The significance of plants in Ancient Egypt is evident, not only agriculturally (for food and a source of material such as papyrus), but also through the power and symbolism of plants replicated in religious and everyday life, even in national identity. The lotus was attributed as the heraldic plant of Upper Egypt and the papyrus reed as the heraldic plant of Lower Egypt. When placed together, they represented the unification of the country, a powerful symbol.
The production of plants was complex, despite the fertile soil in Egypt. The river Nile flooded annually over the summer months; the entire years’ harvest had to take place before June. Produce then had to be stored; grain was kept in a granary, used to produce food and also given as workers’ pay. Produce was also stored in clay vessels.
Certain plants in particular were associated with the gods, and were prestigious in their symbolism and use. Papyrus, Cyperus papyrus, was a symbol of youth and joy and used to make paper, rope, baskets and clothing. It was named after pa-en-per-aa, meaning ‘belonging to the pharaoh’, a high status. Papyrus is extensively represented across objects, art and architecture. It appears frequently in a stylized form either as a single stem with bud or flower or in a series imitating the dense reed beds. The fields of reeds in the marshes along the Nile were habitats for many birds and animals, which are often depicted in artwork in river and hunting scenes. Draining of swamps and over-cultivation mean this plant is no longer grown in the wild along the Nile.
The earliest form of paper, papyrus was invented in Ancient Egypt using the Cyperus papyrusa plant, as early as 3000 BCE. A reed-grass with triangular stems that were peeled and cut into strips, layered and set, the production of paper was a skilled and expensive process and therefore papyrus was used primarily for important documents.
The lotus is also emblematic, steeped in symbolism that was abundant in its representation. It appears in two forms, the blue lotus, Nymphaea caerulea, and white lotus, Nymphaea lotus. Most commonly depicted was the blue lotus, an important symbol of regeneration linked to the cycle of the sun and the endurance of life, as the flower closes at night and opens again each morning. It also blooms all year round. The white lotus blooms at night linking it to the lunar cycle.
Lotiform chalices (cups shaped and decorated as the lotus flower) were first made in the Eighteenth Dynasty, often in faience. The blue-green of faience was associated with life and regeneration, which matched perfectly with the symbolism of the lotus plant. The blue lotus was a symbol of regeneration and the daily renewal of creation as it was connected to the solar cycle, blooming each morning and remaining open throughout the day. The Ancient Egyptians found powerful religious meaning in the behaviours and activities of plants and animals in nature.
The other lotiform was the white lotus, although these were less common. These would also have had a function as votive offerings, used as drinking vessels containing wine or milk in worship of the cow-headed goddess Hathor. There is also evidence of white lotiform chalices in royal and domestic contexts. Whether as a votive chalice, a stately vessel or domestic cup, the white lotus would evoke rejuvenation and rebirth, associated with the flower’s lunar bloom cycle.
Basketry is an ancient form of manufacture that was found in objects and decoration in domestic, religious and funerary contexts. Baskets were used to contain an assortment of things from grain and food to cosmetics and jewellery. When in a tomb context, these items would be offerings to sustain the deceased in the afterlife. The good quality of this basket indicates it was preserved in a tomb.
A recurring theme in Ancient Egyptian material culture is to mimic basketry in different materials. The coiled basketry work here is displayed alongside a faience basket and lid that mimic the technique of the woven plant fibres. We can also see how the basketry motif has been replicated in other materials with the use of blue faience tiles copying reed matting.
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It is thought that the few known examples of faience basket all came from one workshop at Tuna-el-Gebel, renowned for quality faience. Major Myers was frequently in Egypt in the mid-1890s when a large amount of Egyptian faience was re-discovered at Tuna el-Gebel. He purchased several faience objects which had come from ‘Tuneh’ (as Myers wrote in his diary) through dealers such as Carl Reinhardt.