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statue egyptian hand dynasty

During the Early Dynastic period (3100–2675 B.C.E. ) and the Third Dynasty (2675–2625 B.C.E. ), Egyptian artists formulated basic strategies for their works of art that their descendents continued to utilize for the next 3,000 years. Objects such as stelae with relief carving, seated statues of kings, standing deities, and seated private officials assumed a form in art that remained quite static. Yet Egyptologists notice significant differences in style and in the details that distinguish this period from later works of art. Continuity and change of this sort is a defining characteristic of Egyptian art.


King Wadj, who ruled Egypt some time in mid-Dynasty One (3100–2800 B.C.E. ), erected two stelae in front of his tomb in Abydos in middle Egypt. The stelae marked the place where worshippers made offerings after the king’s burial. The relief on the two stelae emphasizes the centrality of the king to Egyptian society and the king’s link with the gods. In the relief, a falcon, the hieroglyphic writing of the god Horus’s name, perches on a rectangle. Within the rectangle is an image of a cobra, the hieroglyphic writing of Wadj’s name. Below the snake and completing the rectangle are three tall towers with niches forming the gateway to Wadj’s palace, called a serekh. Conceptually this composition conveyed that when Wadj was in his palace, he was the earthly incarnation of the god Horus. This theme would be constant in Egyptian art, though later artists found other ways to portray this idea. Here the artist used the fact that hieroglyphs are pictures to portray this idea in a clear but also beautiful way.


Wadj’s stela also illustrates the Egyptian method of portraying multiple views of both animals and buildings in two-dimensional art. Though the Horus falcon is in profile, his tail twists unnaturally into a top view to reveal the square tail that helps a viewer identify him. The artist also combined a frontal view of the palace façade, a profile of the cobra, and a top view of the rectangular plan of the palace into one continuous whole. Thus the artist can portray all of the important identifying criteria of an object with one relief.


Two limestone statues representing King Khasekhemwy, the last king of the Second Dynasty (2800–2675 B.C.E. ), are among the first statues of a seated king. This standard theme in Egyptian art varied only in the details for nearly 3,000 years. Khasekhemwy sits on a simple chair-like throne with a low back. He wears the tall, conical White Crown that proclaims the king’s power over Upper (southern) Egypt. He also wears a cloak that Egyptologists can associate with the heb-sed , the royal jubilee festival. The king looks straight ahead, establishing that the frontal view of the statue was the main view. The king’s left arm crosses his abdomen, while his hand holds the cloak closed. The right arm extends from his waist to his knee on the right thigh, the hand in a fist. Perhaps the hand originally held a scepter or some other indication of the Khasekhemwy’s royal status. This arrangement does not conform with later statues. In most later royal, seated statues, the king’s left hand reaches toward offerings. This detail indicates that this statue was carved before the conventions became rigid. The king’s feet rest on the base in front of the chair. Near his feet the artist carved Khasekhemwy’s name in hieroglyphs oriented toward the figure of the king, rather than to the viewer. This arrangement is found on other early statues, though later the hieroglyphs will be oriented to the viewer, making them more legible. On the front and sides of the base of the statue in sunk relief is a representation of defeated enemies. The enemies are naked and arranged in awkward, prone positions. The artist carved the number 47,209 near some prisoners wearing lotus flowers on their heads. The lotus is the traditional symbol of Lower Egypt. Clearly the statue refers to a war or series of battles in which the king defeated this large number of enemies, perhaps from Lower Egypt.


A seated statue of King Djoser of the Third Dynasty (2675–2625 B.C.E. ) is one of the first known life-size images of a king. Archaeologists discovered it in a shrine at the base of his pyramid. Ancient artists positioned the statue so that it faced a blank wall with two holes carved through it at the statue’s eye level. Priests could thus view the statue through the wall, and the statue could see the offerings brought to it. Djoser wears a heavy wig that divides the hair into three parts. Since gods also wear this hairstyle, it identifies Djoser as fully assimilated to divinity and thus already deceased. Over the wig, Djoser wears an early form of the Nemes kerchief, the blue and gold striped cloth restricted to kings. By the Fourth Dynasty (2625–2500 B.C.E. ), the period subsequent to Djoser’s time, the Nemes will fully cover the king’s hair. Here the lappets of the Nemes rest on the hair but do not cover it completely. Djoser also wears the same heb-sed cloak that his predecessor Khasekhemwy wore in his statue. Yet the position of Djoser’s hands reverses the hands in Khasekhemwy’s sculpture. Here the king’s right hand holds the cloak closed while his left arm is placed on his lap. The hand is flat and rests in this statue on his lap. Similar representations of kings in relief show that this gesture should be read as the king reaching for offerings with his left hand. The Egyptian sculptor did not leave negative space between the arm and the lap for fear of creating a weak point in the sculpture. In general, Egyptian sculptors in stone preferred to preserve the shape of the stone block overall and not to free the limbs from the block. Djoser’s throne closely resembles the low-backed chair that Khasekhemwy occupies in his sculpture. The inscription on the base gives Djoser’s throne name, Netjery-khet. The carving is oriented toward the viewer. Though Djoser’s statue shares characteristics with Khasekhemwy’s statue, the position of the hands and the inscription’s orientation point toward the commonly observed conventions of subsequent Egyptian history.


A Third-dynasty (2675–2625 B.C.E. ) statue of a deity is among the earliest preserved freestanding statues of a god from ancient Egypt. The god wears a rounded, short wig. The facial characteristics found here resemble other Third-dynasty figures. The artist paid little attention to the eyes, but carved a prominent nose and full lips with rounded corners. The god wears a long divine beard. The shoulders are broad and the artist has modeled the chest and arms to suggest musculature. In his right hand, the god holds a broad, flat knife that associates him with the god Onuris. This god also can be associated with the penis sheath that he wears here. This statue thus is another early example of the way that artists could communicate the identity of a figure through attributes, a system that Egyptologists call iconography. Onuris stands with this left leg forward, a pose meant to suggest walking forward. Egyptian standing male figures conventionally depict the left leg forward. In spite of the facial features which connect this statue to the earlier periods, the pose, torso, and use of attributes such as the knife look forward to the broader conventions of Egyptian art.


The seated statue of the Ankhwa represents a shipwright whose name Egyptologists formerly read as “Bedjmes.” Bedjmes, a reading of the word for shipwright, was formerly thought to be his name. This statue represents a standard Egyptian type, the seated official. But it also exhibits features related both to the subsequent standardization of the type and other features which do not become part of the standard. Ankhwa sits on a stool without a back. On the sides of the statue, the sculptor carved in relief the curved braces that held the stool together. This feature of Ankhwa’s statue will disappear in subsequent periods and thus is indicative of the Third-dynasty date. The other feature of Ankhwa’s statue that is typical of earlier statues is the positioning of the hands. Ankhwa reaches for offerings with his right hand while his left hand holds the adze, a symbol of his profession. Later such statues of officials will depict the left hand reaching and the right hand holding an attribute that refers to the subject’s profession. These distinctions, though very small, are important for deducing the date of statues in Egypt. The style of the statue places it firmly in the Third Dynasty. The face displays eyes with only the upper lid carved. In contrast the mouth is portrayed in more detail with broad lips with rounded corners. The head is large and attached almost directly to the torso with short neck. The artist here was avoiding a possible weak point in the sculpture. Finally, the artist carved the inscription on Ankhwa’s lap rather than on the base as would become more typical in later periods.


A colossal head of a king without inscription to identify it is closely related to the art of the Third Dynasty. The head is larger than life-size, measuring over 21 inches in height and made of red granite. The king wears the white crown. The shape of the crown, especially the depiction of the tabs around the ears resembles the shape of the crown in the seated statue of Khasekhemwy. This king’s eyes are also carved in a manner that resembles the eyes on the standing statue of Onuris and Ankhwa. Only the upper lid is carved. The lips are broad and curved at the ends. These facial features also recall Onuris and Akhwa and suggest that the king’s head also dates to the Third Dynasty. Enough of the line of the cloak is preserved at the statue’s neck to suggest that the king wore the heb-sed cloak as seen in Khasekhemwy’s and Djoser’s statues. This statue is also a good example of the way Egyptian artists used monumentality, overwhelming size, to stress the king’s power to the viewer.


Metropolitan Museum of Art, Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999).

Edna R. Russmann, Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum (New York: American Federation of Arts, 2001).

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