A Guide to ‘Ramses the Great’: 8 Takeaways From the De Young’s New Exhibit of Ancient Egyptian Artifacts

Thousands of years before the ’49ers descended upon San Francisco in the hopes of unearthing a fortune in the mountains of California, a living god half a world away was laid to rest in The Valley of the Kings with a cache of gold that all but the most fortunate prospecters could have only dreamed of.

“Ramses the Great and The Gold of the Pharaohs,” opening Aug. 20 at the de Young Museum, showcases this royal mother lode in one of the largest exhibitions of ancient Egyptian splendor to come to the West Coast since the de Young’s “King Tut” exhibits—which captivated local museum goers in 1979 and 2009.

The exhibit features 181 artifacts lent to the de Young by the Egyptian government. It includes priceless relics found at the tomb of the powerful Pharaoh Ramses II, along with animal mummies, intricate jewerly and recently uncovered burial objects from the ancient cities of Dashur and Tanis along the Nile River. Present day Egyptologists continue to excavate and unearth new treasures.

The collection has been billed as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to see the “greatest collection of Ramses II objects and Egyptian jewelry ever to travel to the United States”—and the hype is not without merit.

In recent decades, evolutions in international law and curatorial codes of ethics have made exhibitions like “Ramses the Great” increasingly difficult to coordinate. All of the objects currently on display at the de Young are on a short-term special loan from Egypt—approved by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Supreme Council of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt. They are not likely to leave their country of origin again for a long time after this world tour ends in 2025.

But “Ramses the Great” is more than a rare chance to see Egyptian treasures. It is also a cutting-edge display of applied technology. The highly choreographed experience features state-of-the-art lighting, sound and multimedia equipment—and includes a virtual reality tour of two of Egypt’s most impressive monuments (tickets to this cost extra).

With all there is to see and experience, you may feel overwhelmed by it all. To help you better appreciate “Ramses the Great and The Gold of the Pharaohs” here are eight essential takeaways—from easily recognizing a Pharaoh and quickly understanding Egyptian seating arrangements to avoiding the nausea some experience while strapped into a VR headset. Read on to prepare yourself to walk through the show like an Egyptian.

The King is King

With few exceptions, artistic depictions of the pharaohs remained the same for 3,000 years. But while the people of ancient Egypt were familiar with the uniform aesthetic, modern museum goers would do well to keep a few things in mind.

For starters, ancient Egyptian artists often put the king’s head on the body of a lion to form a sphinx. Also, the patriarchy was just as real then as it is today: All pharaohs, no matter their actual sex or gender, were depicted as male.

Finally, keep an eye out for some of these key pieces of royal regalia:

  • Triangular royal kilt, with an ornamental bull’s tail.
  • Emblematic crown with a sacred cobra, uraeus, at the forehead. The nemes, the most common headdress, has black and gold stripes framing the face and hanging to the shoulders.
  • False rectangular beard.
  • Hand held scepters, crook and flails or an ankh (symbol for life).

Size Matters

Size indicates relative importance. Pharaohs are often rendered larger than life to symbolize their authority and superhuman powers. In wall reliefs and paintings, workers and entertainers, flora and fauna, and architectural details are subsidiary and usually shown in smaller scale than the figures of the gods, kings, high officials or landowners.

Walk Like an Egyptian

Why did the ancient Egyptian paintings depict people in such stilted and stiff poses? The key is to think of these paintings as a composite established hieroglyphic forms, which were never intended to be naturalistic representations. The views of the body come from different perspectives: the eye and shoulders from the front; torso and hips from three-quarter view; head, feet, legs and arms in profile.

Take a Seat

Seated figures are almost certainly of a higher social status than anyone shown standing or working. Gods, goddesses, kings and scribes are often depicted as sitting. Scribes were part of an elite group of individuals who knew over 700 hieroglyphs. The elevation of these select writers attests to the importance of writing and literacy in Egypt. A scribe is usually seated with a papyrus scroll on his lap.

Stoned Poses

Egyptian sculptors seldomly completely freed the figure from the stone block. With few exceptions they did not carve out the space around the legs or between a figure’s body and arms due to the stone’s brittleness. Artists left that negative space filled in so the sculpture stayed intact.This technique provided not only with a desired longevity but also resulted in a very centered, calm, poised and motionless pose.

Colorful Patterns

Jewelry, sculpture, wall paintings and coffins are enriched with patterns and bright colors. Egyptians adored patterns—not only because they are pleasing to the eye, but because they could go on and on without end and thus served as a potent symbol for eternal life. Colors also had both aesthetic appeal and symbolic meaning for ancient Egyptians:

  • Yellow & Gold = Sun and Ra, the Sun God
  • Red & Orange = Desert, power, blood and vitality
  • Blue & Green = Water, the Nile River and vegetation
  • White = Lotus flower and purity
  • Black = Death and resurrection

As Good As Gold

Mined along the Nile River and the Eastern Desert of Egypt, gold was prized for its color and sheen. Since it does not rust, gold served as a metaphor for eternal life. The Egyptians’ love of gold has never been a secret, and royal Egyptian burial sites have been a target for grave robbers for millennia. As such, exhibits like “Ramses the Great” are particularly noteworthy; by the time modern museums started seeking out ancient Egyptian relics, much of the gold beneath the sand was long gone.

In recent years, Western museums have been forced to reckon with the role they have played in encouraging, enabling and profiting from ancient plunder. In an effort to right historical wrongs, the UNESCO 1970 Convention, a permanent intergovernmental committee, oversees the return and restitution of cultural property and takes measures to prohibit the import, export or transfer ownership of objects from the country of origin.

Don’t Skip The VR Tour

Tucked away in a side room on the ground floor of the de Young, the “Ramses & Nefertari: Journey to Osiris” virtual reality tour is available to visitors for an additional $18. Donning a VR headset and headphones, viewers are invited to sit in an articulating chair that twists, turns, rumbles and even occasionally releases the scent of frankincense. The experience is not recommended for small children and a disclaimer on the de Young’s website warns that it may induce anxiety and vertigo in some participants. However, the virtual tour does an impressive job of conveying the scale and grandeur of these ancient Egyptian sites without the price or stress of intercontinental travel. It is well worth the extra charge. Pro tip: closing your eyes while swooping through narrow hallways can help viewers avoid feeling nauseous.

Ramses the Great and The Gold of the Pharaohs

de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.
Aug. 20 Through Feb. 12, 2023 
| $23+ ($16-$18 additional for VR experience)