Egyptian Bronzes and Conservation of Ancient Egyptian Metals


Note: These two lectures were given together as a pair of complementary presentations at the same venue.

Ms. Debbie Schorsch received her MA from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and is a conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts in New York. Her specialty is ancient metal work.

Ms. Schorsch opened her lecture by noting that the volume of surviving metal statuary points to its importance in Ancient Egypt. Most was produced in the 1st millennium BC. From the beginning of the 1st millennium through the Ptolemaic period we see a long tradition of metal statuary, some in precious metals [gold, silver & electrum], but most in bronze. 

Depending on the function for which the finished product was intended, either casting or hammering was the means of formation. Most seem to have been cast, but some significant pieces were hammered. An excellent hammered example is the large Pepi II statue, which was made entirely from a hammered sheet of copper.

Lost-wax was used to cast both hollow and solid statuary. A hollow cast requires a core around which the wax sculpture is formed. An investment - usually made of a mixture of clay and sand - is then applied over the wax mold. "Screws" for holding the core in place, vents and openings through which the molten metal can flow, are formed before and during the formation of the investment. After casting, the investment is removed then the surface of the resulting object is cleaned and finished. The model and the mold are always lost when the lost-wax method is used. Ms. Schorsch noted that the screws, or evidence for them, usually do not survive into modern times. Solid casts require more metal and fuel; hollow casts require more skill, but less metal.

We can tell from the object the attitude of the casting; i.e., whether it was cast feet down or head down, as the portion cast last is more porous. Usually the tangs, which were used for mounting the finished piece, are more porous, having trapped more of the displaced gasses created during the casting process.

Some pieces were cast solid, but appendages were hollow-cast then attached. Sometimes the choice was made due to the limitations of the material; other times it just seems to be the metalurgist's preference. Mechanical joins depended on being able to fit elements where adhesives - glue and solder - were possible to use.

Most extant representations of gods are in bronze. The majority of the metal figures from the 1st millennium cannot be precisely dated through inscriptions, as none are present, so are dated based on their style. Ms. Schorsch noted that Nefertum seems to have been represented most often in silver and in a very few instances, in gold. Silver was a rare commodity in Egypt, having to be imported as there are almost no silver deposits in Egypt, so use of this metal clearly signifies the level of devotion in which this deity was held.

Some cast statuary had adornments added. The original piece was cast with channels for receipt of the attachments. Some times pits resulted due to excessive porosity, but were not intended, so had to be repaired using small plugs. These repairs were not visible when the piece was new, but with the corrosion of time they can now be readily seen.

As already noted, gold figures are rare. The Carnarvon Amun figure is the only surviving human figure cast of solid gold. It dates to about 800-850BC.

Electrum was a popular metal for fine pieces in ancient Egypt. It is a natural allow of gold and silver - usually 20% silver, and gold. The more silver in the mixture, the cooler and paler the resulting metal appeared. Most Egyptian gold and electrum does have some alloy of copper. Only the Carnarvon Atum shows none. Sometimes heavily alloyed gold was exposed to an enhancement process in which the gold partially separates from the copper and comes to the surface, resulting in an object which appears on the surface to be pure gold, but which is, in fact, predominately copper.

When investigating gold pieces, Ms. Schorsch noted that gold is resistant to X-rays, so Gamma radiation must be used to take pictures of gold objects when one wishes to see "through" the object. She also noted that using a scanning electron microscope, one can detect fine seams as the solder is formulated to have a lower melting point than the object ,so appears a slightly different color under the microscope. The solder is formulated using copper salts mixed with gold. One can often see the copper layer when some-thing has been removed from a base or the solder is otherwise revealed

Some components are solid, even in a hollow-cast mold, such as fine details like fingers and hands, feet, facial features, channels for surface decoration and fine embellishments, etc. The stabilization process, to keep the core in place during casting and the melting of the wax also sometimes contributes to some components being cast solid. In large pieces, it is necessary to create some sort of armature to support the piece inside.

It is very difficult to introduce surface detail to metal statuary without the use of iron tools, which the Egyptians did not have during much of their ancient history, so such detailed were sometimes impressed into the original wax mold. These embellishments were often quite colorful with inlays of gold, silver, stone or faience. Some bronze statuary was later gilded with gold. Some embellishments seemed to have been carved into the metal then gold wire was hammered into the groove. Another method of gilding onto bronze was to lay down a layer of gesso on the surface of the piece then add the gilding on top of the gesso. The Egyptians became skilled at creating an artificially patinated bronze surface which we now call "black bronze". Black bronze is a bronze/gold allow which when chemically treated results in a black surface which can then be decorated with various embellishments such as inlays.

Ms. Schorsch concluded her lecture by summarizing the compositional difference in materials and the rich results we still enjoy in collections such at that of the Metropolitan Museum.

- Nancy Corbin


The Manufacture of Metal Statuary in Egypt in the 1st Millennium BC


Dr. Marcia Hill is a Curator in the Department of Egyptian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She holds a BA from Barnard College and both an MA and Ph.D. in Art History from the Institute of Fine Art at NYU. She specializes in Egyptian bronze statuary and is the author of Royal Bronze Statuary from Ancient Egypt.

Dr. Hill concentrated her remarks on a specific body of bronze objects, and the things it has caused her to think about regarding bronze. Her investigations centered around the bronze kings in the Met's collection, which gave her the opportunity to study a huge body of information regarding iconography and style related to the Egyptian royals. The Met has about 300 in the its collection, 150 of which Dr. Hill has studied and catalogued in minute detail.

Dr. Hill noted that one starts to learn a lot about the temple ritual world in Egypt when studying these bronzes, something we do not know much about. The artistic role of these pieces begins to be viewed from different vantage points with close study. Small, precious statuary is one of many artistic means of focusing and relating to the gods. They help in the process or reconstituting a properly balanced world and open an experience of the divine world for the viewer or worshiper.

The earliest king's statues known are of copper. In the Met collection, one is of King Khasekhemwy and another is of Neferirkare, plus two preserved statues from the time of Pepi I which have only recently been cleaned, so are not yet identified. They are small, and were cast using the lost wax method. None of this royal statuary was found in tombs in either the Old or Middle Kingdoms.

Bronze was actually available as early as the Old Kingdom, but it was used primarily for tools and vessels. Adding tin to copper to create bronze makes is better for statuary. Some spectacular alloys appeared quite early - such as black bronze [an alloy of bronze and gold]. Some statuary was hollow cast with striking use of inlay. Temple ritual roles are often depicted in bronze casts. The reliefs depict activities that are clearly taking place in a temple and clearly of a ritual nature.

The role of bronze statuary in depicting royals is a focus in the New Kingdom. It starts with Thutmosis III. Bronze statues of the king look incredibly like the stone images of him, which were most certainly the prototypes for the bronze images. Comparison after comparison between the bronze images and the stone images show a tight correlation between the representations. The only differences are such things as a wide back belt depicted in bronze which is not depicted in stone. All the images are of the king kneeling, holding offering bowls.

The Third Intermediate Period was the high point of Egyptian bronze artistry. Ritual statuary was a big deal and ritual participation was at a peak. A burgeoning of temple statuary of great beauty was the result. This statuary can sometimes be dated by inscription, but most often one must rely on stylistic trends as there is little stone statuary to compare it with.

Bronze depictions of the god Ra are of particular interest. They display movement which heretofore was very rare. Arms are swinging, bodies twist, one foot swings in front of the other. These pieces are good examples of the flexibility of the medium which is not evident in stone statuary.

Dr. Hill shared photographs of some of the Met's most beautiful pieces, including a statue of Karumama wearing a shirt heavily inscribed with offering scenes, though the name of the offerer is not represented.

During the Kushite period postures are quieter and there are lots of casts of the same thing with very little difference. The king is usually kneeling, with two hands forward against his thighs, palms outward.

In the Saite Period bronze kings are much like those of the Third Intermediate Period. The bronzes are tightly tied to a stone image. All sorts of unusual features are seen in the bronzes, however; such as kilts folded backward and odd nemes headdresses with ear flaps.

When Egypt comes together under Amasis/ Apries there is no record or a uraeus . The asp uraeus is known only from the 30th Dynasty and sculptor's models. Dr. Hill postulated that perhaps it was a cult "thing", as it appears only on bronzes, not on stone statuary. The Met collection contains a bronze of Amasis, which is loose in style and clearly open to many influences.

During the Persian Period bronze statuary existed but there is not a very clear corpus. They can be dated to the end of the 26th Dynasty until the 30th Dynasty but only through one actual example.

During the Ptolemaic Period there are a range of models, a few distantly connected to what is going on with stone statuary. We see many levels of removal from the ancient Egyptian model and much more Greek influence. Regional styles seem to have emerged during this period. Merging roles seem to be depicted. There are both standing and kneeling kings, hands are sometimes forward, sometimes holding offering vessels. With the exception of the Third Intermediate Period, statuary is very upright, no bending or variation of leg position. Offerings are restricted and now represent the totality of all offerings whether vegetation, milk, or meat. We no longer see the "I give so you give" offering. We now see renderings to the gods which are no longer in the form of compeller or compelling. This change in approach may explain why statuary also reverted to very hieroglyphic poses.

The earliest instance we see of the hands of a statue being thrust forward ,open with palms upward, prepared to hold an offering vessel, occurs in the Third Intermediate Period, and the pose was to dominate the bronze statuary thereafter. Such figures turn up all over the place, for example, on barques as accompaniment to ritual banquets, etc.

It is also possible to associate them with some non-Ra statuary such as that of Sennenmut who is portrayed holding a ritual naos. Such statues mimic royal temple roles in order to mimic them in the afterlife. The statue is embracing or protecting the shrine and the image within it. Though such statues do not seem to be expressing a wish for the afterlife, but rather protecting the offering statuary, Dr. Hill suggested that there may actually be a relationship to revivification going on as well.

No ancient bronze kings in the Met's collection are preserved on their original ancient bases though they do have the tangs for mounting. Wooden bases were probably used. These missing bases may be significant. Some that now have bases may be reuses of a base, though Dr. Hill thinks that the Met's statues of Taharka and Horus are on bases that may just be original mounts. She cautioned that one should worry if one sees Egyptian bronze statues on a base, as they don't normally have them when they are found!

The issue is not that statues and bases did not go together. Rather that we know that after the displays of the gods during temple rituals were finished the statues were removed from their base and the two were put away separately. It is quite clear that several different statues could be fitted into a single base; therefore, one base was used for various statues at different time.

At Abydos lots of extra little bronzes are shown in the reliefs. The reason for this is unclear. They may be a representational group, a processional into a sanctuary. Perhaps outside the temple, the king needs amuletic and king figures to protect him. Inside he does not need them as he is in the presence of the god.

The offering of precious metal or bronze statuary was, presumably, restricted to the royals and persons of elite status. In ancient Egypt we know that we have a very complex religious landscape and many who are participating in religious activities in a variety of ways. We need to know more to understand their real roles. Most of the offering statuary is very nicely made, but some is of lesser quality. Dr. Hill postulated that it probably reflects the economic status of the donor. Bronze statuary or other temple equipment was donated by the wealthy as "insurance" for their afterlife. Bronze is strongly associated with temple cults and ritual equipment, and the implication is that the offerer felt that the offering would give him a role in the temple. Careful wrapping of some pieces indicates that the image was placed with some "charge" to be carried out.

An exciting new excavation at Kharga Oasis in the Temple of Osiris, which dates to 529-480BC, during the Persian Period, has produced a treasure trove of bronze statuary. Two rooms of the temple in which statuary was stored, were in use when a wall of the temple collapsed, burying the objects in place. A wooden naos and many statuettes on wooden bases, plus some possible animal mummies are included in the cache. The find has produced lots of "cruddie" bronzes so far, but Dr. Hill noted that it would be very convenient if there were some inscription on some of the statuary or on the wooden bases. She noted that sometimes there are loops on the backs of some of the bronzes. No one has yet postulated what they might have been used for.

This find is particularly significant as it will facilitate art historians in taking a long, uninterrupted look at a whole corpus of material. With close analysis it may be possible to detect the role of these pieces. Many of these pieces may well have been cast right at the temple, and the finishing was most certainly done at the temple. Temples were the maintainers of a tradition, though centralized and royal. Implications vary with socio/political changes but still apparently related to a central tradition.

Bronze statuary tells us a lot about fluctuating temple traditions and more about centralized traditions. We need to bear in mind, however, the shifting influences from the king, the temple and the locale.

Nancy Corbin

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