Pocket Museum: Ancient Egypt

Pocket Museum: Ancient Egypt 

by Campbell Price is the fourth book of Thames & Hudson’s series Pocket Museum, preceded by volumes devoted respectively to ancient Rome, ancient Greece, and the Vikings. The book brings together nearly two hundred ancient Egyptian artifacts, spanning more than five thousand years (ca. 5300 BCE–395 CE), scattered in museum collections all over the world. The volume attempts to outline and reconstruct the history, system of beliefs, and social practices of ancient Egyptian civilization through the analysis of its material culture. The great potential of this volume lies in its innovative approach, based on the examination of a wide range of objects, which the author connects to one another in order to present and explain the character of ancient Egyptian society. Price demonstrates broad and deep knowledge of Egyptian material culture, and alongside some of the most famous masterpieces of ancient Egypt (the Rosetta Stone, the bust of Nefertiti, and the mummy mask of Tutankhamun) he discusses many less famous artifacts; he also often provides little-known anecdotes about the discovery of the pieces discussed. Each object is briefly described, contextualized, and then examined within an articulate network of relations that help the reader to understand more about the people who made, commissioned, and used the artifacts, as well as about their society.

A brief three-page introduction opens the book. There the author explains the aim of his work and describes the history of collecting ancient Egyptian artifacts, a practice that traditionally started on a large scale after Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798–1801 and the publication of the Description de l’Égypte (1809–29). In addition, the author draws attention to how the fashions of certain periods and the personal aesthetic preferences of collectors have affected modern knowledge of specific categories of objects, and consequently the ways in which the objects are displayed in museums and presented to the public. After the introduction the book provides a useful map of Egypt with the main archaeological sites mentioned in the following chapters, along with a timeline of the most relevant events of ancient Egyptian history.

The core of the work consists of seven chapters, which cover the material in a chronological order. Each chapter opens with a general overview of the relevant historical events, outlining the religious and funerary practices of the time, trade networks and routes, and issues of technology and craftsmanship. Within each chapter, objects are arranged according to themes: items of daily use and those related to the household, objects associated with the pharaoh and the state, jewelry used as adornment during life and/or for the afterlife, objects connected with religious practices, and items related to the funerary sphere. The author provides the date, materials, dimensions (both metric and imperial), provenance, and place of preservation for each object discussed. The book also includes a color image and a brief description for each artifact. Next to each object, little silhouettes of hands and human figures offer an idea of its size and scale. 

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The first chapter

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“The Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods (ca. 5300–2700 BCE): Egypt at Its Origins,” presents items related to the birth and development of the ancient Egyptian state. Price discusses the available information with which scholars have tried to shed light on these historical periods, which are characterized by the almost complete lack of written sources. His narrative of the Predynastic Period rests on objects that mainly belonged to funerary contexts rather than settlements, describing the funerary typologies and practices that revolved around the natural preservation of bodies due to the desiccating effect of the desert. He selects twenty-four distinctive objects related to these periods, including masterpieces like the Narmer Palette and the mace head of a Scorpion king. The funerary equipment presented here, such as jewelry, pottery vessels, graywacke palettes, and weapons, suggests that expectations about the afterlife already played a significant role in Egyptian thought and that funerary practices followed forms of social differentiation.

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