Indiana Jones­ing

Three thousand years of ancient Egypt, writ in stone.

Egypt has interested Westerners for centuries. Medieval caravans from the East brought Europe not only spice and silk, but also powdered "mummy"—prized even by Christians for its supposed magic powers. During the secular-minded Age of Enlightenment, enthusiasm for ancient Egypt was fueled by scholarly curiosity, popular excitement over mummies, and entrepreneurial greed. In this wild time, the Rosetta stone was discovered in the Nile delta by Napoleon's army, pondered in Alexandria by his scientists, and later commandeered by the English as a prize of battle. The huge torso of Ramses, which most likely inspired Shelley's poem "Ozymandias," was hauled from the sands and floated down the Nile by a freebooter named Belzoni.

Egypt, Gift of the Nile

Seattle Art Museum, 654-3100

ends January 10, 1999

In 1889, this Indiana Jones style of excavation gave way to more thoughtful methods. Responding to American Egyptomania, the University of Pennsylvania founded an archaeological association and a museum. Its curator of Egyptian work, Sara York Stevenson. She befriended Britain's Flinders Petrie (teacher of future Tut discoverer Howard Carter), who pioneered the orderly collection and "sequence dating" of finds. Stevenson helped fund Petrie's excavations and shared in his well-documented artifacts. By 1898, her university was able to mount its own expeditions and since then has remained a leader in American Egyptology.

The show now at SAM—140 pieces selected from thousands in the university's collection—conveys some of the heady confusion of the earlier days of Egyptology. First, the provenance of many pieces that were donated or purchased is uncertain. Looking at an imposing red stone head of Thutmose III and reading that it "perhaps" came from the city of Karnak, I imagined its being trundled about Cairo, a miniature Ozymandias in need of a high bid. In this case, the uncertainty adds flavor to the show.

In presenting work drawn from 30 centuries, SAM faced an organizational problem it didn't quite solve. Pieces are grouped by theme, with rooms meant to evoke the household, the temple, the palace, and the tomb. Murals, dark-painted walls, and faux columns notwithstanding, the rooms still look like museum galleries: Their most prominent features remain their spotlights and display cases. Within this homogeneous environment, items are distributed in a way that more disperses than concentrates their charm.

Jewelry, for example, is used to illustrate the home (rings and necklaces), the temple (an Isis amulet), and the tomb (a beaded collar). Like most small Egyptian artifacts, the jewelry was recovered from graves, making SAM's distinctions seem artificial. These small glass- and gold-work delicacies would have had more visual impact gathered together. Such proximity would also have facilitated comparison of the techniques used to shape and to weave together these tiny bits of gold, glass, and ceramic.

Sometimes, the effects of time compression—and differences of artistic quality—are jarring: an incredibly dignified statue of Amun from the New Kingdom stands but a few feet from a bronze of the perfume god Nefertem, made about 1,000 years later during the Ptolemaic period. Nefertem's stiff pose and sappy smile seem at once the awkward ancestor and the decadent descendant of the classically styled Amun. To contemplate these sculptures together is at once invigorating and irritating. Invigorating because their presence speaks of the great battle between the irresistible force of history and a barely movable object of Egyptian culture. Irritating, because their casual coupling deepened my impression that the stuff in this show was just being thrown at me. Either way, I won't forget this pair soon.

Most of the work is absorbing (on a recent evening, many visitors lingered in the galleries). Being mainly stoneware, the exhibit literally pales in comparison to the gold-and-enamel Tut-ware seen at SAM 20 years ago, but so does most Egyptian work. My personal favorites include no. 42, a statuette of a temple barber, in which the solid structure and feeling of solemn purpose characteristic of most Egyptian sculpture are tempered by the creamy-smooth modeling of the man's face, arms, and belly.

Another piece, no. 45, a Late Period statue in basalt of an official holding a boxed image of the god Osiris, has a sleek edginess that will appeal to modern eyes. Appreciating its art deco styling, noting its for-your-approval pose, and peering into the precious little shrine in its streamlined hands, I thought of how its conventions live on in our own art and advertising.

SAM's new "random access" audio tour (free with admission) lives up to its billing. Punching a number into a CD-ROM drive invokes commentary on whatever piece you're looking at; multiple tracks are geared separately toward adults, and to families with children. Some of the explanations could have gone further. I wish the "hieroglyph" track, for example, had discussed how hieroglyphs actually worked. Fortunately, one of the reading alcoves includes a copy of Wallis Budge's classic hieroglyphic dictionary; after consulting it, I was soon able to decipher names from Kaipura's tomb, a wall of which is on display a few yards away.

How to do intellectual as well as artistic justice to a distant, complex culture is a problem whose solution may lie in a video that plays endlessly in the reading area. Using virtual-reality technology to re-create the original appearance of Kaipura's tomb, the video dramatizes the use of the tomb as a spiritual machine. In its brevity and amusing artlessness, the clip is merely an experiment, but its descendants may bring Egypt to life in ways we can only imagine for now.

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