Ancient treasures of the Ashmolean


Right at the entrance to the Ashmolean's newly refurbished and expanded Egyptian galleries you know you are in a different place. There stand two giant statues of the fertility god Min, one holding his huge erect penis before him. They're incredibly early, dating from around 3300BC.

They're not quite what you expect from a monument of a country associated with stiff reverence. Yet they are unmistakably Egyptian in their rigidity and their grandeur. With all that is going on in Egypt, it's worth remembering what a great cultural past this country of the Nile has had. It's not just in the wealth that has been excavated or the monumental size of their sculpture, but that the culture was so pervasive and long-lived that makes it unique.

Which is why it is so compulsive to children as much as adults, and why the opening of the new Ashmolean galleries after a £5m refit is such an important event. The museum in Oxford – which claims to be the oldest in Britain, if not Europe – has long held the country's biggest and best collections of ancient Egyptian art after the British Museum in London. What the Ashmolean has been able to do with this refit is not only bring out a whole range of objects from the basement, but also to take a new view on how to present them.

Over the last generation, there has been a revolution in the way museums approach the arrangement of their objects. Gone is the idea of simply showing interesting things in cases, chronologically or geographically, replaced by the introduction of "concepts" or "themes" to make a story that connects them and provides context. Visitors are meant not only to be impressed by the art but to enter into the civilisation behind it. Two years ago, the museum opened an extension, doubling its gallery space. It used the opportunity to expand its displays, regrouping them on themes of trade and global interconnection, arranging its exhibits by type as well as region.

In the case of these Egyptian galleries in the old building, however, it decided to emphasise the continuity and chronology of a culture that lasted for over 3,000 years and, even when invaded and conquered, never really lost its identity.

You see it from the beginning. The Ashmolean is particularly strong on the pre-dynastic and early dynastic periods. As much in the large objects as the small, in the pottery and exquisite ivories as well as the statuary and ceremonial pieces, you witness the reach for the majestic and the lively that is peculiarly Egyptian. The crowded field of running, fighting animals on the Two Dog Palette and the figure of the Scorpion King on a ceremonial mace head, both 5,000 years old, might as well have come from frescos a couple of thousand years later, so little does the basic imagery change.

One of the most powerful figures is also the most contentious. The MacGregor Man, a rigid, bearded figure with a penis shaft before him, is ascribed to the early dynastic period. It's a quite extraordinary figure of tension and stillness. No one can be certain that it isn't a forgery. But in its way it's too original to be a dud, and recent discoveries of similar figures in ivory would back its claim to authenticity.

No such doubts elsewhere as you go chronologically through the six galleries. If limestone and basalt give a hard feel to much of the sculpture, there is an almost friendly – and very rare – figure of a lion done in clay and glaze, and a very human relief of the priest Sheri and his wife Khenteyetka from the Old Kingdom sitting over a table of funerary gifts. It's the fact that you know the names of the people depicted in Egyptian art, scribes as well as kings, and can enjoy the models, furniture and daily domestic items that accompanied them to the grave, that makes the Egyptian civilisation so approachable. That and the writings on papyrus, broken limestone shards and pottery, which the galleries have enabled the Ashmolean to show more fully.

"People think that the tombs were all about death," says the assistant curator in charge of the galleries, Liam McNamara. "In fact, they were full of things recording the life of the person buried." He points to one sheet of papyrus. "That's a will, which was included with the woman's burial possessions," he says. "In it, she disinherits her three daughters because they didn't do enough to look after her in her old age." Plus ça change.

Egyptian culture endured, but it did also change. The Ashmolean has a particularly fine collection from Nubian excavations, Egypt's southern neighbour, which, at one time, conquered it. The Shrine of Taharqa, the largest free-standing Pharaonic building in Britain, comes from that period, and shows both the way in which outsiders adopted Egyptian imagery to promote themselves and how they influenced it. More dramatically, under Akhenaten in the 14th-century BC, the country underwent a revolution as the pharaoh abandoned the old gods in favour of a single sun god and radically changed art towards a more naturalistic style. The museum, which participated in the excavations at Tell el-Amarna, has some especially good examples of the elongated figures, diaphanous robes and spontaneity in form which resulted, including figures of Akhenaten and his wife, Nefertiti, and a delightful fresco detail of their two young daughters.

The exhibition ends with the centuries of Greek and Roman domination after Alexander the Great's conquest. The funerary practices and mummification remain, but the bodies now have wood portraits showing the real faces of the dead – Roman realism superimposed on Egyptian formalism. Beside them is the mummy of a small child and, beside it, a modern sculpture by Angela Palmer, based on CT scans of the two-year-old boy drawn on over 100 sheets of glass to give the full three-dimensional effect. Palmer, the artist who brought the giant Amazonian trees to Trafalgar Square in an installation, here uses technology to recreate the combination of the human and the eternal that makes Egyptian culture so special, as much today as it was then.


The New Ancient Egypt and Nubia

Galleries, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (01865 278 002) ongoing

Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
Arts & Entertainment
Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin has been working on the novels since the mid-Nineties
Jose Mourinho, Chelsea players celebrate Demba Ba's goal and Gus Poyet
sportLive coverage of today's final game between Chelsea and Sunderland
Easter a dangerous time for dogs
these are the new ones. Old ones are below them... news
Brand said he
Roger Federer celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Masters
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives in the rain during the qualifying session of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
The North Korean TV advert for Taedonggang beer, that became a YouTube hit
food + drinkAnd what did it take to set up a taste test back in Wiltshire?
Arts & Entertainment
filmLife for Leslie Mann's can be challenging sometimes
For music lovers: John Cusack with his vinyl collection in 'High Fidelity'
voices...but don't forget rest of the year

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit