Functional Aspects of Art Within Ancient Egyptian Society

The artistic style of ancient Egyptians is recognizable across the globe. From the infamous pyramids at Giza and burial mask of Tutankhamen to the iconic depictions of what most know as Egyptian eye (or eye of Horus), Egyptian art is still a large part of human culture almost 5000 years after it's stylistic definition during the period of the Old Kingdom (c.2649-2150BC). Such grand and intricately created art forms not only inspire a sense of mysticism but also allow us to peek into the times of ancient Egypt and their people. From archaeological findings such as the many temple and tomb sites from places such as Abydos and Abu Simbel, Hierakonopolis, etc..., archaeologists and scholars are able to piece together different aspects of how Egyptians lived and what they valued most. Art is a major source for such findings, allowing for interpretation and understanding of the lives of Egyptians and their society as a whole. The following gives light to how the political, religious and social aspects of Ancient Egypt were reinforced by their art in a highly symbolic and functional way. Such art is important for not only modern scholars but also for the people of ancient Egypt; seeing as the majority of the population was illiterate art often functioned as a form of legibility.

The ancient Egyptian governmental system was under divine rule of the Pharaoh who served as “supreme overlord of Egypt” (David, 142). This system was an organized hierarchy consisting of an administration of royal officials lead by an appointed vizier, local governors, and many central level departments—such as agriculture, army, building works, foreign relations, health, etc… Such a complex bureaucratic society allowed for the opportunity to build large public works projects, infrastructure, as well as many (now infamous) monumental temples and tombs which are still present today. Through these ancient monumental forms of material culture, anthropologists and historians alike are able to learn about Egypt's past. A large aspect of that material culture which has helped in the understanding of past Egyptian culture is the abundance of images and artistic depictions on not only religious and public buildings but personal objects as well. Many of these contain many political and authoritative implications which seem to be apparent to both modern day onlookers as well as those of ancient times. A very well known example of this is evident in the Narmer Palette (c. 3100 B.C.), essentially a makeup palette, which functions as a representation of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt (Southern and Northern, respectively) under the rule of Narmer--although "[it is speculated that it was commissioned by Menes]" (David, 76).
The Following image is the front of the palette which represents Narmer's conquest of Lower Egypt to the north. In the top register Narmer wears the red crown of Lower Egypt as he leads a ceremony inspecting ten slain northerners. His importance and superior stature above his men as well as those who he has conquered is visible as he is shown as being twice the size of the other men. The second register shows two serpent like animals with their necks intertwined being held by two men with ropes in an attempt to again represent the unification of north and south. Below them more imagery once again enforces the Pharaoh's strength as he is represented by a bull breaking through city walls as the defeated kneels helplessly.
Narmer Palette c. 3100BC Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt.(front side)Pic. Ref. #1
As depicted below on the back side of the palette is Narmer wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt as he smites an enemy who seems to represent a Northern captive chieftain from Lower Egypt. The stark difference between the large and upstanding well-dressed Narmer and the defeated looking undressed man being smote depicts the kneeling man as possibly barbaric and Narmer as powerful and civilized. Narmer's divine authority is reinforced within the hieroglyphs and pictorial reference to "Horus [bringing] [to the king] captives of Lower Egypt" (David, 76). Such authority and power is further enforced by the image of a servant in the background (to the left) carrying Narmer's sandals and waterpot, not to mention the two slain men that Narmer happens to be standing upon.
Narmer Palette c. 3100BC Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt.(back side)Pic. Ref.#2
Such imagery as seen in the two above images exemplifies how art functioned as a reinforcement of the political system through the grand difference in bodily size between those of power and those without. This ratio between the depiction of humans was greatly augmented in the illustrative presence of a pharaoh, who would often depicted as being worlds larger than their adversaries and/or inferior servants. In addition Egyptian ruler's authority and right to rule was constantly re-affirmed by symbolism of the gods associated with the pharaoh. In the example above the god Horus was present, proving the divine right of Narmer to the proverbial throne. The commission of such a long lasting and well crafted piece onto an everyday object such as a makeup palette shows just how pervasive artistic influence was. Although this particular piece was thought to have been commissioned by royalty it still remains as an example of how everyday objects were adorned with art representative of the times and aspects such as politics.As described in Kathryn A. Bard's "An Introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt", the Narmer Palette is one of the earliest examples of the regulated and symbolic art form that became the format for artistic illustrations first used in Dynasty 0. She states:

“Specific conventions developed in royal art [Dynasty 0]: the king is always shown in a larger scale than all other humans, scenes were arranged in rows (called “reigisters” by Egyptologists), and the human torso was drawn frontally, but the head, arms, and legs in profile”(Bard, 119).

Rameses II's rock-cut temple at Abu Simbel in Lower Nubia c. 1257BC (Pic. Ref. #3)
Temple Art: Synthesizing Religious and Political Symbolism
Ancient Egypt historically went through two main types of temple traditions. The first of these were the Sun Temples of Dynasty 5 and Aten temples of Dynasty 18, the second being those of the Divine and Royal Cult Temples associated with the New Kingdom. The massive stone monuments of the Divine and royal cult temples were built upon cult foundations from pre-dynastic local shrines (made of woven reed matting and wooden framework).
Temples of the Divine cult complex functioned as places where (usually) the living king or pharaoh would pay homage to and approach the gods in return for the gods bestowing great bounty to the king, Egypt and the people. Secondarily these temples also functioned as a way of continuously sustaining the divine spirit of the deceased king as well as functioning as a dedication to the local chief god.
Although these temples were created upon religious foundations and beliefes, there was an abundance of political reinforcement embedded within the symbolism of these structures seen in the architecture and artistic decor of the temples.

Temple Architecture:Like most Egyptian art, the execution of temple architecture and design was guided by symbolic representation which resulted in many temples being built under the same design template with few deviations. One of the most prevalent symbolic references was that of the "Island of Creation" which would be represented by:
  • "[Bricks on the enclosure walls shaped convexly and concavely creating the illusion of waves of the "primeval ocean"
  • Large stone columns in the hypostyle halls which had lotiform, palmiform, or papyriform capitals representing the lush vegitation on the island
  • Ceilings which represented the sky
  • Carved Friezes of vegitation covering the bases of walls

Temple Wall Scenes:
Within the temple wall scenes there are two most commonly found themes: religious ceremonies and historical events (generally associated with a particular ruler who commissioned the temple). Historical events and ceremonies were often shown in areas such as the hypostyle halls and would depict events such as the coronation ceremony or foundation of the temple. Religious ceremonies would depict religious acts, devotions and rituals that would often be performed in those areas--acting as a reminder and sort of "how to" guide.In addittion, there were also many horizontal registers (rows) illustrating the pharaoh as god's divine son, reinforcing his legitimacy as the rightful heir, as he is shown performing the rites for that god. There are generally two or three registers in one section which give an illustrative overview of the pharaoh performing each of these rites, of which are accompanied by descriptive hieroglyphs.

Religion: From the material culture found in Egypt, the deeply embedded nature of religion within not only their culture, and society but also within their political structure is quite evident. From evidence of extravagant temples, tombs and burials, scholars are able to imagine a society whom has an apparent strong religious beliefs focused heavily on the concept of the briefness of life and importance of death cult practices and entrance into the afterlife. Prior to the first ruling Dynasties, Ancient Egyptian communities worshiped a personal deity as defined by each individual community--represented in animal form. From these times (before 3100BC) up until the dynastic period, Egyptian's beliefs morphed to praise of Cosmic gods and later with the combination of local communities into nomes, the Pantheon of Gods were developed. These Gods and Goddesses, through the changes that went with the unification of all of Egypt, generally maintained their religious influence--although not all were kept and some went through name changes. It may be interesting to note that other early societies such as that of early South East China also created much art and architecture which was heavily influenced by religion. Such strong beliefs tell us much about a culture, their structure and their people. As religion in Egypt developed, so did the country itself and the system of governing within which it functioned. Throughout the many Dynastic periods and ruling families, these concepts of how to live one's life and the importance of the afterlife became something very real and tangible. This tangibility factor was greatly caused by the monumental displays of certain ruler's power, strife to ensure security as divine ruler, as well as their attempt to remain eternal, and enter successfully in the afterlife. The result of this importance is seen in the many tombs, temples, pyramids and the reliefs and material goods within. One of the most helpful ways of looking into Egyptian life (especially those 80% of Egyptians with lower social status) is through the miniature statues found within certain Pharaoh's burial tombs. These forms of grave goods religiously functioned as ways for the deceased to receive necessary sustenance, the afterlife; although from the anthropological or Egyptologist's point of view these statues allow us to learn so much about the lower class. In the following image a woman is depicted with a basket full of food to offer to the deceased. Her clothing is colorful and beautifully patterned, this along with the adornment of ankle "bracelets", the way she has applied makeup, and how her hair is fixed tells much about this woman and the women of this time.
Statue of an Offering BearerPeriod: Middle Kingdom.. Dynasty 12. c.1981-1975BC Thebes Pic.Ref.#4

Title: Statue of an Offering BearerPeriod: Middle Kingdom
Dynasty 12
Reign of Amenemhat I, early
ca. 1981–1975 B.C
Egypt, Upper Egypt; Thebes, Tomb of Meketra (TT 280, MMA 1101), serdab, Southern Asasif, MMA 1920
Medium: Wood, gesso, paintDimensions: h. 112 cm (44 1/8 in); w. 16.5 cm (6 1/2 in); d. 46.5 cm (18 5/16 in)
Credit Line: Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1920

The above image and information can all be found at the following link to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:
The following is a link to the 2002 "Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt" exhibition by the National Gallery of Art which was one of the largest group of antiquities ever loaned by Egypt for exhibition in North America focusing on the period of the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC) through the Late Period (664-332 BC). Check out a virtual tour inside a full-scale reproduction of the tomb of Thutmose III
, streaming videos, and more:

Social/Cultural:Social Foundations of Ancient Egypt:The great dynasties of ancient Egypt arose from a grouping of scattered communities (which later combined to form nomes, or states) working together for mutual protection and irrigation routes. By around 3400BC these nomes formed two major kingdoms which became known as Upper Egypt of the south and Lower Egypt to the north. Three hundred years after their establishment the two polities were unified under one ruler, beginning the 0 Dynasty. Pre-Dynastic Egypt was ruled by what would be similar to a tribal chieftain, after the implementation of Dynasty 0 this role was transformed into a divine kingship and the role of the pharaoh emeged. With such divine right to rule, ensued a bureaucratic hierarchy where the pharanoic family occupied most administrative positions; which later became passed down kinship lines until by the end of the Old Kingdom administrative positions were no longer held by direct relatives to the Pharaoh. "The country was divided into districts that were administered by local governors" (David, 141). A middle class of craftsmen, tradesmen and small farmers emerged during the rule of King Senusret III (Dynasty 12). Although, in lieu of such a highly structured hierarchy about 80% of Egyptians were peasants, existing in the bottom of the social hierarchy, these were the ones providing food, manpower and resources for all of Egypt. In discussing the art of ancient Egypt it is important to remember that such a large percentage of the population did NOT have the resources available to create extensive grave goods, obtain a good education(become literate), etc...The great majority of material culture studied within this region and time is mostly commissioned by the royal family and high officials within the Egyptian bureaucracy. Time:
“The Egyptians probably perceived the phenomenon of time at first through the cyclical rhythm of nature, but also through the impact that its pervasiveness and immutability had on life”(Bochi, 52).

In Bochi's article "Time in the Art of Ancient Egypt: From Ideological Concept to Visual Construct", she discusses how Egyptian religion was heavily based in dealing with the fear of death and the unkown. Elluding to the idea that the majority of the extensive and detailed funerary preparations and death culture function as a way of dealing with this fear. Ancient Egyptians believed that there were two concepts of time: "[...“here-time” or that which was experienced by the individual while on earth was opposed to the “there-time” to which the individual had access at death]"(Bochi, 52 ).

The article goes on to show how Egyptian art represents the personal desire to be everlasting; through the obvious lack of images of those who have fallen victim to illness, old age, etc... the Egyptians seem to have used art as another way to immortalize themselves. "While illness and injury signified change, even if
only in terms of a temporary disruption of ordered time, old age evoked the irrevocable passage of time - a gripping reminder of the futility of human life."(Bochi, 53). For the Pharaohs and higher class Egyptians the ability to immortalize their own image was great, due to so many resources at their fingertips artistic renditions of leaders of Ancient Egypt and their family members were built to last forever--and so far some of them have. A great example of this is seen in the below image of King Menkaura ad Queen Khamerembty II:

King Menkaura and Queen Khameremebty II c.2470BC Boston Museum of Fine Arts Ref.#5
Bochi's interpretation of this draws on the use of long lasting material such as granite and sandstone as a way of giving a "property of permanence,of withstanding change through time"(Bochi, 54). She also notes how the stoic facial features, powerful yet simple stance, massive proportion as well as frontal emphasis evokes a sense of rigid and formal dignity which may be interpreted as a conscious avoidance of the "ravages of time"(Bochi, 54). From another point of view It is additionally hard to not take from this sculpture the sense that Egyptian society allowed for women to have high status and similar rights to men which is evident through the similar size and stature of Menaura's wife--one would assume that she is close to being equally important.

DANCE AND ART An aspect of the Egyptian "death culture" and burial practices often included live entertainment and/or expressions of tribute to those deceased. For most Egyptians in the upper tier of society these forms of expression were kept within the family and out of the sight of the common public. This was mostly due to the personal and possibly sensual nature of the dance and attire. Archaeologists and egyptologists today are aware of this due to findings within tombs of royal family members being portrayed dancing--such images were well hidden and not meant for the eyes of those outside of the inner circle, if for anyone at all.
Although dancers in Ancient Egypt were used mostly for events such as religious and public ceremonies, celebrations and rituals associated with those recently deceased, dancing is an important component to the complete understanding of Egyptian culture, means of expression and thus their paradigms. A people's view of themselves is most easily viewed through the way in which they choose to represent themselves and show that to others. Art and dance are a wonderful medium through which Egyptians could showcase this. Through time the representations of such expression also prove to have been influenced by the culture and politics of the times, as evident in the gradual increase in the expressed freedom of movement and sexuality as well as changes in dress.
Dancers in Egypt were used mostly during religious and public ceremonies and were hired as professionals. They existed in the middle to lower class, although ancient texts indicate that they were paid well and well taken care of when they were employed, work was sporadic and did not provide for a consistent income. They were well paid per day on top of the inclusion of room and board and protection of any valuables that they may have had. Although we do not know much about Ancient Egyptian dancing--as far as the actual series of moves or particular customs--there have been many reliefs and paintings which display dancers. In accordance with the structured style of most Egyptian paintings, these dancers are shown in positions that evoke the idea of dancing through rigid form. In later, less politically strong times, this rigid form is broken a bit to reveal a seemingly fluid and sensual dance form. “A famous scene (nowdestroyed) from the tomb of
Djeserkaresoneb at Thebes
shows a small Nubian girl
dancing with a group of
female Egyptian musicians.
The scene was a copy of one
in the nearby tomb of
Amenhotep-Siese (Davies
1923: pl. V), illustrating the
way in which Egyptian
artists often worked from
“patterns” with little
freedom of choice as to
subject matter and style.”(Spencer, PG 9).

Musicians and a Nubian dancer. Tomb of Djeserkaresoneb.Ref#6
Banquet scene from the tomb of Nebamun.Ref.#7
Both images above are examples of less rigid forms of dance of which usually emerged during the intermediate periods when there was less structured rule. These intermediate and later times in Egyptian history allowed for more freedom of expression and likely depicted Egyptian dance in a more realistic way.
In the "banquet scene from the tomb of Nebamun. Two girls are shown dancing accompanied by a group of female musicians. The two dancers aredepicted with much more freedom than was possible for earlier artists and their bodies are almost entwined as they dance and snap theirfingers to the beat of the music. Reproduced courtesy of the Trustees of The British Museum."(Spencer, 113).
Such paintings in earlier times may have depicted family members dancing and would only have been viewed by relatives and/or priests. Due to the secretive nature of earlier depictions of art it is hard to determine the evolution of dance and it's place in Egyptian society although it does seem to be an important aspect to their culture--especially since there were people who took the time to master the art and become professionals.

Statistically Speaking, Art a Great Way to Communicate:"[It has been recently estimated that only about 5% of the population within ancient Egypt was literate"] (Bochi, 60).
The above quote is undeniably important to understanding just how important art must have been to Egyptian society. For most, the ancient Egyptian civilization is seen as one with a population of an extremely intelligent majority. Yet, the reality is that about 95% of Egyptians were illiterate. This causes a need for a form of legibility which I believe may have been satisfied in some ways by the use of symbolic art. Within tombs, temples, places of worship and potentially everyday public areas there is evidence of much symbolic art which represented things such as important religious stories about the gods as well as those of their ruler and his/her recent conquests and achievements. The fact that almost all examples of ancient Egyptian art was created with undeniably similar symbolism supports the idea that art was used as a form of communicating ideas--which would have proven to be especially helpful with a society of people who were illiterate.

Development and Continuing Influence of Egyptian Art:
Archaeologists and Egyptologists still have yet to completely piece together all aspects of life in Ancient Egypt. With recent work done in sites like Hierakonopolis, they continue their search as they find more and more clues to understanding this ancient civilization. Artistic illustrations and forms contribute a great deal to these findings. Recent excavations at the site of Hierakonopolis have shown evidence of an earlier time of economic and social development than has been previously speculated as mentioned in the following field note:

"Based on the still unparalleled Painted Tomb (Tomb 100), discovered by F.W Green in 1899, it was believed that Hierakonpolis was at its peak in the Naqada IIC period, thus about 3500BC, a time of social change and economic development throughout Predynastic Egypt. One of the largest tombs of its time, the painted scenes on its walls containing elements that would go on to become characteristic of royal iconography proclaimed the royal status of its owner and his home town. But try as we might to find further evidence for this, everywhere we looked around the desert site, the extensive archaeological remains, which include breweries, food production installations (see 2007 Field Note 3), pottery kilns and ceremonial centers (see Narmer's Temple), all dated some 300-400 years earlier (early Nagada II period). This level of complexity suggested that strong rulers had already been established well before the owner of the Painted Tomb, but it was not until 2000 that the first clear indications of their existence were finally uncovered (see Elite Cemetery)." (Friedman, 2007 Field Note 6).

Painted Tomb from Hierakonopolis c.3500BCRef#8
"The Painted Tomb, still the earliest tomb with painted wall decorations, originally suggested that Hierakonpolis had was already reach glorious heights at about 3500BC as the home of a powerful ruler, who was able to construct a large tomb decorated with prototypes of later royal iconography" (Friedman, 2007 Field Note 6).

The work done at Hierakonopolis is a great example of why art is such a vital aspect of the material culture which allows scholars to put together a more complete picture of a civilization, it's beginnings, culture, beliefs, structure and people.

For a simple and comprehensive timeline of the development of Egyptian Art from it's infancy take a look at the following website:
(This site is well referenced and covers all aspects of the Egyptian art and it's cultural and historical influences)
Egyptian Art Timeline

The above images and associated information on this page have been brought together in an effort to show just how essential art was and continues to be within ancient Egypt and the academic community. Egyptian art allows us to understand how ancient Egyptians viewed themselves, the world, their place in it as well as after their time on it. Such illustrations solidified power of their rulers through iconic representation of the pharaohs and their associated gods in most monumental forms. Depictions of political unifications and defeats of political adversaries were abundant in an effort to establish a sense of nationalism and support of their effective rulers. Narratives such as these as well as those seen in tombs and temples (about creation stories and religious practices) were potentially a form of symbolic illustrative legibility for those 95% of Egyptians who were illiterate. Art of these people also gives scholars a look into the cultural aspects of ancient Egypt such as dress, dance, political structure, religion practiced as well as their views on life as a collective society. This form of material culture (art) is vital in the understanding of one of the first and most well known complex societies in the world, a society which proves to remain important today in that it has so greatly influenced modern culture with it's awe inspiring and mystical art and architecture.


Bard, Kathryn A. An Introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2009.

Bochi, Patricia A. "Time in the Art of Ancient Egypt: From Ideological Concept to Visual Construct". Kronoscope 3.1 (2003): 51-82, 32. Academic Search
Premier. EBSCO Host. University of Central Florida. Lib., FL. 11 November 2010<>.

David, Rosalie. Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt (Rev. ed.). Oxford, NewYork: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Friedman, Rene'e. "2007 Field Note 6 - The Early Kings of Hierakonpolis." Archaeology's Interactive Dig.Unknown. November 2002-April 2009. Archaeology Magazine (AIA). 04 October 2010. Archaeology's Interactive Dig. Unknown. November 2002-April 2009. AIA. 04 October 2010. <>.
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Unknown. DATE/VERSION #. NAME OF SPONSORING INSTITUTION. 23 September 2010 <>.
Spencer, Patricia. “Dance in Ancient Egypt”. Near Eastern Archaeology 66.3 (2003):
111-121, 11. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO Host. University of Central Florida. Lib., FL. 11 November 2010 <>.

Picture References:

1.) Narmer Palette c. 3100BC Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt.(front side)
2.) Narmer Palette c. 3100BC Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt.(back side)
3.) Rameses II's rock-cut temple at Abu Simbel in lower Nubia c. 1257BC. <>.
4.) Statue of an Offering BearerPeriod: Middle Kingdom Dynasty 12. Reign of Amenemhat I, early ca. 1981–1975 B.C Egypt, Upper Egypt; Thebes, Tomb of Meketra (TT 280, MMA 1101), serdab, Southern Asasif, MMA 1920 Medium: Wood, gesso, paintDimensions: h. 112 cm (44 1/8 in); w. 16.5 cm (6 1/2 in); d. 46.5 cm (18 5/16 in) Credit Line: Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1920 The above image and information can all be found at the following link to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:
5.)King Menkaura and Queen Khameremebty II c.2470BC Boston Museum of Fine arts.
6.)Musicians and a Nubian dancer. Tomb of Djeserkaresoneb. <http:>.
7.)Banquet scene from the tomb of Nebamun. <>.
8.)Painted Tomb from Hierakonopolis c.3500BC *ADD WEBSITE*ETC