While each individual collection in the Ancient Art Gallery of the North Carolina Museum of Art is distinctive and unique, evaluating the gallery as a whole reveals a common link in all ancient civilizations. The artifacts displayed represent the different mediums available during these three different eras. Each artifact proves to have served a certain purpose in its respective society and reveals the common goal among these different ancient cultures of honoring gods and people.
In the Egyptian collection, most of the pieces had some relation to death and the soul. Egypt was one ancient culture that focused more on the needs of the dead and the involvement of the gods in death. It was believed that statues of gods placed in tombs would protect the dead from evil spirits.
An impressive artifact was the carving, “A Model of a Boat”, dating back to the Middle Kingdom of Dynasties XII-XIII, 2052-1778 B. C. The boat was made out of wood, twine, paint and gesso, which was a mixture of glue and plaster, and had a banana-shape, similar to a large canoe. The boat contained nine people: the deceased sat under a canopy and was covered from head to toe in a white robe with only the eyes showing in order to see the journey ahead; four oarsmen sat on a railing each rowing backwards; a man stood at the bow of the boat to keep a lookout for obstacles; two sailors stood in the middle operating the rigging on the mast; and one person used two long oars to control the direction of sailing from the stern. All of the crew was dark-skinned with black hair, wearing white cotton knee-length pants and no shoes. Egyptians believed it was the only way for a soul to travel to the Afterlife.
A first impression of the carving would be that it depicts a pharaoh sailing down the Nile River during a hot summer day to visit the cities he governed. It is not obvious that it is actually a scene of death instead of life until the description plaque is read. The Egyptian beliefs that the deceased needed worldly objects seem strange and ridiculous. Nowadays, most people believe all that is needed for the Afterlife is a soul that floats to Heaven. However, all civilizations share the common belief of some type of life of the soul after an earthly death.
Although death was not an obvious concern of the Greeks by studying the Classical group, it was evident that gods played a major role in Greek life. Ceramic pottery painted with scenes of mythology showed the emphasis of gods and mythology in the Greek culture. The art piece, “The Skyphos”, or in English, “drinking cup”, made during the Hellenistic Era, was one such item. Round with two long handles on either side, it was painted black with two orange owls as well as a laurel pattern.
When viewing the cup on display, it gives the impression that the owls and laurels have some special meaning. Owls in Greek mythology mean wisdom and also symbolize the goddess Athena. The Greeks worshipped Athena, the goddess of war, wisdom, and deity of the city Athens. Laurels mean honor or victory. Perhaps these cups were used by the rulers of Athens hoping to obtain wisdom from Athena in order to better rule the city. Soldiers and military officers may have also used cups like this as a superstitious practice to gain victory in war, to celebrate a victory or to honor a hero. In this way, the Greeks tended to promote ceremony or ritual practices, involving the gods, for various aspects of life.
The Romans honored their gods and leaders while living and after death by sculpting marble statues of them to be erected in public places. These statues were typically full length bodies carved out of marble with outstanding detail to the faces. In the collection at the museum, only one or two statues were still intact.
One statue stands out from the rest. The “Portrait of Lucius Caesar,” from the late 1st Century B.C., was carved of Lucius Caesar, Augustus Caesar’s grandson, who died as a child. This is of importance because the Romans mainly built statues of the gods or adult leaders and heroes. “Portrait of Lucius Caesar” is the only statue of a child from this period. The statue, at one time, was the complete body of Lucius Caesar. However, the head was the only part found and now resides in this gallery. It is not in mint condition as part of the nose and lips are missing. A fillet around the head suggests Lucius Caesar was a military student preparing to inherit the throne. As was custom during the reign of Augustus Caesar, the facial features and haircut resembled Augustus Caesar to reinforce the royal family connection.
Thinking about the statue brought upon feelings of sadness knowing Lucius Caesar died young. It is always sad to see someone so young die. Observing the statue brings up questions of how old was he when he died; what his dreams and aspirations were; and what kind of ruler he might have been had he lived to rule. His grandfather, Augustus Caesar, probably missed him terribly and had the statue created to memorialize the boy. Today, the piece serves as a representation of Augustus Caesar’s rule in the gallery. Just as honoring other Romans and gods, Augustus Caesar may have wanted everyone to honor Lucius in death. As a result, the Romans seemed to have regarded both the living leaders and the gods equally in value.
The unique qualities of each civilization help identify the relationship between their cultures through their values for the living, the dead and their gods. The Egyptians went to great lengths to ensure that the souls of the dead made it safely to the afterlife with protection from the gods. Likewise, the gods were believed to provide protection in many aspects of daily life for the Greeks, such as in war and government. While the Romans honored the gods with marble statues, they also commemorated mortal leaders and heroes with statues. All in all, the relics found in the Ancient Art Gallery prove not only the commonality of values in each culture but also that each possessed creativity, intelligence, compassion and an eye for beautiful things.
Director, Wheeler, Lawrence J. http://www.ncartmuseum.org/contact.shtml. The North Carolina Museum of Art. NC Museum of Art 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh, North Carolina 27607-6494. 2 Oct. 2006.