Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 8, 2017
Lawrence Berman The Priest, the Prince, and the Pasha: The Life and Afterlife of an Ancient Egyptian Sculpture Boston: MFA Publications, 2015. 208 pp.; 52 color ills. Cloth $24.95 (9780878467969)

What is it about antiquities that so compels us to collect them? This is the central question Lawrence Berman asks in The Priest, the Prince, and the Pasha: The Life and Afterlife of an Ancient Egyptian Sculpture. To answer this question, Berman focuses on a single object, the so-called Boston Green Head. Approximately four inches in height, broken off from a standing or kneeling statue, the Green Head is a centerpiece in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). Indisputably a masterpiece, the sensitivity and skill with which the sculptor modeled the features produced a seemingly individualized portrait. This image of a middle-aged man does not conform to the familiar idealizing exoticism of ancient Pharaonic art, but rather depicts a face that can be found in any city street in any era. The evocative classical aestheticism of the “compellingly lifelike” (169) Green Head is arguably the basis of its appeal, prompting its transfer from the hands of the archaeologist, to those of the pashas, and then to the prince, before finding a home in Boston.

A compact and attractive book, The Priest, the Prince, and the Pasha is lavishly illustrated with full-color images, lending it a coffee-table-book quality, but its historical content imparts substance. Berman’s study has five main sections, each centered on the personalities responsible for the “afterlife” of the head. The first, “The Archaeologist,” discusses the state of research faced by Auguste Mariette, excavator of the Green Head, upon arrival in Egypt in 1850. As Howard Carter recounts, “Those were the great days of excavation. Anything to which a fancy was taken, from a scarab to an obelisk, was just appropriated, and if there was a difference with a brother excavator, one laid for him with a gun" (Howard Carter and Arthur Mace, The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, New York: Dover, 1933, 1977, 68). A young Mariette threw himself into the scramble for antiquities and soon made the major discovery of the Serapeum, cementing his place in Egyptology and in the colonial bureaucracy of Egypt. By far the longest chapter, this chronicle of Mariette paints a vivid picture of competition for position and prestige on the part of the Europeans, but has little direct focus on the Green Head. Readers lose sight, quite literally, of the object under discussion.

In the subsequent two chapters, “The Pasha” and “The Prince,” Berman provides examples of colonial dynamics and illustrates how Egypt’s cultural heritage was leveraged to facilitate the country’s modernization during the Muhammad Ali era. The pashas, seeing the collection fever of the colonial European powers, astutely banned the export of antiquities and placed Egypt’s heritage under the control of the state, although it must be noted that the pashas were advised by Europeans much of the time. In banning export, the pashas gained the discretion to dole out antiquities as gifts to various foreign dignitaries in exchange for goodwill and favors. The Green Head is one such example, gifted to the cousin of Emperor Napoleon III, Prince Napoleon (Plon-Plon). The prince’s interest in antiquities seemed centered on the pursuit of Rachel, the most celebrated actress of the day and an avid lover of classical culture (78). His efforts included the construction of the so-called Pompeian House in Paris, which he filled with antiquities, including the Green Head. Although Europe held classical Greek art as superior and refused to view Egyptian art as fine art because to do so amounted “to a threat to the world order” (102) of Hellenized European identity, the inclusion of the Green Head in the prince’s collection was embodied in its perceived classicism. Of the Green Head, Camille Ferri-Pisani, the prince’s aide-de-camp, wrote, “There can be no doubt about the nature of this piece of sculpture: it is a portrait. . . . The perfection of the modeling, the truth of details, the expression of life, are beyond belief” (92).

After the sale of the Pompeian House in 1868, the Green Head does not make an appearance until 1904 when it became part of a sending collected by Edward (Ned) Perry Warren for the MFA. The scion of an old New England family, Warren was raised with all the privileges of a classical education, which bolstered his love of classical culture. Berman suggests that Warren’s homosexuality played a role in his attraction to classical art and culture. Warren found social values congruent with his identity in classical culture, especially Greek, which he considered the perfect union of beauty, nobility, and manliness (122). Between 1894 and 1904, Warren purchased for the MFA numerous works of classical art, transforming the MFA collections, and “planted in Boston a taste for classical art, based on original works rather than reproductions” (128). Here, Berman asks a central question of the book, “What is it about the Green Head that makes it so compelling?” (129) His answer: because it does not look Egyptian.

Berman argues that scholars and connoisseurs saw in the Green Head the qualities of classical art, best exemplified by the view of it as a portrait. Because it is portrait-like, it has generated much debate concerning its dating. Was it created in the Late, Ptolemaic, or Roman Period? The attribution of the head to a particular date is one of high scholarly stakes. While acknowledging the “realistic” quality of the sculpture, Berman correctly emphasizes that the Green Head is definitively a product of ancient Egyptian culture: it has an inscribed back pillar, is rigidly frontal in stance, and even its seemingly individualistic face belongs to the genre of the prosperous middle-aged man in Egyptian art. If the head dates to the Late Period, this demonstrates “native” Egyptian creativity rather any influence from the “classical world,” an idea that has been linked to suggestions that the Egyptians were incapable of producing realistic portraiture. Indeed, it would suggest, in terms of cultural trajectory, that classical art may owe more to Egyptian culture than is comfortable for many, both scholars and the general public.

The Priest, the Prince, and the Pasha illustrates the complexities of the political, social, and economic milieu that inspired excavation and collection of the Green Head, but its aims and goals—and by extension the audience for which it is intended—is unclear. In outlining the socio-historical context of the Green Head, Berman’s discussion fits well into recent books on the disciplinary history of Egyptology, including Jason Thompson’s three-volume history, Wonderful Things: A History of Egyptology (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2014, 2015, and forthcoming 2017). Berman’s use of the “afterlife” of the Green Head calls to mind the social-anthropological literature on materiality, object agency, and object biography, such as Arjun Appadurai’s influential The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986) or Chris Gosden and Yvonne Marshall’s article on the cultural biography of objects (“The Cultural Biography of Objects,” World Archaeology 31, no. 2 [October 1999]: 169–78). While the ambiguity of the style, dating, and function of the Green Head compels us to rethink our perception of Egyptian art (187), of greater significance is how the materiality of the Green Head opens the door for a critical analysis of why we are compelled to collect antiquity. A recent exploration of this subject is Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016) by Erin Thompson in which she analyses the polysemic meaning of antiquities that motivates collection and mediates and reinforces the identity of the collector. The possession of antiquities embodies the collector’s desires to be viewed as erudite, powerful, and/or a custodian of heritage. Berman only tangentially approaches these issues of the materiality of desire, motivation, and identity; this lack of engagement is a missed opportunity to enrich theoretical discussions in Egyptology.

Berman’s book can be enjoyed by a range of audiences. For the non-specialist, it is an easy and interesting weekend read. For the Egyptologist, it offers some discussions and speculation as to the provenance of the Green Head and its history of collection. The volume could also be used as a case study for university seminars focused on issues of collection, cultural heritage, and the continued engagement with the past, alongside books such as Donald Malcolm Reid’s Whose Pharaohs?: Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002) and Contesting Antiquity in Egypt: Archaeologies, Museums, and the Struggle for Identities from World War I to Nasser (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2015); Elliot Colla’s Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008) and the volume of essays edited by Eleanor Robson, Luke Treadwell, and Chris Gosden, Who Owns Objects? The Ethics and Politics of Collecting Cultural Artefacts (Oxford: Oxbow, 2006).

The Priest, the Prince, and the Pasha is an accessible companion to the burgeoning literature that engages with the heritage of colonialism, the history of Egyptology, and disciplinary self-reflexivity. The focus on a single beautiful object, seemingly valued for its aesthetic qualities, spurs reflection on the issues of desire, value, and commodification, as well as current engagements with cultural heritage. The book is not about the actual Green Head; rather, it addresses the motivations of the archaeologist, the pashas, the prince, and the collector, who, through this object, used their desires for discovery, power, possession, and acceptance to construct and reinforce their identities. Finally, the Green Head is about us, who see ourselves when gazing into the face of the anonymous priest.

Jean Li
Assistant Professor, Department of History, Ryerson University