From The Times Online January 13, 2009 New Egyptian gallery at the British Museum The new Egyptian gallery at the British Museum offers a fascinating display of scenes from everyday life under the Pharaohs
Rachel Campbell-Johnston Who says accountants are boring? Some of the ancient world's most entrancing paintings celebrate the life of a man who kept tallies for a living. And this month, freshly restored, they at last go on show again for the first time in almost ten years, when the British Museum opens a new gallery.
This will be dedicated to the display of 11 large wall fragments from the tomb chapel of a relatively low-ranking Egyptian official named Nebamun, a grain accountant who, almost three and a half millennia ago, served the great deity Amun, then the official god of the state. A golden age of Egyptian painting unfurls. These preserved images are among the most famous, most fascinating and most artistically fresh of their day.
When we think of the Ancient Egyptians, we tend to think of the rituals of death. Certainly, the hordes of schoolchildren who daily head for the British Museum's Egyptian galleries come to gaze at the eerie solemnity of the elaborate mummy cases; to thrill at the corpses in their horror-movie bandages; to squirm at the stories of brain-extracting hooks. The mummies are to this great historical collection what the dinosaurs are to the Natural History Museum. They are a guaranteed crowd puller - and all the more popular for their gruesome whiff of the grave.
But if you imagine that the visitors who can now wander on from the mummies into the museum's newest gallery will find only more of the same, think again. The paintings might have come from a tomb; but they have far more to do with life than death.
Here, in what surely counts among the British Museum's most celebrated treasures, is a virile young Nebamun hunting in the Nile marshes, navigating his slender barque among feathery reeds that teem with birds of all species and fluttering butterflies. His fat tabby cat clearly can't believe its luck: as it seizes one flapping waterfowl in its whiskery jaws, it pins down the two songbirds that have already fallen prey to it with greedy claws. Or here, in three wonderfully preserved fragments, is Nebuman in his role as master of great estates, counting the flocks and the herds that slaves bring for his inspection, the ranks of driven cattle and the thick flocks of jostling geese. And here too, in one of the most seductive images the era, is a luxurious banqueting scene, its richly attired guests entertained by a group of female musicians while sinuous dancing girls, naked but for their jewellery and a girdle so slender that it cannot even cover their pubic growth, entwine with the serpentine grace of a pair of cobras.
These still richly coloured pictures, now displayed all together for the first time, are reunited also with a lively quail-hunting scene on long-term loan from Berlin (there are other fragments in France that for the sake of scholarship should also be lent). And what will strike the first-time viewer most about them is how wonderfully vivid, how exuberantly lifelike they are.
You don't need to have the hieroglyphs translated or to be familiar with the complex mythologies or iconographical conventions of the era to relate to these images on a sensual and emotional level. Look at the charioteer who sits on the back of his vehicle while his horses, still in harness, drop their heads to feed. You can almost imagine his legs swinging idly as he waits. Or notice the way that one of the driven cattle panics and tries to barge its way backwards against the flow, or how delicately a worker folds a fragile gazelle in his encircling arms. You can almost hear the kerfuffle and squabble of the chivvied geese, feel the cold pimpled skin of a freshly plucked fowl, run your fingers through the fur of the cat or smell the pungent ointments of the wealthy banqueters.
Very little is known about these works. No one knows precisely where they came from. The Greek grave robber who sawed them from the walls of a tomb chapel sold them to a British collector, who in turn passed them for what he considered “a miserable sum” to the British Museum in 1821, and fell out with curators to whom his erstwhile treasures were valuable prizes. He died penniless a few minutes' walk from the British Museum, taking the secret of where the paintings had come from to his pauper's grave. No one knows exactly when Nebamun lived or much about his personal life beyond the fact that he was married and had two children, who appear in the paintings, and that he worked as a scribe and accountant for the god from whom his name - meaning “my lord is Amun” - comes. Nor does anyone know who the creator of these magnificent works was, nor why someone so talented should have ended up working for some middle manager. It has been suggested that he may have been moonlighting from a job on a far grander burial site near by.
But what is unquestioned is the calibre of this artist. Curators have nicknamed him the Egyptian Michelangelo. And it is worth investing in a copy of the clearly written and fully illustrated book that accompanies this new gallery to find out why.
Though the delightful narratives and ebullient realism are what will first catch the eye of the spectator, there is much that will not be immediately obvious, from the rigorous conventions that dictate the overall design (compositions are divided into four bands or registers) through the meanings conveyed by even the simplest gestures (a hand held up in front of a mouth means that the character is speaking) to the translations of the hieroglyphs - “shut up and get on with it” seems a more or less colloquial translation of one caption. These scenes would once have been read by Egyptians like cartoon strips.
What becomes increasingly apparent is how skilfully the artist reconciled traditional iconography with his own artistic freedom. Here is someone capable of presenting the most complex narratives. We see him mapping out his designs with underdrawings on plaster and then painting them swiftly - occasionally making changes - with mineral pigments. In a world in which anything from your tummy fat to your toenails has its own precise meaning, he attends to every detail. He renders every living organism from the pied wagtail to the pond weed so that it can be precisely identified. It was important, for instance, that his ancient viewers could tell that that fish was a tilapia, because these creatures were commonly associated with rebirth (because they supposedly harbour their young in their mouth). He carefully renders the patterns and textures that make all these things feel real: the mottled hides of the cattle, the pricked crusts of bread, the fluff of bird's feathers, the plaiting of baskets. The eye of the cat, it has been newly discovered, was overlaid with gilt.
And yet even as he attends to such scrupulous detail he improvises, trying out a radical and very rare full-frontal pose complete with foreshortening, tangling the dancers' fingers with expressive sweeps of the brush, sending the musicians' tumbling plaits shaking to their lively rhythms. Improvisations such as this bring the Ancient Egyptians back to life.
In the Natural History Museum they have spent thousands of pounds on an animatronic T Rex that tries to do the same thing for their dinosaurs. It amounts to little more than a fairground entertainment. The British Museum, instead, has invested in a highly sophisticated restoration that, lasting almost a decade, is probably the biggest project of its type yet undertaken. It must be commended for this decision. These wall paintings, spaciously displayed among cabinets of artefacts from the same period, bring Ancient Egypt to life far more fascinatingly than any animatronic mummy ever could.
Even poor Nebamun should be pleased about the project. The reason he would have wanted his tomb painted so vividly would have been to attract visitors who, hearing of the marvels on display, would have been tempted to pop in after visiting their own ancestral burial sites. By remembering his name they would ensure his safe afterlife. But when the god Amun was deposed in ancient Egypt, his name was erased from wherever it was written. Nebamun was nearly forgotten.
Now he has a new chapel - far more visited than he could ever have hoped. Remember to say his name aloud. It was the actual pronunciation that mattered. And besides, Nebamun was an accountant: he will certainly be adding up all those mentions.
The new Egyptian gallery opens at the British Museum, WC1 ( 020-7323 8299), on Jan 21