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Work Statuette of a young boy

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: From the late prehistoric period to the late Middle Kingdom (circa 3800 - 1710 BC)

Un enfant nu

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

Egyptian Antiquities
From the late prehistoric period to the late Middle Kingdom (circa 3800 - 1710 BC)

Author(s):
SI

Ivory, either from elephant tusks or hippopotamus teeth, was commonly used in ancient Egypt. From as early as the predynastic period, ivory was carved to make all kinds of objects, from daggers to gaming pieces. This statuette of a young boy is a rare example, none the less, as no similar pieces are known. Failing more information, we can therefore only compare it with statuettes of children carved in stone or wood as part of family portraits.

An Old Kingdom statuette

This statuette, of unknown provenance, was purchased by the museum in 1852 with the collection of Doctor Clot. Stylistic elements nevertheless offer a few clues: the wavy hair, for example, which is extremely rare in a statue of a child, appears in several groups from the late Fifth Dynasty (2500–2350 BCE).

A depiction of childhood

The young boy is carved from a lower canine tooth of a hippopotamus, the pulp cavity probably determining the spacing between the legs. The child is depicted walking, his right index finger touching his lower lip with the other fingers folded inward, his left arm hanging naturally down his side with the hand open. Nudity and a finger placed on the lips were both traditional indications of childhood. The body has the chubby, rounded shape of a small child, notably with a short neck, plump stomach and round navel, and remarkable dimples just above the buttocks, an extremely unusual rendering in the Old Kingdom. The features recall the realism of works from the Sixth Dynasty, but are also reminiscent of certain portraits of dwarves, with their chubby cheeks and flat head, prominent, high-set eyes, flattened nose and  full-lipped mouth. The carving is fairly basic, but the fingernails are delicately sculpted and the genitals precisely rendered: the child has not been circumcised. Finally, black paint has been used to highlight the hair and eyes.

Enigma of a rarity

This depiction of a child may reflect the importance in ancient Egypt, both socially and within the family, of having a son. Not only social recognition but also a guarantee of survival in the afterlife depended on the birth of a male offspring, as it was sons who were responsible for performing funeral rites and organizing offerings. Yet this ivory appears to be unique, both in its subject—a child alone, not within a family group—and in the absence of the characteristic hairstyle of young children: a bare head with a single lock of hair falling to the side.
Nothing would appear to indicate that this is a child god. The context is unknown, which raises the question of the status of this isolated work: is it a representation of childhood in general or of a specific child? There are no known mortuary monuments for any dead child, represented as such, in pharaonic Egypt. It is possible that the plinth on which it originally stood, now lost, bore an inscription that would have provided answers to these questions.

Bibliography

Andreu Guillemette, Rutschowscaya Marie-Hélène, Ziegler Christiane, Ancient Egypt at the Louvre, Paris, Hachette, 1997, pp. 70-1.
Ziegler Christiane, "A Propos de quelques ivoires de l’Ancien Empire conservés au musée du Louvre", in Grimal Nicolas (ed.), Les Critères de datation stylistique à l’Ancien Empire, Bibliothèque d’Étude 120, Paris, 1998, pp. 407-19.
Ziegler Christiane, Catalogue des stèles, peintures et reliefs égyptiens de l’Ancien Empire et de la Première période intermédiaire : vers 2686-2040 avant J.-C., Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1990, pp. 168-70.

Technical description

  • Un enfant nu

    6e dynastie ?, 2350 - 2200 avant J.-C.

  • ivoire peint

    H. : 14,20 cm.

  • E 322

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    The Old Kingdom, c. 2700–2200 BC
    Room 22
    Vitrine 19 : Ivoires et vases royaux

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