In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ancient Egyptian Art

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Art History Ancient Egyptian Art
Gay Robins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0142


The modern Western category of “art,” itself notoriously difficult to define, had no direct equivalent in ancient Egypt. The term is nevertheless used today as a convenient way to refer to visual material with perceived aesthetic content surviving from ancient Egypt. In the past, use of the term “art” sometimes proved problematic, since it led scholars to distinguish in the Egyptian material between art and craft, and between artists and craftsmen, according to Western categorization, a division that does not appear to have been similarly meaningful for ancient Egypt. Egyptian art was a product of high culture pertaining to the king, his officials, and their families, who together formed no more than 5 percent of the population. For men, literacy was the key to membership of this elite group. Women, who were mostly illiterate, gained membership through their family connections. Although some types of art, especially monumental architecture visible in the landscape, would have been familiar to the non-elite, most would have been inaccessible and probably irrelevant to them. There is little evidence of surviving art made by and for the general population, although there could have been traditions of art making in perishable materials, such as unbaked mud, that have disappeared from the record. Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for more than three thousand years from the original unification of the state around 3000 BCE until the conversion of Egypt to Christianity in the 3rd to 4th centuries CE. It is impossible in this article to provide a detailed and in-depth overview of the scholarship pertaining to the art of more than three millennia from the inception of Egyptology as an academic discipline in the 19th century until the present. This article, therefore, concentrates in the main on the research published in approximately the last thirty years. Bibliography found in these publications can be used to access earlier scholarship. It is also impossible to include publications of individual monuments, for the most part temples and tombs, but references to these will be found in many of the cited works. The article will be divided into five major themes: general overviews relating to culture and society, religion, and kingship; art and visual culture; methodological and theoretical approaches; major categories of art and architecture; and historical periods.

General Overviews

Ancient Egyptian art cannot be separated from other aspects of elite Egyptian culture and society, since its meaning was constructed within the context of the culture that produced it. In order to understand the original meaning of the material, it is important to recover, to as great an extent as possible, the world view of those who commissioned, made, and viewed Egyptian art. There are a number of excellent introductions to ancient Egyptian culture and society, religion, and the central institution of kingship, varying in the expected level of readers from students and interested non-academics to professional Egyptologists and scholars in other disciplines. Nevertheless, it has to be remembered that there is no way to truly know ancient Egypt as it existed in its own time because the way each generation of scholars interprets the random collection of material remains that have survived from antiquity cannot be separated from the cultural and intellectual context in which the interpretation is made. All scholarship is the product of its time, and the questions scholars ask and the answers they develop depend very much on their own world view and concerns that are important in their own day. Nevertheless, few Egyptologists until recently have reflected on the context of 19th-century Western culture and colonial expansion in which their discipline developed and its effect on how ancient Egypt was and still is conceived.

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