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.


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?


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?


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.


Aspects of a Goddess: The Cult Image of Hathor in the Garstang Museum (E.66)


This New Kingdom cult image found by Garstang at the site of Esna depicts the goddess Hathor, the mother (and sometimes daughter) of the sun god Re. Hathor was a prominent Egyptian goddess, and held many titles and epithets relating to her function in mythology and day-to-day religious practice. Some of these titles include “Mistress of the West” (an allusion to her role in funerary beliefs), “Lady of the Sycamore” (associating her with trees, vegetation and the environment) and “Lady of Turquoise” (associating her with turquoise from Serabit el-Khadim). Hathor was also associated with dance, romance and song, and was one of the few goddesses depicted carrying the was sceptre.

Hathor and Fertility

A key feature of Hathor as a goddess is her association with fertility. Symbols of Hathor such as the menat necklace and the sistra (a musical instrument used in cult worship) were thought to help promote fertility. Her bovine form was a symbol of fertility, prosperity and abundance. As a fertility goddess Hathor was closely associated with many other Egyptian deities such as Isis, Min, and Bes.

Hathor’s temple at Dendera had two birthing houses connected to it with statues of the god Bes outside of them. In Papyrus Westcar, midwives hold items sacred to Hathor to aid the woman giving birth. The menat necklace and the sistra are often items used in spells to protect the milk of the mother and likening the mother to Hathor’s bovine form. At Hathor’s temple often fertility symbols were left as dedications to ensure fertility (both male and female) and to provide protection from the moment of conception in life (to avoid miscarriages, protect the child, and protect the mother) until the moment of rebirth in the afterlife. Her connection as a fertility goddess extends to her role in divine mythology, where Hathor birthed the sun god each morning.

Hathor and Rebirth

Hathor is often mentioned in New Kingdom funerary compositions such as the Book of the Dead, where the deceased regularly identifies with aspects of Hathor; in Spell 186, Hathor is mentioned as “She of the West”, “Lady of the Sacred Land” and “Eye of Re which is on his forehead”. Hathor is said to have “built the Great Bark of Osiris in order to cross the water of truth”.

Hathor has the title ‘Mistress of the West’ (protector and guide of the deceased) and in the New Kingdom, was thought to reside in the mountains protecting the Valley of the Kings. The cult image of Hathor in the Garstang Museum is made of limestone and gilded with gold and painted, rather than completely made of gold as most cult images were. This is likely why this image has survived being melted down and reused.


Traces of paint and gold foil are still visible on the cult statue today.

As well as a protector of the deceased, Hathor is also a provider for the dead. As ‘Mistress of the Sycamore’ she provides them with shade, food and water on their journey. The cult image from Esna depicts deceased tomb owners drinking water from Hathor’s bovine form on the bottom right. The text on the image indicates Hathor is asking for nourishment to be provided for the deceased tomb owners.

Hathor and the Pharaoh

Hathor (through her association with the goddess Isis) is often depicted in her bovine form providing nourishment and milk to a young child Horus in the marshes of the delta region. This association likely derives from The Contendings of Horus and Seth, wherein Hathor restores Horus’ sight using milk after he is blinded by Seth. Due to this, Hathor is depicted as the symbolic mother of the pharaoh and his protector; she is often depicted in bovine form nursing pharaohs with her milk. In the tomb of Seti I, Hathor is depicted placing the menat necklace around his neck to protect him from evil on his journey in the afterlife, indicating Hathor’s continued protection of the pharaoh and ensuring his chance at rebirth.


In this depiction of Hathor, she is surrounded by individuals drinking the life-giving water that flows from her.

Hathor and Ma’at

Ma’at was the goddess of maintaining order and the concept of ma’at itself, the “correct way” that things should be in pharaonic Egypt (often translated as “balance” or “order”, as opposed to isfet – “chaos”). In The Book of the Heavenly Cow, humanity plot and rebel against the rule of Re and attempt to destroy him causing chaos in Egypt and disrupting ma’at. Re asks his daughter Hathor to carry him into the sky where he now remains; she is then sent by the sun god (as the ‘Eye of Re’) to Earth to punish humanity for their crimes against him and for causing chaos and disruption to order. By punishing humans for the crime Hathor restores order, and therefore ma’at, back on Earth.

In Hathor’s temple at Dendera, Hathor is depicted receiving the ma’at ritual from the Pharaoh. She is often shown on the boat of the sun god standing next to Ma’at, ensuring that the sun god survives the journey through the night to be reborn in the morning.

Final Remarks

Hathor is an example of the many interlocking facets and aspects of ancient Egyptian deities; she has many roles and is associated with many different things both in mythology and in day-to-day life. Her cult statue is an incredibly rare find, and this unique and valuable object illustrates the style and content that would be included on cult statues of Egyptian gods. In modern portrayals, Hathor is often associated primarily with fertility and motherhood, but in ancient Egyptian religious beliefs she was fundamentally tied into aspects of divine kingship, afterlife belief and the philosophical conception of divine order in Egypt.

Hannah Drummond & Chris Bebbington.

Object in focus: A fragment of a “dummy” funerary vessel (E.586)

Whilst working in the museum stores, we often come across objects that have suffered from the effects of time, wear and tear. This is the case with object E.586, a broken piece of limestone with a polished, curved surface inscribed with two lines of hieroglyphs.

E.586 front view

E.586 front view

We came across this object, and many others during  the museum redevelopment project. At first sight, it was assumed to be part of a statue. However, one of our volunteers (who is a ceramic specialist) noted two slight breaks in the curve above and below the hieroglyphs, this led him to suspect that this was in fact a dummy funerary vessel.

After a little research, a number of similarities between this fragment and a type of dummy funerary stone vessel popular during the 18th Dynasty  became clear.  These dummy vessels had the outward appearance of popular shapes, but were not hollowed out. This type of object has been found in several high-ranking Theban tombs, such as the one belonging to Tutankhamun’s grandparents, Thuya and Yuya.  . Without the complex and time-consuming effort of hollowing out these stone vessels, they were much quicker, cheaper and easier to produce, they functioned as magical stand-ins for the real thing.

The inscription on E.586 identifies the owner of the vessel as “The Overseer of the Fields of Amun, the Osiris, Nebseny”. During the 18th Dynasty the title “Overseer of the Fields of Amun” was held exclusively by very high-ranking officials associated with the Karnak Temple. One particularly famous holder of this office was the 18th Dynasty official Senenmut who lived during the reign of Hatshepsut.

Reconstructed side view E.586

Reconstructed side view E.586

Image copyright of the Griffith Institute

Image copyright of the Griffith Institute

Curiously, E.586 is not the only museum object to mention Nebseny. A funerary cone in the British Museum (EA62848) contains an inscription for “The Overseer of the Fields of Amun, the Accounting Scribe of All Supplies in Upper and Lower Egypt and The Overseer of the Cultivators of Amun, Nebseny, the Justified”. EA62848 was gifted to the British Museum by Egyptologist Norman de Garis Davies in 1930. Davies had received the funerary cone from Sir Robert Mond, who found the object during his excavations near the tomb of Ramose (TT55) in 1903-1904. Robert Mond also has close links to the University of Liverpool and to John Garstang, having been associated with the Institute of Archaeology in its formative years.

Unlike funerary cones (which were displayed outside tombs), the dummy vessels were part of the burial equipment and would have been placed inside the tomb shaft itself. Mond does not report discovering any tomb belonging to Nebseny, it seems  likely that the heavily broken E.586 was damaged as the tomb was looted, only to be discarded in the vicinity of the tomb. The tomb of Nebseny,  remains undiscovered.


Object Biography: Meet ‘Felix’ one of our mummified cats

E.5425 a.k.a. 'Felix'

E.5425 a.k.a. ‘Felix’

This is ‘Felix’ one of our mummified cats, or more officially E.5425. Felix often goes with us on outreach activities though he is fairly quiet and doesn’t really eat much even when on the road! Really we should probably call him a more Egyptian name such as ‘Ta-miu’ (literally ‘the girl cat’, think meow), which is the name of the pet cat of a Prince Thutmose, but Felix rather stuck.

However, Felix was not buried in such a lofty location as the Valley of the Kings, in fact we are unsure of where he was originally buried. Instead, we know where he spent a portion of the 20th century- in an attic. On Thursday 12th November 1992, workmen were clearing the loft areas of one of the university buildings not too far from where the museum stands today; as they cleared the space they found some ancient pottery, basketry, mummified pieces and Felix. The building they were clearing, 11 Abercromby Square, had been part of the Institute of Archaeology before the 1940s and it appears that these objects were placed under the eaves for safe keeping and forgotten about for fifty years! An unusual find, but only last year another mummified cat was found lurking in an attic: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2278585/B-B-owner-finds-stuffed-cat-hidden-attic-2-000-year-old-EGYPTIAN-MUMMY.html (although the daily mail suggests that it was a mummified pet- keep reading and we will let you decide whether this is correct).

Scarcophagus of ‘Tamiu’, the pet cat of Prince Thutmose ©Madam Rafaèle

Scarcophagus of ‘Tamiu’, the pet cat of Prince Thutmose ©Madam Rafaèle

Why mummify a cat?

There are two reasons to mummify a cat, the first of these is to provide a pet with a caring burial (like Tamiu), and the second, more common reason is for ritual purposes. A number of animals including cats were mummified to serve as ritual offerings to the gods. Felix is probably one of these offerings. Cats were often offered to the cat-headed goddess Bastet as votives, with the practice of mummifying animals peaking in the 1st Millenium BC.  Huge numbers of animals were often stored on mass in underground galleries. As this was done on such a large scale, most of the mummified cats which were offered as votives were kittens, this was so that the temple could continue to produce these votives without spending unnecessary time raising an adult cat.


Wholesale cat mummies for fur-tiliser

Cartoon from "Punch" (15th February 1890)  showing a grizzly result of using the mummified cat fertiliser

Cartoon from “Punch” (15th February 1890) showing a grizzly result of using the mummified cat fertiliser

Liverpool also has an unusual link with mummified cats, on 10th February 1890, 19.5 tons of mummified cats (approx. 18,000). Found by accident in 1889 in Speos Artemidos, this large shipment was auctioned off in Liverpool and caused quite a stir in the media. The reports of the sale vary but they seem to agree that the cats were sold off wholesale when they had disintegrated (for use as fertiliser), with the more well preserved cats being sold whole or just as heads/bodies. There are even reports of the auctioneer using the skull of one such cat as a gavel!

For more on this, see: