I began my career as an archaeologist more than fifty years ago, in the vast ancient necropolis on the west bank of the Nile opposite modern-day Luxor. On behalf of the German Archaeological Institute, I worked with a team that excavated the big rock-cut tomb of the overseer of troops Intef, who served Mentuhotep II, the king who reunited Egypt and thus founded the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1650 B.C.). We were lucky, because in the very first season we found a beautiful statue of the general and uncovered a painted battle scene.
As the youngest member of the crew, I dealt with the ceramic finds, mainly sherds of ancient broken pots of fired clay. Excavations all over the world bring to light not only complete pots from tombs, but also masses of sherds from pots used to prepare, store, and consume food and drink. Such vessels broke easily and were relatively cheap to make, so people would dump the broken ones and replace them, as we do with plastic containers today. Because the shapes, decorations, and manufacturing techniques of these vessels changed over time and differed from region to region, they are vital evidence through which archaeologists can date graves and settlement strata as well as learn about trade patterns and interconnections.
The great British archaeologist W. M. Flinders Petrie, who worked in Egypt from the 1880s to the 1920s, fully realized the potential of pottery evidence and successfully used it in reconstructing Egypt's prehistory. For historical periods, however, many scholars for a long time did not see the need of simple pottery remains because of the abundant written records found on the walls of pharaonic temples, tombs, and on papyrus documents. As a result, when I started working with the pot sherds in the debris that filled the tomb of General Intef, I did not have much help from the literature available at the time.
I soon found out that I was not alone in my predicament. A number of other archaeologists were also realizing the need for a proper new start in the study of ancient Egyptian pottery. We began to meet and discuss—first at the edges of our digs, then in informal gatherings at our various institutions and homes. Some groundbreaking work was done, for instance, in my kitchen in Vienna, which resulted in the term "Vienna System" for the system of describing Egyptian clay material that is widely used today. Nowadays, hundreds of archaeologists attend conferences on ancient Egyptian pottery and scores work at excavation sites in Egypt.
In the exhibition Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, on view through January 24, visitors can see many relief works that depict pots true to their actual shapes. What they will not see much of, however, are examples of the simple and rather plain pottery used during the Middle Kingdom; there were simply too many other objects to display in the exhibition.
One impressive example of Middle Kingdom pottery is, however, shown: a large oval dish on which a fish is incised. It is a type of vessel apparently used at feasts of either religious or civic character.
Also in the show are vessels that were imported to Egypt or that imitated foreign shapes and decorations—important testimonies to trading activity in the eastern Mediterranean during the Middle Kingdom. In the photograph above, the jug in the center was fabricated somewhere near the coast of modern Syria and Lebanon, and may have contained oil at the time it was imported to ancient Egypt. The vessel on the right is part of an elaborate tripartite decorative or ritual vessel made on the island of Crete. The juglet on the left, which some scholars suggest contained opium, was probably made by an Egyptian potter imitating a form and decoration that originated in the Levant.
So what has all of this to do with an exhibition in an art museum?
After my stint as a pottery researcher, I—among others—began to use the results of such studies in the quest of better understanding the contexts of artworks. It was, for instance, possible for me to finally pinpoint the previously debated date of the Metropolitan Museum's marvelous wood statue found in the area of the pyramid of Senwosret I (ca. 1961–1917 B.C.) at Lisht South. Pot sherds excavated by a Metropolitan Museum team during renewed research in the 1980s showed unequivocally that the statue had been deposited in the time of Senwosret's successor, Amenemhat II (ca. 1919–1885 B.C.). The enlivened facial features of the statue can now be understood to have been created during an important intermediary artistic phase in the middle of Dynasty 12, when the stylized early Dynasty 12 royal imagery was transformed into the humanized appearance of royal faces sculpted during later Dynasty 12.
For me personally, the experience of studying simple utilitarian vessels in conjunction with "high" art was infinitely instructive. What people make and use on whatever level of sophistication is an expression of who they are and how they understand life at a particular point in time.