20120216-Amenhotep III  Colossal.jpg
Amenhotep III Colossal
The ancient Egyptian made sculptures of varying sizes from a variety of materials. They made huge colossuses of rulers and small figurines (shabtis) that were placed in tombs that represented workers that would accompany the deceased to the afterlife. Some tombs had several hundred shabtis, plus an overseer for every ten workers

Egyptian sculptures tended by made within strict parameters. Each part of the body had to be a certain size and proportion with important features such as the shoulders and face oriented towards the viewer. The best works are often the ones that show expression and form within the strict parameters.

Sculptors didn’t place their names on their works. So we have no idea who made them. Scholars and many viewers can distinguish between works made good workshops and those made by bad ones.

Massive sculptures like the Sphinx and the Colossi of Memnon are some of the best known art works Egypt.

Categories with related articles in this website: Ancient Egyptian History (32 articles); Ancient Egyptian Religion (24 articles); Ancient Egyptian Life and Culture (36 articles); Ancient Egyptian Government, Infrastructure and Economics (24 articles)

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Discovering Egypt; BBC History: Egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt; Egypt’s Golden Empire; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt; Ancient Egypt Magazine; Egypt Exploration Society ; Amarna Project; Egyptian Study Society, Denver; The Ancient Egypt Site; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East; Egyptology Resources

Ancient Egyptian Sculpture Materials

Large sculptures were usually carved from sandstone. Small and mid-size sculptures were made from a variety of materials including painted wood, limestone, Egyptian alabaster (not a true alabaster but a form of calcite), mottled rose granite, black basalt, roseate quartzite, graywacker (a smooth greenish grey rock), clay, schist, ceramic, bronze and other materials. Some of the most beautiful small Egyptian sculptures are made of anorthosite gneiss, which glows in the sunlight and emits a deep-blue color. Limestone and wood statues were painted and had inlaid eyes made of stone and rock crystal.

Sculptures made of copper, bronze and other metals were cast using the lost wax method which worked as follows: 1) A form was made of wax molded around a pieces of clay. 2) The form was enclosed in a clay mold with pins used to stabilize the form. 3) The mold was fired in a kiln. The mold hardened into a ceramic and the wax burns and melted leaving behind a cavity in the shape of the original form. 4) Metal was poured into the cavity of the mold. The metal sculpture was removed by breaking the clay when it was sufficiently cool.

The ancient Egyptians often covered temple walls with plaster and carved into it - an easier method than carving into stone but one that does not stand the test of time. One exception is the Amada temple, one of the oldest in Nubia dating back 3,400 years to the 18th Dynasty's Thutmosis III. It hosts a particularly fine collection of plaster carvings that posed a challenge to the French engineers who had to save them in the 1960s from the Aswan dam. Afraid the carvings would be damaged if the temple were disassembled like the others, the French carefully chipped it out of its rock base and slid it along on rails for 1.5 miles at a rate of about 100 feet a day.

Large Sculptures in Ancient Egypt

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Ramses II Colossal statue
The pharaohs commissioned rigid monumental statues to glorify themselves while they were still alive. The larger the state the more powerful the ruler. The most prolific pharaonic statue builder was Ramses the Great, whose likeness is found on colossi at Abu Simbel and other sites around Egypt.

"The art of portraiture very early created its own rigid conventions," the scholar Daniel Boorstin wrote. "Marks of a "grid" guided the sculptor at his work. It was long supposed that these were only a device commonly used by artists...for enlarging any small sketch. Then it was noticed that the squares always interesected bodies at the same places. These proved to be units of the canon of Egyptian sculpture."

"A standing figure comprised eighteen rows of squares (not counting the nineteenth row for the hair above the forehead). The smallest unit, the width of a fist, measured the side of a square. From wrist to elbow was three squares, from the slope of the foot to the top the knee was six squares, to the base of the buttock nine squares, to the elbow of the hanging arm twelve squares, to the armpit fourteen and a half squares. “

The Egyptian were never able to make free standing human sculptures. Either the figures were sitting down or coming out of a wall. When pharaohs and their queens were sculpted together the king usually wore a headdress and a skirt and his wife wore a tight fitting and revealing dress. Standing sculptures were characterized by clenched fists, rigid arms on the sides, two feet firmly on the ground with the left foot forward, but the body going nowhere.

Describing a statue of Amenemhat II from Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, Ken Johnson wrote in the New York Times, “A giant 4,000-year-old Egyptian an extraordinary specimen of regal manhood. Carved from a single block of dark gray granodiorite, he sits in a form-fitting kilt on a cubic throne covered by hieroglyphics. He has the broad shoulders, narrow waist and muscular legs of a well-developed athlete. Sporting a headdress of folded striped fabric, he gazes out over the masses with imperturbable self-assurance and open eyes set in a round, youthful face. [Source: Ken Johnson, New York Times, August 22, 2011]

Scholars think this 10-foot tall, almost nine-ton monument originally portrayed the 12th-dynasty pharaoh Amenemhat II, who reigned from about 1919 to 1885 B.C. Later artists evidently altered the facial features to make him more like Ramesses II, the king who ruled from about 1279 to 1213 B.C.

Amenemhat II “feels at once deeply familiar and otherworldly. Its tension between geometric abstraction and organic naturalism, its ambition to transform inert material into something that seems to live and breathe, anticipates the basic aesthetic terms that would define Western art from the Greeks to the start of Modernism. Despite its rigid stillness, the statue has an uncanny animated feeling, as if it were inhabited by some eternal consciousness. That, at least, is what the Egyptians wanted their viewers to experience. For them the pharaoh was truly a divine being.

Nubian shabti
Around the time “Amenemhat II was created, Egyptian artists achieved something close to perfection in sculpture, and the idea of such exacting excellence as something to aim for — in art and in life — must be counted among the Egyptians’ important contributions to human history. Before then, it seems, people just did the best they could. But the trouble with perfection is that it cannot be exceeded, which may explain why Egyptian art changed so little over its 5,000 years (and why fascists are so fond of it). For a viewer accustomed to the churn of styles in a world of historical flux, “Amenemhat II” seems an emissary from a place where time stands still.

Ancient Egyptian Tomb Sculptures

Statues of the deceased called “ushabti” (shabtis) were placed in tombs next to the mummy. These were not intended for the public to see or as a memorial. They were a substitute for the person should something happen to the mummy, or they could be offered by the deceased as substitute if he was called on to do something unpleasant in the afterlife.

The sculptures were often made of stone with the understanding that that meant they could last for eternity. If something happened to the mummy the pharaoh's “ Ka” , or vital force, could move into the sculpture. Because they possessed ka, statues were regarded as powerful and even dangerous.

Some tombs contained "reserve heads" made from plaster casts of the mummified head which served the same purpose. The face on the sculpture had to recognizable, lest the ka get confused and inhabit the wrong statue. “Ushabti” were also included with the dead to perform the labors of the gods. These were often small exquisite small statues of ordinary people — such as potters, butchers and cooks, performing their daily chores such as rolling dough, cutting meat, kneeling at a harp and working a pottery wheel — that were brought along to perform these duties in the afterlife. Some men brought along carved stone "divine concubines" The sculptures were often incredibly lifelike. The eyes of some statues were inlaid with quartz crystal.

Ancient Egyptian Sculpture, Form and Expression

The sculptures of the pharaohs and their queens reveal little emotion. Sometimes cows are shown displaying more affection towards their loved ones than humans do.

But not all Egyptian sculpture were cold and expressionless. The famous seated sculpture of Heminuni, a prince and vizier in charge of building the Great Pyramid in the Forth Dynasty of Old Kingdom (2475-2465 B.C.), shows a fat man with dropping breasts and an indifferent look on his face. A famous sculpture from this period, of the Iai-ib and Khuaut, shows a wife affectionately putting her around her husband, her body visible under her thin tunic.

Egyptian sculpture took a great leap forward in the Sixth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Cedar sculptures from this period feature expressive eyes, thin waists and muscular legs and other elements that show a familiarity with human form. Perhaps the most famous illustration of this is wood statue of Queen Ankh-nes-meryre II with a miniature version her fully-grown son, Pepi II, sitting on her lap.

Sculptors kept a standardized stock of body parts such as hands so they could make sculptures on demand. A standardized white stone foot was 15.2 centimeters long, 5.3 centimeters wide and 7.7 centimeters high from heel to ankle. The instep was smoother and gently sloping; the ankle bone was a shallow protuberance; the toes were tapered with round-edge nails. There was a standardized upper leg and skirt and even a standardized face. Large sculpture could be extrapolated from the models using grids .

Portraits in Ancient Egyptian Art

Dimitri Laboury of the University of Liège in Belgium wrote: “Ancient Egyptian art’s concern with individualized human representation has generated much debate among Egyptologists about the very existence of portraiture in Pharaonic society. The issue has often—if not always—been thought of in terms of opposition between portrait and ideal image, being a major topic in the broader question of realism and formal relation to reality in ancient Egyptian art. [Source: Dimitri Laboury, University of Liège, Belgium, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

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Ramses II Memphis Colossal statue
“The ideal image comprises many important and problematic issues of ancient Egyptian art history and of the history of the discipline. “Portrait” means a depiction, in any kind of medium, of a specific individual, i.e., an individualized representation of a recognizable person. As opposed to “ideal (or type) image,” portrait implies a pictorial individualization and relates to the notion of realism as an accurate and faithful rendering of objective reality, which stands in contrast to idealization. Even if it is traditionally accepted and used as a fundamental concept in art history as a whole, this key-opposition between realism and idealization (or idealism) is far from being unproblematic from a theoretical point of view.”

“As Sally-Ann Ashton and Donald Spanel have noted, portraiture in ancient Egyptian art “was limited almost exclusively to sculpture”; three- dimensional portraits allow more detailed and subtle rendering, and this is probably why they appear to have influenced two- dimensional representations, and not the reverse; in quantity, as well as in quality, royal iconography is much better documented than private portraiture and often impacted the latter; and finally, as the portrait of an individual and at the same time of an institution—the very central one in ancient Egyptian civilization.”

Thus, “Portraiture in ancient Egyptian art can be defined as a vectorial combination, a tension, or a dialectic between an analogical reference to visual perception of outer or phenomenological reality and a consciously managed departure from this perceptual reality, in order to create meaning or extra- meaning, beyond the simple reproduction of visual appearances and sometimes, if necessary, despite them. As such, portraiture is nothing but the application of the very essence of the ancient Egyptian image system to the individualized human representation.”

Portraits of Menkaura

Menkaura Triad

Dimitri Laboury of the University of Liège in Belgium wrote: “The portraits of Menkaura are very consistent since his physiognomy can easily be recognized throughout his various statues and because, at the same time, they display a face clearly different and distinguishable from the one given to his father, Khafra, or the one of his uncle, Radjedef, his two immediate predecessors. This indicates without any doubt an intended and coherent individualization, even if the rendering of the eyes, the ears, the mouth, etc., that is, the stylistic vocabulary of his physiognomy is definitely characteristic of the artistic standards of Dynasty 4. [Source: Dimitri Laboury, University of Liège, Belgium, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“The famous triads of the king, from his mortuary temple at Giza, are especially interesting because they were part of a series and each of them displayed three faces: the face of Menkaura, of the goddess Hathor, and of the depicted nome, the latter two precisely replicating the features of the royal visage. As

Their discoverer noticed, every preserved triad is characterized by slight stylistic variations, which allow differentiating each of them, but are also perfectly consistent on the three faces of the same sculpture, denoting a single individual hand (or sculptor) behind each piece. The nature and distribution of these stylistic differences and, at the same time, the strong coherence of the royal physiognomy point to a very well controlled facial model of the king, which was dispatched among the workshops and faithfully copied, in spite of a few inevitable faint alterations caused by the technical and human circumstances of such artistic productions . So in addition to the research of physiognomic consistency, this unavoidable variability has to be taken into account in any portrait analysis of ancient Egyptian art.

“Menkaura’s portraiture is also of particular interest because, with its specific nose and facial proportions, it has deeply influenced the official depiction of later kings, like Userkaf, first king of Dynasty 5, or Pepy I, second king of Dynasty 6, who reigned almost two centuries later.

Statues of Senusret III and Amenemhat III

Laboury of the University of Liège in Belgium wrote: “Senusret III and Amenemhat III. The statuary of Senusret III and his son and direct successor Amenemhat III is one of the most central issues in the debate about portraiture in ancient Egyptian art. Since the nineteenth century, the extraordinary individualization that seems to characterize their statues impressed beholders and induced the well- established conviction that the ancient Egyptian sculptors of the late 12th Dynasty intended to portray these two kings in a hyperrealistic manner. This interpretation legitimated psychological readings of these effigies, which were thought to express the royal lassitude after a long wearying reign or even kingly sorrow. According to this widely accepted hypothesis, the stylistic variability attested in Senusret III’s and Amenemhat III’s portraits—as in the iconography of any other pharaoh—could be explained by the ageing of the kings, translated step by step into sculptures, and by the local traditions of sculptor’s workshops, which again is a long- lived assumption in ancient Egyptian art history that has never been convincingly demonstrated. [Source: Dimitri Laboury, University of Liège, Belgium, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

Sensuret III

“This traditional interpretation is highly questionable. Even without mentioning its striking incompatibility with what we know about the historical personalities of Senusret III and Amenemhat III, probably two of the strongest kings who ever ruled Egypt, such a culturally induced reasoning can be invalidated by pure art historical evidence. As Roland Tefnin underlined, the unmistakable contrast between a supposedly old face and a perfectly firm, young, and powerful body is difficult to explain, especially for a hyperrealistic representation. In her thorough analysis of the entire corpus of the statuary of Senusret III and his son, Felicitas Polz was able to demonstrate that the latest datable statues of Amenemhat III—namely those from his mortuary complex at Hawara and from the small temple at Medinet Madi, which was completed by his successor—show the least aged physiognomy, as if the king were getting younger with the passing of time. Although not a single typological or physiognomic peculiarity can be exclusively linked to a specific site or region, both kings’ statues from one and the same series display stylistic variations in the reproduction of the king’s facial model, just like Menkaura’s triads. Furthermore, the emancipation from the traditional hieroglyphic abstraction and the very marked physiognomy that truly characterize Senusret III’s and Amenemhat III’s portraiture actually appeared one generation earlier in private statuary, which, at least this time, influenced royal art.

“Even if one acknowledges Junge’s idea of a “borrowed personality”—a concept that, once again, blurs the theoretical opposition between portrait and ideal image—the effigies of Senusret III and Amenemhat III cannot be considered the expression of “a love of realism,” which, to quote J. Vandier, would have justified “that new official portraits were executed every time the king physically changed, in a sense that could only be unpleasant for the ruler’s self-esteem”. They obviously convey a message about the nature of kingship as it was conceived at that time— in keeping with an important contemporary textual production on the same subject (cf. the royal hymns on both royal and private monuments and the corpus of literature studied by G. Posener in his famous book “Littérature et politique”)—notably through the use of some reality effects, which were able to suggest special qualities relating to the mouth, eyes, and ears, but have nothing to do with the modern western concept of hyperrealism. In this context, without the mummies of these two kings, it is impossible to evaluate the plausible resemblance between pharaoh’s real face and his sculptured portraits. However, a physiognomic convergence seems rather likely—simply because the same stylistic formula was actualized differently for Senusret and for Amenemhat. [Source: Dimitri Laboury, University of Liège, Belgium, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

Hatshepsut’s Official Image

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Queen Hatshephut Sphinx
Laboury wrote: “Hatshepsut. The evolution of Hatshepsut’s official image is probably the best illustration of how ancient Egyptian portraiture could deviate from the model’s actual appearance. As Tefnin has demonstrated, it occurred in three phases. When the regent queen Hatshepsut assumed full kingship, she was depicted with royal titulary as well as traditional regalia, but still as a woman with female dress and anatomy. Her face was a feminine version of the official physiognomy of her three direct predecessors, which was itself inspired by the iconography of Senusret I, who had reigned five centuries earlier. Shortly into her reign, this genealogical mask started to change into a previously unattested and very personalized triangular face, with more elongated feline eyes under curved eyebrows, a small mouth, which was narrow at the corners, and an ostensibly hooked nose. At the same time, the queen emphasized her royal insignia, wearing a broader nemes- headgear and exchanging her female dress for the shendyt-loincloth of male pharaohs, while her anatomy was only allusively feminine, with orange-painted skin—a tone halfway between the yellow of women and the red of men. [Source: Dimitri Laboury, University of Liège, Belgium, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“As Tefnin stressed, this second stage in the evolution of Hatshepsut’s iconography clearly expresses the queen’s desire to assert her own personality as a king. Nevertheless, the metamorphosis resumed rather quickly and ended in a definitely male royal image, for which Hatshepsut completely waived her femininity. Even if a few epithets or pronouns relating to the queen sporadically remained feminine in the inscriptions from her reign, her images are absolutely masculine from that phase on. They exhibit an explicitly virile musculature, red skin, and a physiognomy that appears as a synthesis of her two first official faces, i.e., a compromise between her very individualized previous portrait, plausibly inspired by her own facial appearance, and the iconography common to her three male predecessors, including young king Thutmose III with whom she decided to share the throne.

“This evolution, indubitably motivated by Hatshepsut’s will and need for legitimation, is of course a very extreme case, due to very exceptional political circumstances. However, it demonstrates that even the sexual identity could be remodeled in ancient Egyptian portraiture according to an ideal image, here the one of the traditional legitimate king. Hatshepsut was the only reigning queen in ancient Egypt who felt the need for such iconographic fiction, i.e., to depict herself as a male pharaoh. In regard to the rendering of the physiognomy, the reigning queen offered a very good case if not of a borrowed personality, at least of a partly borrowed identity. As the heir of specific predecessors, she integrated into her own official visage some of their recognized facial Portrait versus Ideal features to emphasize her legitimacy—like a physiognomic signature accentuating her lineage.

“A similar phenomenon seems to have linked royal portraiture and portrayals of the elite or high officials, which often imitated the former closely. Good examples of this kind of allegiance portraits from the time of Hatshepsut are the numerous statues of Senenmut—most of them, if not all, made in royal workshops—which followed the evolution of the queen’s physiognomy, whereas a few two-dimensional sketches provide a much more individualized face of he same person.”

Thutmose III’s Portraiture

Thutmose III

Laboury wrote: “ The issue of Thutmose III’s portraiture is very similar and parallel to the one of Hatshepsut, involving different successive phases induced by political claims and reorientations. But Thutmose’s mummy is well preserved and allows comparison between the actual face of the king and his sculpted portraits. [Source: Dimitri Laboury, University of Liège, Belgium, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“On the one hand, despite a rather important evolution through different chronological types, the iconography of Thutmose III is characterized by a few absolutely constant physiognomic features, i.e., an S- shaped chin when seen in profile, a significant squared maxillary, and low, protruding cheekbones that create a horizontal depression under the eyes. These are the same features that distinguish his mummy’s face, denoting an undeniable inspiration from the actual appearance of the king. However, on the other hand, other physiognomic details varied a lot, sometimes being in obvious contradiction to the mummy: for instance, at the end of his reign, during the proscription of Hatshepsut, Thutmose III decided to straighten his nose—ostensibly hooked on his mummy—in order to look like his father and grandfather, his true and then unique legitimating ancestors. This variability and the revival of his predecessors’ iconography show that the evolution of the king’s statuary cannot be explained solely by aesthetic orientations toward portrait or ideal image, or toward realism or idealization. There is a clear and conscious departure from the model’s outer appearance that allows the introduction of meaning and physiognomically signifies the ideological identity of the depicted person. The same is true for private portraiture.

“Just like his aunt Hatshepsut, Thutmose III instigated modifications and thus evolution in his portraits because his identity, his political self-definition as the legitimate king of Egypt, changed throughout his reign. Obviously, in the eyes of the ancient Egyptians, portraiture was more than a simple artistic transposition of the physical appearances; it was a pictorial definition of an individual and recognizable identity, beyond appearances and even despite them, if needed.

“Amarna royal portraits at Thutmose’s workshop. The excavation of the sculpture workshop in the estate of “the favorite of the perfect god, the chief artist and sculptor Thutmose” at Akhetaten/Amarna provides an exceptional opportunity to understand the practical modalities of conceiving a royal portrait.”

Bust of Nefertiti

Nefertiti's bust

Laboury wrote: “The world-famous bust of Nefertiti was unearthed” in Amarna “among plaster studies of heads and faces that actually materialize the successive stages through which the official image of a royal (and also of a private) individual was established. These plaster pieces present material evidence of casting as well as of modeling, indicating that they resulted from a work made of malleable material—most probably clay—from which a mold was created to make a plaster reproduction. This process and the fact that most of them were reworked or bear signs of paint for reworking or completion show that these steps were induced by the necessity for control, almost certainly performed by—or at least in agreement with—the self-thematized patron who ordered the statue(s). These operations of modeling, casting, and correction were surely executed by Thutmose himself or his closest collaborators, since the plaster studio was installed not in the actual sculpture workshop area, opened to day workers, but next to the chief sculptor’s private house and was only accessible from the latter . While only two stages are attested for private persons, the official effigies of members of the royal family were produced in four phases, with at least three control steps before finishing the final model, sculpted in stone and adorned with plaster completions, subtle paintings, precious inlays, and even gildings. These valuable model-busts could then be copied and dispatched to the various workshops throughout the empire, in order to ensure consistency in the reproduction of the king’s or the queen’s official image. [Source: Dimitri Laboury, University of Liège, Belgium, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“Investigating the perfect beauty of Nefertiti’s Berlin bust, Rolf Krauss recreated its original design as seen through the sculptor’s eyes, when the artist prepared his work on the parallelepiped limestone block, by projecting a grid graduated in ancient Egyptian measuring units (1 finger = 1.875 cm) on a 3D recording of the queen’s effigy. He thus showed that every important facial feature is positioned on a line or at the intersection of two lines. This demonstrates how much the so-called “most lifelike of Egyptian art” was artificially constructed. Moreover, Krauss also showed that the upper part of the face of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, from the bottom of the nose to the beginning of the crown on the forehead, is exactly identical in size as well as in shape. So, even if it is tantalizing to imagine some sort of a physiognomic convergence between Akhenaten’s or Nefertiti’s actual face and their apparently very individualized sculpted portraits, this reveals, without any possible doubt, that their official images idealized them.

“Seen from this perspective, and in the political context of the end of Dynasty 18, it is interesting to note that the effigies of Akhenaten’s two direct successors, Neferneferuaten and Tutankhamen, probably two children of the Atenist royal couple, appear to combine the facial features recognized as those of Akhenaten and of Nefertiti . Are these effigies faithful portraits showing a family resemblance or idealized images with ideological meaning? In the case of Tutankhamen, the rather good preservation of his mummy allows to demonstrate that the king’s sculpted portrayals are not exact copies of his actual face but nevertheless provide a physiognomy consistent with it, as well as with his young age. Besides, this youthful face of a teenager was later on reused as a kind of mask for the next three kings of Egypt, Aye, Horemheb, and Ramesses I, who all ascended the throne after a very long civil career.”

Block Statues in Ancient Egypt

Regine Schulz of the Roemer-und Pelizaeus-Museum wrote:“The term “block statue” is used in Egyptology to describe a statue type defined by its shape. It is characterized by the special squatting posture of the person represented, with the knees drawn up in front of the chest and the arms crossed above them. The body is often largely enveloped in a cloak, which intensifies the compact, cubical appearance of the statue. The block statue was one of the most common types of private sculpture in ancient Egypt from the Middle Kingdom to the Late Period, and was probably invented in the early 12th Dynasty at Saqqara. Soon thereafter, block statues came to be used all over Egypt, including the provinces. However, most of these statues were excavated at Thebes. In the so-called Karnak cachette alone, the French archaeologist George Legrain discovered more than 350, which is more than one third of all the stone statues hidden in this ancient temple-cache, aptly demonstrating the significance of the statue type in ancient Egyptian temple sculpture. [Source: Regine Schulz, Roemer-und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, ]

block statue

“Block statues generally represent specific private individuals who are male and adult, but never kings or deities. Very few examples depicting women appear in the Middle and New Kingdoms; rather, they are more commonly part of statue groups showing men and women together in the characteristic squatting posture Only two examples show a female, singly. One such statue may be a provincial experiment and depicts a woman with a Hathor wig. The other statue is known only from a drawing made by Richard Pococke (1704 – 1765) during his travels to Egypt in 1737 and 1738. According to Pococke’s description, the statue represents Isis; a second, separate drawing features a block statue of a male, designated by Pococke as Osiris. The statues in these two illustrations are very similar and may have belonged to a Ramesside statue group of a man and a woman that has lost its shared base.

“A special type of block statue includes uninscribed squatting figurines that are completely enveloped (draped in a cloak) and placed in Middle Kingdom model boats, depicting the pilgrimage to Abydos as part of the funeral ritual. These figurines not only represent the deceased or his statue, but sometimes also other participants in the ritual. Another special the Amun Temple of Naga (Sudan). These were possibly used for ritual purposes, but it is unclear if they represent specific individuals or just unnamed intermediaries between worshippers and gods. Three-dimensional representations of squatting people performing activities, such as the so-called servant figures, are to be distinguished from block statues. They usually do not represent specific individuals, and the gestures of their arms, their attributes, as well as their contexts clearly define the differences in their function and meaning.

“Block statues were sculpted in various hard and soft stones, and from the Late Period were occasionally carved in wood, or cast in bronze. Interestingly, in several cases where one individual was represented by a pair of block statues, a dark stone was chosen for one representation in the pair, and a light stone was chosen for the other. The size of the figure was mostly dependent on the social status of the represented person, and the functional context. The largest examples reach up to 1.5 m, but the average height ranges between 200 and 600 mm. Smaller examples were often integrated into larger structures, such as stelae or shrines (British Museum EA 569 and 570), or offering platforms (Brooklyn Museum 57.140).Miniature examples, measuring between 2 and 6 cm, served as seals, and some had an amuletic function; it is also possible that they were intended as gifts for family members or subordinates.”

Types of Ancient Egyptian Block Statues and Their Development

Regine Schulz of the Roemer-und Pelizaeus-Museum wrote: Block statues occur from the early 12th Dynasty to the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. The basic shape as well as possible additions varied over time. Not all examples show the represented person squatting directly on the ground. Some squat on a low rectangular element (British Museum EA 888), on a low cushion (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts 03.1891), or on a low stool, which was most popular in the Ramesside Period. A back slab or pillar was used in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.) and Thutmosid Period only occasionally, but from the Ramesside Period it became a standard element of most block statues (Louvre N 519). [Source: Regine Schulz, Roemer-und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, ]

“In the early 12th Dynasty the body forms were largely visible and the only clothing worn the body, leaving only the head, hands, and usually feet uncovered. The hands of these statues are normally empty; in a few examples, the extended right hand holds a corner of the cloak (Brooklyn Museum 57.140 a, b). In the Thutmosid Period of the 18th Dynasty even the feet were enveloped (British Museum EA 48) and attributes appear in the hands. Typical for this period was the lotus flower (Louvre E 12926) although the folded linen cloth, as well as lettuce (a symbol of renewal and fertility), was also featured. A special type of block statue was developed for the high official Senenmut who served under Queen Hatshepsut. This statue type featured Senenmut and the young princess Neferura enveloped together in the same cloak (Cairo, Egyptian Museum JE 37438).

“From the 18th-Dynasty reign of Amenhotep III to the 19th Dynasty, the statue type was modified and enriched by variations of costumes, wigs, and jewelry ( Florence, Museo Archeologico 1790). Additional elements became particularly common in the Ramesside Period, such as stelae, divine figures (Art Museum of the University of Memphis, Institute of Art and Archaeology 1981.1.20: statue of Nedjem), naoi (Louvre A 110), emblems (Louvre E 17168), incised ritual scenes (e.g., Cairo, Egyptian Museum CG 567), and a variety of hand-held attributes or symbols, such as the menat or sistrum (see Paris, Louvre E 17168), as well as ankh (anx), maat (mAat), djed (Dd), and tit (tjt) signs. However, lettuce, as a symbol of renewal and fertility, became the most important of these attributes.

block statue of prophet and scribe Djedkhonsuefank

“In the Third Intermediate Period block statues of the simple, enveloped type with covered feet resurfaced in Upper Egypt. Theplain areas at the front and sides were covered with texts and incised scenes, and in some cases a large bAt-symbol-shaped sistrum appears on the front (Cairo, Egyptian Museum CG 42210). For the first time a block statue appears with a cap instead of a wig (Cairo, Egyptian Museum CG 42230). In Lower Egypt the body forms are more visible, and additions such as naoi are still common (British Museum EA 1007). The scarab on top of the head seems to be a Lower Egyptian innovation (British Museum EA 1007). In the 25th Dynasty artists drew on all possible options, and closely enveloped forms appear beside forms displaying clearly distinguishable bodies with short kilts. The surfaces of the bodies are less tightly decorated than in the earlier Third Intermediate Period, and the sides of the statues are often plain. In the Late Period this trend continues, but the diversity of forms further expands (Cairo, Egyptian Museum CG 48624; Metropolitan Museum 1982.318; Los Angeles County Museum of Art 48.24.8). Graywacke became a very popular material, and the high polish of the surface, as well as the fine carving of the inscriptions, is characteristic for this period. “In the course of the late 26th and 27th Dynasties block statues became less common but, particularly in Upper Egypt, were revived in the 30th Dynasty, extending into the early to mid-Ptolemaic Period. During this time the enveloped subtypes became more common (Brooklyn Museum 69.115.1). A last innovation came with the introduction of magical texts covering the entire statue, including the head, and the occasional addition of Horus-stelae (Cairo, Egyptian Museum JE 46341).

“In addition to single examples, groups of two or more block statues exist, which sometimes also combine block statues with other statue types. Furthermore, smaller representations of one or more family members sometimes appear in the front or on the sides of the squatting statue (Brooklyn Museum 39.602; Cairo, Egyptian Museum JE 46307) as well as representations of deities and divine symbols. Several officials had more than one block statue, and pairs are common; such pairs occur in funerary contexts during the Middle Kingdom, whereas from the New Kingdom to the Late Period they are limited to temples. A few celebrities even had multiple block statues. Ray, the High Priest of Amun under Ramesses II, had four block statues in Karnak—two in the temple of Amun and two in the temple of Mut. The largest number, however, belonged to Senenmut, a high official under Queen Hatshepsut, who had at least eight, six of which were placed in the temple of Amun at Karnak.”

Function and Meaning of Ancient Egyptian Block Statues

Regine Schulz of the Roemer-und Pelizaeus-Museum wrote: Most block statues were positioned in ritual places, particularly the precincts and forecourts of temples. From the New Kingdom onward they occasionally functioned as doorkeepers or as intermediaries between worshipers and deities. Smaller examples were combined with other monuments, such as stelae (British Museum EA 569 and 570), or mounted on pedestals. Only very few examples of the Middle and New Kingdoms come from funerary contexts, where they were placed in niches or small, separate chambers in the front or outer parts of the tomb. These statues were not the focus of the ritual for the deceased tomb owner, but rather were associated with the rituals for deified kings (in the Middle Kingdom) or with deities particularly venerated in the cemetery (in the 18th Dynasty). [Source: Regine Schulz, Roemer-und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, ]

“The meaning of the block statue type has been intensively discussed in Egyptology, and a wide variety of interpretations have been proposed. “The form of the statue has been variously interpreted as a posture of calmness, a typical “everyday life” depiction of an Oriental squatting posture, a manifestation of renewal and re-creation, as well as of protection, and as an abstract aesthetic concept. The creation of the block statue type in the early Middle Kingdom was indeed function- and meaning- related. The original meaning derives from two iconic elements: the special squattingposture, and the crossed arms. In ancient Egypt, squatting was the conventional working or resting posture. However, in the statuary of private individuals it expressed the privilege of being part of the ritual community.

“Nonetheless, the squatting individual was neither the main focus of the ritual nor the active ritualist. He was entitled to be present for, and to participate in, the rituals for deities and deified kings in temples and along processional routes, including those in the cemetery. The crossed arms amplify this meaning and convey a respectful, yet passive, submissiveness toward a god, king, or superior. During the consolidation phase of the block statue type in the mid-12th Dynasty, an enveloping cloak that covered most of the body was added. Such cloaks were also used for other statue types and conveyed the higher rank of the represented official, as well as his right to participate in temple rituals and processions. The crossed arms and the enveloping aspect also signify an Osirian dimension and represent the desire for renewal. Another hint of the block statues’ meaning can be found in the term Hzyw, “the praised and honored one,” which describes an individual of high ethical standards, excellent achievements, and piety. The Hzyw-status implies not only recognition, but also participation in the rituals and partaking in the offerings, as well as a promise of renewal after death. From the 22nd Dynasty the term Hzyw was occasionally written with a block statue as a determinative, and used to describe the honored person, as well as his statue. Some very rare depictions of block statues on stelae of the Ptolemaic Period (304–30 B.C.) may also refer to the Hzyw-status.”

Quarrying Ornamental Stones in Ancient Egypt

Siwa Dakrur quarry

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “The quarrying of ornamental stones was usually done in surface pits and trenches, and occasionally on loose boulders. In addition to such open-cut workings, some travertine quarries went underground and formed cave-like galleries. From Predynastic times into the Late Period, quarrying of hard stones (all igneous and most metamorphic rocks plus silicified sandstone) was done with stone tools. These tools, known as pounders or mauls, were hand-held, purpose-shaped pieces of exceptionally hard, tough rock, of which dolerite was the most popular variety . The pounders were used to knock off corners and edges of bedrock outcrops when only relatively small pieces were required, to hack out trenches and undercuts to isolate larger blocks from the bedrock, or to reduce and reshape loose boulders resting on the bedrock. Fire-setting was occasionally employed during the Dynastic Period to either induce fracturing in hardstones or weaken their surfaces prior to pounding with a stone tool. Where the ancient quarrymen could exploit natural fractures in the bedrock, metal gads and also possibly wedge- shaped rock splinters were hammered into the fractures to widen them. Stout wooden poles used as levers would have been employed to help detach blocks along fractures or cut trenches. [Source: James A. Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 ]

“Stone pounders are known to have been used for rock gypsum and travertine, and probably were used for some of the other softer ornamental stones (i.e., colored limestones, marble, rock anhydrite, and steatite). All of these would also have been worked at times with the same metal tools employed for the similarly soft building stones (limestone and sandstone). Throughout the Dynastic Period until near the end of the Late Period, these tools were copper and later bronze chisels. Chert or flint (microcrystalline quartz) picks were probably also sometimes used. Although copper and the harder bronze were tough enough to work the softer stones, these tools were quickly blunted and abraded in the process. They were entirely unsuited for quarrying hardstones, and for these the stone tools were far superior.

“Certainly by the 30th Dynasty of the Late Period but possibly as early as the 26th Dynasty, the Egyptians used “iron” (actually low-grade steel) tools for quarrying, including hammers, chisels, picks, and wedges. When extracting blocks from bedrock or boulders, a line of wedge-shaped holes was first chiseled into the surface. Iron wedges were then inserted into the holes and these were hammered until the rock split along the line of holes. Thin pieces of iron called “feathers” may have been placed on each side of the wedges to increase the lateral, expansive force of the hammer blows. The iron-wedge technology improved through the Ptolemaic Period and reached its zenith in Roman times with little change to the present day.

“A fiction often repeated in the popular archaeological literature is that the wedge holes were cut for wood wedges which, when wetted, would expand and so split the rock. In reality, this cannot work for the sizes and shapes, spacings, and often inclined orientations of wedge holes found in ancient hardstone quarries. Another quarrying technology that became commonplace in Egypt beginning in the Ptolemaic Period is the “pointillé” technique, which is still in use today. This technique, like the use of iron wedges, is conventionally thought to have originated in the Greek Aegean region during the sixth century B.C., but there is new evidence in Wadi Hammamat’s metagraywacke quarry suggesting it was employed there as early as the Predynastic or Early Dynastic Periods. Whereas wedging is useful for rough splitting, lines of pointillé pits are employed for more precise, controlled separation. In this method, a straight line of small, shallow, closely spaced pits is chiseled across a rock surface. The quarryman then hammers a chisel back and forth along the line of pits until the rock splits. In the case of the early Wadi Hammamat workings, the chisel was apparently fashioned from metagraywacke. Fire-setting and levers continued to be used, but the levers were probably of iron as well as wood.”

Carving Ornamental Stones in Ancient Egypt

carving stone

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “The extracted rock masses were dressed (trimmed) in the quarries with the same tools used to remove them. A new stone-dressing technology was introduced by the Romans in the Wadi Umm Shegilat quarry for pegmatitic diorite (var. 1). Here they used a toothless iron saw blade along with the locally available quartz sand as the abrasive to cut the sides of rectangular blocks and the ends of column drums. Surprisingly, there is no evidence that this technology was employed in any other Roman quarry except for one at Felsberg in Germany. During all periods of Egyptian history, the quarry products were usually roughed out to something approaching their final form on site, and occasionally were carved to a nearly finished state. This not only reduced the weight of stone requiring transport, but also had the benefit of revealing any unacceptable flaws in the stone prior to its removal from the quarry. [Source: James A. Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 ]

“Once the stone was taken to a Nile Valley workshop or construction site, it underwent additional dressing and carving followed by polishing. The same cutting tools used for quarrying were brought to bear, but in the Dynastic Period, especially during the Old Kingdom, copper or bronze saws and tube drills were also used. Quartz sand served as the abrasive for the softer copper and bronze tools, as it did later for the iron saws of the Romans. The principal application of the earlier saws was for cutting basalt paving stones in several of the Old Kingdom pyramid temples, with saw marks also seen on some of the hardstone sarcophagi of this period.

“The tube drills were used to cut recesses within blocks, including hollow interiors, sunken relief scenes, and hieroglyphic texts. Chert drill bits have been found in association with drilled rock gypsum and the much harder metagraywacke, and were surely used to drill other ornamental stones as suggested by the fact that hieroglyphs showing a hand drill with a stone bit were ideograms for “craft”. The effectiveness of chert tools (chisels, gravers, and especially drill bits) on granite has been experimentally demonstrated by Gorelick and Gwinnett and Stocks. Polishing was the final step in preparing an object carved from ornamental stone. Hand-held pieces of silicified sandstone (“rubbing stones”) are known to have been used for rough smoothing, but a fine- grained quartz sand paste applied with a piece of cloth or leather was almost certainly employed to produce the highly polished surfaces.”

Ancient Egyptian Wooden Sculptures and Reliefs

The Egyptians produced some wonderful wooden sculptures and lots of poorly crafted ones. Many of them were portraits, family scenes, depictions of everyday life and group scenes of individuals working in fields or boats. Describing a wooden statue of a hunting leopard, Blake Gopnik wrote in the Washington Post: “The coiled muscles in the feline’s shoulders have a prowling tomcat’s hunch; its head is down and to one side, as though its bobbing for a scent.”

Reliefs show activities such as hunting, farming and battles. One of the world's oldest known metal statues is a 4,000-year-old cast of Pharaoh Pepi I. One of the most evocative Egyptian sculptures features a yew-wood head of the Queen Mother of Tiye, made during the reign of Akenaten. The pout and slanting eyes show pride, disdain and weariness.

wooden sclpture

Julia Harvey of the University of Groningen wrote: “Wood was a widely used material for sculpture in ancient Egypt from the earliest times. It was mostly native timber, but from the New Kingdom onwards, sculptors also used imported wood species. The majority of extant examples are from funerary contexts, found in both private and royal tombs, although the art of fine wood carving was also employed for furniture and other ritual objects. [Source: Julia Harvey, University of Groningen, The Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

Wooden sculpture has appeared alongside stone sculpture throughout Egyptian history, from prehistory down to Ptolemaic and Roman times. Although the vulnerability of wood to moisture and other threats, including termites—something the ancient Egyptians were clearly aware of—has often obscured this fact, fortunately enough survives to allow us to state for certain that wooden sculpture was always an important aspect of funerary and ritual practices. Wooden sculpture in this context has been taken to mean wooden statues of the king and queen and those of the tomb owner and his or her family. This means that certain categories with perhaps a claim to the designation sculpture have been excluded. These include cosmetic implements (e.g., mirror handles, unguent pots, cosmetic spoons, etc.), statues of prisoners, tomb models (with the exception of the extraordinarily elaborate female offering bearers from the early Middle Kingdom), harp finials, shabtis, statues of gods, and other ritual objects.

Wooden sculpture throughout Pharaonic history was mainly made of native timber— acacia, sycamore, and tamarisk, and sometimes a combination of these. For example, a statue of acacia may have a base made of tamarisk. The fibrous and knotty character of the native woods meant that statues larger than 300 - 400 mm had to be made from several separate pieces joined by dowels and mortise and tenon joints. The joints were subsequently concealed by a layer of paint or painted plaster on which the details of costume and jewelry were added. It is unfortunate that it is this painted layer that has often suffered the most damage. Imported woods like ebony and cedar were also occasionally used. In the New Kingdom, imported woods were favored for the production of royal statues in wood, and proportionally more private statuary was made of ebony. We should bear in mind, however, that as yet relatively few statues have had their wood scientifically analyzed, so all conclusions are tentative.

“Ancient Egyptian artisans were highly skilled at carving wood, and illustrations of workshop scenes often include statue-making. Although the inscriptions accompanying these scenes rarely refer to the statues depicted, the tools shown are a good indication of the material in question; an adze in the hand of a workman is an indication that the material is wood, whereas hammers and mallets tend to be limited to working stone. An adze, of course, would be quickly blunted if used on stone, and a mallet would be far too crude an instrument to work wood. The statues are usually shown in a completed state, regardless of the type of tool action. What is also revealed is that the artisans worked as a team rather than as individual artists; many individuals were involved in the production of a single statue.

“Unfortunately, not enough wooden statues survive to establish whether there were local fashions centered around a particular town or necropolis. We can surmise a major Old Kingdom workshop in or around Memphis producing for the necropolis of Saqqara, and in the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom there were centers at Assiut, Meir, and Beni Hassan. Few conclusions can be drawn from this, however, beyond remarking that the wooden statues from Beni Hassan tend to have extremely large, painted eyes. During the New Kingdom and later, the main workshops were in Thebes and Memphis, and it will come as no surprise that most provenanced statues from these periods come from these two locations.”

Wooden Statues in the Old and Middle Kingdoms: Wigs and Daily Life

Calving cow
Julia Harvey of the University of Groningen wrote: “Wooden statues in the Old Kingdom may have been considered necessary to depict the tomb owner in his more active roles, accompanied by his wife. Stone statues in the tomb are usually static groups or seated statues, whereas those of wood usually show the tomb owner striding with staff and scepter in his left and right hand, respectively. These two aspects, active and passive, are matched by the depictions on Old Kingdom tomb walls. The statues, both wood and stone, first appear in the superstructure of the tombs, then in specially designed serdabs, and towards the end of the period in the burial chambers as well. As we move on in time, the quantity of wooden statues in each tomb increases while the size and quality decrease. In all, over 250 statues survive from this period. No royal statues have survived from the Old Kingdom. [Source: Julia Harvey, University of Groningen, The Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

“Male statues in the Old Kingdom show a wide variety of costume and wig types, but unfortunately no combination of these can be linked to a specific role or title. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that the plaster layer with the subtle details of decoration has usually not survived the test of time. Female statues are nearly always standing or with the left foot just slightly advanced. Inscriptions on the bases of statues of both sexes are invariably lists of titles and names. The well- known offering formula “for the ka of” does not appear until the very end of the period, but it becomes standard during the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom. This is why the usual name chosen by Egyptologists for tomb statues in both wood and stone is “ka statues”.

“During the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom, the emphasis shifts from the tomb owner and his wife alone to include models of daily life as well. Particularly fine examples of female offering bearers are known from the tomb of Meketra, for example. These female offering bearers are probably personifications of funerary estates, three-dimensional examples of the friezes of personified estates decorating the lower parts of many temples. As the period progresses, the quality of the figures and models in general once again declines, although there are still a few exceptional pieces. The average size of wooden statues decreases after the 11th Dynasty, and although the range of costumes and wigs on male statues is much wider, there is still no prospect of identifying individual costumes and wigs with particular offices. One notable exception is the statue of Yuya in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which depicts him wearing the vizier’s costume. “Tombs and even simple graves in the provincial cemeteries, for example, at Beni Hassan, now often contain wooden statues of the tomb owner, resulting in a corpus of about 500 statues in total. Female statues resemble those from the Old Kingdom, with the addition of new wig types. Perhaps the most notable difference is that the females now have very pronounced waists and hips. The earliest extant royal statues in wood date to the 12th Dynasty (for example, the statues of Senusret I in Cairo and New York). Wooden shabtis are also known from the Middle Kingdom, but the best examples date to the New Kingdom.”

Wooden Statues in the New Kingdom and Afterwards; More Royals and Gods

Julia Harvey of the University of Groningen wrote: “A preliminary survey has revealed that the wooden statues from the first part of the 18th Dynasty continued to be inspired by the Middle Kingdom and are full of force and character. Model scenes disappear as do the female offering bearers. The New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.) types appear to duplicate those from the same period in stone to a greater extent than in the earlier periods, and it is at last sometimes possible to link costumes to particular functions. The elaborate clothing of the later 18th Dynasty, for example, with its many pleats and folds was duplicated not only on the plaster coating but also in the wood itself, thus enabling us to identify military officers, priests, and priestesses with a much greater degree of certainty than before, even when the base of a statue is missing. When the base is extant, the names and titles of the deceased as well as an offering formula are now often accompanied by a dedicatory text. The dedicators are usually the son or daughter of the deceased, but often the parents, a brother, or sister appear, perhaps indicating that the deceased had died young. [Source: Julia Harvey, University of Groningen, The Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

scribe statue

“The preliminary total for New Kingdom statues is about 80 male and 80 female, with over three quarters of that total dating to the period from Amenhotep III through the 19th Dynasty. Two interesting subgroups of statues come from the Deir el- Medina necropolis. One subgroup comprises statues of the tomb owners holding a standard crowned by a sacred emblem, often a hawk’s head or a ram’s head; the other subgroup consists of statues of the deified Ahmose- Nefertari, the wife of Amenhotep I. An interesting extra detail concerning the subgroup of standard bearers is a carved relief of either the wife or son on the left-hand side. Pair statues are extremely uncommon in all periods; for example, only three are known from after the second half of the 18th Dynasty.

“Royal sculpture in wood is much more common in the New Kingdom, and many royal tombs and temples of the period were provided with resin-coated or gilded wooden statues. The larger, life-size ones are usually freestanding statues of the king (e.g., the statues from the tombs of Thutmose III, Tutankhamen, and Horemheb), whereas the smaller ones are ritual statues usually placed in wooden shrines. The latter show the king striding while wearing the white or red crown, harpooning in a papyrus skiff, or standing on the back of a panther. Statues of queens are much less numerous and seem also to be on a much smaller scale. However, they are no less magnificent when they do survive, for example, the wooden head of Queen Tiy, which was recently reunited with its headdress. A pair of statues of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiy, found at Kom Medinet Ghurab in the Fayum and now in the Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum Hildesheim, also deserve mention—despite their tiny size (60 and 60.5 mm, respectively), the detail is exceptional. Votive statues of the deified Ahmose-Nefertari became popular during the Ramesside Period (see above).

“During the later Egyptian periods, private wooden statuary becomes much less common, although this could be an accident of preservation. A total of only four statues in wood of male and female tomb owners are currently known from the Third Intermediate Period, 25 from the Late Period, and only three from the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. Those from the Late Period, like most art of that time, imitate Middle Kingdom styles. Also during this period, kneeling figures of Isis and Nephthys begin to be placed on either side of the sarcophagus in the burial chambers of private tombs; ba-birds, falcons, and akhom figures (archaic figure of a perched falcon), as well as Anubis jackals were placed on top. Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures, often with a cavity containing a papyrus roll, were also popular.”


Shabtis were small burial figurines that served like magical servants, doing chores for the deceased in the afterlife. Rich people often had had many shabties. According to an Brooklyn Museum catalog on ancient Egyptian grave goods the wealthy might have a different shabty for every day of the year, “40 shabties were an ideal number to own in the Ramesside Period” because that provided “enough workers for each of the 30 days of the month plus overseers and foremen." [Source: Ken Johnson, New York Times, March 11, 2010]

According to the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: “During and after the annual flood of the Nile, the population were subject to compulsory labour on state projects such as building and maintenance of the irrigation system. In life it would be possible to avoid this by providing a substitute; in death, mummiform figurines or "Answerers" could serve the same purpose. The Egyptian words for these statuettes (usually called shabtis in English), are ushabti and shawabti. These words are of uncertain origin but may have been derived from the Egyptian word wSb(1) meaning "answer." [Source: ABZU, University of Chicago Oriental Institute, ]

“The backs of these figurines were inscribed with Chapter 6 of "The Book of the Dead." This spell ensured that if the owner of the shabti was called upon at any time to do any kind of compulsory labour the shabti would respond and perform the duty instead of its owner. The practice of including these figurines in burials started during the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2040-1640 B.C.(2)) when only one was usually included in the burial. The practice continued and by the Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1070-712 B.C.)there were sometimes so many in a burial that the shabtis were put in a special box: the custom had become to have one shabti for every day of the year with 36 overseer shabtis. The practice of including these figurines in burials died out in the Ptolemaic Period (332 B.C.-395 AD). Henk Milde wrote: “A shabti is a funerary figure that is usually mummiform in shape and originally represented the deceased in his dignified status. Some New Kingdom shabtis, however, are clad in the dress of daily life. Background of the shabti-concept was the need for food that had to be produced in the realm of the dead as well as on earth. There was an ambiguity in function: a shabti represented the deceased and a shabti substituted the deceased. On the one hand it was a means for the deceased tobenefit from the food production, on the other hand it created a possibility to escape from the burdensome labor required for the food production. Whenever the deceased was summoned to cultivate the fields in the hereafter, a shabti was supposed to present itself on his/ her behalf saying, “I shall do it, here I am.” The substitution was secured by an incantation that— after the Middle Kingdom—used to be written on the shabtis themselves. The spell is also known from the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead. Towards the end of the New Kingdom, the number of shabtis per burial grew considerably. A total of c. 400 was not uncommon in the Late Period. By then shabtis had become mere slaves. [Source: Henk Milde, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

Meaning of Shabtis

shabti and a shabti box

Henk Milde wrote: “Shabtis originated from the tomb imagery of the Old Kingdom. Their meaning is ambiguous. A shabti represented the deceased, functioning as a vehicle for the ka-soul in order to receive offerings. And a shabti substituted the deceased, functioning as a servant involved in food production. Dedication of shabtis by relatives or servants was not unusual in the 2nd millennium B.C.. In the 18th Dynasty, these statuettes could also be granted “as a favor by the king.” Since the end of the New Kingdom, the ambiguity was solved in that the individual shabti disappeared in gangs of slaves, supervised by overseer (reis) shabtis. [Source: Henk Milde, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“Background of the shabti-concept was the need for food that had to be produced in the realm of the dead as well as on earth. Just as the pharaoh imposed conscripted agricultural labor, so did the gods in the hereafter. High officials tried to escape these obligations by a king’s decree (wD nsw). In a similar way, dignified deceased persons resorted to an exonerative text, an incantation that was not only recited but, since the Middle Kingdom, written down as well. The purpose of these texts was to avert the burden of menial labor in the hereafter from the deceased to a personal substitute, eventually to masses of slaves. Activities, however, like plowing, sowing, and reaping were commonly accepted in the iconographical repertoire (Spell 110 of the Book of the Dead in tombs or on papyri). But the issue here was not menial labor that the deceased was obliged to do. Here it was about an aspect of the blissful life in the Field of Offerings to which the deceased willingly committed himself. Therefore, no shabtis appear in this context ; for the same reason these substitutes were not wanted for eating, drinking, and having sex.

“The ancient idea of a ka-statue representing the owner survived in the dedication of so- called “stick”-shabtis by relatives on the occasion of funerary celebrations in or near tomb-chapels and in the votive use of shabtis put in sacred places. In this way the deceased remained present to relatives and stayed in the vicinity of important divine rulers like Osiris (Abydos), Sokar (Saqqara, Giza), and Apis (Serapeum) in whose offering rituals he could partake.”

Development of Shabtis

Henk Milde wrote: “Precursors of the shabtis date from the First Intermediate Period: tiny figures of wax or clay showing the human body as on earth, with legs together and arms by their side. Wrapped in linen, they were placed in little rectangular coffins. The first mummiform statuettes appeared in the 12th and 13th Dynasties. Name and titles occurred occasionally, a (simple) shabti text just in a few cases. Although the rubric of the shabti spell refers to a statue of the master “as he was on earth,” we see the deceased in a sah-status, a dignity acquired after mummification. Originally these figurines seemed to represent the deceased person, although the idea of substitution by a servant existed already. [Source: Henk Milde, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“After the Middle Kingdom, the shabti phenomenon faded into the background, but it recurred in the 17th Dynasty at Thebes. Most of these shabtis are crudely cut wooden statuettes, so-called “stick”-shabtis, placed in little coffins and often inscribed with a short text. They have usually been found outside the tomb- chamber.

“From the New Kingdom onwards, shabtis generally show an inarticulate body, from which only the head (with wig) protrudes. Often the hands are visible, especially when they hold tools or other attributes. In general, the size varies between a few centimeters and c. 50 cm. One of the largest known statuettes is the shabti of Khebeny, measuring 58.5 cm. Shabtis of Amenhotep III in the Louvre Museum even surpass this giant, one of them measuring 67 cm. Royal shabtis are generally marked by regalia like crowns and nemes-headdresses. An iconographical novelty that came into being in the New Kingdom gave shabtis their characteristic appearance: the statuettes were carved or painted with agricultural tools like hoes, picks, and bags, but also yokes with waterpots and brick molds. Such implements were occasionally added separately as models. Shabtis also grasp attributes like ankh-signs, djed- and tit- amulets, hes-vases, scepters, and pieces of cloth. Occasionally they even embrace a ba-bird, an image recalling the vignette of Spell 89 of the Book of the Dead . Special figures have been found, such as animal-headed shabtis (especially from Apis burials at Saqqara), pairs of shabtis, shabtis reclining on biers, and kneeling shabtis grinding corn

Tutanhkamun (King Tut) shabti

After Amarna, a new type appeared, showing the deceased not as a mummy but in the then fashionable clothing. Towards the end of the New Kingdom, the number of shabtis per burial grew considerably, whereas their size decreased proportionally. The so-called “peg”-shabtis (à contours perdus) also date from this period. The increase in number caused mass production in molds. On the conceptual side, the development was even more drastic, which is reflected in terminology. A ushebti is no longer a familiar servant, but an indifferent slave (Hm) who has “to answer” (wSb) to summons. A slight metathesis in spelling (Swbty wSbty) reflects a considerable change in status. When personal ties fade, responsibility wanes. This may have led to the creation of overseer (reis) shabtis from Dynasties 20 - 25, clad in daily dress and carrying whips to stress their authority. The rare expression tr-wSbty from the 21st Dynasty may confirm this development. For shabtis, being diligent was no longer a matter of course. In an oracular decree, Amun declares that he will see to it that the ter- ushebtis perform their duties for Neskhons. Because it is for her exemption that they were bought. A receipt from the 22nd Dynasty mentions the delivery of no less than 401 ushebtis, “male and female slaves” (Hmw, Hmwt), 365 workers (one for each day), and 36 overseers. It has been suggested that the payment not only compensated the manufacturer but also covered the “wages” of the ushebtis. This view has persistently been contested by Poole. Male and female ushebti-slaves also figure in Spell 166 of the Chapitres Supplémentaires. Since they were bought, they should perform their duties at the right time instead of the deceased whenever he is remembered. Shabtis of this (Third Intermediate) period generally wear a seshed- band around their head. The general decline in craftsmanship was countered by the rulers of the 25th Dynasty. Kushite statuettes are rather thickset figures. Large stone shabtis even recurred.

“In the Saite renaissance, a new standard was developed displaying a characteristic feature of ancient statuary: the dorsal pillar, which could be inscribed with the so-called “Saitic formula” (see below). Overseer shabtis cannot be distinguished any longer. Text-versions, too, recalled the past. They resumed the structure of the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts. The shabti stands on a pedestal (sometimes maat-shaped). The hands grasp two hoes or a hoe and a pick, as well as the rope of a basket hung over the left shoulder. The face displays a “Greek” smile and is adorned with the long Osirian beard, even in the case of women. Individual shabtis can be male or female (mainly marked by the wig, sometimes also by dress or breasts), according to the persons in question. Sexual differentiation among the depersonalized shabtis of the Late Period reflects the general composition of personnel. From the Persian Period onwards, texts also appeared in a T-shaped arrangement.”

Shabti Spells and Formulae

Henk Milde wrote: “Schneider distinguishes between seven versions of the spell, each with several variants. The oldest version, CT Spell 472, has been found on two coffins from Deir el-Bersha. The text is a compilation of two variants, concluded by a single rubric and introduced (at least in B2L) by a single title, “Spell for causing a shabti to do work for his master in the realm of the dead”. The first variant fell into disuse, the second underwent several adaptations, but had a comeback in the Late Period due to renaissancistic tendencies. [Source: Henk Milde, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

In the Book of the Dead, the spell occurs occasionally, either separately (Spell 6 of the Book of the Dead) or as part of the captionsconcerning the burial chamber (Spell 151 Ai of the Book of the Dead). In the papyrus of Nu, we read: ‘Spell for causing a shawabti to do work in the realm of the dead. To be recited by N: “O these shawabtis, if one counts off the Osiris N to do any work that should be done there in the realm of the dead, and he, indeed, is to obey there in order to act like a man at his duties, then one is counting off in respect of you, at any time on which one should serve, be it tilling the fields, irrigating the riparian lands, transporting by boat the sand of the West (and) of the East, ‘I shall do it, here I am,’ you shall say.” (Spell 6 of the Book of the Dead).’

The idiomatic use of Hwj sDb, “to obey”, has been suggested by Heerma van Voss in a Dutch translation of the text on a shabti in a museum in Leeuwarden. The interpretation of “sand” is quite mysterious. It might be sand from the desert blown over the arable fields that should be removed, or material for building dykes around the fields, or some type of fertilizer comparable to the sebakh used by present-day fellahin. The wording of the spell illustrates that the owner is not playing the part of a landlord demanding statute labor, but that he himself is subject to conscription, for which he is seeking substitution.

“From the 17th Dynasty onwards, the spell appeared more regularly on shabtis themselves. Only a few simple versions are found earlier. During the Middle Kingdom, the inscriptions, if any, were limited to the name (and titles) of the deceased, sometimes introduced by a hetep di nesut formula. This offering formula gave way to the introduction sHD (Osiris) N, “illuminating (the Osiris) N” or “the illuminated (Osiris) N,” found on most statuettes. A variant text has been found on statuettes from Abydos: the “Amenhotep III formula.” Characteristic is the address to the gods at the side of Osiris. They should pronounce the owner’s name in order to secure his share of the evening meals and the offerings at the Wag-festival.

“Principal object of the so-called “Khamuas formula” is the wish to see the sun disk and adore the sun in life. This recalls older formulae under Akhenaten. Most private shabtis of this period, however, provide the conventional wording. In the “town-god formula” the divinity in question is implored to stand behind the deceased. This is represented iconographically by a dorsal pillar, the benben or sun pillar being a manifestation of the town-god. The formula already occurred in the 18th Dynasty, but is often found on the dorsal pillar of Saitic shabtis. That is why the “town-god formula” is also known as “Saitic formula.” On the whole, most shabtis display a very short text, often no more than sHD plus name.”


Material, Manufacture and Storage of Shabtis

Henk Milde wrote: “From the 12th Dynasty to the end of the New Kingdom, statuettes were made of wood, but not exclusively. With the exception of the Second Intermediate Period, there were also stone and faience shabtis. Stone shabtis recurred under the Kushite rulers, whereas the ever popular faience remained in use into the Ptolemaic Period. Other materials were pottery, clay, glass, and bronze. [Source: Henk Milde, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“Stone and wooden shabtis were individually cut and carved. Faience figurines were made in molds, after which further details were applied. The finishing touch determined most of the quality. Typical for faience statuettes is their glaze. The shabtis found by thousands in the Deir el-Bahri Caches are renowned for their deep blue glaze. The majority of the Late Period shabtis is green.

“The value of shabtis was dependent on material and quality. According to ostracon IFAO 764, the price for 40 shabtis was one deben . The low price might be an argument for the obtainability of shabtis even for the poor. However, the entire ostracon deals with decoration prices only. The “bill of sale for a set of ushabtis” does not mention a price, unfortunately.

Mass production also influenced the storage of shabtis. In the Middle and New Kingdom, individual shabtis were placed, like mummies, in miniature coffins or, like divine images, in little shrines with vaulted lids. Originally the coffins were rectangular, later rishi-shaped and anthropoid. In the Ramesside Period, shabtis were also stored in pottery jars locked with jackal-headed lids.

“With the increase in number of shabtis per burial, they were stored in multiple shrines and eventually stacked in painted boxes. Shabtis have also been found freestanding near the mummy, in holes, or arrayed elsewhere in or in the vicinity of the tomb. They have also been dug out from depositories at other sacrosanct places. From ostracon Turin 57387 may be inferred that shabti box and shabtis were bought together.

Female Figurines in Ancient Egypt

Elizabeth Waraksa of UCLA wrote: “Figurines of nude females are known from most periods of Pharaonic Egyptian history and occur in a variety of contexts.” They are typically “small, portable representations of nude females averaging approximately 15 centimeters in height and occurring in clay (both fired and unfired), faience, ivory, stone, and wood. Such figurines are best represented from the Middle Kingdom onwards. Long regarded as toys, dolls, or concubine figures, female figurines have commonly been referred to as votive “fertility figurines.” However, recent research suggests a broader and more active function for these figures, including evidence for their deliberate destruction, in a variety of healing and apotropaic rites. [Source: Elizabeth Waraksa, University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, ]

“Although most female figurines take the form of a nude woman, clothing is indicated on a few examples. Particularly emphasized on female figurines are the hair, breasts, and pubic area. Some female figures hold or suckle a child, or have a child next to them on a bed. Female figurines often lack proper feet and were not intended to stand upright, although some female-on-a-bed figures could be supported by the legs of the bed. Some rare female figures are fashioned in a seated or kneeling position.

“Depending on the material of which they were made, female figures were either carved or modeled by hand, or molded in an open mold; many were painted or embellished. Clay figurines could be modeled or molded of Nile silt, marl clay, or local oasis clay, and were frequently painted. Many New Kingdom through Late Period ceramic figurines were coated with a red wash post-firing. More elaborate ceramic and stone figures, in particular those depicting a female on a bed, were painted in polychrome, especially during Dynasties 18 - 20. A particular type of Third Intermediate Period ceramic figurine was painted with polychrome stripes.

“Some marl-clay figures of the Middle through New kingdoms were embellished with faience or metal jewelry; fringed, colored linen; and “beaded” hair—that is, hair represented by beads of mud, faience, or shell strung on linen thread. “Faience female figurines, including woman- on-a-bed examples, were molded and feature darker coloration to emphasize the eyes, nipples, navel, and hair, as well as to indicate jewelry, tattooing, and, on some examples, patterned clothing. Holes in the heads of some faience figurines reveal that hair, either real or artificial, was probably attached.

“Ivory figurines, which are rare, were carved and polished. Stone figurines were carved and sometimes painted either in polychrome or with a single pigment such as black (to emphasize hair and jewelry), or red or yellow (to emphasize flesh areas). Wooden female figurines, including the group known as “paddle dolls,” were carved and painted in black or polychrome to indicate jewelry, fabric, and pubic hair. Some examples bear painted images of birds, crocodiles, scarabs, and the goddess Taweret.

“Female figurines have been found in the full range of excavated sites in Egypt, from houses, temples, and tombs in the Nile Valley to cemeteries in the western oases, mining sites in the Eastern Desert and Sinai Peninsula, and Nubian forts. Often, female figurines derive from refuse zones in proximity to these areas. Most female figurines adhere to standardized types within chronological periods. This uniformity, together with their decoration in a variety of media, suggests mass production at a state-supplied workshop. Temple workshops are the most likely locale for their production, and male craftsmen, their most likely manufacturers.

One significant aspect of female figurines dating to the Middle Kingdom and later is their pattern of breakage. Although some female figurines are found whole, many display a clean, horizontal break through the torso-hip region—usually the most robust part of the figure —and are therefore recovered as either the upper or lower half only, or in joining fragments. Such breakage is indicative of deliberate destruction, which most likely occurred at the conclusion of a rite before the figurine was discarded. In combination with the frequent occurrence of the figurines in refuse zones, this breakage highlights their temporary utility.

Purpose of Ancient Egyptian Female Figurines

Elizabeth Waraksa of UCLA wrote: “Despite their being a well-known class of object, the exact function(s) of female figurines of Pharaonic Egypt has remained elusive. They have been variously categorized as “toys,” “dolls,” “wife figures,” “concubines (du mort),” or “Beischläferin.” Many of these terms were employed on the erroneous assumption that the figurines served as male tomb owners’ magical sexual partners in the next life, but it is now clear that female figurines could be placed in the tombs of men, women, and children, as well as deposited in domestic and temple areas, and the concubine theory has largely been abandoned. The prevailing theory on the function of female figures is the votive “fertility figurine” thesis suggested by Pinch. The iconography of the figures, as well as their discovery in temples to Hathor and domestic shrines, favors such an interpretation, as do inscribed female figures asking for the birth of a child (see Terms and Textual Evidence above). Recently, this thesis has been expanded to situate female figurines in a broader range of magico-medical rites not exclusively related to women and fertility . Magical spells calling for female figures of clay and wood reveal that such objects were ritually manipulated in rites to repel venomous creatures and heal stomachaches (see Terms and Textual Evidence above). These spells, together with the excavation of female figurines as part of a magician’s kit, suggest that the owners and users of female figurines were literate priests/magicians. Female figurines are thus best understood as ritual objects applicable to a range of magico-medical situations and that were frequently broken and discarded at the conclusion of their effective lives. [Source: Elizabeth Waraksa, University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, ]

“Egyptian terms for magical figures are difficult to isolate. Nevertheless, several terms for clay female figurines have recently been identified. A spell to repel venomous snakes calls for a sjn , which can be translated “clay figure (of Isis).” A spell to relieve a stomachache calls for the words to be spoken over a rpyt nt sjnt, a “female figure of clay,” and for the pain to be transferred into this rpyt Ast or “female figure of Isis.” The term rpyt may be understood as a generic one applied to female images of all sizes and materials, including magical figurines . There can be little doubt that many other spells calling for female figurines existed but are now lost to us. Inscribed female figurines are very rare; only three examples are known, each bearing an appeal for a child. The wording of the appeals is indicative of a funerary context (in one case, the hetep di nesut formula is used), suggesting a supplicatory role for inscribed female figurines in a tomb setting.

“The context, textual evidence, and iconography of female figurines relate them to a host of female deities. Archaeological evidence suggests a connection to the goddesses Hathor and Mut. The iconography of painted wooden figurines suggests an association with Nut and Taweret. Magical spells explicitly link female figurines to Isis and Selqet. It is likely that female figurines were fashioned as generic females so that they could serve as any one of numerous goddesses, depending on the situation at hand. The figurines possibly also were fashioned in this generic form in order to protect the deity invoked from the affliction she was being asked to address. It was through the recitation of a spell that a female figurine actively became a goddess for the temporary purposes of healing and protection.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato,; Mark Millmore,; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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