Home Arts Ancient Egyptian sculpture ‘impossible’ riddle finally solved in Scotland

Ancient Egyptian sculpture ‘impossible’ riddle finally solved in Scotland

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For more than 150 years, a curious ancient Egyptian statue of a kneeling man has sat in the collections of the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) in Edinburgh. The man’s face has been destroyed at some point in the past 3,000 years. But, nestled in his outstretched arms, he holds the chubby little figure of a child. The child, unquestionably, is a pharaoh.

The statue, which can be seen at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, the flagship museum of National Museums Scotland, has remained a mystery to generations of Egyptologists because it should be impossible; by the strict conventions governing all aspects of Egyptian life, a commoner could not, at any time, touch a reigning king, let alone be in such intimate contact. For centuries, setting such an act in stone would be considered heresy.

“The instant I saw it, I thought, ‘This statue shouldn’t exist,'” says Margaret Maitland, senior curator of the Ancient Mediterranean at NMS. “It upset me.”

But Maitland managed to decipher the ancient statue. In doing so, she named the Faceless Man and, for the first time, identified a whole body of sculpture, including in other major museums, that had never been categorized together before.

The statue clearly shows a crowned king, but a normal person would never be depicted in three dimensions with a ruler.

Margaret Maitland, Curator, NMS

Ensure immortality

The statues, Maitland discovered, all come from the same remarkable site in Egypt: Deir el-Medina, a desert village of craftsmen who designed, built and decorated the tombs that ensured the immortality of the pharaohs. In doing so, they were privy to the innermost secrets of their rulers.

Maitland joined the NMS in 2012 and made the discovery while working on the re-exhibition of the museum’s Egyptian collection in the Ancient Egypt Rediscovered gallery. She presented her research at an international conference on Deir el-Medina at the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy.

Prior to his research, NMS curators had interpreted the statue as depicting a guardian with a royal child, while the Victorian archaeologist who first excavated it thought it was a king being cared for by the goddess Isis, although the smaller figure wore a crown, while the larger figure was definitely male.

“The statue clearly shows a crowned king, but a normal person would never be depicted in three dimensions with a ruler,” Maitland explains. “For centuries it was even forbidden to depict such a two-dimensional grouping in funerary paintings.”

The statue became part of the NMS in 1985 when the collection of the former National Museum of Antiquities, also in Edinburgh, was merged with that of the Royal Scottish Museum. Prior to that, the statue was part of the collection of pioneering but almost forgotten archaeologist Alexander Henry Rhind, who hailed from the town of Wick in the far north of Scotland and made a name for himself excavating sites in the north of Scotland before traveling to Egypt for the first time in 1855. Rhind died in 1863, aged just 29, of tuberculosis. Revisiting her meticulous records, Maitland learned that Rhind had discovered and excavated the statue at Deir el-Medina.

As ancient Egypt fell, the village was gradually abandoned and never rebuilt. But, in its heyday, the isolated community was teeming with prestigious, highly skilled and learned people who were well paid for their craft. Literacy was so common in Deir el-Medina that archaeological excavations have unearthed thousands of fragments containing sketches, messages, lists, complaints and jokes. The workers’ temple, as well as their own graves, were also found buried in the sand.

Maitland’s immersion in Deir el-Medina led to a discovery. The small figure depicted in the statue, she realized, was not a living pharaoh, but a statue of a pharaoh. The iconography of the taller man, kneeling as he is with outstretched arms, echoed other familiar depictions of an Egyptian figure presenting an offering.

Maitland began researching all the other carvings in Deir el-Medina and found a whole group, including a fragmentary but beautifully carved example in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and several in the Egyptian National Museum, some surviving as nothing more than the offering hands. A few of the group show the royal statue in a shrine, thus in less intimate contact with the donor than the Edinburgh example.

His conclusion is that the most experienced workers of Deir el-Medina were only allowed not only to build the tombs of the rulers, but also to offer statues to the chapels of their own temple of Hathor, presenting themselves in the closest contact with these images of divine power and authority. This could not have happened without the knowledge of the royal court; every aspect of village work was regulated and recorded, from the materials supplied to the food they ate and the beer they drank. These images were mutually beneficial, Maitland believes, reinforcing both the supreme power of the rulers and the loyalty and status of the village officials so intimately tied to them.

So who is the Faceless Man and the Child Pharaoh Statue? The kneeling donor wears a garland of flowers on his head. It was common in statues of women but very rare in depictions of men, except for a period during the reign of the Ramses kings, Maitland found.

Ramses II, known as “Ramses the Great”, reigned from 1279 to 1213 BC. AD, the second longest reign of any ancient Egyptian king. His image was ubiquitous, as he erected more temples and statues honoring his own glory than any other Egyptian ruler. The highest official in the village of Deir el-Medina, and the direct link to the court of Ramesses, would have been an official known as the vizier, but the statue does not show the robes typically worn by such an important figure.

Next—and, according to Maitland, the man who commissioned the statue—would have been the senior scribe, who was responsible for the crucial tombstone inscriptions. If Maitland’s identification of Ramses II is correct, we know that his scribe was a man named Ramose, as his tomb still survives. So Ramose achieved his own immortality – in an Edinburgh gallery.

Infighting between Egyptologists is common, and overturning a new theory is a favorite sport. But, so far, Maitland’s work has been accepted. “There’s more work to do,” she says. “I’m haunted by the thought that the missing inscription – maybe even the missing face – might still lie in the sand waiting to be found, to prove or blow up my theory.”

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