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The Unfinished: The Meaning of the Obelisk

Unfinished obelisk | Photo: Wikipedia Commons
Unfinished obelisk | Photo: Wikipedia Commons

"The Unfinished" is an obelisk-shaped excavation located along the banks of the channelized L.A. River. The horizontal excavation, dug into and through the asphalt of an empty post-industrial lot, will be a 137-foot to-scale replica of the Ancient Egyptian archaeological site known as "The Unfinished Obelisk."

In a quarry near Aswan, the so-called unfinished obelisk lies on its side, in the same state it was in when a massive crack appeared and forced workers to abandon the project 2,500 years ago. Had the granite been sound, this obelisk would have been a glorious monument to royal and divine power. Obelisks embody the history and fascination of ancient Egypt. Some have appropriated the obelisk as a symbol of Egyptian mysticism and secret knowledge, but for artist Michael Parker, the unfinished obelisk raises questions about hierarchy, failed power structures, and the relationship between the power of a single person who commands over many. Parker's work "The Unfinished," a newly excavated replica of the unfinished obelisk along the L.A. River, pushes the viewer to ask these same questions about historical and contemporary Los Angeles.

To begin to understand what the obelisk meant to the Egyptians themselves, we must go back to the moment when ancient Egyptians believe time began. Before this first moment, there was nothing, no time, no space, only complete darkness and the limitless primeval waters. The world was created when Atum, the creator god, brought himself into being, and a mound of earth, called the benben, emerged from the waters. Earth was differentiated from water, light from darkness, space from nothingness. On the primeval mound, Atum, who is associated with the sun god Ra, began to multiply, bringing into being two children, who in turn had their own children and grandchildren until there were nine original gods, and the world as the Ancient Egyptians knew it began.


The image of the benben, a mound of earth emerging from the waters, and the solar deity rising upon it, maintained a prominent place in the Egyptian consciousness for thousands of years. The pyramids of the Old Kingdom are monumental versions of the primeval mound. On a smaller scale, the benben and the sun rising over it are also represented by the obelisk. Early obelisks were short and squat and sat on top of mound-like structures to form the sun temples of later Old Kingdom kings. By the Middle Kingdom, around 1900 BC, kings had begun to erect obelisks in pairs at the entrances of temples. Inscriptions from a pair of obelisks erected much later, by Ramses II, reinforce the solar association of the monuments, naming the eastern obelisk after the rising sun and the western one after the setting sun.

The New Kingdom, approximately 1550-1050 BC, is the period that saw the most obelisks erected. Instead of building pyramids, pharaohs focused their building efforts on the major temples, especially the Temple of Karnak in Thebes (modern Luxor). Thutmose I erected a pair of obelisks here, both to glorify the solar god Amun-Re and to make a monument to his own power as pharaoh. His successors, most notably Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, followed suit.

Karnak Tempel Obelisk | Photo: Wikipedia Commons
Karnak Tempel Obelisk | Photo: Wikipedia Commons

One of Hatshepsut's obelisks still stands today at the Temple of Karnak. Its inscriptions tell how her obelisks, erected for the special occasion of her first jubilee, were constructed of single pieces of granite and plated in the finest electrum (an alloy of gold and silver) in order to glorify both her divine father Amun and her human father Thutmose I. She also boasts that these massive obelisks were quarried, decorated, transported, erected, and gilded in a mere seven months, and she waxes poetic about her kingliness and how much the gods love and support her. It is easy to imagine how dazzling these gilded obelisks must have looked in the sun. The inscriptions describe such a scene: "Seen on both sides of the river, their rays flood the Two Lands when the sun disk draws between them, as he rises in heaven's lightland." Even passersby who could not read the inscriptions extolling Hatshepsut's kingliness would have recognized these shining obelisks as symbols of her divinely given absolute power.

Annals of Thutmoses III | Photo: Wikipedia Commons
Annals of Thutmoses III | Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Not all obelisks were as successful as Hatshepsut claims hers were. The unfinished obelisk, still attached to the bedrock in the quarry in Aswan, is a spectacular example of a royal project gone awry. Scholars have speculated that the obelisk was commissioned by Hatshepsut or her successor Thutmose III, although it cannot be dated with any certainty because the granite cracked before it could be inscribed with the name of the king who commissioned it, and that king never wrote about the failed project anywhere else. The unfinished obelisk must have been a huge disappointment to both the pharaoh and the workmen, especially the person who was supposed to have caught such a flaw in the granite before construction began. This person may have faced serious consequences, although of course there is no record of it. It seems unlikely that, upon hearing of the project's failure, the king commanded, "Off with his head!" (The Egyptians do not seem to have executed people very often for anything but treason.) But it is a distinct possibility that he (or she) commanded, "Off with his ears and nose!"

The field of Egyptology has often focused more on the pharaohs than on the "common people." This is because the sexiest, most glamorous evidence--sumptuously decorated tombs, gold and jewels, beautifully preserved mummies, long inscriptions and literature--provides us primarily with access to the king and the elite, the very top of Egypt's intensely hierarchical society. The unfinished obelisk, on the other hand, is a monument whose meaning fundamentally changed the very moment the granite cracked. Instead of reminding us of the pharaoh's absolute power, this permanently horizontal obelisk makes us think about the workmen who came so close to accomplishing the king's unprecedented order and whose failure has been on full display for 2500 years. Rather than analyzing royal inscriptions or placement within the state temple, Egyptologists examine the clues this obelisk gives to the processes the workmen used to construct it. We think about what happened to the workmen in charge and who was blamed for the project's failure. Most uniquely, this unfinished monument inspires us to feel a human connection to the workmen and wonder, as Michael Parker has asked, what must have run through their heads in the moment they discovered the crack that rendered their months of labor fruitless.

Join the excavation of "The Unfinished" this weekend:

Saturday March 15th 4:00pm - sunset
2800 Casitas Ave. (Apprx.)
Los Angeles, CA 90039
More info on can be found on the event's Facebook page.

Read more about "The Unfinished:"

The Unfinished: An Obelisk Along the L.A. River
The Unfinished, an urban site-specific sculpture along the L.A. River by Michael Parker, questions how a public action in the form of a temporary monument functions in 2014.

The Unfinished: The Recumbant Site
"The Unfinished" will remake an Egyptian archaeological site, with tools, materials and labor available along the Los Angeles River.

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