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Ancient Egypt

Knowledge and production: the House of Life

In ancient Egyptian writings and architecture, the House of Life is an institution aligned with kingship, preserving and creating knowledge in written and pictorial form. One example survives in archaeology, in the city of Akhenaten at Amarna: there excavators found bricks stamped with the hieroglyphs for 'House of Life' from a building complex adjacent to the Storage Chamber of Documents of Pharaoh (for storing state correspondence). The complex was roughly equidistant from the central city royal palace and temple to the sun-god. In the ruins excavators retrieved fragments of papyrus with coloured vignettes, possibly showing figures of deities (preserved in the Ashmolean Museum, unpublished pending conservation and study).

the 'House of Life' in Amarna (click on the image for a larger picture) seal impression with the word pr-ankh - 'House of Life', found at Amarna

The earliest references to a House of Life come from royal decrees of the late Old Kingdom (about 2200 BC) mentioning 'the requirements of the House of Life', but not providing any information on its scope. Two stelae (inscribed stones from offering-chapels) of the late Middle Kingdom (1850-1700 BC) record a man named Keku with the title 'scribe of the House of Life' beside a colleague with the title 'chief physician'; the word 'scribe' illustrates the connection between the institution and writing. In the Late Period there may have been a House of Life in each of the main temples throughout Egypt.

In the mid-first millennium BC, the restoration of the House of Life is recorded in inscriptions of high officials with the title 'chief physician' (Peftauawyneit and Wedjahorresnet). This indicates that the books copied and compiled there included writings for good health (compare the list of surviving papyri for earlier periods).

The title 'foremost of the House of Life' appears on inscriptions for the goddess Seshat (meaning 'Writing') and the god Khnum (creator of physical forms).

In the Late Period and Ptolemaic Period, every year, at the end of the season of the Nile Flood, at each temple the staff carried out the ritual of making a mud figure of Osiris, in which seed was germinated before its burial. A manuscript recording the ritual was found at Abydos, and is now preserved in the British Museum (papyrus ESA 10051+10090: for the start of the manuscript and its findplace, see Herbin 1988). This manuscript gives many details on the construction of a House of Life at Abydos, and may apply to the House of Life attached to Late Period temples throughout Egypt. These in turn may be modelled on the House of Life at the palace, centre of ancient Egyptian kingship.

As an institution of ancient Egyptian kingship and its temples, the House of Life could not easily survive the conversion of the country first to Christianity and then to Islam, at least not in its specific ancient Egyptian form. There is, though, a linguistic echo in Coptic (the phase of the Egyptian language as spoken and written in Christian Egypt) in the word sphransh, meaning 'interpreter of dreams' and derived either from the ancient Egyptian 'scribe of the House of Life' or perhaps from a rare title 'teacher of the House of Life'.

These conclusions are drawn from the list of references to the House of Life in ancient Egyptian inscriptions and manuscripts (Gardiner 1938).


Appreciating the object

Appreciation of the single object

There are few direct sources for ancient Egyptian appreciation of individual objects beyond the following:

Another means of detecting ancient valuing of objects may be the use of the word 'renewal': several stela fragments of the Eighteenth Dynasty have been found built into Nineteenth Dynasty stelae, with an inscription by a particular individual claiming to have restored the monument of the deity. Evidently a stela had been set up in the Eighteenth Dynasty to immortalise the piety of a person before the god Amun, and then had been destroyed during the reign of Akhenaten, when references to the god Amun were smashed throughout Egypt; after the restoration of the cult of Amun, a stela fragment referring to the god had been selected (and cut down?) for inclusion in a new stela, immortalising the piety of someone living in the restoration period - referring to the name not of the owner of the original stela, but of the god depicted on it. Here the object is a link to the past, the period before destruction, and becomes a potent symbol of piety; three millennia before a European Renaissance, objects play a part in another drama of restoration that implies three phases of (1) perfect distant past, (2) evil or deficient recent past, and (3) reawakened present.


Groups of objects: obtaining, securing, displaying

Kings collecting objects

The royal treasury, in ancient Egypt named the White House, contained materials of high economic value such as cloth, precious metals, and semi-precious stones. Groups of objects from the natural and human-made world were, as documented at some periods in ancient Egyptian history, a focus of particular royal or individual interest. In the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, inscriptions and depictions on temple walls at Thebes celebrate fauna and flora foreign to Egypt, encountered in the trading and military expeditions of those two rulers (about 1450-1400 BC): the Deir el-Bahri reliefs depicting the expedition of Hatshepsut to Punt, bringing back incense trees (Smith 1962), and the Karnak chamber for Thutmose III with depictions of plants and birds from western Asia (Beaux 1990). New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC) royal inscriptions and reliefs, and their echoes among the paintings in the tomb-chapels of officials at Thebes, also indicate the prominence of art works in precious materials among imports from other lands; these include figured metal vessels from Syria and the Aegean.

The scale of import and export of exotic items in international gift exchange is documented in the New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC) correspondence between rulers, including the Amarna Letters (Liverani 1990). The political and economic dimensions of these relations do not remove the possibility of other values such as emotional, 'aesthetic' or religious.


Other collections of objects

Within the elite home, there is little evidence for collecting; lists of objects from palatial houses at Middle Kingdom Lahun do not specify any particular value placed on groups of objects, or on the age or method of acquiring an object - instead, the lists identify by material and function. However, this reflects the purpose of these documents as inventories; it does not reveal whether or not particular items or groups held emotional or religious or other value for the owner. In a letter from Deir el-Medina, a man requests that a collection of books kept in a tomb-chapel be moved to a safer place, following a storm (Papyrus British Museum ESA 10326, Wente 1990: 191).


Palace and temple as places of display

The ancient Egyptian palace and temple would have acted as elite theatres of power, and the objects in them as the visible signs of power. The ancient Egyptian palace furnishings have not survived, even at better known sites such as Amarna and Malqata.

By contrast, temples offer substantial if displaced evidence for the role of aged objects in the visual life of the ancient Egyptian. On the evidence of caches of sculpture and furniture in temple precincts, it seems that there was resistance to recycling objects dedicated to temples. Although such objects have been found only in secondary or tertiary deposits, and do not generally include precious metals or semi-precious stones, they can be used to reconstruct the appearance of the temple at the moment before their clearance and burial. The largest such deposit was unearthed from from partly waterlogged levels in an open court at the Karnak temple, at the point where the processions left the main temple of Amun on their way south to the temple of Mut; between November 1903 and July 1905 the Egyptian Antiquities Service retrieved 751 stone statues and fragments, and 17,000 bronze figurines, along with numerous miscellaneous finds such as stelae, offering-tables, and the water-damaged remains of wooden images and objects (Reeves 2000: 118-120).

On a smaller scale, the excavations led by W. Emery in the 1960s and 1970s at Saqqara brought to light several deposits of Late Period figures and temple furniture.

There is an echo of these temple caches in adminstrative manuscripts: the Abusir Papyri of the late Old Kingdom include record of condition of objects in the temple, sometimes with note of repair. These do not, though, specify whether there was any attempt to retain original materials (in addition to appearance and function).

The eastern extension to Karnak temple under Thutmose III included a chamber with a depiction of statues of kings from earlier periods, perhaps items that had to be moved to make way for the massive building projects at the temple; it is not clear whether the actual statues were kept visible above ground or buried, but the statue cult for those kings was preserved by depicting them on the walls of the chamber.

Though it may seem far from a secular Western gallery, the densely packed environment of the ancient sanctuary would have delivered as much art and craft to a 'visitor' as any museum could today. Moreover, in contrast to sights as experienced in Western-style tourism, a shrine within its culture may provide a setting more sympathetic to stimulating the senses and a sense of wonder.


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