The beauties of hereafter

Gifts of the Nile
December 4, 1998

Although faience is perhaps not a term familiar to the non-specialist, anyone who has even a passing interest in ancient Egypt will have seen objects made from this material and, if they have been to Egypt, will have been assailed by young entrepreneurs trying to sell them the modern equivalent.

Faience is a glazed ceramic that was commonly employed in ancient Egypt to produce a wide variety of small objects (right). Perhaps the most typical objects made of faience are the small mummiform shabti figures that were placed in tombs to take the tomb-owner's place in any work that might be required from him in the after-life. Most shabtis are crudely moulded and poorly fired, but the front cover of Gifts of the Nile shows an exceptional, hand-made example. The beautiful proportions and clarity of inscription of this artefact show the potential of the material, given the will and, presumably, the ability to pay.

Faience is usually turquoise blue, but the later development of other colours such as yellow, white and red expanded the artistic palette considerably. When a number of these colours were used together in one object, striking polychrome faience resulted. The book's 200 colour plates of these artefacts give the viewer some idea of the brightness of colour that the ancient Egyptians so loved. The plates are the book's real strength. All of the objects photographed are of exceptional beauty and will appeal to anyone who enjoys ancient art and design. They are also of great archaeological significance and show the full range of what was possible for the expert faience-maker at the height of Egyptian civilisation during the New Kingdom (1550-1085 BC). The notes to the figures are extremely well researched and contain fascinating detail, ranging from the function of a "magic rod" to how Egyptian board games were played.

The book also includes essays by five leading scholars. Although they take up less than a fifth of the book, the essays represent a valuable assessment of the state of knowledge concerning how faience was made and how it reflected the values and ideology of Egypt's small ruling class. There is an element of repetition in the facts between the essays and, as the editor admits in the first chapter, some contradiction between the opinions expressed. This accurately reflects the fact that a lot of the evidence presented is relatively new and its significance still a matter of debate. These essays will be of particular interest to the student of Egyptology, as will the excellent bibliography, which, in addition to being long and comprehensive, is also laid out in a clear and simple manner. This avoids the tedious search through footnotes for a particular reference. Overall, this is an excellent book for the anyone interested in Egyptian art, with a great deal for the student too.

Andrew Shortland is a ceramics specialist, Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, University of Oxford.

Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience

Editor - Florence Dunn Firedmann
ISBN - 0 500 23754 9
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £42.00
Pages - 288

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