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“Before the Pyramids: The Origins of Egyptian Civilization”

Oriental Institute Museum curator Emily Teeter looks beyond King Tut.


The oldest inscribed statue of an Egyptian king, this limestone sculpture portrays King Khasekhem. At this time in Egypt�s early history, the south was at war, slowly annexing communities to the north. The text on the front reads, �His power shines.� According to Teeter, �It says he killed a very precise number of northerners, something like 47,209.�

 (Photograph: Anna R. Ressman)
Photograph: Anna R. Ressman

The exhibition�s clay pottery originated as early as 4000 B.C. Coating the vessels, hand-painted images portray plants (�they refer to regeneration,� says Teeter), a woman dancing and boats propelled by a small army of oarsmen. �The boats are probably funerary�carrying a body down to a tomb,� Teeter notes. In this early society, the most valued pots were composed of earth found in the desert, far from population centers, and fired at a high temperature.

 (Photograph: Anna R. Ressman)
Photograph: Anna R. Ressman

The early cultures weren�t all work and no play. �Egyptians loved board games,� says Teeter, pointing to a game-board stand sculpted like a bull�s head and a lion-shaped game piece carved out of hippo ivory.

 (Photograph: Anna R. Ressman)
Photograph: Anna R. Ressman

Ivory lion gamepiece

 (Photograph: Anna R. Ressman)
Photograph: Anna R. Ressman

Some early kings were buried with weapons and tools that, rather than being used in a hunt or battle, seemed to hold emblematic significance. �They were symbolic of power,� Teeter infers. Examples include precious arrowheads, an exquisitely sculpted mace and an ax with unused blades.

 (Photograph: Anna R. Ressman)
Photograph: Anna R. Ressman

Egypt�s legions of craftsmen slowly carved stone jugs with copper tools. �These were specialized craftsman; they didn�t need everyone to grow crops,� says Teeter about the fertile country�s ample human resources. Occasionally, skillful artisans produced stonework that physically replicated its less finely crafted counterpart�cheap pottery beer cups or affordable wicker work. And here we thought the invention of the $300 well-worn jeans was an extravagant modern concept.

When archeologist William Flinders Petrie excavated the 5,100-year-old Egyptian tombs of Abydos in the 1890s, he was so astounded by the wealth of treasures—perfectly carved stone pots, ivory game pieces, tiny pictorial tags—his first thought was that the artifacts, which predate pyramids, were made by an alien culture. “It was a weird kind of racist thing, because the [craftsmen] were African,” says Oriental Institute Museum curator Emily Teeter. To show off new knowledge of the ancient cultures, Teeter organized “Before the Pyramids: The Origins of Egyptian Civilization,” an exhibit featuring objects that came far before Cleopatra or King Tut. Teeter shared a few stories behind the artifacts.

[node:7559017 link="Before the Pyramids: The Origins of Egyptian Civilization";] runs through December 31.