Object in Focus: A Female Figurine from Ancient Egypt

Countless figurines have been found in Egypt, from steatopygous figurines in the Predynastic to blue faience nude figurines, from paddle dolls to innumerable shabtis, statuettes designed to spring to life in the afterlife to work for their master in the Fields of Reeds. This particular figurine – E.6895 – predates the New Kingdom (c. 16th Century BCE) and is something of a curious find. The object comes from Garstang’s excavation at Abydos (1906-1909). The statuette features an elaborate headdress or wig, and is decorated with rounded impressions across the entirety of the figurine. These “punctures” are paralleled on other figurines from the Pharaonic Period.

Material and Production

Figurines tend to be made from local ceramic and may have been produced en masse – indicated by the commonality of features across numerous figurines. The distinctive decoration and head shape may indicate production by individuals working to emulate a specific form. However, the ease of access to the material (clay) opens the possibility that these figurines were not produced only by so-called ‘skilled’ craftspeople. Similar material from the Predynastic – e.g. steatopygous figurines – are found across multiple sites from different time periods and show no evidence of any centralised production or specific ‘workshop’ or ‘craft area’ where they were produced. Similarly, the ubiquity of these statuettes across multiple sites suggests that, even if they were being produced en masse to a specific design, they were still being produced by numerous individuals.

Note that this statuette does not have holes through the head, which can be seen on other figurines and similar material and which were used to string “hair” onto the head of the figure. So-called ‘paddle dolls’, usually found in funerary contexts, have hair as a prominent feature – usually gathered into a coil, which was subsequently looped over the “head” of the doll. Note that the statuette does not feature the emphasised breasts and pubis associated with other forms of Egyptian figurines – they are clearly identified, but not overly emphasised or enlarged. Like Badarian anthropomorphic figurines, Naqada steatopygous figurines, Pharaonic ‘paddle dolls’ and numerous other female figurines from across the Near East and Europe, statuettes such as this have been labelled as ‘fertility fetishes’, ‘concubine figurines’ or variant shabtis used to act as a concubine or servant in the afterlife. This interpretation, however, is dated and deeply problematic.

E.6895(2)

Close-up detail of pubis and “puncture” decoration (E.6895).

Fertility Figurines?

Most interpretations of figurines as “fertility” icons rely on emphasised breasts and pubis as part of their interpretation, but this figurine lacks the exaggerated female aspects that are common among other “fertility” idols. In fact, the most emphasised element of the figurine is its headdress/wig and “puncture” decoration. The “puncture” decoration is not necessarily associated with sexuality, and instead may reflect Egyptian tattoos, evidence for which has been uncovered in mummies from IFAO’s excavations at Deir el-Medina. Is it necessary to associate these tattoos with, as has been done in the past, prostitution and sex work? Could an alternative explanation, one more reflecting the material at Deir el-Medina, instead identify tattoos as signifiers of ritual “magic” or female priesthood and religious rites?

E.6895(3)

Close-up detail of the headdress/”wig” and “puncture” decoration (E.6895).

Shabtis, which were mass-produced by the thousands, were subject to far more extensive decoration, with even the most simplistic including hieroglyphic inscriptions and some indication of clothing and facial features. If E.6895 were a “concubine” figurine for the afterlife, this would necessitate some spell of activation to bring it to life in its function as a shabti, which is not the case on this object or its parallels. Later examples of figurines with perforations and headdresses of a similar style are still simplistic in their form and show few parallels with shabtis. Parallels in the museum and elsewhere are regularly found broken, with the heads, torsos and arms damaged. Is it possible that this deliberate damage was inflicted as part of a religious or magical ritual?

E.1749(2)

Egyptian shabti dated to the New Kingdom (E.1749).

Magical Tools?

Recent findings paint a different picture of the object and figurines like it. Papyri discovered in the Mut Precinct of the Karnak Temple Complex show that these figurines may have been used in the practice of magic (or heka) in ancient Egypt. The direct quote from the papyrus, which can be found in Leiden, describes a spell for curing stomach ache: ‘Words spoken over a female figure of clay. As for any of the suffering in the belly, the affliction shall go down from him into the female figure of Isis until he is healthy’. At this point, the statue would be destroyed. This explains examples of similar statuettes being found broken at points where natural breakage is very unlikely, such as at the thick neck, or the waist. Furthermore, note that this figurine is incapable of standing as its legs taper to points.. It is possible, then, that the statue was most likely held in one hand – as one would expect from a magical tool.

This also explains the nature of the decoration – a statuette meant to be used as an aide to a ritual spell and then destroyed would not necessarily be afforded the level of detailed decoration one would expect to find on other forms of Egyptian statuary and figurines. The elaborate headdress/wig could also be attributed to the statuette being a representation of Isis. Notably, one of the titles of Isis, weret-heka, meaning “great of magic”. Isis was regularly associated with healing, and in Egyptian mythology was able to heal the child Horus in the marshes of Chemmis after he was injured by snakebite.

Final Thoughts

These figurines are fascinating, not just due to their function, but due to the various interpretations of their meanings since their discoveries. It has only been the discovery of papyri, the survival of which is nothing short of a miracle, that cast light on their functions, beyond simplistic interpretations such as “fertility fetish”, or ”concubine figure”. They illustrate the difficulty in understanding objects and materials without written context to refer to, one of the greatest challenges in interpreting archaeological evidence.

Thomas Redpath.

Edited by Chris Bebbington & Megan Clarke.

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