The Destruction of Art and Memory in Ancient Egypt: The Case of Hatshepsut’s Monuments

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:20 AM
Thurgood Marshall North (Marriott Wardman Park)
Ann Macy Roth, New York University
The erasure of names and images was quite common in ancient Egyptian art, although the reasons behind such destructive activities remains unavoidably speculative to some extent. The religious and magical power of images and written words was clearly significant in ancient Egyptian culture. It probably serves as at least a partial explanation for most erasures, but other erasures are thought also to have political motives.

The erasures range from the mortuary monuments of private individuals, where enemies may have erased their names and images to deny them an afterlife, to the names of rulers, whose names and images were suppressed when they became viewed as somehow illegitimate or perhaps where the preservation of their memory might have led to problems for the legitimacy of subsequent kings. In some cases, the erasures and replacements with the names of other kings may have simply been viewed as updates. There were also a wide variety of ways in which such erasures might be achieved, including replacement, chiseling out of hieroglyphs that left the texts and scenes largely legible, and complete obliteration. Occasionally, erased images and texts were later replaced.

The monumental temple constructions of Hatshepsut, a queen regnant (circa 1477-1456 BCE) offer examples of several different types of erasures, which when viewed in the context of other examples, illuminate the Egyptians’ ideas about the nature of images and the value of memory and monumentality. Questions explored will include the violence and destructiveness of the erasures, the degree to which the erasures effectively hide or destroy the monuments, and the problems posed by differential methods of erasure within the same monument. The strategies the Egyptians employed in dealing with their sometimes problematic history may offer us suggestions for dealing with our own.