>The Taste of Mummies

>Rather than shock his readers into thinking that The Courtier had a rather unusual culinary experience this weekend, it should be said that today’s blog post refers to taste in the aesthetic sense, and was suggested from a flip through the papers this morning – the eye falling on a little blurb about historic events which took place on this date. Today is the anniversary of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799; coincidentally, The Courtier was watching a travel program yesterday afternoon which gave viewers a tour of SW France, and stopped at the hometown of Pierre Bouchard, the French officer who discovered the stone. In honor of his discovery, the village reproduced the stone on paving tiles in the main square.

For those of his readers who were not, like The Courtier, interested at a very young age in becoming an Egyptologist, the term “Rosetta Stone” may be familiar from a popular line of foreign language instructional software, but the item itself may be unfamiliar. The Rosetta Stone is a large tablet of black basalt carved in the second century before Christ, which was discovered in Rosetta, not far from the city of Alexandria, Egypt. On the stone, which came to be named after the town in which it was discovered, is inscribed a series of prayers in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic (a later script-like development in Egyptian writing), and in Classical Greek. Its significance for history, archaeology, and Egyptology in particular is of paramount importance, because the Greek text of the stone specifically tells the reader that all three of the different scripts say the same thing.

At the time of its discovery, scholars were able to read Ancient Greek, but not Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. With this code key, it was finally possible to begin decoding Egyptian hieroglyphics, a language that had proven unintelligible to Western scholars for centuries. It allowed us to learn about not only about the people of ancient Egypt, their customs, beliefs, history and practices, but also about the outside world which the ancient Egyptians knew and corresponded with and about.

As a small boy, The Courtier taught himself to read and write Egyptian hieroglyphics to a limited extent, and for a number of years debated between becoming an Egyptologist or a Paleontologist – which of course are unrelated disciplines, but there you are. Admittedly this writer spent a great deal of time reading rather nerdy texts, largely because he was an asthmatic, nerdy little boy with thick glasses, but that is neither here nor there. This would not have been possible without the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, and so it has a certain significance to The Courtier.

When he went to live in London during graduate school, despite the fact that he had long since abandoned his dreams of excavating Egyptian tombs, it was nevertheless very exciting for this writer to finally be able to see the Rosetta Stone in person. The stone is one of the highlights of the substantial Egyptian collections of the British Museum in London, where it has resided since 1802. How exactly it ended up in the British Museum is somewhat uncertain, and to some minds somewhat untoward, but as there are many pieces in the British Museum which other folk would like to have back, we will leave that question unexplored for the purposes of this post.

The moment of The Courtier’s arriving at the British Museum for the first time and heading straight for the legendary tablet was something of a letdown. In addition to the vast crowds milling around it, the stone itself is just – well, exactly that: a carved stone. Its significance as an object of scientific endeavor is far more important than the appearance of the object itself. The polished, black surface and the attractive writing is very nice, but there is nothing particularly exceptional about it to the naked eye. As it turned out, the part of this first visit which proved to be far more interesting was the visit to the Egyptian mummy cases on the upper floor. (The Courtier should note that this was all pre-Lord Foster, so he does not know how the mummies are displayed today.)

Art historians have very often noticed connections between Egypt and the artistic developments of Greek art in places like Crete and Mycenae. With Mediterranean sea trade and imperial expansions, it was no surprise that Knossos and Thebes might eventually come into contact with one another. Truthfully, having less interest in Greek art, the relationship of figures such as the kouros to Egyptian sculpture never seemed particularly striking to The Courtier, and indeed some scholars continue to dispute whether one influenced the other or whether there was an independent development.

Yet it was on this first trip to the British Museum, and seeing the aforementioned mummy cases, that the proverbial light bulb went on in this writer’s mind. Most of us think of ancient Egyptian coffins as being covered in hieroglyphic writing and featuring idealized representations of the dead. Having in his childhood amassed a small library of books on ancient Egyptian art, The Courtier was very familiar with the evolution of different styles and periods in that country, such as the era of the Pyramid builders in the Old Kingdom, or the unusual achievements of the Amarna period artists during the 18th Dynasty.

What was interesting in this collection was how several of the coffins had interiors that were brightly painted in very Mediterranean colors such as sunny orange, rich turquoise, deep coral, etc., with very little fading from having been closed and protected from the elements. They reminded The Courtier very much of the type of wooden fishing boats one sees in photographs of Greek villages, but turned inside out. And indeed, the same palette shows up all over the Mediterranean, for example in the form of tin-glazed tiles which cover the walls and floors of traditional homes from Alicante to Aix-en-Provence to Aleppo.

As continues to be the case not only in their genetics but also in their food, art, and architecture, there has been a connection among the Mediterranean peoples for a very considerable amount of time. This is not to say, of course, that a relationship in color preferences necessarily implies other relationships; there can be an idiosyncratic similarity in taste for all sorts of reasons. However, in the mind of this armchair art historian-critic, the possibility that there was an ancient artistic connection between the ancient Egyptians and the very early ancient Greeks became far more plausible upon viewing these mummy cases. He may no longer have been able to read the texts on the coffins themselves, but The Courtier took away a conceptual possibility that ultimately proved to be just as rewarding.