Old Kingdom Art - Ancient Egypt
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Old Kingdom Art

Shrine of Sesostris

You might think that Egyptian art would start out not very good, a little rough, and then little by little artists would learn more about carving and painting and their art would get better and better.

But that would be wrong, not just for the Egyptians but for most people all over the world. Changes in art styles are much more complicated than that, and the best technique is often at the beginning instead of at the end.

The Old Kingdom of Egypt lasted about 500 years, from 2686 to 2160 BC. Most of the art we have from the Old Kingdom comes from tombs. Some of it comes from the walls of the tombs, either the pyramids of the Pharaohs or the tombs of less important men and women. The picture just above is from the tomb of the Pharaoh Sesostris (seh-SOSS-triss). The picture shows a man making offerings, surrounded by hieroglyphic writing which is prayers to the gods. Look especially at the carving. Can you see how it was done? The sculptor has carefully chipped away all the background limestone and left only the man and the writing. That is a lot of work! (Idea for a project).

Other art is three-dimensional and was found in the tombs, like this bust of King Zoser, from the Third Dynasty of Egypt, around 2600 BC. Old Kingdom statues are generally very serious-looking, almost sad, and have great big deep eyes. They show how much the Pharaoh worries about his people and tries to take care of them. At the same time they are very strong-looking too.

Learn by doing: carving reliefs
Middle Kingdom Egyptian Art

Bibliography and further reading about Egyptian art:

Eyewitness: Ancient Egypt, by George Hart. Easy reading.

Ancient Egyptian Art, by Susie Hodge (1998). Shows kids how Egyptian art relates to Egyptian religion and culture.

Hands-On Ancient People, Volume 1: Art Activities about Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Islam, by Yvonne Merrill and Mary Simpson. Art projects for kids, though the directions are really aimed at teachers or parents.

The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt (Yale University Press Pelican History of Art), by William Stevenson Smith and William Kelly Simpson (revised edition 1999). The standard for college courses.

Egyptian Art, by Cyril Aldred (1985). Another standard.

Middle Kingdom Egyptian Art
More about ancient Egypt
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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