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Hidden behind pyramid-like mounds of construction dirt and tucked deep inside the innermost chamber of the North Carolina Museum of Art lies a little piece of ancient history.

Temples and Tombs: Treasures of Egyptian Art from The British Museum 

Rarely seen Egyptian antiquities at the N.C. Museum of Art capture the human angle

click to enlarge Funerary temple of Mentuhotep II, Fragment of a Battle Scene with Defeated Asiatics, about 2055-2004 B.C., limestone, painted, 23 3/4 in. x 26 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF N.C. MUSEUM OF ART
  • Photo courtesy of N.C. Museum of Art
  • Funerary temple of Mentuhotep II, Fragment of a Battle Scene with Defeated Asiatics, about 2055-2004 B.C., limestone, painted, 23 3/4 in. x 26 in.

Hidden behind pyramid-like mounds of construction dirt and tucked deep inside the innermost chamber of the North Carolina Museum of Art lies a little piece of ancient history. Temples and Tombs: Treasures of Egyptian Art from The British Museum is nestled like a tiny, mysterious jewel on the museum's ground floor and is a shiny surprise of 85 statues and artifacts from Egypt.

Museum officials hope to attract between 75,000 and 100,000 visitors to the show, which is the first major exhibition of Egyptian art the NCMA has hosted. Curators have been interested in a show of antiquities for some time, according to Mary Ellen Soles, curator of ancient art for the NCMA and co-coordinator for the Temples and Tombs exhibition. "To find [an exhibition] where the objects are of such quality has been for all of us a great thrill," Soles says. "The appeal of these objects really does bridge the gap of centuries."

Despite having to puzzle through a construction obstacle course that would stump a sphinx, visitors to the NCMA will be pleased with the exhibition's variety and depth. The show features everything from a colossal stone lion to a tiny, intricately fashioned plaque of gold. Hieroglyphics fans will find several stelas, or carved tablets, as well as papyrus scrolls of the Book of the Dead. Mummy aficionados will be treated to a beautifully painted lid from the coffin of a woman. And Egyptian history buffs will be satisfied with plenty of statuary depicting kings and pharaohs.

The only thing visitors won't find in the exhibition is an artifact they may have seen before. That's because all the pieces in the collection are part of a traveling show and have not actually been on display in the British Museum for at least six years. "Unless you go to Egypt or the British Museum, you will not encounter such a large collection," says NCMA director Larry Wheeler.

Some are pieces from a demolished gallery at the museum, while others were simply in storage. "[The exhibition] has been traveling for many years. I've never seen these objects on the museum property," says Marcel Maree, assistant keeper of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum.

This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view. For those who are looking for a recap of beautiful antiquities they may have seen while visiting the museum in London, the exhibit may be a disappointment. Breathtaking treasures, such as the Rosetta Stone or the coffin of Cleopatra, probably will never go on loan because of their value and fragility. But if you want to see a fascinating collection of artifacts that have never been seen by London tourists, then the show is a must.

click to enlarge Striding Figure of Meryrahashtef, about 2345-2181 B.C., ebony and sycamore, H. 22 7/8 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF N.C. MUSEUM OF ART

The pieces for the traveling show, some of which are longer than 7 feet and made of solid stone, were assembled with precision by staff members from the British Museum. Only British Museum staffers are allowed to touch the pieces, and the feats necessary to move them into place were akin to building the pyramids, curators say.

The most striking, satisfying works are those at the beginning of the exhibition, which is divided into four themes. The large statues in "The King and the Temple" section are exactly what you might hope to see in a display of Egyptian art. There is the gorgeous, regal "Lion of Amenhotep III Reinscribed for Tutankhamun," as well as the awe-inspiring "Head of Amenhotep III," which is frightening in its stern power.

The other themed sections of the exhibition are "Objects from the Lives of Artists and Nobles," which includes small, everyday personal items; "Statues of Egyptians from Temples and Tombs," which features both seated and standing small statues; and "The Tomb, Death and the Afterlife," which offers visitors a glimpse of funerary stelas and paintings.

The "Drawing Board," included in the "Objects from the Lives of Artists and Nobles" section, is a fascinating glimpse at an artist's struggle to draw a figure. Its plaster surface, about 14-by-21 inches, holds the inked attempts of a new artist to draw a picture of a seated king. The artist apparently could not master hands, as he drew them repeatedly on one side of the board. It dates to 1475 B.C.

And the "Bottle in the Form of a Bolti-Fish," also part of the same section, is a charming, unusually colorful perfume bottle in the shape of a fish. The little fish dates from about 1390-1336 B.C., and features aqua and yellow scallops for scales, a swirling eye and a gaping, yellow mouth. The bottle's diminutive size (just 5 3/4 inches long) made it the perfect receptacle for perfume. It's hard to imagine that nearly 3,000 years ago a long-dead Egyptian lady once cherished the object and used it for her favorite scent.

The oldest work in the show is called "Seated Statue of Ankhwa," which dates to 2686 B.C. The statue, part of the "Statues of Egyptians from Temples and Tombs," is shockingly complete and features no broken corners or missing limbs. It is a rare chance to view how Egyptian sculptors began to hone their skills, since it is roughly hewn from granite. About 26 inches tall, it lacks the smooth polish and subtlety in later statues. But the subject's calm demeanor and stalwart pose seem to suggest permanence. It is reason alone to visit the exhibition—it's amazing to see something that old in our own part of the world.

The treasures are arranged in cases, grouped together by NCMA curators, and accented with a dusky blue background. The main point of viewing so many bits and pieces of Egyptian life is to come to a greater understanding of what the Egyptians valued—and by extension, who they were. "All of these objects—they're very important because they give that human touch," says Caroline Rocheleau, co-coordinator of the exhibit. "It brings this human side to this incredible art."

Temples and Tombs: Treasures of Egyptian Art from The British Museum runs through July 8 at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Tickets are $10; $8 for students, seniors and groups of 10 or more. See www.ncartmuseum.org.

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