Figure of a Man (work of art)
Key Ideas about this Work of Art
- This wooden statue would have served as a temporary container for a deceased person’s life force, or ka. Ancient Egyptians believed the ka must be fed with food and beverages and live in a physical body for the deceased person to have life after death.
- The body of the statue was carved from a single piece of wood. The surface of the wood was covered with gesso (jeh-so), a white paint that creates a smooth surface. On top of the gesso, the man’s skin was painted a brownish-red color.
- The figure’s missing arms were originally attached to his body with mortise and tenon joints. A woodworker would have attached two pieces of wood together by joining a tenon (an extending part at the end of the one piece of wood) to a mortise (a hole on the other piece). The holes where the arms were attached are visible on the shoulders of this statue.
- This funerary (burial-related) statue was likely placed inside an ancient Egyptian tomb called a mastaba. A mastaba is a rectangular, flat-roofed structure that was built above the ground and made from limestone or bricks. Mastabas have multiple rooms and an underground burial chamber.
Ancient Egyptians believed that people were made of many parts. These included a physical body and a soul. The soul usually had two components: a ka and a ba. The ba of a person was their personality and power. The ka was their life force. In order to have life after death, one’s ka must be fed with food and drinks and have a physical body in which to reside. Mummification (the preservation of corpses through drying and wrapping), provided a permanent body in which the ka could “live.” When offerings (such as foods and beverages) were brought to the deceased, the ka was believed to move into the offering chamber temporarily. The ka would then go inside the funerary statue (representing its body) and be able to enjoy the nourishment of the offerings.
Figure of a Man served as a temporary shelter for the ka of the tomb owner. The body of this statue was carved from a single piece of wood. There are rectangular grooves in each shoulder. The missing arms would have been attached to the body by being inserted to the grooves. This joining technique is called a mortise and tenon joint. According to their research, Egyptologists believe the figure’s right arm hung at his side and he held a scepter (a staff or wand) in his right hand. His left arm was most likely bent at the elbow, with a walking staff in his left hand. The man is depicted in a traditional pose, with his left foot forward. Although his pose might look like he is walking, the figure is actually standing. His back is straight, his hips are parallel, and his weight is evenly distributed on both feet.
The current color of the wooden statue is brown, with traces of brownish-red paint. When the statue was first created, a layer of gesso would have covered the entire surface. On top of the gesso layer, the man’s skin was painted brownish-red. This skin color was associated with men in ancient Egypt. Patches of red paint are still visible on the figure’s chest and legs. Details of the hair, eyes, eyebrows, and nails would have been painted in black or white. Jewelry was also painted in red, green, blue, and yellow. The figure would have originally worn a shendyt (a kilt-like garment worn around the waist) made of linen. The man’s name and occupation would have been carved into or painted on the (missing) base of the statue. The size and detail of this statue indicate that it was created for a wealthy person, possibly a government official.
This statue was likely placed in a mastaba, a type of ancient Egyptian tomb that was popular in the Old Kingdom Period (about 2686 to 2181 BCE). A mastaba is a rectangle-shaped, limestone or brick building with a flat roof and multiple rooms. The height of a mastaba was about the same as a one-level modern house. The exterior was decorated simply, with a few lines of inscriptions (carved or engraved words). A mastaba had multiple rooms. Beginning in the Fifth Dynasty (about 2494 to 2345 BCE), funerary statues like this one were placed in a room of the mastaba called a serdab (a closed chamber reserved for statues). A shaft below the mastaba led to an underground burial chamber. After the mummy and grave goods (physical objects that accompany the dead to the underworld) were placed inside the burial chamber, the shaft was filled in so that people could not enter it.
Resources for Teachers:
- Explore a website to learn more about woodworking in ancient Egypt.
- Explore a webpage to learn more about sculpture in the Old Kingdom Period.
- Read an article about a mastaba tomb in the Fifth Dynasty.
Resources for Students:
- Explore a webpage with images of a mastaba tomb.
- Watch a video to learn about ka.
- Read an article to learn how to paint like an ancient Egyptian.