I n the late 1950s and early 1960s, construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt threatened ancient monuments and artifacts along the banks of the Nile River with flooding. The Egyptian and Sudanese governments requested help from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which in turn organized the “Nubian Salvage Campaign,” bringing numerous institutions together to excavate, relocate and preserve these relics of history.
Among those institutions was Yale. Evidence of the university’s role in the salvage project has been on view since April in the Peabody Museum’s Echoes of Egypt: Conjuring the Land of the Pharaohs exhibit, which closes in about three weeks, on January 4th, 2014.
The universities enlisted by UNESCO were “given half of the excavated finds,” the exhibition’s detailed companion website points out, which is why Yale now has “a tremendous collection of artifacts” to display. The exhibit pulls from an astonishing array of the university’s collections, from the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library to the Lewis Walpole Library to the Yale Center for British Art.
Yale’s involvement in the Nubian Salvage Campaign was, for curator and Yale associate professor of Egyptology Colleen Manassa, a “major inspiration” for the exhibit. And then there’s ancient Egypt’s architectural legacy. Connecticut, for example, has numerous 19th-century buildings in the Egyptian revival style, including the First Baptist Church in Essex, which has a façade that resembles the entrance of ancient Egyptian temples, and Fort Trumbull in New London, with a design based on the Temple of Luxor. Manassa and her team sought to explain how this architectural style came to be so popular.
From a visitor’s first steps into the exhibit, this “Egyptomania” is obvious. Entering means passing through a life-size replica of the front gate at New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery, an Egyptianizing monument designed by the architect Henry Austin and completed in 1847. Such gateways, or pylons, the exhibit’s website explains, “expressed eternal renewal and resurrection”—a perfect symbol for a graveyard. Grove’s even spells the symbolism out, inscribed as it is with the Biblical prophesy, “The dead shall be raised.”
Manassa explains that she wanted to offer “a new perspective” with Echoes, to allow viewers to understand the full breadth of ancient Egypt’s influences on societies that followed. She points out that curating this exhibit allowed her to “learn about the afterlife of ancient Egypt,” and so, too, may viewers. Rather than focusing exclusively on ancient Egyptian culture, Echoes of Egypt turns its eye to the ways in which Egypt has been referenced and reimagined through the centuries.
Through artifacts like ceramic vessels painted with images of the Nile, the exhibit establishes the imagery that morphed, over thousands of years, to hieroglyphs, demonstrating the roots of the Egyptian culture we’re familiar with. And through samples like the Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens (pictured above), a translation key created by Jean-François Champollion in 1824 to establish the phonetic correspondents to many hieroglyphs, the exhibit also explores how hieroglyphs were and are interpreted centuries later. The exhibit gives examples of “mummy-mania,” too: one section of the hall is devoted to a life-size diorama of a 19th-century public mummy unwrapping—then not a wholly uncommon event—and yes, it sports a real mummy.
Echoes of Egypt also seeks to expand beyond the image of mummies that we all know and love with examples of “Egyptosophy,” which is, the exhibit explains, “the belief that the ancient Nile Valley was the origin of cosmic knowledge, magic, and alchemy.” The exhibit includes a number of amulets alongside paintings created during the renaissance and after, demonstrating how this belief has pervaded through the centuries and across borders. In one, Guido Cagnacci’s Allegory of Life, painted in Italy in the mid-17th century, the uroboros—an Egyptian motif of a snake consuming its own tail—is used to symbolize humanity’s desire for immortality, while The Snake Charmer, by Karl Wilhelm Gentz, painted in Germany in 1872, “juxtaposes the mysterious aura of ancient Egyptian monuments with the magic of the ‘East.’” These artistic interpretations show shifting impressions and idealizations of ancient Egypt.
Of course, many such interpretations of ancient Egypt aren’t historically accurate. The exhibit’s placards note a number of places where symbolism is misplaced or garbled. In the case of an 1885 Tiffany & Co. mantel clock, for example, hieroglyphs are used without consideration to meaning, and an image of a vulture is at the clock’s base instead of at the top, where it would traditionally be.
In its effort to examine ancient Egypt’s influences through the ages, Echoes of Egypt has also made use of modern technology. There is, first of all, the exhibit’s website, a project spearheaded by assistant curator and digital media coordinator Alicia Cunningham-Bryant that allows viewers to explore the collection remotely. And then there is the 3D printing: one artifact, a sphinx carved by Paschalis Romanus in 1286, is in fact a 3D copy of the original that resides in Viterbo, Italy. Moving the original was prohibitively expensive, so the Peabody sent a team to use a light scanner to create a digital model of the statue. Then, back in New Haven, a reproduction was printed out at the Yale University School of Architecture. You’d never know from looking at it that it wasn’t the original. But as with the other artifacts in Echoes, the sphinx reminds us that with a little bit of help and a little bit of context, what is old can be made new again.
Echoes of Egypt: Conjuring the Land of the Pharaohs
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History – 170 Whitney Avenue, New Haven (map)
Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12-5pm. The exhibition closes on January 4, 2014.
Written by Elizabeth Weinberg. Image, depicting a hieroglyphic chart of seven parallel texts from Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens by Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832), 1824, courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.