Book Review: Red Land, Black land – Daily Life in Ancient Egypt by Barbara Mertz

If one walks through the Egyptian collection at Met, he or she can easily get lost. There are too many terms from timeline (three major periods with three intermediate periods) to gods (names, relations, shapes, symbolism) to texts. There seems to be endless items to go through in one afternoon. On the other hand, he or she can also get confused. The block statues, to laymen’s eyes, look almost the same for 4000 years spans. The paintings, in a similar way, vary little in techniques or subjects. Who are these Egyptians behind all these civilization remains? Are they technically superior but religiously stupid? All these questions remain unanswered from those museum visit unless there is a comprehensive guide about the Egyptians themselves.

Barbara Mertz’s book “Red Land, Black Land – Daily Life in Ancient Egypt”, if not authoritative with certain existing collection (luckily it is not), brings readers vivid and complete pictures of the people that create all these wonders. It is riveting and humorous sometimes. But most importantly, it is not a book written in a rigid scholarly way that most readers fail to pass page 10 or would not bother until a certain interesting object is related to some sections. In fact, I have found it so charming that it is hard to put it down without completing reading it.

That reflects what most of the Egyptian collections books fail to please a general public. Narration of objects without elaborating the creators behind is seldom intriguing. In modern and contemporary fields, artists shine in front of their artworks. Even back to Renaissance period, those big names are well studied and understood. But in ancient Egypt, artists, architects or scribes were commoners who left no personal trace. Thus it is easy to forget to recognize them as a whole. But Barbara brings us a clear picture of a society in hierarchical steps: pharaohs, priests, officials, soldiers, artists, peasants and even prisoners. The objects created by or for these individuals thus can be explained within a richer social context.

Some passages are well written and may deal with the fundamental human feelings, needs and pleasure. Female readers may find the beginning part about the songs for the dead children or childbirth is touching. Male readers may envy the fact that beer was abundant in ancient Egypt even for the kids and they may even try to google “King Tut’s” beer that is supposedly produced by ancient technique and ingredients. (Did I say fundamental needs there?)

While the book starts from descriptions of daily life of an ordinary family, it ends in climax chapters about gods, mummies and death topics that are more related to the kings and nobles. These chapters are great introduction for further study of any particular period or object because Barbara not only tells us how the styles changed, but also clear pictures of how certain objects are made (what material, what procedure, how long, etc). The making of mummies will definitely interest a reader, but then the same reader may be disappointed by what a real “book of the dead” is. (The twisted definitions in Hollywood movies may cause Barbara to write another book!) Overall, the reading will demystify Egyptian arts and make readers clearly understand what they see in the museums are solely created by needs, desires or responsibilities.

No Egyptologist would not be stubborn about what they believe, but Barbara, who has seen controversies over most of the subjects, at least brings the readers aware of what she believes and what other interpretative possibilities. But the strength of the book can also be a little overdone when several contradictory options are presented in great length. At certain areas such as the fights between Re and Orisis, readers are left with no clear pictures of what the scenarios should be.

Do I want to experience the ancient Egyptian life? I asked myself in the end. Probably not, even if I were an Egyptologist. It is much more enjoyable to experience their life from Barbara’s book than reality.

About Lin Wang

Lin Wang is the co-editor for Urban Art and Antiques. He believes words fail in both visual arts and music. Thus whatever he writes is just babbles, impulsive but irrelevant.

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