Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Houses of the Dead, Dollhouses and Museums

Although there really is no substitute for travel and the experience of being on the soil of the site of an ancient civilisation, museums can be incredibly exciting and enriching.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, justifiably known as one of the best museums in the world, contains as many superior artifacts from all periods of the ancient civilisations of Egypt as any museum, I daresay, in Egypt. Without venturing into the troubled waters of international theft, especially theft condoned and even encouraged by foreign governments, museums like this are an invaluable resource for students, serious academics and the general public.

It was in the New York Metropolitan Museum that I saw an incredibly detailed miniature village from ancient Egypt. Always fascinated with miniatures of every kind, and never quite losing a childhood love of dollhouses, I could have spent hours in front of the exhibit.

As you can see from the photographs, a wealth of skill, labour and energy was lavished upon this miniature world. It includes depictions of the most mundane locations and tasks, including a slaughterhouse and a granary as well as a house and temple and a model boat complete with rowers.

The model village was created as a funerary device, and was discovered in a tomb. The ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife required tools and aids from THIS life. Perhaps partly created to stimulate memories of old skills, of old relationships or to make the gods and the company of the dead aware of the identity and social position of the deceased... who knows why an intricate model of an entire village was placed in the tomb?

These models were found in the tomb of Meketre in Thebes, dating from the 20th century B.C.

There is no dearth of original sources that deal with the religion and spirituality of ancient Egypt. In fact, the 'Book of the Dead' gives detailed instructions as to all the necessary steps in the journey between this world and the next. What may be remarkable is the degree of devotion that this religion has inspired through the centuries, even after the civilisation itself has crumbled into dust and has returned to the desert.

As a young child, I was drawn to amulets and talismans of any kind. The Egyptians were prolific creators of amulets. A childhood favourite, 'The Story of the Amulet', by E. Nesbit, only served to stoke the fires of my imagination and I always have collected talismans. Whether or not I believe that they possess some intrinsic power is uncertain. The fact of the matter is that I love jewelry, gems and tiny objects and I love 'charms'. They do not have to be particularly beautiful in order to appeal to me. In fact, some of the more bizarre protective charms can hold a greater fascination ultimately than a pretty trinket.

In the gap between any ancient civilisation and its re-discovery by contemporary society, inevitably there will be some degree of misinterpretation. I often wondered what a future society might think of our museums, for example. Museums often contains the stuffed remains of animals as well as tombs, funerary remains and even corpses. Whether preserved as mummies or simply as skeletons displayed in the position in which they were discovered, these corpses often are surrounded by other displays of jewelry, pottery and even miniature models of the villages in which they once lived. How different is this really from the displays found in ancient 'tombs'? What if we were missing the point? What if the ancients collected artifacts and created their own museums?

Obviously, in many cases, we do have documentation attesting to the religious or spiritual significance of funerary remains and tombs, but in those cases where no documentation exists, I do believe it is possible that we may be attributing a spiritual connection where none exists.

In the past few decades, for example, a host of new theories relating to shamanism have multiplied with reference to prehistoric art, especially the art of the caves. The 'shaman' figure drawn on the wall has inspired a veritable torrent of speculative prose. The figures were painted by expert artists, after all. Who is to say they were nothing more than works of art? Many modern and contemporary artists create works that could be interpreted as religious in nature... to go one step further, the imagination of an artist could be interpreted to be a depiction of a common spiritual belief or ritual when in fact it is nothing more than the product of a fertile imagination.

As usual, I have digressed from my initial train of thought. (Ah, the beauty of a web log, allowing the writer to meander freely from one thought to another!) I was prompted by photographs of the Hypogeum in Malta, existing almost intact in pristine condition thousands of years after its creation. Perhaps one of the reasons that ancient cultures focused so much attention, energy and labour upon houses of the dead was the knowledge that herein lay a sort of immortality for their culture and people.

Houses of the living change from year to year. They fall into disrepair, are torn down or expanded, bear the weight of footsteps and the ordinary 'wear and tear' of weather, humanity and other effects. The houses of the dead are frozen in time to some extent. Even community houses, where bones were added from year to year, retained a sort of timelessness. With their special spiritual and social significance, changes of any kind would not be made lightly. We know most about ancient cultures often from the tombs that remain. It is death that provides a reflection for us of life.

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