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Work Female Nude
Department of Egyptian Antiquities: From the late prehistoric period to the late Middle Kingdom (circa 3800 - 1710 BC)
© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps
From the late prehistoric period to the late Middle Kingdom (circa 3800 - 1710 BC)
This little statuette is one of a series of ivory figurines dated by scholars to circa the Early Dynastic Period. Although most have a tenon beneath the feet, it is not known to what they were fixed, and their purpose thus remains unknown. In the absence of any context of discovery, the probable date of the sculpture has been deduced from stylistic features.
Naked, but Well-Groomed
The young woman stands naked, legs pressed together. Her high breasts are small and rounded. Of the arms, there remain only a few traces where they have broken off: the right would have hung down beside the body, and the left forearm was held across the front of the waist, with the palm of the hand upturned. A bracelet may have adorned the left wrist. The head, which from the front seems to sit directly on the shoulders, is in fact carried on a forward-jutting neck. The hair is styled in wavy tresses, drawn together at the back and secured with a loosely knotted ribbon. This arrangement is not unique: the woman in the cloak has exactly the same hairstyle.
The position of the left arm is curious: this gesture, as it were, with the upper arm against the side of the chest, and the forearm held horizontal beneath the breast, would raise the shoulder a little. The sculptor does in fact show the left shoulder a little higher than the right. There are other archaic female figures shown like this: those surviving intact have the left hand cupped, as if holding an object. Yet the hand is empty! In similar statuettes, but of a later date (New Kingdom and Late Dynastic Period), the women are always shown holding an object (perhaps a cat or a bird). Did these archaic statuettes also hold something, perhaps a detachable object that has now disappeared? Or is this some conventional gesture of offering, whose significance now escapes us?
Problems of Dating
Three ivory statuettes (at museums in Philadelphia, Oxford and London) share certain features with the Louvre model. All have heavier breasts, and the hair is different, or even absent. None of the three has the raised left shoulder. The British Museum figurine is the closest stylistically, especially in the slenderness of the body, which already evokes the Dynastic ideal of feminine beauty in the length of the neck, and in the dotted treatment of the pubic area (perhaps to suggest depilation?). Of the three, it is believed to be the latest in date (Nagada II), just before the First Dynastic Period, to which the Louvre statuette is attributed on account of the finesse of the modeling and the subtlety of detail.
Thinite period, 3100-2700 BC
Sculpture (ronde bosse), ivoire d'hippopotame
H. 12.8 cm
The Naqada era, c. 4000–3100 BC
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