Friday, October 23, 2009

Informal book review - Egyptian Scarabs

Egyptian Scarabs
Richard H. Wilkinson
Shire 2008
64 pages

The contents are as follows:

- A list of illustrations
- Chronology from the Predynastic to Graeco-Roman periods

1. The scarab in nature and myth
2. Scarab development
3. Types of scarab
4. Heart scarabs
5. Commemorative scarabs
6. Scarabs abroad
- Further reading
- Museums
- Index

1. The scarab in nature and myth
Chapter 1 introduces the scarab to the uninitiated. Over a period of 2000 years from the end of the Old Kingdom, scarab representations were made in a variety of fabrics. The member of the Scarabaeidae family upon which the Egyptian scarab representations is based on the form of dung beetle known as the “roller” due to its practise of rolling dung into their burrows for food or for egg-laying. The second half of the chapter looks at the mythology of the scarab beetle in Egypt, which is based apparently on the rolling of the dung ball which as equated to the movement of the solar orb across the sky. The scarab deity Khepri was one of three major forms of solar deity. Wilkinson goes on to explore the nature of Khepri, the deity who was constantly reborn, just as the sun was reborn each day.

2. Scarab development
Wilkinson opens with the intriguing observation that the development of the scarab in Egypt “followed a somewhat slow and unlikely path”. He goes on to describe how scarab forms evolved. The earliest were amulets. Amulets date to the Predynastic but most early ovoid scarab forms date from the end of the Old Kingdom. They were first used as seals during the First Intermediate period, by the end of which they were more precisely made, showing a more naturalistic form than in the Old Kingdom. Seals, on the base of the amulet beneath the scarab itself, could be maze-like or representational. Wilkinson discusses mass-production in the Middle Kingdom and the expanding range of seal motifs. Stylistic advances were made in the New Kingdom. The chapter concludes with an excellent overview of some of the problems involved with the dating of scarabs.

3. Types of scarab
This chapter looks at different ways of looking at scarabs. Wilkinson discusses them under the following headings:

- Form and function
- Materials of construction.
- Back designs
- Base designs and inscriptions

4. Heart scarabs
This chapter looks at the role of the scarab, from around the 13th Dynasty, in the process by which the dead makes the transition into the afterlife. The “weighing of the heart” is a judgment presided over by certain deities and described in the Book of the Dead. The heart is weighed on scales against a feather which represents the truth and justice of the goddess Ma’at. Scarab amulets were placed in the mummy to assist the heart during the judgement. The rest of the chapter discusses the design and manufacture of these scarabs. The number of variants is considerable. As time went by scarabs, particularly in royal mummies, were incorporated into often elaborate pectorals jewellery. They fell out of use by the Graeco-Roman period.

5. Commemorative scarabs
These are scarabs that were commissioned specially to celebrated specific occasions and which date to the New Kingdom, principally during the reign of Amenhotep III. They are an important source of historical information. Wilkinson gives examples of particular scarabs and classes of commemorative scarab. All consist of scarab amulets with hieroglyphic inscriptions on the bases, some texts quite short, others remarkably long. Wilkinson points out some gaps in knowledge. For example, why only some subjects appear to have been commemorated by Amenhotep III, and why commemorative scarabs do not appear to have been produced after the 11th year of Amenhotep’s reign but were resumed under the reign of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten). Wilkinson highlights the differences between scarabs of Amenhotep III and IV. None are known after the Amarna period.

6. Scarabs abroad
Egyptian scarabs are by no means exclusive to Egypt. They are found throughout the Mediterranean. Egyptian items were highly valued through the Mediterranean areas and were widely traded. Scarabs were perhaps valued as magical amulets. As well as originals from Egypt copies were also produced, some of which were true to the originals and many of which had their own distinctive character. Wilkinson looks at Mediterranean scarabs area by area: the southern Levant, the Aegean, Etruria and “other cultures”. All have archaeological value. For example, those from the southern Levant have been research with a view to improving an understanding of how the chronologies of Palestine and Egypt relate to each other.

The above chapters are followed by a useful three-page list of further reading, a list of museums to visit (in the UK, Canada, Egypt, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland and the US). Finally there is an index.

This is an excellent book. The subject matter is ideal for a publication of this size (64 pages) and leaves the reader with the feeling that a great deal of information has been imparted without the sense that there are any huge gaps. Not that scarabs are a simple topic – they are the subject of important research projects using increasingly complex techniques and they are key to understanding both Egyptian concerns and the way in which Egypt was perceived by and was connected with other cultures. Wilkinson touches on those important issues without become side-tracked by them. His writing is clear and articulate and a pleasure to read.

The text is complemented by illustrations, diagrams and photographs in both black and white and colour, all of which illustrate the points made throughout the book. The book is well made and printed on glossy paper which highlights the coloured photographs particularly well.

1 comment:

Joan Lansberry said...

I have this book, very nice overview of scarabs, with lovely photos.