Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Ancient Egypt 2.0—project launched to scan the pyramids

My latest article for The Art Newspaper...

The Giza pyramids at night. Photo: Garry Shaw
Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities plans to use high-tech non-invasive scanning technology to investigate the pyramids at Giza and Dahshur. The new project, called Scan Pyramids and led by an international team from Egypt, France, Japan and Canada, aims to shed new light on ancient construction techniques and reveal any currently unknown chambers. “Their goal is to probe Egypt’s largest pyramids, without touching them or drilling the slightest opening,” Egypt’s head of antiquities, Mamdouh Eldamaty told Ahram Online.

To read more, click here...

Monday, 19 October 2015

Garry's Soapbox: Get Dressed by Angels

Costumes from the 1971 movie The Boy Friend
at Dressed by Angels. Photo: Garry Shaw
I've recently been invited to write a monthly column for SC Exhibitions on museums and culture. My first piece focused on the new exhibition Dressed by Angels that opened recently in London.

Here's the opening three paragraphs...

"In this new culture blog, I'll be taking a look into the world of exhibitions, exploring some new openings and the big touring shows, as well as some of the less covered aspects of exhibitions, from promotional posters, to the technology used to bring the displays alive. I'll also take a look at the creative process, and the people behind some of your favourite shows.

For this, the first edition of my blog, I figured that it'd be smart to get some divine help, and what better way than to visit the new Dressed by Angels exhibition, which just opened at the Old Truman Brewery in London. There, until 3rd January 2016, you'll find a large selection of costumes from stage and film, created by the famous costumiers, Angels, on Garrick Street.

Atmosphere is key for a show like this, and Dressed by Angels does a wonderful job of extracting you from the normal world and placing you into a realm of theatrics and fantasy. As you enter the venue, you're surrounded by white walls and tall glass windows. Reality is stark and bright. But to enter the exhibition, you descend a set of steps into a dark space. Like stepping onto a stage, you pass through black curtains into a world of spotlights. This is to be a performance, and the costumes, basking in the lights, are the stars of the show."

To read the rest, please follow this link: Get Dressed by Angels

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Malta: Islands of Giants

A figure from the Xagħra Stone Circle on Gozo
Photo: Garry Shaw
As many of you know, as well as my Egyptology work I also write travel articles. My latest article for Timeless Travels magazine is about the Neolithic monuments of Malta.

Here's the opening paragraph:

"Once upon a time, Sansuna, a giantess on the island of Gozo, went to the town of Ta’ Cenc, placed huge stones upon one of her shoulders and carried them 4 km to their current resting place at Ġgantija, "the Place of Giants". A multi-tasker, she did this while holding her half-giant, half-human baby over the other shoulder. Taking these heavy stones, she then built the temple complex of Ġgantija and afterwards allowed the local people to worship within. More unusually, and perhaps irrelevant to the story (but hey, it’s often the little details that make a tale believable), she lived exclusively on broad beans and honey (though some versions replace the honey with water). As old legends go, it’s an entertaining one but it’s not the only explanation for Ġgantija's megalithic prehistoric temple complex. I had also read that it had served as a defensive tower, again built by a race of giants (naturally)."

You can download a pdf of the article here: Islands of Giants

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Signs point to two hidden rooms at Tutankhamun’s tomb, experts say

My latest article for The Art Newspaper.

Early evidence uncovered by archaeologists working at Tutankhamun’s tomb in Luxor, Egypt suggest that two additional chambers may lie hidden at the boy pharaoh’s burial site.

A physical examination of the tomb walls by specialists, led by Egypt’s head of antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty and the British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves, suggests that the ceiling continues behind its north wall, and that this may once have formed part of a corridor.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Tutankhamun’s mask and tomb off view to tourists from October

My latest article for The Art Newspaper.

From October, Tutankhamun’s golden mask will be off display and his tomb closed to tourists. The boy king’s famous mask is being taken off display at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, to enable conservators to remove epoxy resin, applied to the mask in August 2014 as a way of re-securing its loose beard. Although the beard was not broken, as was widely reported at the time, and the epoxy has not discoloured or harmed the mask, it is not the most suitable material for the job, and too much was applied, leaving dried traces visible to viewers.

To read the rest of the article, click here...

Looking Great for Eternity: Egypt's Predynastic Cosmetic Palettes

The Narmer Palette -
an example of a "commemorative palette"
Walk into any museum with an Egyptian collection, and as you explore, you're likely to find your surroundings quite familiar. After all, ancient Egyptian art is very recognizable. In paintings, people are shown with their heads, arms and legs in profile, but with their torso's twisted towards the viewer. With the action neatly separated into clear registers, there is no danger of confusion, and because a person's size shows his importance, it's always easy to spot the key players. Egyptian statues too can easily be identified: to reduce the chance of breakage, the arms and legs are typically kept close to the body, locked in stone; hieroglyphs decorate the base and back; and, despite the wide variety of wigs, kilts and tunics carved, they all scream "Egypt!", even to those with little knowledge of Egyptian art. Egyptian statues can also easily be spotted thanks to their use of "frontality", a fancy way of saying that they're meant to be viewed from the front. Through it all, whether in statuary or 2D art, order - the concept of maat to the ancient Egyptians - dominates.

But certain objects in the museum don't fit - they have a freeness of style quite unlike most objects surrounding you. Almost certainly, these non-conformist pieces will date to the Predynastic Period, a time before Egypt's unification in around 3050 BC, and before the "rules" of Egyptian art were (quite literally) set in stone. Vessels from this time are often decorated with abstract patterns - geometric shapes, great swirls, large circles and semi-circles painted in red. You'll also find smile-shaped boats, their unseen rowers dangling oars vertically from their sides, cabins at their centre, their hulls floating among pyramidal hills and beside stylized goats and ostriches. Graceful figurines, wide-hipped and fingerless, also float into view, their tapering arms raised above their heads like ballerinas, their oval, blank faces expectant of your thoughts.

Diamonds, Boats, Shields and Animals
Amongst the Predynastic objects, you will also find cosmetic palettes. From the start of the Badarian Period (roughly 4400 BC), the Egyptians carved pieces of stone - most often mudstone - into a manageable size to use as a surface for grinding pigment. The ground malachite, red ochre or galena was then mixed with resins, oils or fats to form a paste that could be applied to the face as eye-makeup. The process of grinding also left circular indents in the stone, which today can often retain traces of ancient pigment.

As eye-makeup was fashionable among both sexes throughout Egyptian history, cosmetic palettes are the most commonly found class of object in Predynastic burials after beads and pottery, highlighting their importance to their owners in both life and death. Indeed, many palettes were pierced at their upper edge, allowing them to be hung in the home, probably to keep them safe, but also for display; other, tinier palettes - too small to be functional - were probably regarded as amulets, and either hung from the belt or worn on a necklace. So, as well as being appreciated for their aesthetic qualities, it is possible that the palettes had a religious significance, though we are unaware of their meaning.

Although Egypt's earliest cosmetic palettes were chunky, rectangular slabs of stone, embellished only by notches carved at either long end, over the course of 1,400 years, they developed into a range of shapes and sizes. The first palettes after the Badarian phase were typically rhomboidal (diamond-shaped, sometimes long and sleek, sometimes squat), and vary in size from just a few centimeters in length to almost a meter. As time passed, Egypt's stoneworkers became more experimental; from the end of the Naqada I phase of Egypt's Predynastic Period (around 3550 BC), a vast array of shapes appear in the artist's repertoire, including "pelta"-shaped palettes. Appearing like small anchors, these are, in fact, representations of boats in profile, often with birds' heads carved at the prow and stern, and with a small cabin at the centre. This form of cosmetic palette vanishes from history in around 3400 BC.

At the same time that "pelta" palettes made their appearance, shield-like palettes (scutiform) and animal shapes (zoomorphic) also came into use. Shield-shaped palettes became especially popular in around 3400 BC and continued to be made until the end of the Predynastic Period, around 400 years later. At the top of the "shield", the stoneworkers often carved stylized birds' heads in profile, their faces turned away from each other and their eyes embellished with ostrich shell.

The most endearing of Egypt's cosmetic palettes, however, are those carved fully as animals. Of the many animal shapes known, turtles (which appear as if flattened by some ancient steamroller), birds and fish dominate, each carved as if in silhouette and plain except for the odd incised detail or eye. Indeed, many palettes only resemble their subject in a very rudimentary way; some fish, for example, were carved as basic ovals with only the slightest hint of a tail-fin. (Some are so rudimentary that you wonder if Egyptologists are right in identifying them as a fish at all.) The squashed-turtle type (a non-academically recognized category) are particularly appealing because of their (unintentional?) cuteness: carved as fat ovals with tiny flippers, their bodies are topped by squat heads with bulbous eyes. Other animal palettes, and especially those representing birds, were also carved to appear plump, allowing their owners ample space on which to grind their pigment.

"Commemorative" or "Ceremonial" Palettes
In Naqada III (3150-3000 BC) , the forms of palette the Egyptians produced became more artistically restricted and their appearance progressively simpler. Gone were the endearing animal shapes and "pelta" palettes, replaced by stern rectangular slabs, often with incised lines running around their outer edges as their only decoration; this type of palette continues to be found into the 1st Dynasty (around 3050 BC), when it too vanishes from history. Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that Naqada III was devoid of artistic experimentation. At this time, large, elaborately carved shield-shaped palettes were produced as prestige items for the elite. The simultaneous decline in decorative palettes among Egypt's less privileged population could indicate the elite's appropriation of palettes as a medium for the display of wealth and status; effectively, palettes as items of beauty were now for the rich alone. Indeed, only around 25 of these elite palettes are known, highlighting their restricted use.

Though carved, as usual, with a central circular space for grinding pigment, these shield-shaped palettes were never used for this purpose; rather, as surfaces for display, seemingly placed in temples, they were carved with images representative of the elite's ruling ideology, and may also have been used to commemorate important events, leading scholars to refer to them as "commemorative" or "ceremonial" palettes. Perhaps the most famous example of this type, the Narmer Palette, found at Hierakonpolis and now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, shows the king smiting an enemy on one side, and the intertwined heads of serpopards - a Mesopotamian motif - on the reverse, signifying the unification of Egypt. At the same time, the palette represents the triumph of order over chaos, something emphasized by its orderly composition. Another example, the Battlefield Palette, in the British Museum, depicts a lion, perhaps symbolizing the king, biting into an enemy, while vultures pick at other fallen foes. It is thought that this scene may commemorate an Egyptian victory. The Libyan Palette, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, may also commemorate a victory and the subsequent booty taken, as well as attacks on various fortified cities. In all cases, however, such imagery may be entirely symbolic, unrelated to true historical events.

Kohl Containers
During the 1st Dynasty, the use of commemorative palettes died out, as did the use of mudstone cosmetic palettes. For the rest of Pharaonic history, the surfaces used for grinding pigments are plain, and generally take the form of simple, rectangular blocks of stone of varying types. Indeed, during the Dynastic Period, it seems that the Egyptians preferred to focus their artistic creativity on the vessels that contained their eye-makeup. In the Old Kingdom, kohl was stored in small jars, which, by the Middle Kingdom, had taken on a standard appearance, being flat-bottomed with a wide and flat rim. In the New Kingdom, styles became more elegant; vessels from this time are typically much slimmer and longer than in earlier periods, and could taper at both ends. They were also made from a variety of materials, though calcite, faience and glass examples were most popular. The most elaborate containers take the shape of figures carrying pots, used to store the kohl, or imitate bundles of hollow reeds.

You Can Take it With You
It is a common misconception that Egyptian art remained static for thousands of years; that this is a fallacy can easily be seen in the surviving objects from the Predynastic Period, and especially in the evolution and disappearance of mudstone cosmetic palettes. It is true, however, that appearance was important to the ancient Egyptians throughout the Pharaonic Period. As far back as 4400 BC, they took their beloved cosmetic equipment to the grave, and even adorned the faces of the dead with eye-makeup. Thousands of years before mummification practices were refined, the ancient Egyptians already hoped to look as good in death as they had in life.

This article originally appeared in Al Rawi: Egypt's Heritage Review, Issue 7

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Bran, Brasov, and Bucharest

Bran Castle. Photo: Garry Shaw
As many of you know, as well as my Egyptology work, I also write travel articles. My latest article for Timeless Travels magazine is about exploring Romania and the story of Vlad the Impaler (and his association with the Dracula story).

Here's the opening paragraph: 

'We cannot say that Vlad the Impaler was entirely sane, but he is a great hero to us,' said Andrei, my guide, as we departed Bucharest, driving north out of the Romanian capital. The car pulling away, I watched a black cat delicately pick its way across a window ledge on a distant neoclassical building, like a passing shadow. This wasn't the only dark omen. A couple of hours later, leaving sunny Wallachia Province behind, we entered Transylvania. The weather abruptly changed. Mist rose. Snow fell. The sky darkened. The car bumped along a potholed road. A Roma village, full of colourful wooden houses, bounced by. In the distance, a fortress perched upon a craggy mountain. 'A peasant fortress,' Andrei explained, pointing. 'The people ran there in times of trouble.' Just the type of thing you want to hear on the way to the famed 'Dracula Castle,' I thought, increasingly convinced that the Romanian tourist board had staged it all.

You can download a pdf of the article here: Exploring Bran, Brasov and Bucharest

And if you enjoy it, please download the rest of the Summer 2015 issue of Timeless Travels (it's free!). It's full of wonderful history-themed travel pieces. You can find it at: http://flickread.com/edition/Timeless-Travels-Magazine/