The importance of symbolic interpretation of artistic representations becomes strikingly apparent when we study the archaeological record dating to the reign of Akhenaten. Akhenaten held the throne for a period of 38 years during the Amarna period (Ethan Watrall class lecture 11/13/2012). During this period there are significant observable changes in Egyptian artistic representations. A particularly interesting subject is the drastic change in the artistic representation of the Pharaoh, who during this time was represented with dropping chin, wide hips and pendulous belly. These changes give the Pharaoh a more androgynous appearance than was previously reflected. Egyptologists and Egyptian archaeologists have debated whether the physical changes in the Pharaoh’s appearance represent a genetic disorder or rather have religious symbolism and suggest that the Pharaoh’s androgynous appearance is a physical manifestation of the belief that the Pharaoh is the mother and father of all of Egypt (Ethan Watrall class lecture 11/13/2012).
A second observable change in the archaeological record is the royal family being depicted in more affectionate and intimate settings than had ever been recorded previously. One fragmentary stela is even thought to depict king Akhenaten with queen Neferiti and their children seated on his lap (Bard, 2008, p.227). Scenes of such an intimate moment in time seem to displace the king from his godly position and attribute him mortal qualities that had previously been unrepresented in the Egyptian historic record. It has therefore been hypothesized that such representations may have held ideological significance (Bard, 20008, p.227).
Similarly, dating to the Amarna period, scenes depicting the army marching down the Royal Road of Akhetaten have also been uncovered (Bard, 2008, p. 228). Such artistic representation may be equated to modern political campaigns and Akhenaten may have been attempting to bolster support for the military during a time of economic strife (Bard, 2008, p.228).
The three examples presented in this post are a fascinating example of the importance of symbolic interpretation. I think they help demonstrate the fact that the Egyptians often depicted what they wanted for themselves or their future and not necessary the reality of life.