Monday, July 2, 2012

Connections: Communication in Ancient Egypt

Since the very beginning of human evolution, communication has played a crucial role in social development. In our modern world, when messages are conveyed through countless routes, it is very appropriate to look back and understand how interaction influenced past societies.
‘Connections’ aims to explore the ways in which the ancient Egyptians communicated between each other and those in a wider international environment. The methods they used are not far removed from our own, using various verbal and non-verbal techniques. Contributions to this study include investigations of written communication, along with interaction through material culture, gestures and much more. ‘Connections’ hopes to provide a unique insight into the ways that the Egyptians communed with the deceased, the illiterate, the divine and sacred worlds, foreign countries and different social groups.
An online catalogue accompanies a physical exhibition taken from objects loaned to the University of Birmingham from the Eton College Joseph William Myers Collection of Egyptian antiquities. These objects are among the finest items of Egyptian art to have been collected during the late nineteenth century. Many of them are small masterpieces in their own right – but those less aesthetic objects also communicated messages, and have not been neglected in this project.
Photo courtesy IAA University of Birmingham
How objects worked as intermediaries when information had to be exchanged is shown by ECM202, a globular jug with tall neck and disk rim with one vertical handle, dating to the early Nineteenth Dynasty, c. 1292-1203BC (fig. 1 © IAA University of Birmingham). Its fabric is of a fine Marl clay (probably Marl A in the Vienna System). The jug is decorated using paints of black and yellow to red pigments to give the impression that the vessel was made of granite (a much tougher material to work than clay). The owner of this vessel chose to communicate wealth and prestige through the selection of this decoration. A text is also preserved across the front reading, ‘The Osiris, Mistress of the House [name missing], Amenemope […]’. Although the name of the deceased is missing, we can see from the titles that the owner was female and most likely married. Amenemope is a deity worshipped at the temple of Luxor, his name literally translates as, ‘Amun of Luxor’. As part of the Ritual of Djeme, every ten days this god left the shrine and travelled to the small temple of Amun at Medinet Habu on the west bank of Thebes where he worshipped the primeval gods (his ancestors) to revive their kas.¹ Water and milk were used in this ritual and this practice also became a part of the funerary cult in Egypt. This vessel therefore indicates how the deceased ‘mistress of the house’, mentioned on ECM202, connected with the divine during the Ritual of Djeme. From this brief analysis it is possible to allocate Thebes as a provenance for this vessel, and that it was likely found within a tomb. The linen bandages and clay sealing at the top of the vessel indicate that after the burial this object was sealed and placed with the deceased for use in the afterlife. ECM202 is iconic to the topic presented through ‘Connections’ as it demonstrates communication between the deceased and the divine in ancient Egypt. The communication of wealth and prestige between social groups and conveyance of a textual message to those literate individuals within the funeral procession are also themes which will be explored through the ‘Connections’ exhibition.
In a world when the media of internet, television, radio and telephones never existed, the Egyptian people maintained systems of communication not far removed from our own – in verbal, non-verbal and symbolic ways. ‘Connections’ aims to explore and interpret these systems and put people and their media in the centre of this exhibition.

Carl Graves, June 2012.

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