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Abstracting Ancient Egypt

By Ariana Gunderson
  • RISDM 2000-82 v_01

Figure of a woman, ca. 3700-3450 BCE
Height: 17 cm (6 11/16 inches)
Museum Purchase: Helen M. Danforth Acquisition Fund and gift of friends and colleagues in honor of Florence Dunn Friedman 2000.82

This figure of a woman is from predynastic Egypt, before pharaohs ruled the land of the Nile. Egyptians did not yet have writing, so we rely on the material record left behind to better understand this period of ancient Egyptian history and culture.

In an abstract representation, the most distinctive and recognizable features are highlighted. The canon of later ancient Egyptian art follows this pattern, with craftsmen choosing not to represent a body realistically but as a composite of the most recognizable views of each part. This created the “Walk Like an Egyptian” pose, with the face and legs in profile and the torso facing out.

As with all abstraction, through the omission of certain features, the elements that are present rise in importance. By studying the choices made by this piece’s maker, we can better understand Egyptian concepts of the human body, and by comparing these choices with those we would make, also scrutinize our own culture.

RISDM 2000-82 v_05

The only facial feature present on this object is the nose, indicating that the maker must have considered it the most important marker of a human face. As the source of breath, the nose was considered by later Egyptians to be central to human life and rebirth. Perhaps this predynastic craftsman believed likewise. If you were to choose only one facial feature to indicate humanity, which would you pick? The eyes, which allow us to observe the world around us? The mouth, which allows us to communicate with fellow humans?

The figure’s breasts and wide hips mark her as a woman, unmistakably. Forgoing androgyny, the maker purposefully identified this figure as female through secondary sexual characteristics. The sex of this object was pertinent to its purpose; maybe sex was a foundational division in predynastic social hierarchy and role distribution. If you were to make a sculpture, would you feel compelled to indicate a particular sex? If so, how would you make that clear? Personal adornment, body shape, and behaviors are tied to each sex in our culture. Which would you use to clearly identify the sculpture’s gender?

We also note the belly button. The human navel is evidence of our time spent in the womb. On a figure that lacks even arms, the maker intentionally indicated the belly button. Later Egyptians associated the navel with birth and rebirth; this could possibly indicate an idea of rebirth held by the predynastic Egyptians.

RISDM 22-134 v_01

Shabti of Lady Hunero, 1550-1302 BCE
Limestone and paint
Height: 15.2 cm (6 inches)
Anonymous gift 22.134

Found in graves, figures of this type are strikingly similar to the later shabti figures that wealthy Egyptians buried in their tombs to perform labor in their stead in the afterlife. Though it may be tempting to assume that this object was also created to serve its owner in the afterlife, we must reserve judgment with so little evidence. Any civilization that exists for more than 3000 years must change significantly during the course of its history. This piece is from the very earliest of Egyptian artistic material that we have, before Egyptian artistic norms were established. We might consider earlier pieces with later Egypt in mind, but to directly link the two would be wishful and unrealistic. The owner of this figurine might have intended her to serve as an afterlife servant, but we cannot confirm or deny this, and should consider other possibilities. Perhaps this figurine was a votive offering to a god, or intended to represent a person from the tomb owner’s life. What other possibilities could you imagine?

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In the end, this figure leaves us with more questions than answers. Why was her hair so painstakingly emphasized? Why does she not have arms? What was held in the basket that likely perched on her head? These questions do not have definitive answers, but by turning them back onto us, we are given a new access point into understanding our own culture.

Ariana Gunderson
Brown University, BA 2014, Egyptology