Exploring the Art of Ancient Egypt

Over some 5,000 years the people of the ancient Nile Valley and regions beyond produced some of the easily recognisable works of art the world has ever known, whether carved in stone, painted on tomb walls, or cast in metal

By Macquarie University

Dr Alexandra Woods

View of the first Pylon of the Mortuary temple of Ramesses III, Medinet Habu. (19th Dynasty) by Alexandra WoodsMacquarie University


Often monumental in scale and certainly culturally distinct, the art and architecture of ancient Egypt has never lost its power to inspire fascination and awe in the Western imagination. 

The Temple at Dendur, Nubia (1848) by David RobertsThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

‘Golden Age’ of Discovery

Some of the earliest documentation of ancient Egyptian art began in the 19th-20th Centuries and arose from a context of imperialism and colonial 'exploration' in Egypt, within the so-called “golden age” of archaeological discovery. 

A lotus presentation scene, the tomb of Iyi-mery, Giza (5th Dynasty) by Alexandra WoodsMacquarie University

In a practice that goes back millennia, generations of European soldiers, tourists and archaeologists, from Napoleonic soldiers to Giovanni Belzoni, left their marks across swathes of monuments in Egypt.

Such added inscriptions often cover and obscure the original carved and painted decoration in tombs or temples. 

Offering bearers bringing various food items, the tomb of Akhet-hotep, Saqqara (5th Dynasty) by Alexandra WoodsMacquarie University

Carrier of cultural tradition and knowledge

The art of ancient Egypt is found in both sacred and non-sacred contexts and is attested on a wide range of surfaces and items made of stone, wood, ivory, ceramics, or metal.  Ancient Egyptian 2-Dimensional and 3-Dimensional artistic forms combine function and aesthetic, and acts as a powerful carrier of cultural tradition and knowledge. 

The material and graphical cultural outputs from ancient Egypt can be seen on tomb and temple walls, ceramic vessels, palettes, false doors, stelae in addition to statuary, figurines and models.

Entrance to the tomb of Mereruka, Saqqara, Alexandra Woods, 6th Dynasty, From the collection of: Macquarie University
Pot decorated with a boat, From the collection of: British Museum
Battlefield Palette, -3150, From the collection of: British Museum
False Door of the Royal Sealer Neferiu, ca. 2150–2010 B.C., From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Stela of the Steward Mentuwoser Stela of the Steward Mentuwoser, ca. 1944 B.C., From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bust of Queen Nefertiti, Thutmosis, Amenophis IV. / Echnaton, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, c. 1340 BCE, From the collection of: Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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Name Panels from the Inner Wall of Senwosret I's Pyramid Complex Name Panels from the Inner Wall of Senwosret I's Pyramid Complex (ca. 1961–1917 B.C.)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Communication, display and engagement

A crucial element of ancient Egyptian artistic tradition was its emphasis on communication, display, engagement and spatial connection with the landscape, architectural form, texts, sculpture and/or imagery. However, the rise of museum and gallery collections has meant that today’s audience associates a range of objects and forms to the broad category of ‘ancient art’.  

Statue of Ramesses II, the 'Younger Memnon' (19th Dynasty) by Alexandra WoodsMacquarie University

Museum Display

Displaying ancient objects in a collection environment places them in an artificial category that aligns with practices in the modern art world and does not recognise the object's original cultural context. Thereby disabling an understanding and appreciation of the social dimension of aesthetic experience.

View of the ceiling, the Temple of Hathor, Dendera (Antiquity) by Alexandra WoodsMacquarie University

Ancient Egyptian Worldview

Nevertheless, by examining the remaining visual and material record from ancient Egypt, modern viewers can attempt to understand the ancient Egyptian's worldview, how this worldview shaped their attitude towards the art they created to reveal the significance of art making and its broader cultural value. 

Credits: Story

Dr Alexandra Woods 
Dr Nicolle Leary
Dr Brian Ballsun-Stanton


E. Colla, Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (Duke University Press, Durham, 2007).

C. Riggs, Ancient Egyptian Art and Architecture: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014). 

C. Riggs, Photographing Tutankhamun: Archaeology, Ancient Egypt and the Archive (London, 2019).

G. Robins, The Art of Ancient Egypt (Revised Edition, British Museum Press, London, 2008).

A. Stevenson, ‘Egyptian Archaeology and the Museum’, in Oxford Handbooks, (Online 2015). 

A. Woods, & N. Leary, ''Art', aesthetics and the functioning image in ancient Egyptian elite tombs', Tristant, Y. & Ryan, E. M. (eds.) Death is only the beginning: Egyptian funerary customs at the Macquarie Museum of Ancient Cultures (The Australian Centre for Egyptology Studies; vol. 11, Oxford: Aris and Phillips, 2017) pp. 74-83.

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