Female Figures From Ancient Egypt

On June 24th Dr. Emily Teeter, the Assistant Curator of the Oriental Institute Museum, spoke to our group about female figurines from ancient Egypt. Dr. Teeter noted that these figurines are “middle-class” art as opposed to the grand art found in temples, palaces and elite tombs. Many of these artifacts look distinctly non-Egyptian. Often these figurines are lost in a sea of small finds in museums all over the globe (the initial slides shown in her presentation depicted a pubic triangle, a squat female figure which almost looked like Pre-Columbian art and a baked clay artifact of a woman lying on her back on a bed). Many are obscurely published or not published at all.

Some of these figurines are similar to Nubian examples of the A and C groups dating to about the 17th Century B.C.E. Ticking on the figurines is thought to represent tattooing as found on some female mummies from the Thebaid and elsewhere in Egypt. One German archaeologist (humorously known as Herr Dryer) notes examples from as early as the 3rd Dynasty and bulky, squat-looking baked clay examples are known from the 6th Dynasty as well. The elaborately coiffured “paddle dolls” found in Middle Kingdom contexts are antecedents of these later clay figurines.

Dr. Teeter is particularly interested in the figurines recovered from the domestic quarters located in the western portion of the temple compound at Medinet Habu (the mortuary temple of Rameses III and the adjacent buildings within its mudbrick enclosure wall). These baked clay artifacts are characterized by their small breasts, wide hips and small waists, truncated at about the knees and stippled with “tattooing”. Early Egyptologists let their Victorian views cloud their assessment of these objects. Winlock, for example, thought that the figures were “concubines” and their legs were truncated so that they could not run away.

Some Middle Kingdom figures have flattened heads with heavy tripartite hair or wigs and the pubic triangle ticked out with small lines depicting hair. These figures are very similar to the early Nubian examples. Such objects are hand molded clay. Early New Kingdom examples are often produced in molds (modeled on one side only) and depict a woman and child. Over sixty figurines from the New Kingdom are documented in the collections in Chicago. Dating these figurines was a problem before they were found in context, as they are quite primitive in appearance. One unusual feature is that these mold-made female figurines are painted brick-red, the color normally associated with males. The woman is often nursing the child with the right hand cupping the left breast and the hair on left side thrown over the left shoulder to expose the breast. Another type is the woman on a bed both with and without a child. Often elaborate symbols are added (mirrors, snakes and other erotic symbols).

The majority of the known figures were produced from the 20th to the 23rd Dynasty with the majority of these falling between Dynasties 20 and 21. These figures were often thought to be Roman because they were, to quote Dr. Teeter, “pug-ugly”. These are characterized by unfinished feet, large navels, the pronounced pubic triangle with the small tick marks depicting hair. W. Flinders Petrie characterized these as “massive forms of extreme coarseness”. The eyes and noses were bits of modeled clay stuck onto the face and hair or wigs depicted by striations cut into the surface of the clay.

Examples of these forms are found throughout Egypt in such places as the Ramesseum and Dra Abu’l Naga in the Thebaid, Diaspolis Parva, Denderah and Naqada (all from Upper Egypt) and a more idealized form (with the female figurines closer to the normal canon of depicting females in Egyptian art) found in Lower Egypt in such places as Mendes. Dating has been possible because these figurines have been located below dateable 25th Dynasty house levels.

Other forms of these figurines are characterized by chunky bodied figures with large breasts, hand modeled (not molded) in whitish clay. They are about six and a half inches tall. The women have short hair or wigs not the tripartite style of the other examples and the arms and hands held to the sides. The back sides of these figures are painted with stripes of alternating yellow, brick red and white. Fragments of these figures found in different museums have been identified by their striping. Eight fragments are known, four being in Chicago. The modeling of these figurines is similar to the Bubastite style of later Egyptian art (Dynasty 22), sharing the short hairstyles large navel, rounded breasts and wide hips of bronze figures of priestesses produced at this time.

Dr. Teeter also showed the group a clay version of a woman in a birth arbor (similar to the famous ostraca from Deir el Medina). Yet another figurine is the “votive bed” which are clay platforms or boxes with various forms of modeled decoration. Typically there is a boat in which a woman wearing a modius is standing shown fully frontal (rare in Egyptian art). Women with punting poles are rowing the boat. Other decoration may include a goose at the front of the boat and Bes figures. These figures may depict a goddess (Hathor or the Palestinian deity Qudshu) and are similar to stela of this type found in the Thebaid. These come from house contexts, probably from household shrines related to regeneration.

How are we to assess these objects? Dr. Teeter noted that early Egyptologists such as Winlock saw them as “dancing girls” (euphemism of the time for concubines or prostitutes) since the tattooing is typical of tattooing found on musician girls and dancers from New Kingdom tombs on the West Bank in Thebes. But these objects are not found merely in men’s tombs but in many tombs of noblewomen as well. We know from the mummies of some priestesses that some of these high-born ladies have tattoos as well. Many such objects have feet, so clearly stopping these female fertility figures from running away is not really an issue. Clearly these objects are of an erotic nature, but these cannot be assessed using the standards of our own time.  Rebirth in the afterlife and fertility in this life are the likely frames of reference for this class of objects. They may be seen as similar to the “letters to the dead” found in some tombs where a living member of the community asks a deceased relative for assistance with a problem from the empowered spirits (akhw) in the local cemetery. One such object from Berlin actually carries an inscription of this sort.

Since these figures are created over a span of many centuries, such objects would probably have held different meanings and purposes over time as well. Early figurines of this type are found in an Old Kingdom temple context at Elephantine (as a votive offering?), as fertility objects in the tombs of the Middle Kingdom and as fertility and regeneration objects in household shrines of the New Kingdom or as letters to the dead in tombs of the New Kingdom.

  • Nancy Corbin
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