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Masking the Blow: The Scene of Representation in Late Prehistoric Egyptian Art

Masking the Blow: The Scene of Representation in Late Prehistoric Egyptian Art

by Whitney Davis

The meaning of late prehistoric Egyptian images has until now been tantalizingly mysterious, as little understood as the circumstances of their production. As a result, analyses of these images have been general and often incorrectly illustrated. Whitney Davis now provides a welcome remedy in this detailed reinterpretation of the images carved on ivory knife


The meaning of late prehistoric Egyptian images has until now been tantalizingly mysterious, as little understood as the circumstances of their production. As a result, analyses of these images have been general and often incorrectly illustrated. Whitney Davis now provides a welcome remedy in this detailed reinterpretation of the images carved on ivory knife handles and schist cosmetic palettes. These images are among the most important documents of early Egyptian history and include the Narmer Palette, often considered the very inception of ancient Egyptian image making.

Davis deciphers the intriguing pictorial narratives and complex metaphors of images that are concerned with "masking the blow" of the ruler. "Masking the blow" refers to the ways that the images—from hunted animals to human antagonists—represent, elide, or suppress the depiction of a ruler's violent act of conquering an enemy.

Examining late prehistoric Egyptian images in light of contemporary visual theory and illustrating his analyses with excellent reproductions, Davis goes beyond the usual concern for stylistic development and iconographic meanings that characterize prior studies. His work will greatly interest art historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and students of the visual arts.

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University of California Press
Publication date:
California Studies in the History of Art Series
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7.32(w) x 10.33(h) x 1.17(d)

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Masking the Blow

The Scene of Representation in Late Prehistoric Egyptian Art
By Whitney Davis

University of California Press

Copyright © 1992 Whitney Davis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-07488-2

Chapter One

History and the Scene of Representation

The register ground line is the most important compositional device of Egyptian canonical representation, the official image-making tradition of the ancient Egyptian state from its establishment about 3000 B.C. until its dissolution in the Hellenistic and Roman periods (Figs. 1, 2). The ground line holds animal or human figures apart. It orders and fixes them, possibly overlapping them slightly, in isocephalous rows. Finally, it orients them in a consistent direction, often toward a figure of authority also depicted in the image-if not always in the same register-and generally the patron of the work, who takes possession of them as his estate.

Although the register ground line is a compositional device, it does not necessarily delimit the image, understood, as it is throughout this study, as a pictorial statement of an often complex reference using a variety of available "textual" resources like narrative and metaphor. For example, an individual register might frame a group of animal or human figures, but often the action of these figures and the "meaning" of the group cannot be understood without referring to an official, monarch, or divinity depicted not in that band but rather elsewhere in the image. Register bands frame elements of an image-namely, those that are literally depicted on and by the surface of the pictorial medium as it has been cut up and organized. The elements of a literal depiction in any particular passage of an image, however, are not necessarily the same thing as the image itself, the semiotic whole that functions as a narrative or other kind of sign.

As a compositional device a register might not only frame but also organize an image consisting of several discrete passages of depiction, or "pictorial text." The great painted caves of the Magdalenian period in Upper Paleolithic southwestern Europe, about 15,000 B.C., provide instructive examples of the relations between composed passages of depiction and the image as a totality (see Leroi-Gourhan 1967, 1986). The caves sometimes contain thousands of figures organized in distinguishable compositions or passages of pictorial text on separate "panels." Nevertheless, each cave might amount to a single complex image, perhaps a narrative or other kind of semiotic structure making use of textual modalities other than depiction (see Vialou 1981, 1982). This image would necessarily be taken in by a viewer in a drawn-out act of viewing that includes several techniques of "reading." (Conceivably the act of making extended over a considerable time as well; see Marshack 1977.) Even on a tiny object-like the decorated combs and cosmetic palettes we are examining here-the smallest passage of pictorial text, apparently bounded by a framing device that might simply be the edge of the object itself, can be organized internally as an image or images. In sum: composition is the organization of depiction, both within and among its divisions or frames; passages of depiction present-are the "text" of-the image; and the image is the concatenation of passages of depiction functioning as a referential whole for a viewer.

In the Egyptian canonical tradition image makers generally used several registers to organize an image. Composition therefore takes place both within registers-obeying the separateness, the isocephaly, and the constancy of direction of figures, among other criteria (see also Davis 1989: 29-37)-and between registers as they are arrayed on the surface of a wall, within the larger architectural setting, and even within the context of an entire building, building complex, site, or territory (see Tefnin 1979, 1981, and 1983 for fundamental considerations). Figures, registers, and images tend to be organized hierarchically with no extraneous or competing pictorial matter. They can be accompanied by hieroglyphic texts, rebuslike signs, and other symbols that perform complementary, parallel, or identical referential operations (Fischer 1986), with "picture" and "hieroglyph" often working together to constitute the "image." In the canonical tradition an entire decorated object or monument-an item or suite of furniture, a three-dimensional sculpture with applied depictions in relief and incised hieroglyphs, a painted tomb chapel, or a temple-sometimes functions as a single image. Whatever its configuration, this image was taken in by a viewer in a complex, hierarchically organized act of viewing governed by social realities and conventions. For instance, not every viewer could "read" all passages of the pictorial text: some were presented in hieroglyphic writing incomprehensible to many viewers, and some were sacred precincts visited only by the specially qualified. Nonetheless, however complicated it may be as a physical entity, the object or monument presents a reference that was legible in part or as a whole to a few or to many viewers as that reference.

As this description implies, the canonical Egyptian image is an intricate affair. In the real space before the decorated wall, the artist, the official or royal patron, and other viewers face the register band at right angles to the direction of movement of its depicted figures. Human figures within the band are depicted not in absolute profile but in the well-known "frontal/profile" aspect (Davis 1989: 27-29). When reversal of the orientation of figures, detachment of figures from the ground line, and so forth, occur in Egyptian canonical representation, it is because every scene was designed to fit a specific architectural context, and the patron's individual requirements for story and symbol had to be met. But every figure has a "space" where it stands out from the ground of the image in a clear silhouette (see also Groenewegen-Frankfort 1951; Smith 1965; Schäfer 1974; Davis 1989: 7-37, with full references).

These features of register composition cannot be assumed to have been present in the same way in Egyptian image making before the consolidation of canonical conventions, a process that began in the early First Dynasty and was apparently not completed until the Third (Davis 1989: 116-19). For example, in prehistoric or early dynastic image making the viewer's line of sight might not have been fixed, by the way figures and composition are constructed, at exact right angles to the line of movement of the figures depicted within the image. If the perspective for the viewer of a precanonical image was different in relation to the figures depicted from that of the viewer of the canonical image, despite continuities between them in the technique of rendering individual figures, the two types of image could have been based on different pictorial principles. It is on the basis of such differences, in fact, that we must distinguish canonical and noncanonical image making in the first place.

The essential point is to avoid assuming that the works under discussion function as images exactly as do canonical images. Hence I avoid labels that would associate them with canonical images, if only as their predecessors. Both types of image have an intricate structure, an often highly ingenious means of setting up figures and compositions in organizing a passage of depictive text.

In investigating the nature of noncanonical image making, I look here at the emergence of the canonical register ground line in six major works of the "earliest"-or what I call late prehistoric-Egyptian art (late predynastic, proto-dynastic, and very early dynastic): the Brooklyn and Carnarvon carved-ivory knife handles and the Oxford, Hunter's, Battlefield, and Narmer carved-schist cosmetic palettes. My reasons for preferring the unfamiliar historical designation "late prehistoric" for these objects will become increasingly obvious as we consider in detail how they should be characterized. In general, the term is useful not least because it is slightly paradoxical. On the one hand, it is illuminating to look at the images from the vantage point of later canonical art, so long as we avoid anachronism. For example, when examining the selective conventionalization of an inherited prehistoric visual culture by artists of the later dynastic or canonical tradition (Davis 1989: 116-91), it is acceptable to label objects as "predynastic" (Williams and Logan 1987), "precanonical" (Davis 1989), or "Preformal" (Kemp 1989) because we are considering the images only as they were viewed by later viewers. But on the other hand, if we are looking at the images from the vantage point of the immediate world in which they were first made to make sense, then teleological and possibly anachronistic labels like "predynastic" are misleading. Within the so-called predynastic period, no artist or viewer could have been self-described as "predynastic," "precanonical," or "Preformal," although he or she certainly did belong to an earlier tradition and may even have had a firm sense of his or her "late" or "latest" position within it. Although no general label suits all purposes, we should seek to use a term representing the real position of the works in the replicatory sequence to which they belonged. A word like "protodynastic" might capture some of the nuances, especially for transitional works like the Narmer Palette (Chapters 8, 9), but it lacks one usual connotation of "prehistoric"-designating society without script-that is important to preserve in relation to the images considered in this book. While I do not focus on the topic as such, I believe late prehistoric images to be intimately implicated in the development of Egyptian hieroglyphic script itself. They are the "writing" that precedes the appearance of a secondary transcription system, the writing of writing, in hieroglyphic script.

Where appropriate I refer to existing interpretations of particular works by writers like Georges Bénédite (1916, 1918), one of the first to study the images systematically, or by Helene J. Kantor (1944) and Elise J. Baumgartel (1960), among the first to make use of archaeological evidence in interpreting them. I cite also the iconographical or more broadly iconological speculations of Egyptologists and prehistorians like Henri Asselberghs (1961), Michael Hoffman (1979), Elizabeth Finkenstaedt (1984), Bruce Williams (1988a), Bruce Williams and Thomas Logan (1987), and Barry Kemp (1989). I do not, however, take up every point of agreement or disagreement with all these writers. Except for a pioneering structural analysis of the Hunter's Palette by Roland Tefnin (1979), most available accounts of late prehistoric image making merely list the various figures or motifs, make iconographical comparisons, or offer generalized remarks about the apparent themes of individual passages of depiction. (Williams [1988a] analyzes what he calls the "structural logic" of late prehistoric representation, but he does not employ accepted iconographical, structuralist, or semiological procedures in his descriptive-comparative compilation of similarities among motifs and their supposed "meanings.") By contrast, my principal goal is to account consistently for many features of the images, including some of the most striking, that have remained unexplicated, misunderstood, or even unnoticed.

The task of identifying late prehistoric images as such-getting beyond existing descriptions of motif, composition, and passages of depiction to discover their referential coherence as images-is more difficult than it looks. Although the objects have been the focus of a good deal of writing already (see, for example, Hoffman 1979; Finkenstaedt 1984; Kemp 1989) and have played a major role in the general interpretation of Egyptian art, I believe that their pictorial dynamics have not been completely appreciated.

A part of my purpose is to supplement a brief commentary on the images offered in a study of the canonical tradition in Egyptian art (Davis 1989: 136-71). In that account I was interested in late prehistoric objects for what they can tell us about the origins of later Egyptian artistic conventions. For example, we can understand canonical Egyptian art better if we know that its conventions for rendering the overall aspect of the human figure were deeply rooted in multifarious ancient visual contexts, dating as far back as the fourth and fifth millennia B.C., while the conventions for the proportions of the figure were of relatively recent vintage and had developed in one particular context at the end of the fourth millennium B.C. Such information suggests that although the canonical artists and patrons made use of-took account of and made reference to-a widely accepted and historically diffused image of the human body, they also reconfigured that image, grafting onto it new formal features and presumably revising its connotations as they had been inherited. Although throughout my earlier analysis I insisted on the non- or precanonical status of prehistoric and predynastic images in relation to the later canonical tradition-they are good examples of what Barry Kemp (1989) calls the "Preformal" tradition always characteristic of some levels of or moments in Egyptian society-I did not consider late prehistoric images in their own terms.

In this book I reverse the emphasis of my earlier approach. Instead of examining the long-term dynamics of a complex, mostly literate tradition, looking at individual images only insofar as they might exemplify general aspects of that tradition, I consider a few images in detail. Partly because the issue has been treated comprehensively by other writers, I do not concern myself too much about their place, noncanonical and canonical, in the larger prehistoric and dynastic traditions, except in one case, that of the Narmer Palette (Chapters 8, 9), where the issue is especially pressing. By definition such a close focus has disadvantages in not considering the sources for late prehistoric representation. Even this disadvantage, however, may be more apparent than real. As we will see, a rigorous distinction should be drawn between the sources for a motif and its "meaning" as used in a particular pictorial text-for example, as a metaphor or a narrative. That we can identify sources for motifs says nothing about their metaphorical or narrative status in particular contexts. For instance, allegorical uses of a motif in continuous replication can take over what had once been narrative uses. If we studied only the continuous development or "transmission" of the motif in or as a stable formal tradition without investigating the "disjunctiveness" of its meaning (Panofsky 1960) as the very condition sustaining that tradition, we would miss entirely such semantic possibilities as metaphor and probably misconstrue the coherence of the tradition as such.


Excerpted from Masking the Blow by Whitney Davis Copyright © 1992 by Whitney Davis. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Whitney Davis is Associate Professor of Art History at Northwestern University. He is the author of The Canonical Tradition in Ancient Art (1989).

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