Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.06.33

Dieter Arnold, The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture. Translated by Sabine Gardiner and Helen Strudwick, edited by Nigel and Helen Strudwick.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2003.  Pp. 274.  ISBN 0-691-11488-9.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner, University of Toronto (
Word count: 1137 words

This volume represents the English version of the Lexikon der ägyptischen Baukunst, which Arnold originally published in 1994. Rather than being a simple translation of the German original, however, this version of the text incorporates Arnold's revisions and a number of additional entries, as well as numerous diagrams, plans and photographs that greatly increase the utility of the volume. In addition, the editors (Nigel and Helen Strudwick) have introduced some stylistic changes to the text, expanding the entries somewhat from their original concise format in the interest of rendering them more "appropriate for the general English reader" (Editors' Note). The editors also mention that the bibliographic references have been supplemented with reliable but widely available works in English. It is clear that this version of the Encyclopedia reflects a deliberate effort to make the volume more accessible to a popular audience in the English-speaking world. Nevertheless, it remains an extremely valuable contribution to the study of ancient Egyptian architecture and building techniques, based upon a solid foundation of scholarship and field experience.

The entries in the Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture are organized alphabetically, and in addition to the names of individual rulers, monuments, and sites include also architectural motifs and elements such as "Cavetto cornices and torus mouldings," "Column proportions" and "Pilasters"; construction techniques such as "Masonry" and "Woven timber construction/Reed buildings"; materials like "Gypsum," "Sandstone" and "Timber"; architectural types such as "Addorsed chapel," "Cenotaph," "Embalming hall/purification booth," and "Sun temple"; in addition to more abstract concepts such as "Monumentality," and "Planning." Some Egyptian terms for individual monuments as well as specific types of structures are also incorporated into the study; the latter are few in number, but include Ka-house (hut-ka) Per-weru and Shena wab. The Encyclopedia does not set out to provide a comprehensive lexicological compendium of ancient Egyptian construction terms but instead focuses on the analysis of architectural remains based upon modern perspectives. It is remarkable for its inclusion of buildings that served a wide variety of functions within ancient Egyptian culture; alongside the monumental temples and tombs of the kings and the elaborate tombs of the elite, Arnold describes such domestic and industrial entities as "Town" and "Grain store/silo."

This methodology results in a very useful resource, which summarizes the salient features of major sites and structures and provides accessible definitions of architectural terminology as well as some discussion of the context and construction features of various architectural elements in the ancient Egyptian repertoire. The major strength of such a study is its coherence as a work composed by a single author. This structural integrity is reflected also in the very efficient cross-referencing system employed in the Encyclopedia, which eclipses the need for any but the briefest of glossaries. Throughout the reference work, Arnold's expertise in the subject is readily apparent. It is in fact in those areas most closely related to the author's interest that the Encyclopedia truly shines. The strongest entries are those dealing with construction techniques, including mudbrick building methods but particularly those relating to stone masonry. Thus the entries for Cramps, Core masonry, Door, Foundations, Lever, Mastaba, Niching, Pyramid (construction, temple), Pyramidion, Rock temple, Rock tomb, Sliding blocks, Stone quarry, and Transport exhibit both detailed and authoritative descriptions and wonderful illustrations as well as substantial bibliographies. There is a wealth of information on such subjects contained in the Encyclopedia, presented in a very readable format. The bibliographic references included in the volume extend its scope of usefulness from the general public to the specialist audience. The references provided for each entry are excellent, and lead the reader to the major primary sources as well as citing secondary interpretations and analyses.

The main weakness of the work is that it is somewhat uneven in its coverage of the subject. In reviewing the volume, one is struck both by the excellence of the vast majority of the individual entries, particularly those dealing with construction techniques and royal pyramid complexes, and by the short shrift given to other topics chosen for inclusion. One example of this is the discussion of the mastabas from the major cemeteries associated with the Great Pyramid at Giza. Although these structures are architecturally significant as monumental stone constructions of the early Fourth Dynasty and allow for important insights into the social and political organization of Egypt during this period, the Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture provides very brief descriptions of only two of the mastabas, with neither plans of the structures or the cemetery, nor references to the substantial body of research relating to them that has developed since their initial excavation by Reisner.1 These structures are not particularly accessible or well-preserved, and hence they are perhaps of less interest to visitors than the slightly later mastabas of Kagemni and Mereruka at Saqqara, to which Arnold devotes substantially more attention.

The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture also limits its focus to architectural elements, and there is no attention devoted to the surface treatment of walls incorporated into the various types of buildings it describes other than references to some of the materials employed for such purposes (for instance "Gypsum/gesso," "Plaster" and "Metal overlay"). Thus the wealth of information associated with the decoration of the monuments described therein, the techniques of painting and relief carving that along with the architectural form of the monuments served to fulfill their functions within mortuary or cultic contexts, is not included in the work. However, Arnold does utilize line drawings of relief scenes from royal and elite structures to illustrate many of his entries relating to tools and construction methods. Similarly, the Encyclopedia includes only brief mentions of the statuary that formed an integral element of many types of structures in Egypt, ranging from monumental stone buildings to private houses. Arnold has addressed this issue elsewhere,2 and it is clear that the exclusion of such information from the Encyclopedia is the result of a deliberate decision to limit the scope of the work rather than a failure to acknowledge the relationship between statuary and architecture within the ancient Egyptian context.

Aside from these limitations on the scope of the subjects which it covers, the Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture is a remarkable resource in its informative descriptions and clear, detailed plans and illustrations, its reliable references to primary sources, and its range. The volume provides an overview of the major Egyptian monuments and sites, together with descriptions of types of structures often omitted from studies of the architecture of Egypt: the houses and towns, the industrial areas and storage facilities that were central to the lives of the populace. The Encyclopedia is also outstanding for its presentation of evidence relating to construction techniques. In sum, the volume represents a significant contribution to research on ancient Egyptian architecture and forms an extremely valuable reference source for Egyptologists as well as non-specialists in the field.


1.   See, for recent examples, Peter Jánosi, "The Tombs of Officials: Houses of Eternity," in Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999): 27-39; Peter der Manuelian, "Excavating the Old Kingdom: The Giza Necropolis and other Mastaba Fields," in Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999): 139-153; and Ann Macy Roth, "Social Change in the Fourth Dynasty: The Spatial Organization of Pyramids, Tombs and Cemeteries," Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 30(1993): 33-55; as well as the Giza Mastabas series (Museum of Fine Arts, 1978-1995).
2.   Dieter Arnold, "Old Kingdom Statues in their Architectural Setting," in Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999): 41-49.

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