Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Dr. Jaromir Malek at MAES: Their Rules and Ours: The Art in the Tomb of Tutankhamun

Last night (November 8th) marked the inaugural lecture of the Tutankhamun exhibition lecture series at the Trafford Centre's Museum of Museums. Dr. Jaromir Malek, keeper of the Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford, gave a fascinating lecture on the study of artistic representation in ancient Egyptian art, and how pieces from the tomb of Tutankhamun can be used to illustrate theories and principles of artistic proportion and decorum.

Dr. Malek began by presenting several images of modern art, together with the mask of Tutankhamun. He reminded the audience that, for each of the pieces, they did not need  any specialist knowledge of art to be emotionally moved after seeing them. This, of course, is entirely correct, though I must say, for me, having even limited knowledge of the ancient Egyptian rules of decorum dramatically enhances my enjoyment of the ancient art, and I do hope that much of the audience were able to say the same after Dr. Malek's lecture.

The audience were reminded that Egyptian art should not be viewed in isolation, and certainly that it should not simply be taken at face value. Some of the complex ideas inherent in the ancient art are still not fully understood today, for example the exact significance of the animal-headed couches from the tomb of Tutankhamun. The modern viewer simply cannot experience the artefacts on the same emotional level as the ancient Egyptians; one should always remember that their production relied upon a complex ancient system of religious, traditional and artistic conventions.

The two 'Guardian Statues' before the entrance to the Burial Chamber
Dr. Malek then went on to discuss the treatment of the human body in the ancient reliefs and paintings, and interestingly reminded the audience that the same conventions used in the portrayal of King Narmer on the Narmer Palette were also used in the production of the so-called 'Guardian Statues' from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Each part of the human figure was shown in its most characteristic view as composite elements of a whole, and throughout the pharaonic period the left foot of a human figure always stepped before the right. 

Another interesting theory presented in the lecture concerned the pose of cat statues: the tail of a cat was considered to be a fundamental element in ancient Egypt feline representation, and it was always represented on the right side of the cat's body. The most famous example of this idea is, of course, the Gayer-Anderson Cat in the British Museum. This theory also affects where the figures would have been positioned in antiquity; a sphinx with it's tail on the right must surely have been placed to the left of an entrance, so that the tail was clearly visible to the onlooker.

Howard Carter inspecting the Second Coffin of Tutankhamun
Finally, Dr. Malek released a rather mind-boggling statistic: Howard Carter and his team excavated 5398 objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun, and at the current rate of publication it will take until the year 2215AD to complete the publication of the tomb's entire contents! So far only 30% of the objects have been studied and published to an academic standard, and the worldwide participation of Egyptological institutions will be required to complete the task. This is a massive job, and although chances are that we won't see the completion in our lifetimes, the work of Dr. Malek and the Griffith Institute is going a long way to make it happen. I do highly recommend a visit to the homepage of the Institute, though be sure to set aside a good amount of time as it is very easy to spend hours looking through the digitised archive!


  1. I was unable to attend the lecture which was very disappointing but reading your excellent blog is the next best thing. Anna, you are a real star.

  2. Thank you Michael, that's really nice of you :) We all really missed you on Monday, I hope your visit to the dentist went well - take care of yourself and see you again soon hopefully.


Yan Tan Tethera: A rhyme derived from a Brythonic Celtic language used by shepherds to keep sheep in many parts of England and Southern Scotland.

Until the Industrial Revolution, the use of traditional number systems was common among shepherds, especially in the Dales of the Lake District.

[This Blog is best viewed in Mozilla Firefox]

Total Pageviews