep III’s vast memorial temple in Western Thebes. Limestone blocks with some of the finest reliefs ever carved in Egypt were taken to Merenptah’s nearby memorial temple and set into its foundations. Other blocks were built into walls and their fine reliefs hacked out or plastered over, to be replaced by much cruder reliefs of Merenptah’s own design. A splendid granite triumphal stela of Amenhotep III was inscribed on its formerly blank verso as Merenptah’s famous “Israel stela” and moved to the latter king’s own memorial temple. Throughout the Ramesside Period, earlier New Kingdom structures increasingly became quarries for construction material once they had fallen into disrepair or disuse. The foundations for a huge, unfinished memorial temple of Ramesses IV in the Asasif region of Western Thebes was composed of reused blocks. The Khons Temple, built in the Twentieth Dynasty at Karnak, was constructed with inscribed blocks reused from dismantled Eighteenth Dynasty buildings, including fragments of war scenes from Horemheb’s memorial temple visible in the staircase inside the pylon gateway and Sed Festival scenes of Amenhotep III on the roof of the pylon. Wall reliefs inside the temple sometimes give glimpses of this earlier decoration in places where plaster used to mask the old reliefs has fallen away . Smaller monuments, including stelae, obelisks, and statuary, were also reused in the later New Kingdom. A good example is the second Kamose stela discovered in the foundations of a colossal statue at Karnak.

“Reuse of building material continued apace beyond the New Kingdom. When the Ramesside capital at Pi-Ramesse became obsolete after the local branch of the Nile had silted up, a new capital was founded at Tanis in the Third Intermediate Period. The pharaohs of the Twenty-First and Twenty- Second Dynasties transported hundreds of inscribed stone monuments from Pi-Ramesse and elsewhere to embellish the new city. Some were merely reused as building material in new constructions, such as the pylon gateway of Shoshenq III, which is composed of reused blocks dating to the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. Others, including dozens of obelisks, colossal statues, and stelae of Ramesses II, served to decorate Tanis and to emphasize the link between the Tanite kings and their illustrious royal ancestor. Even in the royal tomb complex—itself built of reused masonry inside the main precinct of the Temple of Amun at Tanis—sarcophagi and rich burial goods of bronze, gold, and silver, inscribed for earlier kings, were found.

“Reuse of masonry from earlier monuments continued through the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods both for ideological and economic reasons. At Upper Egyptian sites such as Armant, Medamud, and Tod, New Kingdom blocks were used in new constructions by the Ptolemaic kings and Roman emperors. In Alexandria, large numbers of inscribed monuments dating from the New Kingdom up until the Late Period have been found. Many statues, obelisks, and stelae were transferred from Heliopolis to Alexandria to decorate the new capital there and to associate the Ptolemaic kings with their Pharaonic ancestors.

“The ultimate reuse of ancient Egyptian monuments came after the end of Pharaonic civilization itself. The walls and buildings of Medieval Cairo were largely constructed of Pharaonic masonry, including casing blocks stripped from Old and Middle Kingdom pyramids. At Giza, the granite casing from the lowest courses of Khafra’s pyramid was removed and made into millstones. The great temples of Memphis and Heliopolis have vanished, since many limestone blocks from these monuments were recycled as building material in Cairo or were burned to produce lime. In 1845 Lepsius reported from Thebes: “There is a bare white spot in the middle of the fertile plain: on this, two limekilns are erected, in which, as often as they are wanted, the very best blocks of the ancient temples and rock-grottoes, with their images and inscriptions, are pounded and burnt into lime, that they may again cement together other blocks, which are extracted from these convenient and inexhaustible stone-quarries, for some cattle-stall or other structure for government purposes”. At Mit Rahina, only the granite blocks from the lowermost courses of Ramesses II’s festival hall have survived, the limestone that made up the bulk of its walls having long ago been quarried away. In Middle and Upper Egypt, especially Abydos, Dendara, Thebes, Edfu, and Kom Ombo, Pharaonic monuments are better preserved, having been built of sandstone in locations that were rural and sparsely populated for the past two millennia. As recently as the early twentieth century, Pharaonic monuments were routinely used as quarries for stone or mud-brick, while rock-cut tombs at Thebes served as housing for modern inhabitants.

Private Reuse of Tombs and Burial Equipment

even tombs like thise pyramid-shaped one at Deir Medina were reused

Peter Brand of the University of Memphis wrote: “Reuse of monuments in antiquity was not a strictly royal phenomenon. Private individuals frequently reused tombs and tomb furnishings—even those of ancestral relatives. The practice is occasionally attested in earlier periods, but most examples are from the New Kingdom and later. Many New Kingdom tombs in the Theban necropolis provide examples of reuse, ranging from the usurpation and alteration of tomb decoration in the Ramesside Period to intrusive burials in the Third Intermediate and Late Periods. The same was true in Memphis. [Source: Peter Brand, University of Memphis, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“Funerary equipment could also be usurped or recycled after it had been adapted for the new owners. For example, a Nineteenth Dynasty coffin was replastered and repainted in the Twenty-first Dynasty for a man named Mentuhotep. Traces of the original decoration are visible where the newer plaster chipped off. Sarcophagi, too, could be re-inscribed, as was the anthropoid sarcophagus prepared for general Paramessu before he became Ramesses I, the sarcophagus later being adapted for prince Ramesses, the son of Ramesses II. Unlike the royal practice of employing masonry taken from ruined or obsolete monuments, the private recycling of funerary equipment was often an illegitimate or criminal act, the goods themselves frequently being obtained by theft. Yet tombs and funerary equipment were often plundered within a few generations of the burial of the original owner(s). The later Twentieth Dynasty saw the brazen and systematic plundering of the Theban necropolis, including royal and private tombs and royal memorial temples. Plundered funerary goods were reused “as is” or reprocessed for valuable raw materials.

Restoration of Monuments in Ancient Egypt

Peter Brand of the University of Memphis wrote: “Ancient Egyptian civilization expressed great reverence for its own past. Although such piety did not stop pharaohs from dismantling or quarrying the derelict or obsolete constructions of their predecessors when it suited them, at other times rulers claimed to have restored or repaired monuments that were “found fallen into ruin,” gmj wA r wAsw. Terms for restorative acts include srwD, “strengthening/making durable”; smAwj, “renewing/restoring”; smnx, “improving”; or jrj m mAwt, “making anew.” Existing monuments could also be saA, “magnified,” and swsx, “expanded, broadened.” In some cases, a pharaoh claims to have “restored” an ancestor’s monument when in fact he actually replaced it with one executed in his own name. [Source: Peter Brand, University of Memphis, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“In the wake of Akhenaten’s suppression of the cult of Amun, the pharaohs of the post- Amarna era and early Nineteenth Dynasty were faced with the huge task of repairing or replacing the cult equipment, statuary, and inscriptions destroyed at Akhenaten’s behest in Thebes and throughout Egypt. (Significantly, outside Thebes, Akhenaten’s iconoclasm mostly targeted Amun and his triad, while other deities rarely suffered. Even within Thebes, Heliopolitan solar deities appear to have been respected, and attacks on other gods were not consistent.) These repairs began under Tutankhamun and were heralded by his “Restoration stela,” wherein he describes efforts to replace the expensive cult equipment and property of the Theban temples that perished during the Amarna Period. Yet according to the text, Tutankhamun’s actions were not a response to the depredations of Akhenaten’s religious policies but were needed because the temples had “fallen into ruin,” and the gods had shunned Egypt.

“Tutankhamun’s Restoration text does not describe the largest task that faced Akhenaten’s successors: the repair of countless wall reliefs and inscriptions representing and naming the gods on the standing monuments where the names and images of Amun and other gods had been ruthlessly hacked out during the Amarna Period. In the vast majority of cases, it is not readily apparent which king actually repaired a particular divine image or inscription, yet on dozens of monuments one finds inserted into a wall relief a formulaic “label” containing the phrase “a restoration of the monument made by king N”. Most of these name Sety I, although examples are also known naming Tutankhamun, Aye, Horemheb, and even Ramesses II. The most common locations for these restoration labels are on gateways, stelae, the facades of buildings, and other prominent or prestigious locations. One rarely finds them in dark temple-recesses where vandalized images have been repaired.

“Since the majority of the smAwj-mnw restoration labels name Sety I, it was long assumed that he was responsible for the bulk of the post-Amarna repairs to monumental reliefs. It is now clear, however, that these renewal labels are found only in the most prominent and visible locations and that most of the damaged reliefs were repaired earlier, under Tutankhamun. Moreover, Horemheb and Sety I frequently made secondary restorations to reliefs already repaired by Tutankhamun. Their aim was to deny Tutankhamun the credit for these restorations, thereby gaining it for themselves. The secondary restorations of Horemheb, in particular, are part of the damnatio memoriae of Tutankhamun. Restoration labels of Tutankhamun were often usurped by Horemheb or Sety I. Most of Sety I’s restoration labels are original, but in all cases of secondary restoration, the repaired images of the gods show re-cutting, indicating that they had been altered subsequent to the initial renewal made under Tutankhamun.

“In the Ramesside era, following the reign of Sety I, kings occasionally used the smAwj-mnw restoration label in inscriptions they added to existing monuments (see, for example, the smAwj-mnw labels of Ramesses III and Ramesses IV beneath those of Sety I on the bark shrine of Thutmose III at Tod). In most cases, however, these “restorations” do not indicate genuine repairs but merely the addition of new relief-decoration; indeed they sometimes represent nothing more than the restoration label itself. One occasionally finds restoration labels in the Third Intermediate Period or Ptolemaic and Roman Periods that do reflect some kind of repair work carried out by the author.

“During the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, dilapidated monuments were extensively repaired or rebuilt. Examples include a number of New Kingdom constructions at Thebes. At Karnak, columns and the roof of the Great Hypostyle Hall and the gateways of the Second and Third Pylons were extensively rebuilt. Additionally, new masonry was inserted along the base of the walls of the Hypostyle Hall, where the action of salt-laden groundwater had deteriorated the original stonework. Ancient relief decoration was often re-created by Ptolemaic kings in the name of the original builders, so that one now find reliefs carved in the Ptolemaic style naming Thutmose III or Ramesses II . Examples include the relief of Ramesses I and Ramesses II in the passageway through the Second Pylon and reliefs of Thutmose III on the gateway of the Fourth Pylon.

Usurpation of Monuments in Ancient Egypt

A funeral stela of Amenemhat with the name Amun erased by Akhenaten agents

Peter Brand of the University of Memphis wrote: “Usurpation was the practice by some Egyptian rulers of replacing the names of predecessors with their own on monuments such as temple reliefs and royal statuary. Usurpation was often carried out in connection with the damnatio memoriae of pharaohs such as Hatshepsut and Tutankhamen. Ramesses II usurped dozens of monuments of various Middle and New Kingdom predecessors, not to defame them but to promote his own kingship. In the later Ramesside Period, usurpation was again linked to damnatio memoriae. Usurpation for either reason continued in the Saite Period and, sporadically, into Ptolemaic and Roman times. [Source: Peter Brand, University of Memphis, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“A distinctive phenomenon of ancient Egyptian culture was usurpation, the practice by some pharaohs of replacing predecessors’ names, displayed on monuments, with their own. One form of usurpation is exemplified by the reuse of tombs and funerary equipment by private individuals. The present discussion, however, focuses on the royal usurpation of monuments. Usurpation is to be distinguished from the related practice of damnatio memoriae, whereby an individual’s name(s) and image(s) were obliterated, often through being violently hacked out, as was demonstrated by Akhenaten’s iconoclasm targeting the god Amun, and by the destruction of the ruler’s own monuments by his successors. In cases where it was desired not to destroy a particular monument (many temple reliefs, for example, were spared), the goal of damnatio memoriae could be achieved by the technique of usurpation. Although usurpation for the purpose of damnatio memoriae occurred repeatedly in the New Kingdom, Ramesses II engaged in usurpation for entirely different ideological reasons.

“Normally, usurpation was achieved by erasing from a monument the distinctive elements of the original owner’s titulary— especially the throne name (prenomen) and birth name (nomen), enclosed in cartouches—and replacing them with those of the usurper. The Horus name, framed in a serekh, was also sometimes altered. The Two Ladies and Golden Horus names, being visually less distinctive and occurring less frequently in monumental inscriptions, were sometimes overlooked.

“The techniques used to replace royal names on monuments depended on the nature of the original relief. With royal names in raised relief, the hieroglyphic elements of the original name within its cartouche were sliced away . The usurper’s name was then inscribed in sunken relief, as were most Ramesside usurpations, or engraved in a form of raised relief, as were Horemheb’s appropriations of Tutankhamen’s reliefs in the Colonnade Hall of Luxor Temple. If the original inscription was in sunken relief, the most common practice was to fill it in with plaster and cut the new name also in sunken relief. Fortunately for Egyptologists, both methods frequently left distinct traces of the primary version, making it possible to decipher the initial text. Plaster used anciently to mask usurped sunken-relief inscriptions has today usually fallen away, allowing palimpsests containing two or even three successive versions of the surcharged cartouches to be seen. Where raised- relief inscriptions have been usurped, faint traces of engraved lines or slightly raised edges often attest to the original owner’s name.”

New Kingdom Usurpations

Peter Brand of the University of Memphis wrote: “Royal usurpation of monuments was rare prior to the New Kingdom, when by far the largest number of cases occurred. Nor was the practice engaged in continuously between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Dynasties. Rather there were discrete periods that account for most of the New Kingdom examples. [Source: Peter Brand, University of Memphis, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

Hashepsut relief in her mortuary temple with the heads erased

“Monuments were often targeted for usurpation because the pharaoh who created them was considered illegitimate by a successor. The proscription of Queen Hatshepsut’s memory is a prime example. Often, her names and images on monuments were hacked out. In other cases, the queen’s figure was carefully erased and her cartouches surcharged, often in the name of her predecessors—Thutmose I, Thutmose II, and less frequently Thutmose III. This puzzling fact gave rise to Sethe’s bizarre theory that Hatshepsut herself had usurped monuments of her predecessors while they were alive and that a series of coups d’états by these four rulers had occurred during the early 18th Dynasty. The notion was discredited by Edgerton, who demonstrated that in no case had Hatshepsut’s name been carved over that of another pharaoh; rather, her name was in each instance replaced by another’s. Thutmose III deliberately chose to surcharge the names of the queen with those of his father and grandfather, and less often with his own. The date of Hatshepsut’s proscription was also controversial. It was long thought that Thutmose III suppressed her memory shortly after her death, but it is now known that he initiated the suppression some 20 years into his sole reign.

“In wall scenes where her cartouches were replaced by the names of one of the first three Thutmosides, Hatshepsut’s figure was frequently erased. Sometimes it was replaced by an offering table or by an entirely new royal image, or the space occupied by her erased figure was left blank. This treatment of her image differs from usurpations of reliefs later in the New Kingdom, when usually the titulary alone was altered.

“Leaving aside the cases where Amenhotep IV changed his birth name (nomen) to Akhenaten on his own early monuments, usurpation became a common practice again only at the end of the 18th Dynasty. Horemheb targeted the monuments of the Amarna and post-Amarna pharaohs from Akhenaten to Aye for usurpation or destruction in his damnatio memoriae of these kings. Akhenaten’s monuments to the Aten were dismantled or destroyed. The monuments of Tutankhamen dedicated to Amun and the traditional pantheon during the initial return to orthodoxy were, in contrast, usually usurped since they remained serviceable. Horemheb replaced Tutankhamen’s protocol on large numbers of statues and in wall reliefs, such as those in the Colonnade Hall of Luxor Temple and even in pre- Amarna reliefs restored by Tutankhamen. Monuments of Aye were more frequently destroyed by Horemheb, although Aye’s memorial temple in western Thebes was usurped instead. The occasional usurpation of post-Amarna monuments overlooked by Horemheb continued into the early 19th Dynasty.

“In the politically troubled late 19th Dynasty, usurpation and damnatio memoriae were common practices and it is not always clear which was intended when the names of some kings were removed from their monuments by their successors. After Merenptah, the pharaohs of the late 19th Dynasty usurped or defaced the royal names of their immediate predecessors, whom they considered illegitimate. Amenmesse seems to have come to rule Upper Egypt and Nubia after Merenptah’s death, displacing the erstwhile legitimate successor, Sety II. While it had been thought that Amenmesse surcharged inscriptions of Merenptah in the Theban region, it now seems likely that he only erased distinctive elements of Merenptah’s titulary, including his cartouches and Horus name, without inscribing his own name in their stead. Where Amenmesse had removed Merenptah’s name, Sety II later placed his own once he established control of Upper Egypt and Nubia.”

Ramesside Usurpations

Peter Brand of the University of Memphis wrote: “A pharaoh did not always usurp a predecessor’s monuments in order to de- legitimize him or her. During the earlier 19th Dynasty, surcharging of statuary and monumental wall-reliefs became a widespread phenomenon, especially under Ramesses II. Unlike Thutmose III and Horemheb, the early Ramessides were generally not motivated by a desire to suppress the memory of the kings whose monuments they appropriated. Horemheb’s own reliefs on the Second Pylon at Karnak were usurped during the brief reign of Ramesses I only to be reinscribed a second time by Ramesses II. Ramesses II, in particular, annexed monuments belonging to many royal ancestors—some as far back as the Middle Kingdom, others as recent as those of his own father and grandfather, Ramesses I and Sety I. These annexations, however, were selective and not part of any larger program of damnatio memoriae against either his own immediate ancestors, or other illustrious kings of the past whose monuments he reinscribed. [Source: Peter Brand, University of Memphis, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“In the early years of his reign, Ramesses II surcharged reliefs completed by Sety I in the southern wing of Karnak’s Great Hypostyle Hall after he had completed most of the decoration left unfinished there upon Sety’s death. His motive for doing so was perhaps to homogenize the reliefs in that wing, which were largely his own accomplishment. Later, sometime after the 21st year of his reign, and probably in preparation for one of his Sed Festivals, Ramesses usurped Sety’s reliefs along the central axis of the Hypostyle Hall and in some parts of the northern wing entirely decorated by Sety. This instance of usurpation was part of a larger scheme to annex much of the main processional route through the Karnak Temple, including the aforementioned reliefs on the Second Pylon. Elsewhere in Egypt and Nubia, but only after his year 21, Ramesses II usurped other monuments including dozens (possibly hundreds) of statues. The timing of these usurpations—that is, their occurrence later in Ramesses II’s reign, coupled with the fact that his usurpations were clearly not part of a campaign of damnatio memoriae against any predecessor—indicates that Ramesses II sought, rather, to promote his own rule at a time when few living Egyptians could remember any other pharaoh. Reinscribed statues, in particular, often received texts that heralded Ramesses’ jubilee festivals and his relations with the gods—even as one of their number.

“Amenmesses’s statuary and wall inscriptions. At the beginning of the 20th Dynasty, Sethnakhte usurped the royal tomb (KV 14) prepared for Tauseret in the Valley of the Kings . Many of the bandeau and marginal inscriptions carved for Ramesses III are cut in extraordinarily deep sunken relief, often more than 10 centimeters in depth. In the wake of the 19th Dynasty’s proclivity for usurpation, one cannot help wondering if this was meant to deter the practice. Ramesses VI frequently usurped monumental inscriptions of Ramesses IV and Ramesses V.”

Usurpation of Statuary in Ancient Egypt

Peter Brand of the University of Memphis wrote: “Appropriation of royal statuary was a common phenomenon in the later New Kingdom. Horemheb systematically appropriated sculpture of Tutankhamen and Aye, including royal colossi and dyad and triad groups representing the king accompanied by deities. Such acts were in keeping with his treatment of Tutankhamen’s and Aye’s temple reliefs. [Source: Peter Brand, University of Memphis, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“Usurpation of royal statues reached a peak under Ramesses II, who appropriated examples dating back as far as the Middle Kingdom and works as recent as Thutmose III and Amenhotep III. Ramesses’ artists often reworked the facial features and bodily proportions in addition to carving their ruler’s names on these works. This pharaoh’s large-scale expropriation of royal statuary was part of the much larger program of new monumental inscription and decoration he carried out throughout Egypt and Nubia after the 21st year of his reign, probably in connection with one or more of his jubilees. An innovative feature of statue inscriptions on both new and surcharged royal statuary during this period is their density. Multiple cartouches and strings of royal titulary were added to the shoulders, chest, belts, back pillars, and thrones of statues, as well as to the fronts, sides, and upper surfaces of their bases. The large, flat surfaces on the backs of some dyads, triads, and colossi were used to present multiple columns of formulaic texts containing royal and divine titularies, carefully aligned for maximum visual impact.

“Merenptah continued the practice of re- inscribing older royal statuary. Following the example of his father, Merenptah tended to place additional cartouches on the shoulders and chest of usurped statues, as well as alter or add inscriptions on the front and sides of thrones, on the base, and on the back pillar. He also added inscriptions to the shoulders of Amenemhet III’s sphinxes. Just as Horemheb usurped post-Amarna works, Sety II annexed a group of statuary made for Amenmesse in the late 19th Dynasty.

“After the New Kingdom, usurpation sporadically occurred, including the reuse of sarcophagi and burial equipment by the 22nd Dynasty kings of Tanis. Occasionally, older royal statuary was also reused. During the Saite Period, the monuments of the Kushite 25th Dynasty were subjected to an official program of damnatio memoriae. In the temples of Karnak and Luxor, this policy resulted in the erasure of Kushite cartouches, mostly by Psammetichus II. At some point Psammetichus II also usurped Kushite monuments. He replaced Taharqo’s names with his own on the former’s kiosk before the second pylon at Karnak. A grey area between outright damnatio memoriae and usurpation characterizes Psammetichus’s treatment of reliefs naming Shabaqo. In the passage of the pylon gateway of Ramesses II at Luxor Temple, Shabaqo’s nomen- cartouches and Horus-name serekhs were fully erased, but only the kA-sign of his prenomen Nfr-kA-Ra was removed. This seems likely to be connected to the fact that Psammetichus II’s own prenomen was Nfr-jb- Ra, although jb was never inserted in place of the erased kA, nor was Psammetichus’s titulary added to the deleted nomen or Horus names. The phenomenon of monumental usurpation continued sporadically after the Saites and is attested, rarely, as late as the Ptolemaic era.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato,; Mark Millmore,; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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