Lynn M. Meskell

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


Material Biographies: Object Worlds from Ancient Egypt and Beyond

A sculptor in New Kingdom Egypt (1539-1070 BC) barters for a block of wood, takes it home, and begins to craft a shape. From the rough wood emerges the form of a figure; from the figure, a statue resembling a deity. At some point in this process, the statue is animated by the actual spirit of the deity depicted, it is bartered again, and the new owner begins to worship and petition the deity. Lynn Meskell is investigating how "things" in ancient Egypt such as statues, votives, memorials, and images drawn on potsherds transcended the category of object and were treated as if they had spiritual agency. Her new book, "Material Biographies: Object Worlds from Ancient Egypt and Beyond," explores how the material world was experienced by the Egyptians, and particularly how the material became personified, moving from thing to being.

"How are things not objects?" Meskell asks. "They're objects when you make them, and are not necessarily embued with the divine when you craft it, but all of the sudden through a series of ritual practices, it is not a representation of the god, it is the god. I'm interested in that shifting terrain, the moments of processing and transforming that turn objects into subjects."

Meskell contends that Cartesian dualistic models such as mind:body, and reason:emotion are inadequate to describe the "multiplicity encompassed by the whole" perspective of the New Kingdom Egyptians. "I argue that we have to re-think our taxonomies for antiquity since things, persons, deities, and spirits were permeable classifications that could have temporally specific meanings and existences," Meskell says.

Her book is an interdisciplinary work that draws from a varied scholarship on materiality including Marx, Hegel, Mauss, and Baudrillard. Each chapter will sketch sets of things that transcend the category of object, such as the "false doors" in homes that provided "a portal between the world of the living and the dead," and statues that were bathed, fed, and worshipped as deities. Finally, Meskell applies her analysis to contemporary relationships to Egypt's past, noting the modern fetishization of Egyptian culture. "Why do we find Egyptian things so seductive," she asks, "and why is their particular aesthetic seemingly timeless?"

Affiliation at time of award:
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University

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