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Art and History with Egyptologist Jacquelyn Williamson

Our Art and History students were thrilled to (virtually) host a special guest star this week, when egyptologist Jacquelyn Williamson joined us to talk about her work.

Jackie is the director of the Kom el-Nana archaeological site, where she and her team have discovered the ruins of a massive sun temple dedicated to Queen Nefertiti. When she’s not digging up artifacts in Egypt, she teaches Ancient Art and Archaeology at George Mason University.

Jackie spoke about how Egypt’s unique geographical setting (between the desert and the river) influenced cultural ideas about order and chaos. She also showed us images of Egyptian gods, and explained that many of our ideas about Egyptian art can actually be traced to 2500 year old Greek gossip. Our minds were blown!

Jackie explains how difficult it was to get into or out of the Nile River Valley in ancient times.

It turns out that the Egyptians didn’t worship cats, and no, they didn’t believe their gods were walking around with animal heads either. The Greeks liked to make fun of Egyptian religious traditions, and archaeologists were able to read Greek texts long before they learned how to decode hieroglyphics. The misinformation stuck, but researchers like Jackie are now forming a much more accurate picture of what the Ancient Egyptians believed.

Jackie at Kom el-Nana

We talked about how we use visual symbols every day, what the origins of some modern symbols are, and how much background information you need to understand them. We all know that a green mermaid in a circle means, “get a cup of coffee here,” but an alien from Alpha Centauri would have a hard time decoding that message, and an even harder time understanding why! The point is that before we can really understand a culture’s art, we need to know as much as we can about that culture and its people.

Nina shares the symbol she drew to represent order and chaos: a match and a flame.

Our students asked Jackie how long it took her to learn ancient Egyptian (She learned several dialects over 7-8 years, and had to learn German first, because that’s the language the textbooks were written in), and what kind of work she does when she isn’t in Egypt (She teaches and writes about her research).

Next week might not be quite as exciting, but we’re still looking forward to making cylinder seals and talking about the role of art and sculpture in ancient Mesopotamia.

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