Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 3, 2011
Eurydice Georganteli and Martin Bommas, eds. Sacred and Profane: Treasures of Ancient Egypt from the Myers Collection, Eton College and University of Birmingham Exh. cat. Birmingham and London: Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham and D Giles Limited, 2010. 128 pp.; 125 color ills.; 8 b/w ills. Paper $40.00 (9781904832805)
Exhibition schedule: Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, June 18, 2010–January 18, 2012

The attractive exhibition catalogue under review here shines a bright light on the rich and diverse collection of Egyptian art that is the Myers Collection at Eton College in Windsor, UK, with the added benefit of a chapter featuring coins and other post-pharaonic artifacts from the University of Birmingham. It is not only a welcome addition to previous publications of artifacts from the Myers Collection (e.g., Stephen Spurr, Nicholas Reeves, and Stephen Quirke, Egyptian Art at Eton College: Selections from the Myers Museum, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999), but also a prime example of the kind of high-quality, integrated analysis than can result when several specialists, working in related fields, unite their expertise in one volume.

In the introduction, editors Eurydice Georganteli and Martin Bommas explicate the title and aim of the exhibition by summarizing the observations of religious historian Mircea Eliade on the distinction between the sacred and the profane—that is, the divine and the everyday—and by asserting that it is only Egypt’s surviving material culture that enables us to identify the ways in which the ancients “cross[ed] the border between the profane and the sacred” (9). The editors also distinguish the catalogue by noting that, “Statuettes of mortals and gods, funerary masks, jewellery, pottery and papyri [from the Myers Collection] are discussed for the first time in a thematic way” (9).

The first chapter, “The Myers Eton College Collection of Egyptian Antiquities: Travel, Archaeology and Collecting Attitudes in Nineteenth-century Egypt,” by Georganteli, the Barber Institute Curator of the Coin Collection and Lecturer in Numismatics and Economic History at the University of Birmingham, provides a brief biography of Major W. J. Myers, a graduate of Eton College and a frequent traveler to Egypt in the early and mid-1880s. On his untimely death in 1889, Myers’s collection of Egyptian antiquities, as well as his library and diaries, were bequeathed to his alma mater. Georganteli delightfully includes in the chapter excerpts from Myers’s diaries and correspondence, and discusses the significance of his own object catalogue for our understanding of late nineteenth-century collecting habits. Georganteli further presents an overview of Egypt’s post-pharaonic history and Europe’s fascination with all things Egyptian, focusing in particular on the impact of ancient Egyptian artistic motifs on European and American art and architecture. Quotations from Amelia Edwards’s A Thousand Miles Up the Nile (1877) and illustrations from early Thomas Cook tours to Egypt (figs. 16 and 17) further evoke the setting in which Myers assembled his collection. This chapter also highlights Myers’s foresight in leaving his collection to an educational institution, for in his day and age, the academic study of Egyptian art was only just beginning.

The second chapter, “Travels to the Beyond in Ancient Egypt,” by Bommas, Senior Lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Birmingham, concerns Egyptian afterlife beliefs and their associated material culture. The chapter opens with the obvious but perhaps infrequently noted observation that it was in witnessing or participating in funeral processions that the average Egyptian most often experienced the conjunction of the sacred and the profane. Setting the tone for the academic discussion to follow, Bommas identifies the three stages of a burial in ancient Egypt—preparation of the body, transport to the tomb, and burial—and proceeds to discuss them in detail. Throughout the chapter, Bommas includes translations of Egyptian funerary literature, not only to remind readers of the power of recitation in Egyptian religion, but to also draw out the reasoning behind equipping a tomb with all manner of household and luxury items. Bommas’s chapter delves deeply into the function of Egyptian mortuary liturgies; the accompanying images of burial equipment assist the reader in comprehending these complex rites. Finally, Bommas references the occasionally ambiguous nature of Egyptian funerary goods when discussing an enigmatic flax and faience figurine (fig. 43). Too small to be a toy, and excavated in association with adult-type materials, this “doll” is a perfect illustration of the types of Egyptian artifacts awaiting further research.

The third chapter, “The Personal Approach to the Divine in Ancient Egypt,” by Maria Michela Luiselli, Honorary Research Fellow in Egyptology at the University of Birmingham, discusses the visual and textual evidence for popular religion. Utilizing quotations from well-known devotional stelae and literary texts in combination with photographs of votive objects and sites of popular religious activity, Luiselli focuses on the concept of “personal piety,” that is, the feeling that one has a direct relationship with a deity. Particularly welcome in this chapter are the illustrations of the wide variety of faience vessels and amulets present in the Myers Collection (figs. 49–51, 57–62, 64–70, 73, and 75). An additional treat is the captivating wooden façade illustrated in figure 63. Though not included in the exhibition, this artifact serves as a reminder that not all Egyptian stelae were freestanding, and that further inscriptional and decorative information was recorded on associated emplacements. Like Bommas, Luiselli also highlights the inherent functional ambiguity of some Egyptian artifacts, but concludes with the heartening remark that while some ancient behaviors can never be fully recovered, modern researchers can still “recognize and reconstruct where and when men and women in ancient Egypt left the Profane to enter the Sacred” (84).

The fourth chapter, “Papyri in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt,” by Michael Sharp, Senior Editor for Classics and Byzantine Studies, Cambridge University Press, concerns the three non-funerary papyri in the Myers Collection. (Two dice bearing Greek letters are also briefly referenced and illustrated [fig. 87] in the chapter.) In a straightforward yet thoroughly engaging presentation, Sharp discusses the scribal craft in general, and situates the Myers papyri within their excavated context (an ancient refuse dump) and their original context of use, as far as can be determined from the texts. All three papyri are written in Greek, date to the early Roman period, and derive from the site of Oxyrhynchus. Unlike the other objects in the collection at Eton College, however, these artifacts were not purchased by Myers, but given to the school by the Egypt Exploration Fund in return for donations. Despite the disparate subjects of the three texts, Sharp expertly teases out aspects of cultural exchange, social interaction, and religious life in Roman Egypt. What is more, Sharp’s chapter constitutes a companion to the first, further elucidating the ways in which collections of Egyptian art were amassed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The fifth and final chapter, “Economy and Art in Egypt from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest,” also by Georganteli, surveys the history of Egypt from the conquest of Alexander to the early Islamic period and considers a group of Greco-Roman and Late Antique artifacts selected for the exhibition from the University of Birmingham’s own collections. Georganteli utilizes her expertise in ancient coinage to explicate the changing nature of the economy in Hellenistic, Roman, and Late Antique Egypt, and to explore the blended artistic styles of these periods. The chapter is full of astute remarks on iconography, and is accompanied by a number of stunning illustrations, from the full-page image of a painted Roman funerary portrait (fig. 109) to the remarkable faience panel of Horus as a young Roman officer on horseback spearing an ibex (fig. 105). As exhibitions and catalogues of Egyptian art do not always feature items dating beyond the Greek or Roman periods, this chapter, which also discusses a nineteenth-century Coptic and Arabic manuscript from Birmingham’s Mingana Collection, is a boon. Thanks to its inclusion, readers can now consider ancient Egyptian art in a broader historical and cultural context.

Typographical errors in this volume are few, consisting mainly of misspellings (e.g., Freedman for Friedman on p. 61 n.11) and slips of the finger (e.g., 19942 for 1942 on p. 33 n.15); these do not detract from the overall impressiveness of the work. Some minor inconsistencies are also present, for example variant spellings of the name of the god Amun/Amon within a single chapter. The high quality of the illustrations make the catalogue a pleasure to both browse and read, and their integration with the text is highly valuable. While most of the chapters’ endnotes are geared toward specialists (i.e., references are to academic publications in various languages), the layperson is sure to find much of interest in the select bibliography at the conclusion of the volume. This reviewer might have added a few additional resources to the bibliography, for example, Lesley and Roy Adkins’s The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs (London: HarperCollins, 2000), and the online databases of the Griffith Institute and the Travelers in the Middle East Archive, but this is merely a matter of preference. Sacred and Profane is clearly the work of a very dedicated group of contributors, and indeed, all four authors should be thanked for producing such a comprehensive and readable catalogue. There can be little doubt that with increasing worldwide exposure, of which this publication is only a part, the Myers Collection will receive even more attention in the years to come.

Elizabeth A. Waraksa
Librarian for Middle Eastern Studies, Charles E. Young Research Library, and Lecturer, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles