Semiotics Research: Ancient Egyptians
By: Lydia Shull
For this research article I chose to go to the VMFA and go to the Ancient Egyptian section, I admire how much the Egyptians respected the dead and prepared their loved ones for the afterlife, often times including a part of their past that they can bring along to help them in the underworld. They made sure that it was preserved to the best of their ability, prayed over, protected, and not forgotten about. It almost seems like they worshiped the living just as much as the afterlife, but after doing research I have found they it is in fact living that they are obsessed with. They go to great lengths to celebrate death as a form of continuation of life and that makes a lot more sense. I think that as far as the purpose of mummification, coffins, jars, stele, statues, and stone materials, they succeeded in preserving things. I have no way of telling if the prayers or sacrifices made for the living or deceased worked. Below I will talk about what makes each image valuable then, but they are all valuable now because it allows us to learn about the Egyptians. What their values were, who was in charge, what their daily life was like, pretty much what happened from the time someone was born up until death. I think that the Egyptians were very hard working, dedicated people and that it shows very well in the photos below. When I first arrived at the exhibit I was in awe, having never seen ancient Egyptian artifacts right in front of me before. It didn’t take long for me to realize how fascinating they were. One thing I really appreciated about this exhibit was how well they had things on display. I enjoyed being able to walk up close to certain things and admire them in detail, and I also enjoyed viewing other things from a distance. I think the VMFA has done a great job on setting the area up in a way that really makes you feel interested.
Inner Coffin of the Charioteer Iotefamun
Funeral masks were extended to cover the entire body of the mummy, which created a human figure. This began around 2000 BC. Doing this created an inner coffin where the mummy could rest. In the inner coffin of the Charioteer Iotefamun, a whip was found. During that time, mummy’s would be buried with an item (such as the chariot whip found in the inner coffin of the Charioteer Iotefamun) which signified what the profession of the deceased was. By 1200 BC, mummies would lay to rest inside of multiple coffins, nestled together. To me, this makes me think about how we have coffins for the deceased. According the the Smithsonian, the earliest mummifications were likely unintentional and that the Egyptians began intentionally mummifying the deceased during the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties.
Canopic jars were of vital importance when it came to the mummification process. The jars each held different organs of the deceased. Canopic jars were usually in a set of four, each with a different shaped head that represented different deities, known as The Four Sons of Horus. The human-headed jar was the guardian of the liver; the jackal-headed was protector of the stomach; the falcon headed jar watched over the intestines; and the baboon-headed one protected the lungs. I appreciate that the Egyptians carefully made decisions about what to do with each part of the body. However, the animal shaped heads mentioned were used in Dynasty 18. In the photo above, they are human- shaped heads which are not from Dynasty 18.
Coffin and Mummy of Tjergy
Many wooden objects from ancient Egypt, including this coffin, are made out of tiny pieces of wood that were forced together. On the line that wraps the parameter of the coffin lid and chest reads about Tjergy’s name and titles (Count and Sealbearer of the King of Lower Egypt),as well as prayers to protect him on his travels through the underworld. This type of coffin is mostly found in the Old Egyptian Kingdom, when tombs were considered dwelling places for eternity. The earliest coffins are known to be made of wood, like this one, and almost look like miniature homes. Seeing this was surreal as I had never seen a mummy before and I’m still questioning that a mummy is what I saw or just the wrappings. I chose this piece because it was of great importance to the Egyptians. They built this coffin out of tiny pieces of wood and engraved a beautiful prayer and title around the parameter, and it had held up all these years. At this point, I started to see just how much pride they took in everything they did.
Stele of Setja
The Stetle of Steja is a large piece of limestone slab which contains an inscription that reads, “ An offering that the king gives and Anubis, who is upon his mountain, who is in bandages, Lord of the holy and the (necropolis), (consisting of) an invocation offering of Steja meat, onions, two fowls, and jugs for drinks. Stele slabs were usually put onto the walls. Inside of the chambers of a tombs outer chapel.
Statue of a seated man
The inscription that reads on the front of the seated mans cloak states, ““an offering that the King gives to Osiris, First of the Westerners, Lord of Abydos, that he may give the sweet breath of life to the Ka of the Commissioner of Police, Res, true of voice.” According to theory, the only ones who were allowed to make offerings were the king or a God. If someone wasn’t a king or God, and still wanted to make an offering, they had to have the assistance of one. In this statue, it is obvious that it represents a man, not a God or a king.
Egyptian sculpture in stone
Stone sculptures were very important in ancient Egypt as they met two needs of Egyptian religion. Glorifying the Gods and housing the soul after death. This type of material was also valuable because of its durability. Granite stone was used for important works, while limestone and soft sandstone would be used for others. Along with carving and shaping the stones, the Egyptians would always paint them to make them appear more realistic. Different styles of carving were established as the years went on, which allows the time of each carving to be determined.
As discussed above, the preservation of life was very important to the Ancient Egyptians. Masks like this one mainly protected the head, and were most often used if the mummy was damaged. This type of coffin is knows as a Mummy Cases. Mummy cases were around in the New Kingdom, and were boxes that went around the mummy, to incase them between the coffin and the mummy. find it interesting that they wouldn’t put a damaged mummy inside of a coffin, but only preserve it’s head. In modern society, I think people would find this practice not acceptable because by tradition, a persons entire body goes into a coffin. I think this is probably because they don’t want the deceased to go into the afterlife with a damaged body, and they want to protect what good is left of them.
The celebration of life was just as important as the afterlife to the Egyptians because they saw dying as a continuation of living. Religion was a very important part of everyday Egyptian life and that is reflected in a lot of the images above. The Egyptians loved the earth, their Gods, and each other.