Note: I wrote this research paper for HIST 481 class (History and Architecture of Ancient Egypt II) by Dr. Türkan Pilavcı for the second term of 2019-2020 class.
Tutankhamun (1342-1325 BC), who was a pharaoh in the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom, died at an early age and buried in his famous tomb that was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. After the discovery, Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Thebes has aroused public interest because of their intact and valuable objects. These objects contain various drawings that reflect symbolic meanings regarding Ancient Egypt. In this context, the Painted Box (or Chest) is one of the significant ones in Tutankhamun’s tomb because of its battle and hunting paintings. Its analysis would provide important points. Particularly, Tutankhamun’s combat scene against his foes carries crucial details about self-perception and foreigner in Egyptian art. Besides, the proportion and composition of figures are essential to grasp people’s place in a hierarchical order. Ultimately, the scene gives insights about the army of the New Kingdom.
II-The Story of Tutankhamun’s Tomb: The Place Where Everything Was Started
First of all, the box was one of the first objects which Carter discovered since he excavated it from the tomb’s first room (the antechamber)1. When he turned right during the excavation, he recognized the painted box that impressed him. Carter indicates that the box
“will probably rank as one of the greatest artistic treasures of the tomb, and on our first visit we found it hard to tear ourselves away from it.”2
At first, the box “contained many items such as sandals, cult robes, necklaces, a headrest and a belt”3. It can be identified that the chest was used for storage at the tomb in a utilitarian way for Tutankhamun’s afterlife. Nonetheless, the box’s complicated decoration with a variety of precious materials may also display its other symbolic functions. After the excavation, its first provenance was the Cairo (or the Egyptian) Museum with the object number 324 in the 1930s4. Later, it was exhibited in the upper floor with the number 40 in the Cairo Museum near Tutankhamun’s gaming board until the construction of the Global Egyptian Museum5. This object is apparently fitting within the upper floor since Tutankhamun’s other personal objects were also displayed in this location such as his throne, golden shrine, and famous funerary mask6. Along with the new bigger construction, this wooden box was removed for a new provenance but COVID-19 hindered its opening that was postponed until 2021. Therefore, its current provenance is unknown in the GEM. The chest’s condition has been completely preserved and its inventory (catalogue) number is JE 614677. Even though its artist is unknown like many artistic objects, its patron was most probably Tutankhamun8. Its audience is not indicated in the box but this could be Tutankhamun himself for the afterlife since the box contained his items and was a funerary object from his tomb. This also would be a testimony of the pharaoh’s deeds for deities after his resurrection like several other funerary objects in Egyptian art. As a three-dimensional item, the box consists of four sides as two longer and two shorter sides. Each side depicts a different scene from Tutankhamun with similar aspects. Two narrower sides on the end panels demonstrate Tutankhamun as a sphinx who squeezes his enemies with minor details9. On the other hand, two longer right and left-hand sides of the curved lid show the pharaoh’s hunting scenes shooting desert fauna and lions10. Upon the left side panel, he was represented as a warrior who defeats Southern or African enemies11. The image that I will formally analyze below depicts Tutankhamun slaying his Asiatic or northern foes on the right-side panel upon the painted wooden chest12. Overall, the box’s size has 44 cm of heightand a width of 43 cm. Its length is 61 cm according to the GEM13. That is, the chest is portable on a smaller scale as a product of minor arts.
III-Analyzing Invaluable Materials with A Unique Design in An Alluring Box
When it comes to Tutankhamun’s struggle with Asiatic and northern enemies, its surface consists of different embedded materials. Williams argues that “words cannot give any impressions” because of its richness in terms of materials. He underlines that the main material “appears to be wood, covered with gold leaf or thicker gold, which is quite bright and has across it a fine frieze in lapis lazuli or faience enamel.”14 The GEM’s catalog points out that its work technique was “wood-technique”15. Apart from wood, Eaton-Krauss also identifies that gesso (a type of plaster) covered the scene’s wooden face and colorful painted designs were made upon gesso16. Other than that, inlay of semi-precious stones like ivory as well as other animal products17 and glass decorates the scene. In this painting, comprehending color is quite important since Davies and Gardiner claim that even though the style and “similar representations are to be found in the temple of Karnak and elsewhere, but from them, the color has long since vanished, and with it many details of dress and the like.”18 The GEM’s record notes that the primary color is golden19. Nevertheless, orangish, yellowish, and blackish tones are also used primarily to differentiate “Egyptians” and “foreigners” as a mark. It can be seen that orangish and darker colors feature Egyptians and colors get a bit lighter and yellowish through the right side to identify the Northern (or Asiatic) warriors. The slaves who sat behind Tutankhamun also show that black is used in this scene. Besides, greenish shades can be realized in depicting flowers. Its texture is rough because its surface carved with many materials like ivory. That factor impedes the surface quality to be smoother and softer.
As far as its pattern is concerned, four small squares are diagonally ordered in four different colors as the scene’s first frame. Next, flowers decorate the first frame as symbols of vegetation, order, and regeneration in the Egyptian art. I counted that fourteen flowers are drawn on the left and right sides with thirty-four flowers that are described at the top and bottom sides. Then, another pattern that adorns flowers can be noticed with seven small rectangular lines and one bigger square. Davies and Gardiner indicate that this painting’s size is 52×19 cm20. Additionally, horizontal and vertical lines are drawn to complete frameworks outside the image. Inside, three register lines are placed under three Egyptian chariots behind Tutankhamun to help to provide order. Another type of horizontal and vertical lines is situated between Tutankhamun and his horse as a framework to identify Tutankhamun’s inscription. Finally, there is a black line above the sun disk and the pharaoh. This line symbolizes the sky and it denotes to give the right for ruling21. Asiatic soldiers don’t have proper lines to emphasize their confused and disordered position. This rectangular-shaped scene has a two-dimensional form though the chest is three-dimensional and rectangular.
“This matchless relic of the past”22 has a rich diversity in terms of bringing diverse figures and elements in the composition. A division within this medium-scale painting attracts my attention in the first place. This divided composition is between two groups of warriors dominates the scene. That is, this piece of art can be regarded as figurative art. Turning himself to the right or disorganized and confused group, the biggest figure in the composition rides his chariot at the center. Price writes that this central figure is Tutankhamun and “is aiming at the massed ranks of a Syrian army and is being followed…by other chariots of the Egyptian army.”23 Moreover, Saleh notes that the biggest figure was “accompanied by his archers, lancers, cavalrymen, and fan-bearers.”24 They are represented in a well-organized order in three lines behind the main figure. In this regard, the central figure’s horse functions as an indicator to divide an organized group on the left side and a disorganized mass on the right side. Their instruments like swords and spears show that they are fighting soldiers. Also, the scene seems to be horizontal in composition as their movement displays. Unlike the left side, soldiers on the right are represented in a chaotic situation. Within this disorder, they are mingled with each other and there is almost no space between them. As I stated above, the skin colors of the two groups are also different as a compositional marker. The unknown painter employed yellowish, orangish, brownish, greenish, and darkish tones in addition to black color to make the composition colorful. And he used different shades and hues of brown and yellow. As for saturation, time could have made colors desaturated as we do not know if the scene was saturated when it was first painted. It seems to me that the artist chose his range of intense colors to suitably depict a battlefield scene. Additionally, Davies and Gardiner underline that their clothing style is also different. While warriors on the left wear more lightly clad garments, the confused group is “hampered by their heavy clothing”.25 Furthermore, “the gruesomeness of scene is heightened by the presence of dogs….”26 on the right side. There are several plants on both sides and two vultures and the sun disk can be seen above the central figure. It is worthwhile that they hold something symbolic to be given for the main figure. In short, the scene is compositionally not integrated and unified. Rather, it is visually divided into two main pieces. The “delicacy of detail and harmony of color”27 constitutes the composition in an array of soldiers from two sides.
IV-Exterminating Chaos and Ensuring Order with Chariots: the Ancient Egyptian Understanding of Warfare
When it comes to the subject matter, this represents the war between Egyptians and Asiatic Northerners as I stated above. By contrast with composition, representation is continuous through the scene in terms of the subject matter. There is no figure for dividing the subject matter within the scene. Tutankhamun is the protagonist of the scene at the center riding his chariot against Asiatic enemies as the leader. His retinues follow him with their armors and chariots. The Egyptian army vanquishes its Asiatic foes through the image but Tutankhamun’s leadership on the battlefield has been discussed whether this was a real scene or not. Price stresses that if “Tutankhamun himself took part in military campaigns…is open to question.”28 This is because Saleh argues that “due to his young age and weak health, Tutankhamun might never have been involved in any combat.”29 Davies and Gardiner assume that this picture did not display the actual battle but that could be “an imaginative depiction of the might and magnificence of the Pharaoh.”30 Price also underlines that Horemheb carried out the warfare against Asiatic warriors in the Northern borders during Tutankhamun’s reign. Hence, this “could be just symbolic representations of Tutankhamun…”31 Spalinger adds that this symbolism may show “the artistic temperament or an agreed-upon schema.”32 This is since for symbolic and representational goals, “the role of the solitary king in battle was a common pictorial theme for Egyptian wars.”33 Eaton-Krauss agrees with Spalinger and explains that this theme is “traditional” in Egyptian art. As for the scene’s goal, he suggests that the scene “intended to demonstrate the pharaoh in his ideological role subduing chaos.”34 For Darnell,
“warfare represented the triumph of order over the forces of chaos. No text on the painted box mentions a date or a specific historical event; rather each tableau transforms this small item of furniture…into a potent statement of pharaonic authority over the entire cosmos.”35
In this context, foreign enemies represented the source of chaos, and Egyptians aimed their elimination and eradication for reconsolidating order (ma’at)36.
Apart from Tutankhamun’s representation, chariots have an important place in the subject matter. There are six chariots other than Tutankhamun’s all belong to the Egyptians in the scene. There also some chariots Carter founded in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Consisting of a two-man crew as one driver and one warrior, the chariots were a deadly means of war and were “equivalent to the swift light-armored tanks of modern times. Its great advantage was mobility.”37 In the scene, the pharaoh and his entourage stand in the war chariot. The absence of seats in chariots assisted Egyptians in any battle to “leap down quickly when necessary”.38 Saul indicates that the owners of this speedy “lightweight vehicle” were mostly affluent aristocrats who “would sometimes embellish their vehicles with precious metals.”39 That’s why “chariots were costly to build and maintain.”40 As for their functions, they were used “in a looser harassing and skirmishing role in support of the infantry. They also used them to rescue the wounded…”41 thanks to its maneuverability. When it comes to Asiatic people, their passive gestures, subduing poses, and defeated positions can be realized in the scene. While Egyptian dogs chase their Asiatic enemies, “the blood spurts from the wounds of the enemy.”42 By using dogs as a metaphor, Darnell explains that “the pharaoh was said to teach the Asiatics to obey Egypt and do “the dog walk”43. Interestingly, some of Northern warriors are manifested “in full-face, always a rare trait in Egyptian art…The expressions of pain on the faces of the wounded are very vivid. The dead have closed eyes, and one poor wretch is headless.”44 I underlined above some sharp distinctions, divisions, and differences in terms of depiction between two sides. In the battle, even small divergences are depicted between two sides in armory like shields. While the Egyptians preferred rounded shields at their backs, the “other” side used rectangular ones45.
V-A Visual Language with its Symbolic and Iconic Layers: Mythological and Linguistic Secrets in an Egyptian Box
Besides, this painting exhibits several symbols in iconographic aspects. Initially, Tutankhamun wears the blue crown (Kepresh) that symbolizes war. Above him, two vultures indicate Nekhbet46 who is the patron deity of Upper Egypt. Vultures are protective and give shen ring to Tutankhamun for eternal protection47. There is the Sun’s disk above Tutankhamun and between vultures. Carter notes that the disk encircled by the uraeus (in the shape of a cobra) that holds ankh which symbolizes giving life48. This cobra also represents Wadjet, the patron deity of Lower Egypt, and characterizes the unification of Egypt with Nekhbet in artistic terms. There is a black line that features the sky that gives the right for governing the above two figures. The pharaoh’s name is written in the cartouche under vultures and the inscription writes that “the good god, son of Amun, valiant and without his peer; a lord of might, trampling down hundreds of thousands and laying them prostrate”.49 In terms of the proportion of figures, the biggest figure is Tutankhamun and his chariot since the hierarchical importance of people determined their size with the employment of hieratic scale in the Egyptian art50. Accordingly, other figures are depicted smaller in the scene. This image employs a vertical perspective in which nearer figures are typically displayed below larger figures. So, there is no vanishing point or linear or aerial perspective in this scene51. Eventually, the scene represents the traditional style of Egyptian art.
On the whole, Tutankhamun’s slaughter of Asiatic warriors on the painted chest was a significant image in terms of displaying the Egyptian perception of foreigners as inferior and chaotic forces with underlining its role of maintaining order completed by the pharaoh. The chest was intricately decorated with diverse materials and products. Although this image from the chest does not correctly present warfare, it shows several military aspects of the Egyptian army such as war chariots. Additionally, the scene shows the centrality and superiority of Tutankhamun in a hierarchical way. The scene also carries fundamental characteristics of the Ancient Egyptian art from composition to proportion with a variety of symbols and postures.
1. Howard Carter, The Tomb of Tutankhamun: Volume I: Search, Discovery, and Clearance of the Antechamber (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), 101.
2. Carter, The Tomb of Tutankhamun, 102.
3. Mohamed Saleh, Cairo the Egyptian Museum and Pharaonic Sites (Cairo: Egyptian International Publishing Company, 2001), 32.
4. Nina M. Davies and Alan Gardiner, Ancient Egypt Paintings: Volume III (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1936), 148.
5. Saleh, Cairo the Egyptian Museum, 83.
6. Saleh, 100.
7. Shaima Badawy, “Chest with Miniature Panoramas”. Global Egyptian Museum. Accessed May 28, 2020. http://globalegyptianmuseum.org/record.aspx?id=15097
8. John Coleman Darnell, Tutankhamun’s Armies: Battle and Conquest during Ancient Egypt’s Late Eighteenth Dynasty (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007), 2.
9. Carter, 198.
10. Ibid., 193.
11. Ibid., 194
12. Ibid., 197
13. Saleh, 32.
14. Mark Jenkins, Classic Tales of Travel & Adventure from National Geographic (New York: The National Geographic Society, 2006), 23.
15. Badawy, “Chest with Miniature Panoramas”.
16. Marianne Eaton-Krauss. King of Egypt: Tutankhamen-The Unknown Tutankhamun (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 57.
17. Badawy, “Chest with Miniature Panoramas”.
18. Davies and Gardiner, Ancient Egypt Paintings, 148.
19. Badawy, “Chest with Miniature Panoramas”.
20. Davies and Gardiner, 148.
21. Patrice Maubourguet, (ed.), Thema Larousse: Thematic Encyclopedia Volume V (Milliyet Publishing, 1993), 159.
22. Jenkins, 23.
23. Bill Price, Tutankhamun: Egypt’s Most Famous Pharaoh (Pocket Essentials, 2007), 46.
24. Saleh, 32.
25. Davies and Gardiner, 149
26. Ibid., 149.
27. Leonard Cottrell, The Secrets of Tutankhamen’s Tomb (Dell Publishing, 1967), 45.
28. Price, Tutankhamun, 46.
29. Saleh, 32.
30. Davies and Gardiner, 147.
31. Price, 46.
32. Anthony J. Spalinger, War in Ancient Egypt: The New Kingdom (Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 120.
33. Spalinger, War in Ancient Egypt, 120.
34. Eaton-Krauss, 86.
35. Darnell, 126.
36. Maubourguet, (ed.), Thema Larousse, 159.
37. Cottrell, The Secrets, 62.
38. Ibid., 62.
39. David Saul. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Warfare: From Ancient Egypt to Iraq (DK Publishing, 2012), 17.
40. Saul, Warfare, 17.
41. Ibid., 17.
42. Davies and Gardiner, 148.
43. Darnell, 82.
44. Davies and Gardiner, 149.
45. Ibid., 148.
46. Carter, 194.
47. Ibid., 194.
48. Ibid., 194.
49. Davies and Gardiner, 148.
50. Maubourguet, (ed.), 154.
51. Ibid., 154.
Badawy, Shaimaa. “Chest with Miniature Panoramas” Global Egyptian Museum. Accessed May 28, 2020. http://globalegyptianmuseum.org/record.aspx?id=15097
Carter, Howard. The Tomb of Tutankhamun: Volume I: Search, Discovery, and Clearance
Of the Antechamber. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.
Cottrell, Leonard. The Secrets of Tutankhamen’s Tomb. Dell Publishing, 1967.
Darnell, J. Coleman. Tutankhamun’s Armies: Battle and Conquest During Ancient Egypt’s Late Eighteenth Dynasty. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007.
Davies, Nina M. and Gardiner, Alan. Ancient Egypt Paintings: Volume III. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1936.
Eaton-Krauss, Marianne. King of Egypt: Tutankhamen-The Unknown Tutankhamun. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.
Jenkins, Mark. Classic Tales of Travel & Adventure from National Geographic. New York: The National Geographic Society, 2006.
Maubourguet, Patrice (ed.). Thema Larousse: Thematic Encyclopedia Volume V. Milliyet Publishing, 1993.
Price, Bill. Tutankhamun: Egypt’s Most Famous Pharaoh. Pocket Essentials, 2007
Saul, David. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Warfare: From Ancient Egypt to Iraq. DK Publishing, 2012.
Saleh, Mohamed. Cairo the Egyptian Museum and Pharaonic Sites. Cairo: Egyptian International Publishing Company, 2001.
Spalinger, Anthony J. War in Ancient Egypt: The New Kingdom. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2005.