By Lubomira Gadjourov, on 27 June 2012
These are some of the questions that were brought up in the light-hearted discussion between Debbie Challis (UCL Petrie Museum) and Chris Naunton (Egypt Exploration Society) at the Petrie Museum on Tuesday 19 June. The talk accompanies the exhibition in the UCL Cloisters, entitled Fit Bodies: Statues, Athletes and Power.
Arguing his case first, for the ancient Egyptians, Chris Naunton brought up the very valid point, that even today the meanings of the word “fit” are numerous. One suggested meaning is, “To be the proper size and shape” – what is meant by “proper”, however, is fairly ambiguous.
Among the proposed definitions are: “To be suitable for a certain purpose”, as well as “To be physically sound, athletic, sporting” and lastly, the more colloquial, “To be sexually attractive”.
We learned that the human body as it is portrayed in ancient Egyptian art and sculptures differs with regard to the person being illustrated.
For example, influential and politically important characters, or gods were often depicted as being accurately proportioned but on a much larger scale than other humans. Their sheer size would have been a testament to their power and importance.
Even the child-pharaoh, Tutankhamun is often depicted as being very muscular and of large stature, though in actual fact it is known that he was much smaller than this. The large, sculpted body symbolised great political power – a shared feature with ancient Greek sculpture.
Scribes, unlike politicians, are often shown to be overweight. Their bodies are “fit” in the sense that they are appropriate for their role.
The over-hanging belly and what I personally refer to as “moobs” (man-boobs for those of you who haven’t come across this term before), instead of being a sign of an unhealthy lifestyle, show that these people were wealthy and could afford to be gluttonous.
Next, Debbie Challis argued her points as to why she believes the ancient Greek body is the fitter of the two.
What I found most interesting about this, is the fact that often it is the elite of Greece that are represented in sculpture, as opposed to kings and political figures as in ancient Egypt. They represent the power of the Citizen man; those who conduct their business in a leisurely manner and have time to sculpt their bodies at the gymnasium, taking every pride in their appearance.
These men are often nude and adopting striking poses, and where there is drapery around the body, it is placed in such a manner that it emphasises the musculature. The figures are always perfectly symmetrical and extremely detailed.
The discussion ended with a vote of hands from the audience to determine whether they considered the ancient Egyptian or ancient Greeks to have had the “fitter” body. The ancient Greeks clinched it, but only just.
It is hard to say which is of the two is indeed more “fit”, but what is certain is that both ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek sculpture are incredibly beautiful and the attention to detail in both is phenomenal.