The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has one of the best collections of ancient Egyptian art in the world. Now it has opened a special exhibition focusing on the lesser-known art from the early days of Egypt before the pharaohs.
“The Dawn of Egyptian Art” brings together art from the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods (ca. 4000–2650 B.C.), a time when Egypt was developing into a society with towns, specialized labor and, eventually, a centralized government. This broad swath of time included several distinct local cultures that slowly became the ancient Egypt that we are familiar with.
The main culture was the Naqada culture. Villages each had their own animal deities, many of which survived as gods and goddesses of dynastic Egypt. The dead were buried with works of art such as jewelry and figurines of these deities. As agriculture became more important in the fertile Nile valley, villages grew into towns and art flourished. Local rulers became more powerful and expanded their territories until Egypt was two kingdoms: Upper and Lower Egypt.
The 175 objects from the Met’s collection, and those of a dozen other institutions, put Predynastic Art into its historical and cultural context as well as display them as objects of beauty. For example, this female figure, shown here in a photo courtesy the Brooklyn Museum, was made about 3500-3400 B.C. and is typical of the highly abstracted figures made throughout most of the Predynastic Period. It’s unclear what this figure symbolized, although many Egyptologists think these figures are goddesses, since similar figures painted onto pots are always larger than the male “priests” shown next to them.
Some art is easier to identify, like ships and hunting scenes painted onto pottery or on tomb walls. There are also statues of gods and goddesses, many of which can be identified as the major deities of the age of the pharaohs. A masterpiece of early Egyptian art is the Narmer Palette, seen in the gallery, which commemorates the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in the 31st century B.C.
For more information, check out this excellent page on Predynastic Art and check out the gallery below.
“The Dawn of Egyptian Art” runs until August 5.