The Sun rises in the East each morning and sets in the West each afternoon. I will die some day. Everyone will die at some point. The sun and death are common denominators. I drive towards the sun on the 215-North from Riverside, as if it is a beacon, not just a life giving star, but a magical amulet hanging in the sky or a god passing overhead. It is precisely these sentiments that motivate my journey to California State University San Bernardino's Robert and Frances Fullerton Museum of Art.
Remnants of ancient Egyptian's resurrection machines are on display there: amulets, statues of gods and goddesses, fragments of mummies, earthenware, all inscribed with hieroglyphics that helped deceased pharaohs and the wealthy navigate the underworld, ruled by Osiris.
The all-important sun-god, Ra, who ruled during the day, disappeared into this underworld at night, and in effect was resurrected each morning. Preparations to survive this underworld permeated ancient Egyptian life. Otherwise, the worse case scenario for both deities and humans is that the sun, or Ra, would not be reborn. Chaos would then set in and the fragile civilization along the banks of the Nile in Northern Africa would collapse.
Since life was saturated with the dualities of day and night, death and life, all in a cycle of birth and rebirth, most any object or writing was religious in nature and was meant to maintain balance in the universe, bringing order to chaos. This is perhaps most evident in the geography of the region: rich, fertile soil along the banks of the Nile was where life thrived, but each side of the Nile was flanked by a harsh, vast, barren desert that kept enemies at bay, but also meant death for anyone who ventured too far into the region. The image that populates every aspect of ancient Egyptian material culture is of the pharaoh, the intermediary between the mortal and divine worlds, working with the gods and goddesses on behalf of Egypt to hold back chaos.
Their modern day collector, W. Benson Harer, a former resident of San Bernardino, donated many of his pieces to CSUSB and others are on loan from his private collection. His collection is said to be one of the best in California. The pieces range in age from 4,000 B.C.--before the first pyramids were built--to about 500 A.D., after the decline of Egyptian dynastic rule and the transition into the periods of Greco-Roman rule, with the last hieroglyphic inscription in 394 A.D., eventually falling under Islamic rule in 641 A.D. The death knell to the survivability of ancient Egyptian culture and its various deities was, after coming under the rule of Rome, when Christianity was eventually declared the official religion.
Perhaps it is the cultural and religious dualities of ancient Egypt that were attractive to Harer, a retired obstetrician and gynecologist, a position that focused on bringing new life in the world, while his collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts focused on the afterlife.
Intimacy with Funerary Objects
Although there are no intact, full-size mummies nor a plethora of golden artifacts, as in the two traveling exhibitions of King Tut's tomb contents, which came to Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1978 and most recently, again, in 2005, the collection's display at CSUSB provides an opportunity to be away from crowds and an intimate view of the parts in the resurrection-machine-stone-tombs that helped ancient Egyptians survive their journey in the afterlife.
Mummification became important because the body was the shelter to which the pharaoh's ba and ka spirits returned. But the body had to look as familiar as it did when alive in this world so that these spirits could find there way back, hence, preservation of the body through mummification, the numerous hieroglyphic inscriptions that announces the deceased's name, and the painting of their likenesses on coffin lids that covered the wrapped mummies.
Relative to mummification, highlights in the CSUSB collection include a set of four canopic jars from the Third Intermedia Period (1069-664 B.C.). They are made of limestone with black ink inscriptions in hieratic Egyptian, a writing style that developed alongside hieroglyphics but written with brush and ink rather than carved.
During mummification, five internal organs were removed from the body and embalmed. Only the heart, believed to be the center of intellect and emotions, was returned to the body. The other four organs were stored in canopic jars placed in the tomb near the body. According to a CSUSB wall label, the jars, used from the Old Kingdom through the Greco-Roman times, evolved from simple, undecorated containers to inscribed vases with lids carved in the shape of the heads of the four sons of Horus. Each of these minor deities guarded one of the organs and was represented by an animal important to ancient Egyptians: falcon for intestines, jackal for stomach, human for liver, and baboon for lungs.
Another nice piece is a Winged Scarab Pectoral, from some time between the 21st and 24th dynasties (1069-715 B.C.), and made from faience, or glazed earthenware. Pectorals of various types were often placed on a mummy's breast. This example shows a winged scarab beetle, a powerful symbol of Ra's, or the sun's daily rebirth. The scarab is modeled on the dung beetle, which rolls a dung ball, where it lays eggs that turn into larva and eat from the dung, thus, the cycle of death and life is embodied, and reinforced with the sphere of the dung suggesting the round, life-giving sun. Each section is pierced to allow it to be stitched to the exterior of the mummy wrappings.
Other items on view include a coffin lid, a mummified hand with blue faience rings poking through the wraps, and even items towards the end of ancient Egyptian culture that reveal aesthetic influences from when it came under the rule of Persia, Greece, and Rome at varying times. For example, the curly hairstyle of Grecians, often seen in their statues, is evident in several small busts at the end of the exhibition's chronological layout.
In Europe and America, Egyptomania took hold in the nineteenth century as a result of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign into Egypt and Syria (1798-1801). Later, Howard Carter, an English archaeologist and Egyptologist, and his discovery in 1922 of 14th-century BC pharaoh Tutankhamen's tomb fueled the imagination. The influence of these discoveries are evident in a short list of Western architecture: the pyramids at The Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, the glass pyramid that serves as an entrance to Paris' Louvre Museum, the Washington Monument's obelisk shape and, locally, Hollywood's Egyptian Theater.
The Egyptian Theater, which opened two weeks prior to Carter's announced discovery on November 2, 1922, was designed with exterior and interior walls that contain Egyptianesque painted figures and hieroglyphics. There are also four immense columns that flank the main entrance, rising twenty feet high. Sid Grauman, who also opened the Chinese Theater in 1927, further west on Hollywood Boulevard, built it. However, Grauman's Chinese Theater developed its own take on immortality -- celebrity handprints, footprints, and signatures impressed into sections of cement throughout the theater's forecourt -- that eventually overshadowed the Egyptian. After falling in disrepair through the decades, the City of Los Angeles sold it for a dollar to the American Cinematheque, with the caveat that the organization restores it to its former, architectural glory days. It reopened to the public on December 4, 1998 and has been showing an adventuresome film program since then.
In light of my travel to San Bernardino to view ancient Egyptian artifacts and considering The Egyptian Theater and cinema's intertwined history with philosophical thoughts about immortality -- whether via mummification or cinemafication -- I consider that the projected light onto the theater screen, enveloping me while I sit in a cool, tomb-like temperature, is a representation of the sun god, Ra, and his cycle of life and death each day and night.
Each time the same film is projected, the sun "rises" within the theater, and thus the chaos of the world is abated. Actors, possessing pharaoh-like status in our twenty-first century culture, are resurrected too so that they may live on and become gods and goddesses eventually.
Perhaps ancient Egyptians were the first filmmakers in the most rudimentary since of depicting a succession of pictures -- in the form of hieroglyphs -- that add up to a narrative. As I walk among the artifacts at CSUSB and survey the hieroglyphs on the stela or coffin lid, they are redolent of filmstrips and their successive celluloid frames, at least prior to their own death as they fade into the underworld, replaced by a new god, Digital Ra.
There is one location in Hollywood today that appears to bring together the living and the dead before the resurrection machine of cinema -- the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. In fact, it is located not too far from the Egyptian Theater on Sunset Boulevard.
Founded in 1899, the cemetery was an integral part of the growth of early Hollywood. Paramount Studios was built on the back half of the original Hollywood Cemetery, where the studio is still in operation today. The cemetery of choice for most of the founders of Hollywood's great studios, Hollywood Forever Cemetery is now listed on the National Register of Historic Sites. Its new owners have transformed it into a hip gathering spot over the past decade, most notably featuring rock concerts and a film series called Cinespia, showing past Hollywood classics such as Sunset Boulevard and Scarface. As for the buried Hollywood royalty, visitors come from all over the world to pay respects to Johnny Ramone, Jayne Mansfield, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and Cecil B. DeMille.
Towards the Setting Sun
I leave the campus of CSU San Bernardino, heading back towards Riverside, in the direction of the western coast where the sun is setting. Ra is disappearing into the underworld. I can only hope that he will rise tomorrow morning.
But, perhaps, I will keep heading towards the sun until I come to Pacific Coast Highway. I will then turn right to head north on PCH, until I arrive three hours later in the small, coastal town of Guadalupe, south of San Luis Obispo. It is there that archaeologists, film historians, and Egyptologists can converge with common interests.
Buried in the beach sand is an ancient Egyptian city from 1923, one year after Howard Carter's King Tut tomb discovery. Resting within the Nipomo sand dunes are the plaster remnants from Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 silent movie The Ten Commandments. Instead of removing the set after filming, as it would have been too expensive, the crew simply buried it some ninety years ago -- ancient history in cinema history.
The original set had an Avenue of the Sphinxes, with twenty, five-ton statues lining the sides. There were also four, forty-ton statues of the Pharaoh Ramses II, each three stories high. The city was protected by an 80-foot-wide, 120-foot-tall wall covered with hieroglyphics modeled on those found a year earlier in King Tut's Tomb. In 1983, a group of determined film buffs--inspired by a cryptic clue in DeMille's posthumously published autobiography--located the remains of the set.
Near the beach entrance, there is a small museum with some of the plaster artifacts. It is there mainly to prevent people from searching among the dunes for the foot of one of the tumbled three-story high pharaoh statues. In fact, the whereabouts of known artifacts is kept secret in order to protect these sacred objects.
When I visited the Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes Visitor Center a few years ago, I was able to handle some of the crumbling plaster remnants. They were silent like the silent film for which they were props. And like the Book of the Dead, inscribed in hieroglyphics on the tomb walls of pharaohs to help them navigate the underworld, these ninety-year old artifacts linked me to cinema, today's resurrection machines. What movie will I watch tomorrow so that the sun will rise again and so that I will then live another day? Perhaps it will be DeMille's version of Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land on the shores of the California coast. Ancient Egypt fell to the Romans and the Romans fell to Hollywood.