The current issue of Public Archaeology is a special issue, edited by Peter Ucko, on “Living Symbols of Ancient Egypt“. This is a field of research that has experienced a surge of interest recently, notably in the “Encounters with Ancient Egypt” series (also edited by Ucko), Lynn Meskell’s “Object Worlds in Ancient Egypt“, as well as Cornelius Holtorf’s “From Stonehenge to Las Vegas” and several others. The papers in the special issue, all co-authored by Ucko, present a number of case studies that deal with the question of how Egyptianizing elements are being used in the present in everything from villa architecture to billboard advertisements. Special emphasis is put on the changing meanings of Egyptian architecture and design, as they are being (re)interpreted again and again.
The contextual approach is the special issue’s primary strength. Those involved in commissioning and designing the ‘living symbols of ancient Egypt’ have in most of the case studies presented been interviewed, and their thoughts are presented in equal measure. What we see emerging is thus an ethnography of the living past that is able to offer a critical view of the current state of archaeological knowledge. And this is exactly what makes public archaeology interesting as a research field.
It is easy enough to come up with more case studies, and I don’t think that references to ‘post-modern eclecticism’ explain much. One building that I recently came across is the headquarters of the United Exhibits Group in Copenhagen. The building is inspired by the famed temple of Horus at Edfu, and was designed by Kim Utzon. There are more photos here.
Now, I don’t know enough about this building or its owner (although they have been getting a lot of bad press in Denmark) to present a refined interpretation, so it’s mainly presented here for illustrative purposes. From an aesthetical viewpoint, the building itself is perhaps less tacky because of the way it blends the Egyptianizing themes with contemporary Scandinavian architecture. I was also reminded of the Fry’s Electronics stores in the western US, also discussed in Christine Finn’s “Artifacts“. The ones I’ve visited in California and Arizona have been quite interesting. See also my earlier post on Roman baths in Denmark.