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With Gods, the More the Merrier: Melbourne’s Ancient Egyptians

August 12, 2011

It hit me when I was looking at this chair, that of princess Sitamun, with the original woven string seat. It is an object from the tomb of Tutankhamun, hidden for 3200 years until archaeologist Howard Carter carefully excavated it in 1922. My response was simple wonderment at an object of such grand antiquity. With the original woven string seat!

A golden viscera coffinette

The exhibition on Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs continues at the Melbourne Museum until November 6.

See it.

I know nothing about Egyptology. My knowledge of the ancient world has been absorbed by the Romans. Egypt to me is a bit of cliché, distant and out of focus. But if anything was going to shake me out of my indifference it was these objects, won for Australia by their director, Dr. J Patrick Greene. A working archaeologist himself, he has published a book on his visit to Egypt to prepare for the exhibition: Egypt: a fascinating journey.

Amuletic lapis lazuli jewelry

The objects remind us how Egypt influenced the decorative arts of the Directoire, Consulate and Empire of France (1795 to 1815) or how the jewellery influenced Art Deco. The exhibition also challenges us to think about the waxing and waning of fashions in cosmology. Tutankhamun’s predecessor was Akhenaten (ruled 1353 BC to 1336 BC). He believed in a single god called Aten, represented by the disc of the sun. Hence with his new system the pharaoh was the sole priest of this single god. The pharaoh rewrote Egyptian religion as monotheism. Goodbye to that dense pantheon of half-human, half-animal gods, those elbowing personalities – one for every taste. This was a huge reform in religious practice, comparable to Constantine’s decision to settle on Christian monotheism in 321. Or the Emperor Julian’s decision – he ruled Rome as sole Emperor 361 to 363 – to abandon that monotheism and reinstate the old Greco-Roman gods. New cosmologies enforced by the political rulers.

The boy king Tutankhamun, ascending the throne in 1333 BC at the age of eight, reversed the monotheism of his predecessor. He reinstated the multitudinous old deities. Back they came. Good decision. I like polytheism. The more the merrier.

There’s got to be a novel in this. The only one I can think of is Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings (1983), which is on my bookshelf signed by him, but so far studiously unread. I remember Mailer telling me he had to diligently eradicate any Judeo-Christian references as he set about recreating the world of the pharaohs.

But it is recreated in this splendid exhibition.

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