Servant Figurines from Egyptian Tombs: Whom Did They Depict, and How Did They Work?
By Rune Nyord
Ever since they first became widely known in the late nineteenth century, the wooden figurines deposited in ancient Egyptian tombs during the late third and early second millennium BCE have captured the imagination of modern audiences. Were they scenes of daily life or puppets that were they somehow meant to be used?
Granary tableau. Tomb of Meketre (Thebes), Dynasty 12. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 20.3.11. (http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/545281)
Tableau of man plowing. Unknown provenance, Dynasty 12. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 36.5. (http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544255)
Arranged in identifiable tableaux of agriculture, crafts, food production, and river voyages, the figurines replicate motifs from traditional wall decorations in tombs. Wall decorations were mostly displayed in accessible parts of the tomb where the family would regularly perform ancestor cult rituals.
Scenes of bird trapping (above) and plowing (below). Tomb chamber of Itet (Meidum), Dynasty 4. Egyptian Museum, Cairo JE 43809.
But figurines were mostly deposited in tomb shafts or tomb chambers, never to be seen again. Carved wood gave the figurines considerable flexibility, though the quality of the execution often varied with the skill of the maker. The separate arms of many figurines provided flexibility when arranging their poses, but once fixed they were not intended to be moved further. With the moveable limbs, painted wood, and small scale suggests to the modern viewer nothing so much as toys.
Figurines in a ransacked tomb chamber next to the coffin (right). Tomb of Djehutynakht (Barsha), Dynasty 12. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1915).
Figurines in a chamber separate from the burial chamber itself. Tomb of Meketre (Thebes), Dynasty 12. Metropolitan Museum of Art (1920).
Their perceived toy-like quality has influenced modern interpretations since the late nineteenth century. The nursery atmosphere evoked by the figurines may well have called to mind popular stories of toys coming to life, such as E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King or Hans Christian Andersen's The Steadfast Tin Soldier. More recently, we may think of examples like the Toy Story to realize that this idea still holds a highly intuitive status.
Nineteenth-century toys coming to life. Carl Geissler, illustration for E.T.A. Hoffmann's Nussknacker und Mausekönig (1840). (https://etahoffmann.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/wp-content/uploads/Geissler_Nussknacker_Tafel2_1840.jpg)
Surely, the thinking went, the Egyptian figurines were believed to come to life (in this case during the afterlife), and the purpose was no doubt to serve the deceased, to make sure he would be well provided for throughout eternity. As the Egyptians have not left us any texts that can be regarded as straightforward explanations of the purpose of the figurines, this explanation seemed as good as any, and has been dominant for the last century.
But despite this seemingly reasonable explanation there are many discordant details concerning the figurines and their deposition being bent – sometimes unwittingly – to make them fit with the overall idea.
One clear case is the 'anonymity' of the figurines. In the traditional interpretation, the figurines do not really represent anyone specific. Rather, they are meant to create a work force for the afterlife out of nothing. But this does not fit with the common idea in Egyptian art of an intrinsic connection between a representation and that which it represents. For this reason, it is generally stressed that unlike many other Egyptian representations of humans in three dimensions, the servant figurines are 'anonymous.' This apparently neutral description implies not just that figurines tend to be uninscribed, but that they are deliberately kept that way in order to serve their purpose.
But while statistically rare, there are a number of examples of servant figurines identified by name, sometimes with a title or designation of their ritual role. One example is a funerary boat model from the Middle Egyptian site of Meir showing four inscribed ritualists surrounding the bier on which the mummy of the tomb owner is shown.
Funerary boat with inscribed figures. Tomb of Ukhhotep (Meir), Dynasty 12. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 12.183.3.
The first man is labeled simply with his role 'Lector priest', while the other has both his ritual title and his name, 'the cupbearer Neferiu.' The two priestesses are labeled by their ritual role as the goddesses Isis and Nephthys (with the deceased playing the role as their brother Osiris), followed by the names of the human beings performing these roles, respectively Hetepet and Hathorhetepet.
Such cases, where the figurines were clearly conceived as representations of specific individuals, are problematic for the idea that the images come to life. This contradicts the purportedly generic quality of the figurines as representing nothing only a category of servants. While such inscribed exemplars are statistically rare, they are known from a number of sites. Thus, not only is the designation as 'anonymous' a misnomer, but it is a misleading product of the traditional explanation, prompted by their toy-like quality.
If there is little basis for the idea that the figurines came to life, while at the same time their motifs show strong parallels with the traditional decoration of tomb walls, is there a new interpretation that reflects the general Egyptian conceptions of images?
From parallels in wall decoration we know that women like this figurine were offering bearers in the ancestor cult, often personified representations of the individual estates where the offerings were produced.
Figurine of offering bearer. Tomb of Meketre (Thebes), Dynasty 12. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 20.3.7. (http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544210)
This suggests that the wider repertoire of scenes represent different steps of the production process of offerings presented during the ancestor cult. In other words, the figurines represent actions actually taking place in the estates of the mortuary establishment and elsewhere, which were sometimes identified as actual people. In fact, whether or not they were inscribed, they would 'represent' specific processes actually taking place, or expected to take place, in the ancestor cult.
Rather than regarding them as a magical backup system, it seems more likely that they were meant to establish and render permanent the connection between the owner of the tomb, the production of the mortuary estates, and the people performing the necessary labor. We tend to focus on the benefits for the tomb owner, but it is likely that this relationship was reciprocal, and the estates and trustees also benefited from the benevolent gaze and blessing (not to mention the initial funding) of the ancestor whose cult they maintained.
We may even speculate that the figurines were merely the material dimension of such a double-sided pledge between ancestor and descendants. An interpretation along these lines, which can only be sketched here in the most general terms, has the advantage of avoiding the projection of nineteenth-century ideas about supernatural toys, while instead focusing on a well-attested use of images in ancient Egypt as makers and maintainers of social or cosmic connections.
Rune Nyord is Assistant Professor of Ancient Egyptian Art and Archaeology at Emory University.
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