Reading between the (brush) lines: Investigating the interconnection between pictorial, written and abstract representation in New Kingdom Theban Tombs
The indissoluble and essential interconnection between the hieroglyphic script and the scenes and paintings that with their vivid colours decorated the temples and the tombs of the ancient Egyptians elites has been generally recognised: from the fact that, within the large-scale scenes, some elements can actually be read as enlarged hieroglyphs, to the amount of care taken in designing monumental signs that, if taken from the context, can hardly be distinguished from figurative painting.
Did the scribes use different approaches to brush the lines of a hieroglyphic sign and those of the same image, on a major artistic scale, in the important task of decorating the tomb walls, for the sake of guaranteeing the deceased the necessary amount of provisions and protection for his new life, show his achievements and his status and engrave in time the memory of his existence? Did they take the same technical measures and precautions – that is, was there a point of contact between the “canonical tradition” of the two pictorial expressions?
Some polychrome signs still preserved in Theban Tombs display in fact a level of details in the lining and in the design that qualifies them as artistic works. Is there dialectic between the image as a script sign and image as an artistic accomplishment on a larger scale? And if there is, was it influenced by the tomb owner or by the scribe and/or the artist? If we start from the very beginning, that is, what terms the Ancient Egyptian language used to indicate these two ways of representing reality – word and image – there seems to be an identity of sorts already in the linguistic root: “sš”, in fact, can denote at the same time both “writing” and “painting”, as well as “script”, “painted decoration”, and others words of the same semantic group. Of course this is nowhere near a probing argument, but surely it makes us wonder: what are the elements that distinguish the two activities in the ancient Egyptian’s perception? Is the approach of the draughtsmen to iconic material purely linguistic, purely visual, or both?
Same questions arise also for the monochrome hieroglyphs, which can be situated at an intermediate stage between the “properly painted” and the “properly abstract”: what is the attitude towards this other medium of expression, especially in relationship to the rest of the tomb decoration? What is the content conveyed by it? These issues will be considered within the particular context of the New Kingdom Theban Tombs, with focus on the painted material from those studied by the Universität Basel in Sheikh Abd el Qurna (TT95, TT84, SNF Project “Life Histories of Theban Tombs”) and a selection of others from all over the Theban Necropolis, in order to get a deeper insight into the artists’ role and identity in the microhistory of the site, and ultimately to understand more closely what the Ancient Egyptians intended when writing (or drawing) the word "sesh".