ElAnt v5n3 - REVIEWS - Gold of the Pharaohs and Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt

Volume 5, Number 3
November 2000

Gold of the Pharaohs, by Hans Wolfgang Muller and Eberhard Thiem. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-814-3725-3. Pp. 256.

Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt, by Lisa Manniche. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8014-3720-2. Pp. 160.

Reviewed by Anne E. Haeckl
Kalamazoo College, Michigan, USA

Why should a journal dedicated to "Communicating the Classics" review two sumptuous volumes on personal luxuries in Pharaonic Egypt? One answer lies in a recent series of dramatic archaeological discoveries - most notably, the submerged palaces and cities off the Mediterranean coast of Alexandria and the "Valley of the Golden Mummies" in the Bahariya Oasis - and splendid international exhibitions - among them, compelling displays of Roman mummy portraits at the British Museum in London (1997), the Louvre in Paris (1998 through 1999), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (2000), soon to be followed by an upcoming exhibition on Cleopatra at the British Museum. Through these highly-publicized events, Graeco-Roman Egypt is finally attracting the kind of scholarly attention and popular fascination long accorded to Egyptian civilization of the Pharaonic period. Moreover, this wealth of new and reconsidered evidence attests to the endurance and vitality of Dynastic Egyptian cultural traditions under Greek and Roman rule.

Underwater archaeologists are recovering a Ptolemaic Alexandria that was studded with Pharaonic spolia. Greek kings of Egypt appropriated obelisks of Seti I, papyrus columns of Rameses II, sphinxes of Sesostris III and Psammetichus II to decorate palaces and public monuments in this Hellenistic metropolis founded on Egyptian soil by Alexander the Great. The Classical-style communal mausolea under excavation in the Bahariya Oasis contain hundreds of bodies from the Graeco-Roman period still embalmed and adorned for the afterlife according to native Egyptian rituals of mummification. In order to appreciate fully the complex, multicultural vocabulary of Egypt's Ptolemaic and Roman art and architecture, classical archaeologists working on Graeco-Roman Egypt must be conversant with the material culture of its Pharaonic past.

Although they deal primarily with artifacts and accessories of the good life in Pharaonic times, the two thematically-related volumes under review here offer much of interest to classicists who specialize in Egypt. As their titles state, both books deal with luxuries created for the gods, pharaohs and elites of Dynastic Egypt. At first glance, their large formats and copious, high-quality photographs suggest the kind of "coffee-table" books more useful for pictures than text. On the contrary, both books make substantive contributions to scholarship on Egyptian material culture and effectively integrate the gorgeous objects they illustrate into the wider cultural contexts of Pharaonic and, by inference, Graeco-Roman Egypt.

Gold of the Pharaohs provides a comprehensive typological and chronological survey of Egyptian gold jewelry from prehistory to the Roman conquest of Egypt, with chapters devoted to the Pre- and Early Dynastic periods, the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, and the "Late Dynastic Period" (25 th through Ptolemaic Dynasties). The text contains no footnotes and the volume's very select bibliography fills only one page. However, each chapter opens with a masterful summary of major historical developments, and the authors consider in admirable detail the archaeological and cultural contexts of individual finds of golden treasure (predominantly funerary assemblages). Unfortunately, many of the meticulously researched accounts of the circumstances of discovery and subsequent dispersion of important caches of Egyptian jewelry make the limits of archaeological context woefully clear. Much crucial data were irretrievably lost during the pioneering days of archaeological fieldwork in Egypt.

This diachronic voyage across millennia gains ballast from learned discussions of Egyptian gold-mining and gold-working techniques and from erudite analysis of the meanings and functions of gold ornaments in Egyptian religion, theocracy, elite society and funerary practice. The classicist will find many illuminating instances of cultural continuity between Dynastic and Graeco-Roman Egypt. For example, "the exploitation of mineral resources in general - and of gold and coloured stones in particular - was a royal monopoly" (p. 44) from the earliest days of recorded Pharaonic history, a perquisite handed down directly from the Egyptian pharaoh to the Roman emperor, who throughout the imperial period retained exclusive control of quarries and gold mines in the Eastern Desert.

The same holds true for the significance of gold in the Egyptian ideology of kingship. The Egyptian hieroglyph for "gold" was a beaded necklace, augmented by a falcon or solar disk to signify "Golden Horus" or "Gold Sun." The pharaoh's divine status as both "Living Horus" (the falcon god) and "Son of Re" (the sun god) was symbolized by his golden jewelry and regalia, whose sophisticated and multifarious iconography is cogently explicated by Muller and Thiem. The sudden proliferation of New Kingdom representations of private citizens who wear gold jewelry awarded to them by the pharaoh therefore reflects a meaningful socio-political change in the hierarchy of conservative Egyptian society. Muller and Thiem's discussion adds a subtle shading to the bold inscriptions, tomb paintings and reliefs with which New Kingdom generals and officials commemorated the golden weapons, vessels, military decorations and chains of "gold of honor" they received from the pharaoh as a mark of special favor.

Gold of the Pharaohs devotes only four of its 256 pages to the Ptolemaic period, which has yet to produce a hoard of gold jewelry to rival the spectacular finds from the Pharaonic era. However, the longstanding associations between gold and divine kingship in Egypt must have informed the notorious Ptolemaic predilection for tryphe, the ostentatious display of luxury and wealth as an expression of power. A description of the flamboyant victory procession of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (Athenaeus 5, 196a-203b) gains a deeper resonance when read with the native Egyptian conception of the pharaoh as "the Golden," the "Mountain of Gold that brightens all the lands" (p. 60) in mind. The visual climax of the pompe of Ptolemy II was a family portrait group in solid gold: golden statues of Ptolemy II and his deified parents, Ptolemy I Soter and Berenike I, stood in golden chariots set atop golden columns. Through Gold of the Pharaohs, one gains a more nuanced appreciation for the effects of such golden propaganda upon native Egyptian and immigrant Greek spectators.

As the intact tomb of Tutankhamen attests, Egyptian royalty was not only festooned with gold while alive, but in death was mummified with gold amulets and jewelry, encased in masks and coffins of solid gold, and interred with piles of gold accessories and gilded furniture. Through its identification with the sun, which eternally rose and set, passing through the Underworld every night and returning to shine upon the living every morning, gold played a central role in Egyptian funerary beliefs. The "immortality of gold" insured that the pharaoh "became a true god…after his death, by virtue of rituals of transformation and the magical effect of the signs of kingly rule, of his royal robes and gold jewelry" (p. 60). The gilded mummies in the Bahariya Oasis reveal that faith in the resurrectional powers of gold was still strong in Graeco-Roman Egypt, and no longer limited to members of the royal circle.

Funerary assemblages of women occupy a preeminent place throughout Gold of the Pharaohs. Women supplied the earliest Dynastic evidence for royal gold: gold bangles on a disarticulated female arm in the "0 Dynasty" tomb of Djer at Umm el-Qa'ab, lists of jewelry on ivory tablets from the 1st Dynasty tomb of Queen Neithhotep at Naqada, and a relief from Saqqara that depicts the bejeweled daughter of a 2 nd Dynasty pharaoh. The funerary treasure of Queen Hetep-Heres assumes pride of place among the relatively few important finds of Old Kingdom jewelry. Princesses owned some of the highest quality ornaments from the Middle Kingdom, the period when "the art of the Egyptian goldsmith reached its zenith" (p. 92). Although no other find of New Kingdom jewelry can approach the abundance and magnificence the treasures of Tutankhamen, the 18 th Dynasty tombs of Queen Ahhotep, the "Three Princesses" wed to Thutmosis III, and Princess Sit-Amun were also rich in gold. The latest tomb group of gold jewelry treated in the book belonged to a Queen of Meroe, most likely Amanishaketo, the first-century BCE "Kandake" mentioned in Roman sources. Is the prominence of women in Gold of the Pharaohs merely a result of archaeological serendipity or can one attach a gendered significance to gold jewelry in Egypt? Muller and Thiem do not analyze this material from the perspective of gender, but their exhaustive collection of data offers a rich field for future gender studies.

Sacred Luxuries is an invaluable compendium of information on fragrances, perfumes, scented oils, incense and cosmetics in ancient Egypt. The author draws upon sources from prehistory through the Islamic period, and incorporates ethnographic research conducted among perfumers, folk doctors, herb farmers and manufacturers of essential oils in present-day Egypt. The volume, however, is organized thematically rather than chronologically, with chapters on the ingredients and recipes for scented and cosmetic preparations, as well as their varied but related uses in daily life, religious cult, medicine, and funerary rituals.

Pharaonic material culture and art is replete with testimony to the importance of fragrance and cosmetics to Egyptian "gods, royalty and ordinary mortals…from the earliest historical times" (p. 7). Classicists, however, may be surprised to learn that Manniche's textual evidence derives largely from Greek and Roman writers; Herodotus, Theophrastus, Dioscorides, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch and Galen are frequently cited. These sources often acknowledge the priority of Egyptian achievements in the manufacture of scents and medicines, and further reveal the continued popularity and high reputation enjoyed by Egyptian perfumes, cosmetics and herbal remedies in Classical times.

Interestingly, Manniche's most informative hieroglyphic texts also date to the Graeco-Roman period, when traditional Egyptian recipes for sacred unguents were inscribed on the walls of the so-called "laboratories," storerooms restricted to priests in the great Ptolemaic and Roman temple complexes at Dendera, Edfu and Philae. Not only were these monumental sanctuaries dedicated to Egyptian deities (Hathor, Horus and Isis, respectively) and constructed according to the plans and principles of Pharaonic religious architecture, they also housed daily rituals still punctiliously performed in time-hallowed fashion. The "burning and offering incense [as] a means of communication between the earthly and divine spheres, " first attested in the Pyramid Texts of the third millennium BCE, remained a central cult act in Egyptian temples erected by Greek and Roman rulers.

As luxurious in presentation as their subject matter, Gold of the Pharaohs and Sacred Luxuries are both impressive works of scholarship. This reviewer, a classical archaeologist now involved in the excavations of a Greco-Roman site in Egypt, read both to great profit.