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Art of Ancient Egypt

Randy H. Sooknanan & Ani Margaryan

ASAG Journal

May 12, 2020

Ancient Egyptian art is characterized by its highly stylized and symbolic forms. It often depicted gods, pharaohs, and important events in a flat, two-dimensional style with frontal and profile views. The art focused on conveying a message rather than depicting reality, using symbols like hieroglyphs and colors to communicate ideas. Materials commonly used included stone, wood, paint, and gold leaf. Artworks often served religious, political, or funerary purposes, and were valued for their ability to bring life and continuity to the afterlife.

Let's survey some art, artifacts and architecture from across ancient Egypt's long history...

Ancient Egyptian Papyrus from the Book of the Dead

Ancient Egyptian Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer (Hw-nfr). The main vignette illustrates the ceremonies carried out at the entrance of the tomb on the day of burial.
Cultures/periods: 19th Dynasty
Production date: 1285 BC
Location: The British Museum


Opening of the mouth ceremony
Priests of Anubis, the guide of the dead and the god of tombs and embalming, perform the opening of the mouth ritual. Extract from the Papyrus of Hunefer, a 19th-Dynasty Book of the Dead (c.1300 BCE)
Hunefer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Coffin of Ramesses the Great

Let's us now take a look at the Coffin of Ramesses the Great, a cedar wood coffin case of the pharaoh Ramesses II (ruled 1279-1213 BC) now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt 🇪🇬

Originally Ramesses II was buried in the tomb KV7 in the Valley of the Kings, but because of looting, priests later transferred the body to a holding area, re-wrapped it, and placed it inside the tomb of queen Ahmose Inhapy. Seventy-two hours later it was again moved, to the tomb of the high priest Pinedjem II. All of this is recorded in hieroglyphics on the linen covering the body of the coffin of Ramesses II. His mummy was eventually discovered in TT320 inside an ordinary wooden coffin and is now in Cairo's Egyptian Museum.


Coffin of Ramesses II
A cedar wood coffin case of the pharaoh Ramesses II (r. ca. 1279-1213 BC). Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. CG 61020 Photograph: Louis Mazzatenta, National Geographic Creative.

A painter's palette from Ancient Egypt


Painter's Palette Inscribed with the Name of Amenhotep III, ca. 1390-1352 BCE
(Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art [Public Domain])

Artist rendition of ancient Egypt

Here we see a wonderful image depicting life near the pyramids, 4,600 years ago. If you look closely, you can see temple structures, fisherman wheeling in their catch of the day, and commodities transported by boat. In his artwork, the artist has done an incredible job of capturing the atmosphere of ancient Egypt.


Age Of Pyramids illustration by artist Gabriel Nagypal
Courtesy of: @gabriel_nagypal [IG]

Akhenaten, glass inlay

Let's take a look at Akhenaten, Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty's blue glass inlay, c.1336-1353 BCE art work:

'The reign of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten (either 1353–1336 BC or 1351–1334 BC) witnessed a number of changes in ancient Egypt. One of the most significant saw the shift of the capital from Thebes to Armana. In the establishment of an entirely new city, artists also dramatically changed the way in which they depicted the human form. The formal and idealised image of the human body was dropped to depict humans in a somewhat exaggerated manner. In what has come to be known of as Armana style within ancient Egyptian art, human figures were given thin limbs, sagging bellies, sumptuous lips, long oval eyes, and high cheekbones. And these are the very formal qualities we see so beautifully captured in the opaque, turquoise glass portrait of Akhenaten (above). The long neck, exaggerated lips, high cheekbone, and long, slanted eye are not only typical of the way in which Akhenaten was portrayed by artists in this period, it is typical of art from Armana. As an inlay it would have been set within another object. Another well known artefact of the Armana style is Nefertiti’s bust, now in the Neues Museum in Berlin.' (Dowson, T., Archaeology Travel, 2023)

'This turquoise glass inlay preserves the image of the pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled during Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty. The pharaoh is shown in profile to the left, and his facial characteristics are subtly modeled in the glass to depict high cheekbones, fleshy lips, and a long neck. The eyebrow and eye are recessed and were likely once filled with another material or colored glass inlays of contrasting colors. There is also a slight depression on the earlobe, perhaps to indicate the location of an ear stud. Circular bubbles can be seen in the glass, and some encrustation remains in the facial crevices and eyebrow recess. The inlay was once part of a larger composition that depicted the full figure of the pharaoh. Inlays like this were used to decorate pieces of jewelry, furniture or for relief sculpture. They were inset into carefully carved cavities, and formed parts of highly colorful figural compositions in which parts or the entire figure were made of separate glass elements. The best surviving examples of glass inlays from this period are found in the artifacts preserved in the tomb of Tutankhamen, the son of Akhenaten. Akhenaten was considered a heretic by the Egyptian priestly caste because he was a monotheist; he rejected the full pantheon of the Egyptian gods and worshipped only Aten, the light of the sun disk. (His name means “spirit of Aten.”) The pharaoh moved the Egyptian capital from Thebes to the site of Amarna, where an entire city rose from the sands. The city was gradually abandoned after his death, and was rediscovered by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie in the early 20th century. The works of art created during the reign of Akhenaten broke the long-standing traditional style of Egyptian art which was idealized and severely formal. Human figures were always shown in the same manner, with few individualizing elements. The works of the Amarna period, while often called “naturalistic,” are instead also highly stylized in that the human form seems to be an exaggeration, with sagging bellies, thin arms and legs, sumptuous lips, long oval eyes, and high, carefully carved cheekbones. These physical characteristics are present in the inlay. The long neck, high cheekbone, full lips and long, slanted eye are typical of portraits of the ruling family in the Amarna style.' (Corning Museum of Glass, 2002)

Dowson (2023)
Corning Museum of Glass (2002)



A stylized glass portrait of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten.
© Corning Museum of Glass

Menkaure and a Queen statue

The statue of Menkaure and a Queen is an ancient Egyptian artwork that dates back to approximately 2490-2472 BCE. It is a sculpture made of greywacke stone that is about 4 feet tall, depicting the pharaoh Menkaure standing alongside a female figure who is believed to be his queen. It was discovered in the Valley Temple of Menkaure's pyramid complex in Giza by French archaeologist Auguste Mariette in 1860.

The sculpture is considered one of the finest examples of Old Kingdom Egyptian art due to its lifelike depiction of Menkaure and the queen. They both stand with their left foot slightly forward, and their body proportions are accurately rendered. Menkaure is portrayed as muscular, with broad shoulders and a defined chest, while the queen's slim form is accentuated by her sheer, figure-hugging dress. The figures are depicted in the traditional, rigid frontal pose with their hands at their sides.

Despite being a depiction of a pharaoh with his queen, the statue is devoid of the common motifs and symbols found in other Egyptian artworks. Menkaure is not holding any of the typical pharaonic symbols of power, and the queen's identity remains a subject of debate among scholars, with some proposing she is a goddess or a member of the royal family. Despite the mystery surrounding the identity of the female figure and the lack of typical symbols, the artwork is nonetheless a masterful depiction of the human form in ancient Egypt.

Menkaura and Queen.jpg

Menkaure and a Queen statue
Rama, CC BY-SA 3.0 FR <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Seated Scribe

The Seated Scribe is an ancient Egyptian sculpture that dates back to the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom period, c. 2620-2500 BCE. The sculpture is made of limestone and stands at just over 3 feet tall. It depicts a seated man with crossed legs and a slightly slouching posture, who is believed to be a learned and administrative scribe.

The sculpture is unique in its attention to detail and realism, particularly in the way it portrays the man’s body and facial features. The subject is depicted with a slightly overweight body, with folds of flesh around his stomach and thighs. His face is also depicted realistically, with wrinkles around his eyes, mouth, and forehead. This artwork also includes small details in his clothing, with the fill and folds of his kilt.

The Seated Scribe is considered an important example of ancient Egyptian art and has been celebrated for its realistic portrayal of an ancient Egyptian within society. While many ancient Egyptian sculptures were idealistic and stylized, the Seated Scribe is notable for its naturalism, and is thought to portray an individual who was not of noble birth but was still an important member of society due to their role as a scribe. Today, the sculpture is housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris and is one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.


The Seated Scribe

Alabaster basin and boat from the tomb of king Tutankhamun, 18th Dynasty

The Alabaster basin and boat artifact from the tomb of King Tutankhamun are significant archaeological discoveries from ancient Egypt. A life size boat like this model is believed to have been used by the king during his lifetime and the remains of it were also found dismantled and buried in pieces in his tomb. That boat was reconstructed and is now on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

With the Alabaster basin model we find a large, rectangular artwork carved from a single piece of alabaster stone. The basin is intricately decorated with images of the king and various Egyptian deities. It was believed to have been used for ceremonial rituals during the reign of Tutankhamun.

Both the Alabaster basin and life size boat are important artifacts because they provide insight into both the religious and royal transportation practices of ancient Egyptian culture. These discoveries illustrate the importance of boats in ancient Egyptian culture and confirm the belief that they were used in both everyday life and rituals. The intricate details on the Alabaster basin also offer insight into the high level of artistic skill and craftsmanship that existed during the rule of King Tutankhamun.


Portrait head resembling Cleopatra. Italy, 50–30 BCE limestone (British Museum)

When Cleopatra governed Egypt, the Great Pyramids of Giza had already been standing for nearly 2,500 years. In fact, we are closer in time to Cleopatra's reign than she was to the construction of the pyramids. During her rule, the pyramids, the Valley of Kings, and the Talking Colossi of Memnon were all popular tourist attractions. The Egyptian tourism industry was already flourishing in her time, providing services such as tour guides and organized Nile excursions.

The portrait head resembling Cleopatra sculpture from Italy is a remarkable example of Hellenistic art where Greco-Roman aesthetic elements were mingled with Egyptian features. This ancient artwork is believed to be a depiction of Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Egypt, and it was created during the period between 50 and 30 BCE. It was discovered in Italy, which may suggest that the Romans had a fascination with the beauty and charisma of Cleopatra.

The sculpture is carved from limestone, which is a relatively easy material to work with, and was a commonly used medium by ancient sculptors. The deeply etched, windswept lines on the statue’s neck create a sense of movement within the still figure, emphasizing its fluidity and grace. The artist has given great attention to the details of Cleopatra's facial features, including her almond-shaped eyes, sharp nose, and full lips. Her hair is arranged in a distinctive style of rolled braids that culminate in a small bun at the nape of her neck.

This artifact is an excellent example of the influence of ancient Egyptian art on the Greco-Roman world and vice-versa. Yet, the work has the hallmark of the classical style, most notably in Cleopatra’s facial features, the precision of the carving and the attention to detail. All these elements combined with the legendary status of the subject herself make this artwork an extraordinary example of ancient portraiture that has enamored people for centuries.


Portrait head resembling Cleopatra. Italy, 50–30 BCE limestone (British Museum)
Portrait head resembling Cleopatra. Italy, 50–30 BCE limestone 1879,0712.15 © Trustees of the British Museum © Trustees of the British Museum, 2018. All rights reserved

King Khufu's Pyramid aka The Great Pyramid of Giza

What was the purpose of King Khufu's pyramid structure?

King Khufu's pyramid structure, also known as the Great Pyramid of Giza, is believed to have been built as a tomb for the pharaoh Khufu. It was constructed during the Old Kingdom period of ancient Egypt, between 2589 and 2566 BC. The pyramid stands at a height of over 140 meters and covers an area of 13 acres.

The purpose of King Khufu's pyramid structure was to ensure that he would have a grand tomb in the afterlife. In ancient Egyptian belief, the pharaohs were believed to be divine and would continue to rule in the afterlife. They therefore needed to be buried in grand structures that would protect their bodies and preserve their spirits. The pyramid was constructed with chambers and corridors designed to protect the pharaoh's body and allow his spirit to travel to the afterlife.

The Great Pyramid is also believed to have served as a symbol of the pharaoh's power and authority. The construction of such a monument would have required the labor of many thousands of workers over several decades. The sheer size and complexity of the structure reflect the immense resources at the pharaoh's disposal, as well as his ability to command such a massive workforce. Overall, the pyramid served both a practical and symbolic purpose, ensuring King Khufu's place in the afterlife while also demonstrating his royal authority.

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