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Work Toy

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)


© Musée du Louvre/G. Poncet

Egyptian Antiquities
Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Christiane Lyon-Cæn

The simple chiseled form of the horseman sits atop two pieces of wood cut in the shape of a horse. Traces of red, white, and black paint are still visible; they were used to indicate the mane, the eyes, the saddle, and the harness. The toy is mounted on two wheels and could be pulled by a string, as do children today.

The object

The horseman and his wheeled horse or horses seem to have been carved quickly by a confident craftsman, who nevertheless had no concept of "mass production." The figure's anatomy is limited to a head with a sharply hewn face, a helmet-style head of hair, a broad chest, and two arms clasped tightly to his sides. The lower limbs are formed by nothing more than a rough stick shape that disappears between the two pieces of wood. It is attached to the horse by two dowels that run from one side of the horse to the other.
The two thin pieces of wood were carved from tamarisk, which grows abundantly in Egypt. Though rough, the shape is clearly that of horses. Two upright ears, prominent eye sockets above short, square nostrils, a short tail that may once have had horsehair, and thicker hind legs immediately identify this animal as a horse. Two axles run through the bottom of the legs and are fitted with two sets of wheels; the front wheels are larger than the rear wheels, to compensate for the different lengths of the legs. Much like children today, the young owner must have pulled this toy around with a string tied to the front dowel.
With just a few brushstrokes, the craftsman created a mane, two eyes, a saddle, and reins. Unfortunately, all that remains are traces of this polychromy in the red, white, and black on what must have once been a gleaming toy. None of the paint on the horseman exists.

The toy

This is not an unusual type of toy, and many wheeled animals were unearthed in the excavations of Byzantine necropolises, including hedgehogs, dogs, camels, cats, and lions. The originality of this work comes from the use of two horses instead of one. It is hard to know whether this is a depiction of an acrobatic horseman controlling two mounts, or if it is a whimsical portrayal by the toymaker.

The context

Many wooden toys, animals that could be pulled or played with, dolls to cuddle, and doll's tea seats were found in the tombs of children from the Roman-Coptic period. We know little about the world of toys from late Antiquity, as few texts exist. The few references to toys rarely provide descriptions, even brief ones, and the lack of images showing children at play from this late period means that we cannot accurately identify this type of work. For many years, and even still today, amulets, religious ex-votoes, and children's toys were lumped together, given the identical images and the small size of all these objects, adapted to children's hands. Nothing looks more like a statuette of a female deity than a doll, whether it is made of clay, wood, or stone.


- Au fil du Nil, couleurs de l’Egypte chrétienne, Catalogue d'exposition au musée Dobrée de Nantes, Paris, 2001, n° 37, p.67.

Technical description

  • Jouets

    Ve - VIIIe siècle après J.-C.


  • bois, ivoire

    H. : 21,50 cm. ; L. : 4,50 cm. ; Pr. : 3,37 cm.

  • Don Frédérica Tchacos, 1973 : E 27134Fouilles A. Gayet, 1901 : AF 1185, AF 1179, AF 1183

    Wooden horseman

    E 27134, AF 1185, AF 1179, AF 1183

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Lower ground floor
    Gallery of Coptic art
    Room 173
    Vitrine M2 : Toilette et loisirs

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