Think “Ancient Egypt.” What comes to mind?
The pyramids at Giza? King Tut’s gilded tomb? The monumental Sphinx?
Sure, those are the greatest hits — and the pharaohs were the celebrities of their day.
But what of the teeming masses? That’s the tantalizing question raised by the Brooklyn Museum’s new exhibit, “To Live Forever,” which puts on display common funereal artifacts of lower- and middle-class Egyptian life, who were just as obsessed with the afterlife as their royalty.
Who can relate to Cleopatra, anyway? As the exhibition demonstrates, the lives of the lower classes can be more interesting and insightful than the dazzling opulence of the privileged few.
“Typically upper-class material is shown at Egyptian exhibits,” said curator Edward Bleiberg. “Showing [burial] objects from the lower classes is a way for us to connect to the ancient Egyptians. Their problems are the same as ours: ‘How am I going to the pay the bills for this?’ ”
Indeed, then, as now, everyone wanted to be comfortable in the hereafter.
That explains one choice piece in the show: a sarcophagus for a commoner made from cheap clay and painted yellow to imitate the gold that would line a royal coffin, a desperate attempt to impress the gods.
As the exhibit shows, Egyptians from pharaoh to plebeian were keen to pimp their coffins in a variety of creative ways, even if it meant defiling someone else’s.
In one stunning example, “The Lady of the House, Weretwahset,” a coffin was actually recycled 200 years later by a member of the same family: a grim hand-me-down if there ever was one. On certain parts of the coffin, one can actually see where the more-recent tenant actually had the name of the previous one scribbled out.
Smaller figurines that would accompany the dead on their spiritual journey also feature similar drastic measures in which a person would put their own touches on a statuette — by literally slicing away the names of the previous owner.
Poorer Egyptians were equally resourceful in appearing posthumously privileged.
Many near the bottom of the social ladder were keen to imitate the elites’ famous burial ritual requiring all the internal organs to be chemically treated then removed through the nose — though the impoverished used an alternative method: they would commission a brutal enema after death that would actually liquefy their organs.
Gristly? Of course — but the ancient Egyptians considered them absolutely necessary. In fact, funeral preparations for the afterlife were typically a person’s largest expense.
“It was like buying a car,” Bleiberg said. “You spend a year’s salary and then spend subsequent years paying it off — and we have records of Egyptians paying off the expense in installments, on time.”
The new exhibit, which opened today, is able to distinguish itself from the other countless Egyptian exhibits that cycle through New York in large part due to the Brooklyn Museum’s unique collection.
“Ours is known as an aesthetic collection,” Bleiberg said. “We were the first to show the artifacts as art rather than ethnographic pieces in the 1930s.”
And by presenting this impressive collection through the lens of the social hierarchy, the Brooklyn Museum has created a wonderfully humbling experience that serves as reminder of how connected we are — both socially and spiritually — to our ancient predecessors.
“To Live Forever” at the Brooklyn Museum [200 Eastern Pkwy. at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, (718) 638-5000] runs through May 2. Museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
©2010 Community News Group
By submitting this comment, you agree to the following terms:
You agree that you, and not BrooklynPaper.com or its affiliates, are fully responsible for the content that you post. You agree not to post any abusive, obscene, vulgar, slanderous, hateful, threatening or sexually-oriented material or any material that may violate applicable law; doing so may lead to the removal of your post and to your being permanently banned from posting to the site. You grant to BrooklynPaper.com the royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual and fully sublicensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such content in whole or in part world-wide and to incorporate it in other works in any form, media or technology now known or later developed.