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Egyptian Decorative Art
By W. M. Flinders Petrie
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1999 Dover Publications, Inc.
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THE SOURCES OF DECORATION
IN dealing with the subject of decorative art in Egypt, it is needful to begin by setting some bounds to a study which might be made to embrace almost every example of ancient work known to us in that land. The Egyptian treatment of everything great and small was so strongly decorative that it is hard to exclude an overwhelming variety of considerations. But here it is proposed to limit our view to the historical development of the various motives or elements of decoration. The larger questions of the aesthetic scheme of design, of the meaning of ornament—symbolic or religious, of the value and effect of colour, of the relations of parts, we can but glance at occasionally in passing; in another branch, the historical connection of Egyptian design with that of other countries, the prospect is so tempting and so valuable, that we may linger a little at each of these bye-ways to note where the turning occurs and to what it leads. As I have said, all Egyptian design was strongly decorative. The love of form and of drawing was perhaps a greater force with the Egyptians than with any other people. The early Babylonians and the Chinese had, like the Egyptians, a pictorial writing; but step by step they soon dropped the picture altogether in favour of the easier abbreviation of it. The Egyptian, on the contrary, never lost sight of his original picture; and however much his current hand altered, yet for four or five thousand years he still maintained his true hieroglyphic pictures. They were modified by taste and fashion, even in some cases their origin was forgotten, yet the artistic form was there to the very end.
But the hieroglyphs were not only a writing, they were a decoration in themselves. Their position was ruled by their effect as a frieze, like the beautiful tile borders of Cufic inscription on Arab architecture; and we never see in Egypt the barbarous cutting of an inscription across figure sculptures as is so common in Assyria. The arrangement of the groups of hieroglyphs was also ruled by their decorative effect. Signs were often transposed in order to group them more harmoniously together in a graceful scheme; and many sounds had two different signs, one tall, another wide, which could be used indifferently (at least in later times) so as to combine better with the forms which adjoined them. In short, the Egyptian with true decorative instinct clung to his pictorial writing, modified it to adapt it to his designs, and was rewarded by having the most beautiful writing that ever existed, and one which excited and gave scope to his artistic tastes on every monument. This is but one illustration of the inherent power for design and decoration which made the Egyptian the father of the world's ornament.
In other directions we see the same ability. In the adaptation of the scenes of peace or of war to the gigantic wall surfaces of the pylons and temples; in the grand situations chosen for the buildings, from the platform of cliffs for the pyramids at Gizeh, to the graceful island of Philæ; in the profusion of ornament on the small objects of daily life, which yet never appear inappropriate until a debased period;—in all these different manners the Egyptian showed a variety of capacity in design and decoration which has not been exceeded by any other people.
The question of the origination of patterns at one or more centres has been as disputed as the origination of man himself from one or more stocks. Probably some patterns may have been re-invented in different ages and countries; but, as yet, we have far less evidence of re-invention than we have of copying. It is easy to pre-suppose a repeated invention of designs, but we are concerned with what has been, and not with what might have been. Practically it is very difficult, or almost impossible, to point out decoration which is proved to have originated independently, and not to have been copied from the Egyptian stock. The influences of the modes of work in weaving and basket-work have had much to do with the uniformity of patterns in different countries; apparently starting from different motives, the patterns when subject to the same structural influences have resulted in very similar ornaments. This complicates the question undoubtedly; and until we have much more research on the history of design, and an abundance of dated examples, it will be unsafe to dogmatise one way or the other. So far, however, as evidence at present goes, it may be said that—in the Old World at least—there is a presumption that all the ornament of the types of Egyptian designs is lineally descended from those designs. Mr. Goodyear has brought so much evidence for this, that—whether we agree with all his views or not—his facts are reasonably convincing on the general descent of classic ornament from Egyptian, and of Indian and Mohammedan from the classical, and even of Eastern Asian design from the Mohammedan sources. A good illustration of the penetrating effect of design is seen in a most interesting work on the prehistoric bronzes of Minusinsk in Central Asia, near the sources of the Yenesei river, and equidistant from Russia and from China, from the Arctic Ocean and from the Bay of Bengal. Here in the very heart of Asia we might look for some original design. But yet it is easy to see the mingled influences of the surrounding lands, and to lay one's finger on one thing that might be Norse, on another that might be Chinese, or another Persian. If, then, the tastes of countries distant one or two thousand miles in different directions can be seen moulding an art across half a continent, how much more readily can we credit the descent of design along the well-known historical lines of intercourse. The same thing on a lesser scale is seen in the recent publication of the prehistoric bronzes of Upper Bavaria; in these the designs are partly Italic, partly Mykenaean. If forms were readily re-invented again and again independently, why should we not find in Bavaria some of the Persian or Chinese types? Nothing of the kind is seen, but the forms and decoration are distinctly those of the two countries from which the ancient makers presumably obtained their arts and civilisation. Yet again, to come to historical times, the elegant use of the angle of a third of a right angle so generally in Arab art, is very distinct and characteristic, Yet if patterns were continually re-invented, how is it that no one else hit on this simple element for thousands of years ? The very fact that the locality and date of an object of unknown origin can be so closely predicted by its style and feeling in design, is the best proof how continuous is the history and evolution of ornament, and how little new invention has to do with it—in short, how difficult it is to man to be really original.
Now we can see a source for most of our familiar elements of design in the decoration which was used in Egypt long before any example that is known to us outside of that land. And it is to Egypt then that we are logically bound to look as the origin of these motives. If, then, we seek the source of most of the various elements of the decoration which covers our walls, our floors, our dishes, our book-covers, and even our railway stations, we must begin by studying Egypt.
As our object is the history and evolution of the various elements of decoration, we may classify these elements under four divisions. There is the simplest geometrical ornament of lines and spirals and curves, and of surfaces divided by these into squares and circles. There is the natural ornament of copying feathers, flowers, plants, and animals, There is structural ornament which results from the structural necessities of building and of manufacture : these often result in the perpetuation of defects or copies of defects, like the circle stamped in the plain end of meat tins which is made to imitate the circular patch soldered on to the other end, so trying to establish a balance of appearance. Many architectural devices and difficulties are perpetuated for us in this way long after the original purpose has passed away; such as the cylindrical bosses projecting from the walls in Moslem architecture, which imitate the projecting ends of pillars torn from ruins and built into the wall, though rather too long for the position. The origin and the imitation can be seen side by side at Jerusalem. Structural ornament is therefore often of the greatest historical value as pointing to a condition of things that has since vanished.
Lastly, there is symbolic ornament. Some now claim most decoration as having some symbolic or religious meaning; of that I shall say nothing, as it is but an hypothesis. But there is no question of the symbolical intention of many constantly repeated ornaments in Egyptian work. as the globe and wings, the scarab, or the various hieroglyphs with well-known meanings which are interwoven into many designs.CHAPTER 2
ONE of the simplest and the earliest kinds of ornament that we find is the zigzag line, which occurs on the oldest tombs, 4000 B.C. So simple is this, that it might be supposed that every possible variety of it would be soon played out. Yet, strange to say, two of the simplest modifications are not found till a couple of thousand years after the plain zigzag had been used. The wavy line in curves instead of angular waves is not found till the XVIIIth dynasty, or about 1500 B.C.; while the zigzag with spots in the spaces is equally late, and is generally foreign to Egypt.
The plain repeated zigzag line is used down to late times, but generally with variety in colour to give it interest. From the earliest times this was symmetrically doubled, so as to give a row of squares with parallel borders; or with repeated zigzag borders in alternate light and dark colours. This same type lasted onward to the XIXth dynasty (belt Ramessu II. C.M.X.), and is found, with the addition of spots in the outer angles, in the foreign dress of Shekh Absha, at Benihasan, in the XIIth dynasty.
A later stage was to repeat the squares with varieties of colour; and also to introduce details into the squares, and so make them compound patterns, as in the XVIIth dynasty at El Kab, where the sequence of the blue, green, and red lines makes a brilliant effect from these simple elements. Not only a square, but also a hexagon, was worked into the same design. This, from the nature of it, suggests a rush-work screen, and probably it was plaited with rushes in three directions, and hence the production of this particular angle. The previous zigzag pat-terns all suggest weaving; and in some in Ptah-hotep's tomb (Vth dyn.) closely woven and complex zigzag patterns are shown which are evidently copied from textiles, as we shall see further on in the chequer patterns.
The use of spots for filling in corners was foreign to the Egyptian. We first find it in the garments of the Amu, or people of northern Arabia, in the XIIth dynasty. Till then a spot is never seen, except for the centre of a square; but the Amu dresses are covered with spots in every space, and even along the bars and stripes of colour. The same is seen on the later dresses of the Amu in the XIXth dynasty, and also in the dress of the Phoenicians, or Keft people. It recurs on the foreign vases probably brought in from the Ægean; and it is only found in Egyptian products during the XVIIIth dynasty, when foreign fashions prevailed, though it is but rare then. Hence we may fairly set aside this use of spots as a foreign or Asiatic element, akin to the filling in of spaces on early Greek vases with rosettes and other small ornaments.
The zigzag line only became changed into a rounded wavy line in the later time of the XVIIIth dynasty. This probably results from the earlier patterns being all direct copies of textiles which maintained rectilinear patterns; but when the same came to be used on pottery (as above), or on metal work (shield border, L. D. iii. 64), then curves were readily introduced. On a golden bowl repeated waves are shown, deepened so as to receive further figures.
The spiral, or scroll, is one of the greatest elements of Egyptian decoration; it is only second to the lotus in importance, and shares with that the origination of a great part of the ornament of the world. The source of the spiral and its meaning are alike uncertain. It has been attributed to a development of the lotus pattern; but it is known in every variety of treatment without any trace of connection with the lotus. It has been said to represent the wanderings of the soul; why, or how, is not specified; nor why some souls should wander in circular spirals, others in oval spirals, some in spirals with ends, others in spirals that are endless. And what a soul was supposed to do when on the track of a triple diverging spiral, how it could go two ways at once, or which line it was to take—all these difficulties suggest that the theorist's soul was on a remarkable spiral.
The subject of spirals fall into two groups. The older group by far are the scarabs, which contain spirals on a limited and small field; the other group are those continuous patterns on ceilings, furniture, &c., which are capable of indefinite extension by repetition. As the scarabs are far the older examples, there is a presumption that spirals may have even originated on scarab designs; and the hesitating and simple manner of the oldest instances on scarabs indeed seems as if the engravers were merely filling a space, and not copying any well-known pattern. The earliest that can be certainly dated is one of Assa, of the Vth dynasty, on which a bordering line is interrupted at the ends and turned in to fill the space on either side of the name. From the cramped way in which this is done, and the want of uniformity in the spirals, it seems as if no regular pattern were in view, but only the need of avoiding an unsightly gap in the design. We next see spirals used in the same way to fill up at the sides of the inscription on the scarabs of Pepy, without any attempt to connect them into a continuous pattern; and on the scarabs of Ma··abra, probably soon after, the same loose spirals are seen thrown in to fill up. In none of these cases is the ornament anything but the means of supplementing the required inscription; nothing is arranged for the sake of it, and it is treated as a mere afterthought. Nor is it until the XIIth dynasty that any continuous spiral design can be dated. For over a thousand years, then, the spiral is only to be found as an accessory on scarabs, a fact which strongly suggests that it originated in this manner.
Before describing spirals further, it is needful to settle some definite names for their varieties. Where the lines are coiled closely in a circular curve, as in Assa's scarab, they may be termed coils; where lengthened out, as in Pepy's, we may term them hooks; where lengthy in the body between the turns, as in Ma ·abra's, they are rather lines. Where the line is broken at each spiral, as in all the above, it is a chain of spirals; but where the same line is maintained unbroken throughout it is a continuous spiral, and these are found in all varieties of coils, hooks, or links. Sometimes the continuous line has separate ends, but more usually it is endless, returning into itself. These terms will suffice to distinguish the varieties, and enable us to speak of a spiral with definiteness.
These detached spirals continued in use in the XIIth dynasty, generally as loose links, often not hooking together, as in this of Usertesen II. In the XVIIIthe dynasty this is still found as a general surface ornament on the boat covers of Hatshepsut at Deir al Bahri, and on the base of a Kohl vase in the Ghizeh Museum.
But the spiral was developed, apparently under Usertesen I., into a chain of coils, which are drawn with great beauty and regularity. Such care indicates that the design was a novelty, which was not yet stereotyped and reproduced as a matter of course. In no later reign were spirals ever so beautifully and perfectly executed. This type was revived under Amenhotep II. (H. S. 1097). In about the XIIth dynasty it was combined with the lotus in perhaps the most perfect design that remains on any scarab—a continuous coil with flowers and buds in the spaces.
But it was felt that the spirals all round occupied too much of the field, so the top and bottom were left free for inscribing, and the ornament was limited to the sides, as in this chain of hook pattern of Usertesen I. This design, with the line continued around the top as well as the base, was the staple decoration of the private scarabs of the XIIth—XIIIth dynasties, many of which are of great beauty. Both types are found, but the hook pattern is more usual than the coils.
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