A Picture of Ancient Egypt

  • Posted on Aug 28, 2011 by

I was recently offered the opportunity to explore the collection of the Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives and write about it. Delighted, I approached the collection and said, “Where do I start?” This was a surprisingly difficult question; there was just so much to see! Overwhelmed, I sat down and thought about what the library was all about. I’ve learned that the main purpose of a museum’s library is to support its collection. So I was not surprised to discover that The Wilbour Library of Egyptology (a section of the Brooklyn Museum’s Libraries and Archives) is one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world, as the Museum’s Egyptology collection is one of the largest and finest in the world. The Museum has been acquiring Egyptian art since the turn of the twentieth century and acquired a large collection assembled by Charles Edwin Wilbour, whose personal library also formed the core of The Wilbour Library. After learning this, I decided that The Wilbour Library was the place to begin. However, with close to 50,000 volumes, this did not make the task any less daunting.

Finally, I decided to look at a small portion of the collection, specifically the newly accessioned items. So I looked over the list of new books and found myself surprised. Even knowing that the one of the Library’s main purposes is to serve as a resource for the museum curators, I was still expecting a collection of works on Egyptian Art. Instead, I found a list that, in addition to the expected art historical and archaeological texts, contained historical and literary works ranging from philisophical debate to medicine and footwear. Once I considered the matter, I realized that this made a great deal of sense. Art needs to be placed in a context, and for Egyptian art, that context is the history and culture of Egypt. Here are a few of my favorite discoveries in this small portion of the collection.

One book, The Debate between a Man and his Soul, is a translation and analysis of a literary work that presents a philosophical debate between a man and his ba (soul) on the question of whether the man should live or die. The man seems frustrated by the argument, making such statements as “This is too much for me today: my soul not agreeing with me” and “my soul is too foolish to suppress life’s pain, prodding me to death before my time” while the soul cajoles the man towards peace, saying, “I’ll alight once you pass. Thus we’ll make harbor together”. The translation is fascinating and reveals that some questions, such as that of life and death, are eternal. The image shown is not of this text, but gives you an idea of what the translator was working with.

Historical Papyrus in Five Pieces
Historical Papyrus in Five Pieces, ca. 1809-1743 B.C.E. Papyrus, ink, Other (A): 10 3/8 x 11 13/16 in. (26.3 x 30 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Theodora Wilbour, 35.1446a-e. Creative Commons-BY-NC. This item is on view in Egypt Reborn: Art for Eternity, Old Kingdom to18th Dynasty.


As evidence that some elements of culture are also constants, there is also a monograph discussing the importance of footwear in Ancient Egypt. The book specifically focuses on the sandals found in the tomb of Tutankhamun and what their presence signifies. The author, André Veldmeijer, examined the sandals in great detail, studying their materials and composition. He also investigated a variety of questions, such as the economic availability of sandals and whether there is any difference in rank associated with styles of footwear. He even notes that one particular pair differs from the rest as they are intended for a child, while the others sized to Tutankhamun’s feet during his reign. Veldmeijer suggests that these were a particular favorite of the pharoah’s from his youth. As the owner of approximately 90 pair of shoes, I understood the sentiment. When I look at a person, I often look at their shoes first, but when I look at a piece of art, I don’t immediately look at the subject’s feet. I think I may start looking at art in a whole new way.

Relief of Sandaled Feet of a Royal Woman
Relief of Sandaled Feet of a Royal Woman, 1352-1332 B.C. Limestone, 8 7/8 x 21 3/4 in. (22.6 x 55.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 60.197.7. Creative Commons-BY-NC. This item is on view in Egypt Reborn: Art for Eternity, Old Kingdom to18th Dynasty.


Another interesting Brooklyn Museum Library holding is a collection of papers presented at a conference on Pharmacy and Medicine in Ancient Egypt. My favorite of these papers, “Ancient Egyptian Headaches: Icthyo- or Electrotherapy?", discusses the use of electric catfish from the Nile River as a cure for migraines and gout. The article discussed previous scholarly work and historical evidence on the subject, putting forward the theory that the fish were not ground up into medicine as previously suggested but were applied while living to the patient and cure his migraine or gout. He uses a variety of historical sources to present both sides of the argument. He notes that there are five varieties of catfish in the Nile and suggests that the species likely used in this cure emit between 200 and 450 volts, enough to stun or force a muscle spasm to ensure their own safety. This electric current would numb the pain.

Peculiar though this remedy may seem, I hope that it doesn’t give you the wrong impression of Ancient Egyptian medicine. They were actually quite advanced, as "The Application of Archaeobotany, Phytogeography and Pharmacognosy to Confirm the Pharmacopoeia of Ancient Egypt 1850-1200 BC" notes, stating that as many as fifty percent of the medicines (or some processed derivation thereof) listed in Papyri are in use today while only three percent are toxic. Another paper in this collection entitled "Do the Formulations of Ancient Egyptian Prescriptions Stand up to Pharmaceutical Scrutiny?” shows that seventy percent of the medicines listed in a collection of papyri were compliant with the British Pharmaceutical Codex of 1973. They do acknowledge that this figure may have changed in the past thirty-five years.

The beauty of a collection like this is that you can draw a real picture of what life looked like four thousand years ago. Not all historical texts are written in an easily readable style, some are dry and academic, but a little imagination can paint a picture. It is these historical pictures that have drawn me to libraries throughout my life, and I am so pleased that the Brooklyn Museum did not disappoint. I can’t wait to delve further!

Katy Christensen, Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives - Guest Blogger

Katy Christensen is a lifelong Brooklynite with masters in Library and Information Science from The Pratt Institute. She is currently employed as a tutor for The Brooklyn Learning Center and has been volunteering as a guest blogger for The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives since July 2011.

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