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Real versus ideal: a debate in ancient Egyptian three-dimensional visual culture

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posted on 2022-11-28, 03:31 authored by Shara Elizabeth Silk

One of the most prevalent debates in Egyptological studies is that of ‘real versus ideal’. Krauss (1991: 47) and Laboury (2010: 3), for example, state that visual culture from the Amarna Period (c. 1352-1336 B.C.) is the “most lifelike…Egyptian art”. Conversely, Assmann (1996: 68-71) argues that visual culture from the Amarna Period is an idealisation of the human form. Debate such as this has proliferated Egyptological studies associated with the Old Kingdom (c. 2686- 2160 B.C.) to the end of the Roman Period (c. 30 B.C.-A.D. 395). Complicated by a plethora of ill-defined terms and conflicting perspectives, this debate continues unresolved. 

Through a thematic historiographical approach, this research defines the key terms (portraiture, realism, naturalism, and idealism), discusses their influence, and synopsises seminal the arguments of the debate. The theoretical framework of New Materialism aids in further clarifying the debate, by emphasising the importance of both the material and immaterial forms of evidence. As dictated by the theoretical framework, this research investigates how the material of three-dimensional representation affected whether representation was realistic or idealised. This research also investigates how immaterial considerations, such the rules of representation, the purpose and the influences of visual culture affected whether representation was idealised or realistic. 

Finally, this research suggests new scientific approaches to contribute to the resolution of this debate, as is inspired by several academics. These scientific approaches include, facial recognition software, topographical and statistical analysis of three-dimensional representation as well as imaging and analysis of soft tissue. 


Table of Contents

1 Introduction -- 2 Clarification and definition of terms -- 3 The debate of idealism versus realism -- 4 The materials of New Materialism -- 5 Rules of ancient Egyptian visual culture -- 6 Purposes of ancient Egyptian visual culture -- 7 Influences of ancient Egyptian visual culture -- 8 Scientific methodologies -- 9 Conclusion -- Bibliography


Submitted in fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Research

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis MRes


Thesis (MRes), Macquarie University, Department of History and Archaeology, 2021

Department, Centre or School

Department of History and Archaeology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Ronika Power


Copyright: The Author Copyright disclaimer:




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