During Egypt's transformational Middle Kingdom period (ca. 2030–1650 B.C.), earlier artistic conventions, cultural principles, religious beliefs, and political systems were revived and reimagined. Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, on view through January 24, presents a comprehensive picture of the art and culture of the Middle Kingdom—arguably the least known of Egypt's three kingdoms, and yet one that saw the creation of powerful, compelling works rendered with great subtlety and sensitivity. I recently spoke with Adela Oppenheim, co-author of the catalogue and curator of the exhibition, about this pivotal period and how this publication illustrates the profound changes in ancient Egyptian culture.
Rachel High: The Middle Kingdom is relatively understudied by specialists of ancient Egyptian culture. Why do you think that is, and what do you hope this book will convey about this period?
Adela Oppenheim: I think the Middle Kingdom is understudied because it's more difficult to understand. The Middle Kingdom monuments in Egypt are not as well preserved as those of the Old Kingdom. Additionally, subsequent New Kingdom rulers dismantled the temples of the Middle Kingdom and reused the blocks in New Kingdom foundations. Understanding Middle Kingdom art takes a little bit of patience, but it is some of the most beautiful artwork produced in ancient Egypt, so I think that extra bit of effort is very well rewarded.
For example, Middle Kingdom jewelry is not as large or as glittery as the jewels of Tutankhamen, but is beautifully crafted and intimate. The jewelry was made with the absolute tiniest inlays, all perfectly presented and perfectly placed. Even the backs of these objects were chased in gold in incredibly intricate detail, which only the woman who wore these pieces would have seen when taking the jewels on and off. This attention to detail is evident in the relief decoration as well; even sections that would have been very high up on the wall include the tiniest details that you wouldn't have been able to see from the original vantage point. Egyptian art of other periods doesn't always have the same level of attention. The New Kingdom's huge, impressive, and dramatic scenes draw people in very quickly, but they don't necessarily have intimacy. One of the interesting things about the Middle Kingdom if that you have this play between the monumental and the very intimate and personal.
Rachel High: Your catalogue essay discusses the artists and workshops in the Middle Kingdom. As you stated, not much is known about the artistic process at this time. Could you talk about the few insights we have into the lives and work of these artists and their assistants?
Adela Oppenheim: In the catalogue I talk about what we know about artists, workshops, and how style was transmitted. One of the most famous documents from ancient Egypt on the artistic process is a funerary stele now in the collection of the Louvre, created by the artist Irtisen for his own tomb. However, whenever artists or other officials present themselves, it's always idealized. Their accounts show that they knew how to do everything in the correct way: they did what was pleasing to the pharaoh and the gods, and they behaved correctly toward their fellow Egyptians. On his stele, Irtisen describes himself as having a diverse array of skills, but he doesn't explain exactly how the artistic process worked.
The catalogue also features two pieces that play a minor role in the exhibition, but ones that I hope will make people think: a wooden mallet and a chisel made out of a fairly soft copper. When people look through the catalogue, they have to realize that these very simple tools were used to make all of these beautiful stone and wood objects.
Rachel High: The sections of the Ancient Egypt Transformed catalogue are organized thematically. Why did you and your co-authors decide to group the objects in this way, and how do you hope these groupings will help the reader understand the culture of the Middle Kingdom?
Adela Oppenheim: We wanted to show how Middle Kingdom Egyptians understood the world around them. Egyptians' perceptions of the world change in the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms; I hope that is evident in the various objects that we discuss in the book and exhibition. I think the stereotype is that ancient Egyptian culture is very uniform throughout the years. There are some elements Egyptian culture that are really consistent—for example, the particular way that figures are rendered in relief with the head and legs in profile and the eye and shoulders frontal. However, the culture was not static. My aim for this catalogue is to show that within their cultural framework, profound changes occurred in the way Egyptians viewed life, death, kingship, and religion, and how the objects they created express these different cultural, political, and spiritual views.
Rachel High: When did you first become interested in Middle Kingdom art?
Adela Oppenheim: When I came to the Met's Department of Egyptian Art, I started working with Curator Emerita Dorothea Arnold and Curator Dieter Arnold, who are two of the great scholars of the Middle Kingdom period. The Met has an excavation in Egypt at a Middle Kingdom site south of Cairo. When I started working in the department, we were working primarily at Lisht—the cemetery site outside of the Middle Kingdom capital city—so I worked with Dieter and Dorothea on that project. After a few years we started working at another Middle Kingdom pyramid site at Dahshur, where we are still working, twenty-five years later.
Part of the interest for me is that people don't understand this period, and it is even sometimes neglected by our Egyptologist colleagues. There is still a lot of work to be done in trying to understand the Middle Kingdom. Some depictions that were previously thought to begin in the New Kingdom have since been discovered to be present in Middle Kingdom sites. The Middle Kingdom is a transitional period that is the key to understanding the development of pharonic civilization.