To an Egyptologist, an archaism (also called “antiquarianism” by C. Aldred and having “classicistic tendencies” according to B. V. Bothmer) refers to a deliberate attempt to reproduce a style of sculpture, painting, language, literature, architecture, or other material or intangible cultural artifact from an earlier period. A more general definition of an archaism is the survival or presence of something from the past that was not necessarily preconceived. Therefore, its use in describing certain aspects of ancient Egyptian culture requires qualification, because virtually every element of that civilization reached back in time for its inspiration. Much of that emulation consisted of sustaining and continuing some traditions, including statue poses, the presence of back pillars, hair styles, royal regalia, and, most importantly, religion. These and numerous other aspects of Egyptian civilization remained largely unchanged throughout pharaonic times, reflecting the overwhelming need of those people to maintain their society in a largely unaltered state. Despite that compulsion, there were substantial alterations of styles during those three thousand years, and those stylistic revisions usually permit art historians to date fragmentary remains found outside the archaeological contexts—although an archaism can cause scholars confusion in making attributions.

A fine line separates an archaism from the prolongation of a static state or a stasis. An archaism requires a conscious and purposeful effort to imitate a particular style, individual, scene, or use of language, among other things, that serves to associate one historical period with a determinate moment of the past. According to J. Baines (1989, p. 137), “archaism describes instances where there is some extra meaning in these practices.” It must also include a substantial gap in time to constitute an archaism. To describe a continuation of style directly following the original in time, Bothmer used the word “archaistic.” The studied consistency of Egyptian cultural traditions was increasingly interrupted by foreign influence toward the end of its history, but it persisted well after the beginning of Roman domination in 30 BCE.

The most obvious explanation for an archaism is to assume that the ancient Egyptians, desirous of restoring past glories, imitated styles prevalent during the reigns of their greatest rulers, which was usually, but not always, true. Visual access to works from more ancient eras was a necessity, along with the requisite materials, artistic skills, and in some cases, sufficient labor. The great pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom revived pyramid building but usually had them constructed with mud bricks, rather than with the large limestone blocks used during the Old Kingdom of several hundred years earlier; the country was no longer able to supply the large labor force needed to copy the monumental architectural works of the earlier kings. The sole exception was the pyramid of Amenemhet I (r. 1991–1962 BCE), the first pharaoh of the twelfth dynasty, which was composed of limestone blocks taken from Old Kingdom sites. In other cases of archaisms, we do not know why the style of one particular king was copied and another, of commensurate importance, was not. For example, the image of the eighteenth dynasty pharaoh Thutmose III (r. 1504–1452 BCE) was a frequent model for later imitators, but portraits of the successful rulers from the twelfth dynasty were not.


The earliest acknowledged example of an archaism occurs in the sixth dynasty tomb of Nisutnefer in Giza, just south of present-day Cairo, which directly borrows from that of Shepseskaf of the Fourth dynasty. The scholar H. Brunner, however, disclaims any evidence for an archaism before the nineteenth dynasty (Lexikon der Ägyptologie, vol. 1, col. 388. [Wiesbaden, 1976]), a concept with which few, if any, other scholars agree. Later, archaisms became manifest during the Middle Kingdom reign of Senwosret I (c.1971–1928 BCE) whose fragmentary dyad statue portraying him with the goddess Hathor recalls those of Menkaure (r. 2551–2523 BCE) from the fourth dynasty. A statue of Senwosret II (r. 1897–1877 BCE) shows the position of the hands of the king as similar to those of Khafre (r. 2576–2551 BCE), also from the fourth dynasty. Relief decoration in the pyramid complex of Senwosret I was strongly influenced by the sanctuary of Pepy II (r. 2300–2206 BCE) in Saqqara, the necropolis of Memphis; this is an instance of copying from a pharaoh whose reign ended the Old Kingdom and whose rule was not nearly as productive as those of the frequently imitated kings of the fourth dynasty. It appears that archaisms were inspired by an appreciation of artistic merit as well as an admiration of political and economic successes.

Sculpture from the New Kingdom demonstrates archaisms that recall both the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Although these classicistic tendencies are most obvious during the reign of Amenhotpe III (r. 1410–1372 BCE), a statue of Amenhotpe II (r. 1454–1419 BCE) in the collection of University College, London (U.C. no. 14665), displays a falcon protecting the king in the fashion of the famous fourth dynasty statue of Khafre in the Cairo Museum (JE 10062). Even earlier in the eighteenth dynasty, is a group of statues of Amenhopte I (r. 1545–1525 BCE), identified by R. Tefnin (1968) and J. Romano (1976), which have close stylistic affinities to eleventh dynasty royal representations, particularly those of Montuhotep. Perhaps the most intriguing example of an archaism from the reign of Amenhotpe III is a scribe statue of Amenhotep, son of Hapu, as an aged man (Cairo, CG 42127). This portrait of a private man later deified—considered one of the finest sculptures of the New Kingdom—so closely emulated the style of the Middle Kingdom that at least one eminent Egyptologist, D. Wildung (1984), believed that it was usurped from the earlier period, with the inscription added during the eighteenth dynasty. His view is not generally accepted, but it demonstrates how carefully the artist imitated the style of a period almost five hundred years old at the time of the subject's portrayal. The statue wears a wig with pointed ends copied with great fidelity from Middle Kingdom models and has heavily lidded eyes that also imitated a style unused for centuries. Only the elegantly shaped eyebrows are unmistakably traceable to the reign of Amenhotpe III (Russmann 1989). This accuracy of imitation leaves little doubt that well-preserved sculpture from earlier eras of Egypt was available to artisans in the New Kingdom.

Relief decoration in the New Kingdom also took inspiration from Old and Middle Kingdom models. As Donald Spanel (1988) noted, relief portraits of Amenhotpe I show the influence of eleventh and early twelfth dynasty monarchs, thus revealing the desire of the eighteenth dynasty's founding king to advertise himself as the latest in a line of Theban defenders of the realm. The reliefs in the Theban tomb of Kharuef (tomb 192) recall the aesthetics of two earlier eras. A. Kozloff and B. Bryan (1992) described the stiff quality of the figures portrayed in ritual combat and dance scenes in that tomb as reminiscent of Old and Middle Kingdom action scenes.

Notwithstanding abundant examples of archaisms during the Middle and New Kingdoms, the Late period (1070–343 BCE) contained the greatest measure of revisiting the past. The beginning of that era, the Third Intermediate Period (1081–711 BCE), was a time of relative instability; the empire was divided into two kingdoms, one in Upper and one in Lower Egypt. The pharaohs, no longer descendants of a royal line, reverted to early eighteenth dynasty models for inspiration in their desire to establish royal legitimacy. Depictions from this time of Thutmose III were so carefully copied from the originals that they still create confusion about their dating. The literature of Egyptology often refers to this studied imitation as an integral part of the art of that time.

Examples of uncertain attributions from that time include an extraordinary gold statuette of Amun, originally attributed by Howard Carter to the reign of Thutmose III, and subsequently to the twenty-second dynasty by Aldred (1960). Another statue fragment in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, was initially assigned to the early eighteenth dynasty and is now dated to the Third Intermediate Period, perhaps the twenty-third dynasty (Josephson and Stanwick, forthcoming). Seipel (1992) dates two sculptures to the Third Intermediate Period: one is in Vienna, a statue of a god originally thought to be Ramessid, and the second, in London, of just a head, is usually also attributed to the New Kingdom. An article by T. G. H. James (1994), however, persuasively argues against the attribution of the Vienna statue to this later period. Archaisms in relief sculpture were also pronounced during the Third Intermediate Period. Richard Fazzini (1988, 1997) has concluded that many echo Old and New Kingdom paradigms.

In the Kushite and Saite dynasties of the Late period (the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth dynasties, c.755–525 BCE), archaism reached full bloom. The twenty-fifth dynasty was founded by Nubian invaders who conquered Egypt, revitalized, and reunited it. They embarked on an ambitious building program unprecedented since the reign of Ramesses II, deliberately evoking the past for legitimization of their kingships. The latter part of the Middle Kingdom provided models for sculpture in the round to such a pronounced degree that there is still considerable difficulty in separating the two styles. Bothmer's classic study (1960) of the sculpture of the Late period contained three statues that the author attributed to the twenty-fifth dynasty, which now can, with reasonable certainty, be dated to the Middle Kingdom (Josephson 1997). The massive private tomb of Harwa in Thebes, built during the Kushite domination, showed considerable copying from Memphite Old Kingdom tombs, demonstrating not only archaisms but the utilization of inspirational material that originated in that ancient and distant capital of Egypt.

By the twenty-sixth dynasty and the return to native rule under Psamtik I in 664 BCE, sculptors turned more to the New Kingdom for their ideals. There was a ten-year transition period in Thebes in Upper Egypt, during which Mentuemhet, governor of upper Egypt under the Nubians, continued to maintain his position under the new king; this circumstance may have contributed to the remarkable archaizing evident in his splendid Theban tomb (tomb 34). It probably was constructed during the time that straddled the Kushite and Saite dynasties and, therefore, reflected influences derived from both the Old and New Kingdoms. A similar blending of Old and New Kingdom conventions is seen in the slightly later Theban tomb of Aba (tomb 36); interestingly, the Old Kingdom influence in this monument has been traced to a fifth dynasty tomb of a man with the same name. Soon after Mentuemhet's death, sculpture and relief in Thebes tended to revert to the New Kingdom conventions expressed earlier in the Third Intermediate Period. A unique portrait of Psamtik I in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is hardly distinguishable from its Ramessid-era precedents (Josephson 1996).

The use of archaisms in sculpture continued unabated, even after Egypt was conquered and occupied by the Persians in 525 BCE and the Greeks in 332 BCE. Native workshops carried on well-established traditions that included selecting paradigms from the past. During the thirtieth dynasty (380–343 BCE), the ultimate period of native rule, artists chose to emulate the work of the New Kingdom. A relief fragment, now in the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, from the tomb of Zanofer, a fourth century BCE dignitary, was carefully derived in the details and poses of its figures from that considerably earlier period. It incorporates a blind harpist and female offering bearers, standard in the eighteenth dynasty, although a new realism was imparted to the faces of the participants in the scene. The portraiture of the fourth century BCE demonstrated a dichotomy that existed between the naturalistic portrayals of private persons and the very idealized features of the kings, whose faces reflect Saite origins (Josephson 1997).

The Greeks, after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, established Egypt's new capital city, Alexandria, a seaport on the Mediterranean coast. Their pharaohs, all named Ptolemy, maintained the Egyptian religion and built numerous temples dedicated to Egyptian gods. In so doing, they conformed to ancient traditions in decoration, and they opted, at least at the beginning of this era, to imitate the royal sculpture of the thirtieth dynasty, an action that Bothmer characterized as “archaistic.” Even the Roman emperors, who displaced the Ptolemies in 30 BCE, continued to have statues carved of themselves in Egyptian royal regalia—then thousands of years old—a clear demonstration of archaisms used for propagandizing purposes.


Obvious demonstrations of archaisms may be seen in the royal and monumental architecture of ancient Egypt. The building remains from the earliest times are tombs. Their significance to their eventual occupants was awe-inspiring. More than simply memorials, they were abodes for the deceased's afterlife, serving to shelter the corpse and burial goods, thus insuring its inhabitant immortality in the afterlife. Evolving from simple graves in the Predynastic period to impressive royal pyramids in the third dynasty, a spectacular and never again duplicated size was reached in the fourth dynasty. Although pyramid building was continued to the end of the Old Kingdom (c.2200 BCE), it had ceased thereafter until the great pharaohs of the twelfth dynasty revived that practice. Amenemhet I erected at el-Lisht, south of Saqqara, a substantial pyramid with subsidiary structures that carefully duplicated Old Kingdom models. His successors in that dynasty continued to build their monuments in el-Lisht and Dashur, near Saqqara, and were the last pharaohs to do so, although the use of small pyramidal structures were associated with private tombs during the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties in the Theban necropolis. During the reign of the first king of the Middle Kingdom, Nebhepetre Montuhotep I (2061–2011 BCE), column capitals of the Old Kingdom were imitated by architects, although other details were derived from the preceding First Intermediate Period. The funerary temple of Montuhotep in Deir el-Bahri, located in the Theban necropolis on the western bank of the Nile across from modern Luxor, served as the inspiration for that of the queen who became the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (r. 1502–1482 BCE) of the early eighteenth dynasty. Hatshepsut urgently needed to establish her legitimacy, having usurped the throne from her stepson, Thutmose III. In this example of archaism, the two temples are immediately adjacent to each other, showing both political motivation and visual accessability as inspiration for the copy.

Almost from the beginning of the Old Kingdom, stone masons copied plant forms when carving columns. By the reign of King Djoser of the third dynasty, these artisans imitated the shape of the papyrus plant to make distinctive and highly decorative pillars. It is not surprising that the reign of the first of the pyramid builders had many architectural innovations—his architect was the genius Imhotep. Fluted columns were another invention of that early Old Kingdom savant and their use largely vanished from then until the Middle Kingdom. The use of a column resembling the stalk and spreading head of a papyrus plant, common in Djoser's constructions at Saqqara, also vanished, reappearing in the nineteenth dynasty, the time of Ramesses II (Clark and Engelbach 1990). Pillars resembling palm trees are first attested from Abusir at the temple of Sahure of the fifth dynasty. They are rarely seen again until Ptolemaic times (305–31 BCE), when they were textured to imitate the palm tree's bark. Archaisms in conception and execution were used abundantly in the architecture and interior decoration of the Asasif tombs of the Theban necropolis during the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth dynasties.


Wall paintings dating to the Late Gerzean period (c.3500 BCE) have been found south of Thebes in the Predynastic city of Hierakonpolis (tomb 100). A crudely rendered funerary scene painted on a plastered brick wall, apparently from a tomb, is perhaps the earliest illustration of the king smiting his enemies with a mace—a gesture that later became accepted as a symbol of the pharaoh's might. By the third dynasty, the art of wall painting became highly sophisticated, showing elaborately organized and realistic scenes. The best known of this genre is a painting of ducks rising from a marsh found in the tomb of Itet at Meidum. It is part of a scene showing the sons of the deceased casting a net over a marshland pond, trapping the birds, and according to Aldred (1980, p. 66), “an essential theme of all later representations of country life, especially with its ritual overtones of the destruction of evil manifestations.” During the Middle Kingdom, painting replaced relief decoration in many tombs, particularly in the Middle Egyptian sites of Beni Hasan, Bersheh, and Meir; the wall paintings in these tombs rely on the Old Kingdom for inspiration, in both size and subject matter, although there is also an ample amount of contemporary innovation.

During the New Kingdom, wall painting reached its highest level of artistry and greatest amount of use. The early part of that dynasty, particularly the reign of Thutmose III (r. 1504–1452 BCE), was a time in which the style and the choice of subject matter was largely influenced by Middle Kingdom traditions. Within a short period of time, an age of luxury and opulence had arrived in Egypt. The influx of new styles and innovations replaced, to a large extent, the archaisms that are prominent earlier in the dynasty. Despite this onrush of new ideas and techniques, the use of paste fillings on wall scenes in Amarna, the new capital built by Amenhotpe IV (r. 1372–1355 BCE), emulated its use in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Although wall painting remained in the repertory of decorative schemes, it was not a prominent feature in tombs after the New Kingdom and comparatively few examples are known from later periods.


Hieroglyphically formulated language was at the core of cultural and religious expression in ancient Egyptian civilization, and unlike the cuneiform writing of ancient Mesopotamia, did not need to be reinvented as a literary vehicle. The earliest hieroglyphs predated the first dynasty and remained in use until the end of the fourth century CE. For some four thousand years, the language and its exercise evolved from simple descriptive inscriptions on slate palettes to complicated treatises covering the full range of human thought and endeavors. During the fifth dynasty, religious texts, now known as the Pyramid Texts, appeared as inscriptions on the interior walls of those great structures. They were placed there for the benefit of the buried king, thus imparting to him eternal protection. These incantations were copied by early Middle Kingdom nobles and painted on their coffins. The reason for this expression of archaism is obvious, but it is notable that they followed the Old Kingdom style of writing, despite the substantial advances in the language achieved during the Middle Kingdom. These coffins also had spells painted on them, now identified as the Coffin Texts. These special charms disappeared until the Saite dynasty, almost fifteen hundred years later, whose scribes copied the Middle Kingdom style of writing.

Examples of archaisms from earlier literary and religious texts found on temple walls and papyri were ubiquitous in ancient Egypt; an illustration may be seen copied on a Ramessid ostracon (Simpson 1958). It seems certain that the purpose of maintaining writings in religious institutions was to preserve them rather than to effect their diffusion (see Riccati 1997). Regardless of that design, their availability was obvious, and they were widely copied—a tendency conforming to a desire to continue the traditions of the Egyptian civilization in a static state and to relive the past. Clearly, this emulation was the focal point of demonstrating veneration for their ancestors.

This worshipful attitude for their antecedents reached a peak in the writings of the Kushite and Saite dynasties, as it did with other forms of archaisms. The Nubian invaders of the twenty-fifth dynasty and the Libyan colonists who became the rulers of Egypt in the twenty-sixth dynasty, felt a pressing need to promote their legitimacy as kings. The Nubians, whose language was different from ancient Egyptian, returned to the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, although they combined them with contemporary phrases. In another example of an archaism, the Nubian pharaoh Taharqa had copied a replica of an Old Kingdom papyrus onto a basalt slab, now called the Memphite Theology. Their immediate successors, the Saite kings, liberally used Middle Kingdom writing—a form much employed throughout that period. Riccati (1997) avers that this dynasty witnessed the revival of scholarly research—with the gathering of quotations from ancient monuments, the collecting of rare works, and the reproduction of ancient examples. The worship of earlier dignitaries—as Imhotep, the great builder and physician of the third dynasty; Amenhotep, son of Hapu; and Prince Khaemwase, who restored many ancient monuments in the nineteenth dynasty and was one of the sons of Ramesses II—was dramatically expanded during the Saite period. These examples provide an additional indication of a preoccupation with Egypt's distant past and a heightened awareness of its notables, owing to an exploration of ancient documents.


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Jack A. Josephson