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Art and script in ancient Egypt

Variations in the integration of Art and Script

 

Contents

rules of orientation

variations in the integration/separation of image and script:

  • fusion
  • unmarked separation
  • marked separation
  • combinations
  • script without image

stelae of the first millennium BC

 

 

Rules of orientation

There are two essential rules of orientation of Egyptian hieroglyphs:

  1. signs face the start of the line (so an animal, bird or human figure should point you to the start of the line)
  2. signs relating to an image face in the same direction as that image

These rules are so normative that they can help reconstruct the whole image from a surviving fragment.

Example: UC 404 - a fragment of a stela from Amarna, originally with an image of king Akhenaten and his principal wife Nefertiti on the left, with the sun-disk in the middle. The images are lost except for part of the sun-disk (Aten). However, the hieroglyphic inscriptions identify the positions of the figures and the direction each figure faced. Use the central ankh-sign to orient yourself in the upper line.

Question: on stela fragment UC 404, where was Akhenaten, and in which direction did he face? how do you know?

Click here for a drawing of the stela and a guide to the orientation of signs.

 

Variations in the integration of Art and Script

There are several ways in which the ancient Egyptian artist combined script and writing.

1. fusion (full integration) - fully intertwined image and words

Formal art and hieroglyphic script together project a particular vision of the world, both communicative (conveying information) and performative or active (creating an ideal reality in material that can last forever); this combination belongs to, and constitutes, a 'horizon of eternity' in opposition to the mortal horizon of everyday life. This fusion is typical of monumental sacred architecture on all scales, for the cults of the gods (temples), the cults of kings (temples of the royal cult), and the cults of the blessed dead (offering-chapels, most located over the burial place, many at other sacred places such as the area bordering on the temple of Osiris at Abydos).

In the temple relief fragments in the Petrie Museum, the 'horizon of eternity' is created in the fullest integration. Note that the columns of script do not have dividing lines.

Example 1: UC 14785, a block from a building dated to the reign of king Amenemhat I (about 1975 BC) at Koptos

Question: in the depiction and inscription for the ka (soul) of the king, do you think it is possible to draw a border-line between image and script?

Click here for a guide to the arrangement of hieroglyphs and images

Example 2: wall reliefs from a building dated to the reign of king Nubkheperre Intef (about 1600 BC) at Koptos

Click here for a guide to the arrangement of hieroglyphs and images

 

2. unmarked separation - separate fields of script and image, without a framing line between image and script

Image and script offer different possibilities for communication:

Given these different communicative possibilities, it is understandable that there is a tendency for script and image each to acquire their own field within a composition, compromising the fusion of art and script seen in the most integrated examples (option 1 above). However, the rule of orientation of signs continues to unite the script field and image field.

Example 1: UC 14226, burial stela of the king's daughter Neskhons, from her burial at Thebes, dated to Dynasty 21 (about 1000 BC)

Question: from the rules of orientation (see top of this page), see how many lines belong with Neskhons, how many with the god

Click here for a guide to the arrangement of hieroglyphs and images

Example 2: UC 14480, lintel from the offering-chapel of Sepaankh, dated to Dynasty 19 (about 1250 BC)

Question: from the rules of orientation (see top of this page), see how many lines belong with Sepaankh, how many with the god

Click here for a guide to the arrangement of hieroglyphs and images

3. marked separation - separate fields of script and image, with framing line between the two

The separation of script and image can be taken further, by the introduction of an internal framing line between the image field and script field. However, this additional separation is diminished in ancient Egyptian formal art and hieroglyphic script by two factors:

Example: UC 14334, the Abydos offering-chapel stela of the herald Shenu, Dynasty 12 (about 1900 BC)

Question: in the image field, one individual is identified by script only - which one? why do you think there is no image of that individual?

Click here for a guide to the arrangement of hieroglyphs and images

4. combinations of options 1-3

Compositions regularly present combinations of options. The principle of combination can best be studied from the more substantially preserved examples of monumental architecture: the more ambitiously varied artistic programmes may be absent from smaller monuments, for reasons of scale, and are generally lost in the case of buildings from which only small fragments survive. Nevertheless, this broader horizon is often present, and the viewer of the fragment needs to attempt in each case a mental reconstruction of the ancient visual experiences.

Example: UC 14481, a block from a building dated to the reign of king Ramesses III (about 1175 BC) at Koptos

Question: consider the same question as for option 1 above, on the integration of script and image to depict the ka (soul) of the king - note that in this instance the figure is involved in an action combining this local script+image field with the local script+image field depicting the throned king. Now consider the broader pattern of script and image fields, dividing the composition into parts: how tight are the dividing-lines between script and image overall, and in each part of the composition?

Click here for a guide to the arrangement of hieroglyphs and images

5. script without image

Image fields without hieroglyphic captions are rare in the surviving sources, except in lower-status and so non-literate environments.

Script fields without large visual images are less rare, though fragments may be misleading, as the image may have been lost.

Question: is the following hieroglyphic inscription a composition without images?

Look for other instances where you only see hieroglyphs in a composition - is there an image in the broader context, or is it genuinely an image-less composition?

 

Pictorial summary of the range of options in combining script and image

Full integration of art and script: no internal lines - example 1
Full integration of art and script: no internal lines - example 2
Separation of fields without framing base-line to script-field: example 1
Separation of fields without framing base-line to script-field: example 2
Separation of script field and image field with demarcating line between
Combinations of options 1-3
image-less script field

 

Stelae of the first millennium BC

These illustrate a general trend from an early phase, in the earlier Third Intermediate Period (about 1000-850 BC), to a late phase, in Dynasty 30 and the Ptolemaic Period (about 400-30 BC). The development is gradual and not unilinear, so expect variants and exceptions in each period. Nevertheless, there is a very marked general trend from dominant image to dominant script.

Early phase: dominant image, with main script field as caption over the image, and perhaps just one line below

Late phase: dominant script, with smaller image above the script field

Examples from early to late phases

script over image
script over image
script moved to side of image field
image over script



 

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