The Old Kingdom

views updated

The Old Kingdom

High Point.

Egyptian art of the Old Kingdom (2675–2170 b.c.e.) reached a high point of accomplishment which scholars often associate with a strong central government. Clearly the royal workshop had the means to command the best artists and supply them with the most costly materials. Though political weakness or strength does not necessarily determine the quality of the art of the times, the Old Kingdom was certainly a period when political strength and artistic accomplishment overlapped. The art created in this period portrays the king, the bureaucracy, and the workers according to a set of conventions developed in this period and followed throughout ancient Egyptian history.


The statue of King Khafre (2555–2532 b.c.e.) portrays the builder of the second pyramid at Giza and patron of the Great Sphinx. The statue illustrates the intersection of skilled craftsmanship and rare materials resulting in superior work. It also exemplifies Old Kingdom artists' approach to portraying the king as an all-powerful, godlike ruler. The statue is one of several of this king from his mortuary temple, attached to his pyramid. The sculptor carved this statue from diorite, a very hard stone that takes a high polish. Though the gray-green color of the stone would have been disguised by the paint Egyptian artists added to statues, the stone's quality allowed the sculptor to model details in a way that would not have been possible in a softer stone. Moreover, the Egyptians imported this diorite from Nubia, making it rare and expensive. This statue is also an early example of the standard interpretation of the seated king as a conventional subject. Khafre sits on a lion throne, a royal chair with legs carved to resemble lions. The side panels of the chair display the hieroglyphic sign that proclaims that Upper and Lower Egypt are united into a single political entity. Other seated statues of Khafre include the unification motif, but not on lion thrones. The king wears the Nemes kerchief—the blue and gold striped cloth restricted to kings—with a Uraeus—the figure of the sacred serpent, an emblem of sovereignty depicted on headdresses—also standard for seated, royal statues. The king wears a square beard, indicative that the statue represents him in life rather than associating him with Osiris through the beard that curves upward at the end. Perched on the king's back is a Horus falcon, representing the god protecting the king with his wings. The falcon on the king's back might be compared to relief sculptures of the king with a falcon hovering above him. This, indeed, might be the way that the artist intended for viewers to interpret the falcon, indicating that the king is the living Horus on earth. The artist has sensitively modeled the king's face with wide open eyes, a broad nose, philtrum, and sensitive lips. The artist has also exploited the quality of the stone to carve the king's broad shoulders, muscular arms, and modeled chest. The king reaches for offerings in the now standard way with his left hand and probably held some object associated with his office in his right hand. The hieroglyphs carved on the statue base are oriented to the viewer and identify the king by name following the standard convention. Overall, the statue conveys a sense of overwhelming power and majesty both through the skillful carving and forceful presentation of the king.

Pepi I.

The calcite seated statue of Pepi I (2338–2298 b.c.e.) recalls the seated statue of Khafre but also demonstrates the kinds of changes which occurred in art between the earlier king's reign and the Sixth Dynasty (2345–2181 b.c.e.). Few other statues from Egypt so clearly read like a hieroglyph as does this one. The king sits on a throne that is shaped exactly like the hieroglyph for the word throne. He wears the white crown that identifies him as the king of Upper Egypt. He also wears a cloak that scholars recognize as the same costume the king wears during the heb-sed (jubilee). The king's arms cross his chest and he holds the crook and flail. These two objects identify the king with the god Osiris. An inscription on the base identifies the king and is oriented to the viewer. Perched on the back of the throne is the falcon that represents the god Horus. The bird's pose recalls the profile view of the falcon in two dimensions found on the Stela of Wadj. Just as was true on Wadj's stela, beneath the falcon the king's name is written within a serekh. The back of the statue thus stresses the living king's association with the god Horus on earth. The king's facial features differ from Khafre's face. His eyebrows are broad, arch over his eye, and extend back toward the ears. The cosmetic line, the representation of the kohl applied like eyeliner that encircles the king's eye, also extends parallel to the eyebrow toward the ear. The king's lips are thick, and the mouth is shaped in an oval without any pointed corners. The small scale of this sculpture allowed the artist to carve the negative space of the legs, freeing them from the block.

Pepi I Kneeling.

A small schist statue of Pepi I kneeling is an example of another typical Egyptian royal statue type. It portrays the king kneeling and holding a jar in each hand. The king is making a liquid offering to a god. This statue is the oldest complete example of a royal kneeling statue, but there is a fragment of a similar statue from the reign of Khafre known to Egyptologists. The king wears a Nemes kerchief. A Uraeus, probably fashioned from precious materials, once filled the hole over the king's forehead. The king also wears a shendjet kilt, a garment worn only by kings that thus helps to identify him. His facial features are typical of the Sixth Dynasty. The broad but gently arched eyebrow extends nearly to the ear. The eye, like many statues in ancient Egypt, is made from precious materials and inlaid. The pupil is obsidian, while the white is calcite. These materials are held in place by a copper armature that represents the cosmetic line around the eye. The cosmetic line then extends in stone toward the ear, running parallel to the eyebrow. The nose and cheeks are full. The philtrum is modeled. The king's mouth has broad lips and is shaped like an oval, without corners. The king's torso and arms are elongated, not as muscular as Khafre's body. This body type represents a second style in Egyptian art, identified by the art historian Edna R. Russmann. It contrasts with the more muscular and robust body of Khafre, for example, portrayed earlier and later in Egyptian history. This second style seems more expressive, and Egyptologists believe its source was religious. In common with the seated statue of Pepi I, the negative space between the arms and the king's torso is carved. Again this is probably due to the small scale of this work.

Ankh-nes-meryre II and Pepi II.

The calcite statue of Queen Ankh-nes-meryre II and her son Pepi II (2288–2194 b.c.e.) reveals further Sixth-dynasty innovations in royal sculpture while still relying on ancient conventions. The statue portrays a small, adult-looking king sitting on the lap of a woman who is much larger. The fact that Pepi II ascended the Egyptian throne at the age of six explains the difference in size between the figures. Taken alone, the small statue of the king resembles most seated royal figures. The king wears a Nemes kerchief and Uraeus over his forehead. He also wears a shendjet kilt, another symbol of royalty. The king's left hand reaches for offerings in a conventional way, while his right hand holds a piece of linen, an offering he has already accepted. The sculptor placed this conventional statue at a ninety degree angle to a seated statue of the queen. The queen sits on a low-backed throne. She wears the vulture-headdress that indicates her status as a royal woman. The vulture further identifies her as the royal mother since this bird is also the hieroglyph for the word "mother." The hole above her forehead probably once held a vulture head in some precious material. She also wears the tri-partite hairstyle, a traditional style for both women and goddesses. She wears a tight fitting dress with straps that pass over her breasts. Both the king and queen bear similar, Sixth-dynasty facial characteristics including the broad eyebrow, long cosmetic line, and oval-shaped mouth with no corners. Though most Egyptian statues are frontal, meant to be viewed from only one direction, clearly this statue has two fronts. But the queen here must be the major figure because she is so much larger than the king. Usually in Egyptian art, the king appears to be the smaller figure only in the presence of a deity. Thus many Egyptologists understand this statue to represent the king and his mother in the guise of the goddess Isis caring for her child Horus, the divine manifestation of the living king. Here the mythological interpretation most probably overlaps with reality since the six-year-old Pepi must have relied on his mother to rule Egypt during his minority.

Standing Royal Sculpture.

The standing sculpture of King Menkaure and Queen Kha-merer-nebu II is a masterpiece of Egyptian sculpture and illustrates the Egyptian conventions for representing a standing king and queen. The sculpture is just under life size, 54¾ inches tall. The sculptor used greywacke, a hard gray stone that the Egyptians prized. The archaeologist George Reisner discovered the statue in 1910 in the valley temple of this king's pyramid at Giza. This sculpture clearly illustrates the main conventions of Egyptian standing royal sculpture. The sculptor placed Menkaure on the viewer's left and the queen on the right. The ancient viewer would have recognized immediately that Menkaure was the more important figure of this pair. The viewer's left is always the place of honor in Egyptian representations. The king and queen were also conventionally dressed to communicate their rank in Egyptian society. Menkaure wears the Nemes kerchief, worn only by the king. This headdress was made from cloth, folded to form triangular shapes framing the king's face. Two lappets hang from the triangles over the king's chest. The back of the cloth was twisted around a braid of hair. Though the headdress covered most of the king's hair and head, his sideburns and ears are visible. In examples where the artist used color, the Nemes is striped blue and gold. The king also wears a rectangular false beard. The false beard was leather, attached by straps that would have tied under the Nemes. This beard, worn only by the king, contrasts with the longer beard that ended in an upward twist worn only by the gods. The king's chest is bare. He wears a distinctive kilt called the shendjet, worn only by kings. The kilt features a belt and a flap that was placed centrally between his legs. The king holds a cylinder in each hand, usually identified as a document case. The case held the deed to Egypt, thought to be in the king's possession. This statue also shows some conventions of representing the male figure used for both nobles and kings. The king strides forward on his left leg, a pose typical for all standing, male Egyptian statues. The traces of red paint on the king's ears, face, and neck show that the skin was originally painted red-ochre. This was the conventional male skin color in statuary, probably associating the deceased king or nobleman with the sun god Re. The statue of Queen Kha-merer-nebu II also exhibits the conventions for presenting women in Egyptian sculpture. Unlike kings, queens did not have their own conventions separate from other noblewomen. The queen's wig is divided into three hanks, two draped over her shoulders and one flowing down her back. There is a central part. The queen's natural hair is visible on her forehead and at the sideburns, another common convention. The queen wears a long, form-fitting dress. The fabric appears to be stretched so tightly that it reveals her breasts, navel, the pubic triangle, and knees. Yet the length is quite modest with a hem visible just above the ankles. The queen's arms are arranged conventionally with one arm passing across the back of the king and the hand appearing at his waist. The queen's other hand passes across her own abdomen and rests on the king's arm. This pose indicated the queen's dependence on the king for her position in society. In pair statues that show men who were dependent upon their wives for their status, the men embrace the women.

Style and Motion.

The conventions of Egyptian art make it easy to stress the similarity of Egyptian sculptures to each other in the Old Kingdom. Yet details of the style of sculptures such as the Menkaure statue often make it possible to identify specific royal figures such as the king. All of his sculptures show distinctive facial features. His face has full cheeks. His eyes bulge slightly. The chin is knobby while the nose is bulbous. His wife resembles him, probably because the king's face in any reign became the ideal of beauty. In almost every period, everyone seems to resemble the reigning king. Another aspect of style that remained constant through much of Old Kingdom art was the purposeful avoidance of portraying motion. Unlike ancient Greek sculptors, Egyptian sculptors aimed for a timelessness that excluded the transience of motion. Thus even though Menkaure and Kha-merer-nebu II were portrayed walking, the sculptor did not attempt to depict the weight shift in the hips and the stretch of the muscles that would create the illusion that the statue could move. This attitude toward depicting motion is a fundamental difference between ancient Egyptian and Greek art.

Structural Supports and Inscriptions.

Egyptian sculptors relied on back pillars and the avoidance of negative space to support their sculptures. The back pillar in standing sculptures, such as the Menkaure statue, forms a slab that reaches to the shoulders of the figures. In statues of individuals, enough of the block of the stone was removed so that the back pillar would cover only the spine of the figure. In some cases, the entire back of the figures disappears into the remaining block of the stone. The negative space, the area between the arms and torso or between the legs was not carved. Unlike most sculptures of the Old Kingdom, the statue of Menkaure lacks the inscription that is usually found on the base and on the back pillar. Instead the artist relies on the idea that Menkaure can be identified from his facial features and the find spot of the statue in a temple built by Menkaure. The absence of an inscription indicates that the statue was not finished. Finished sculpture almost always included a hieroglyphic inscription that identified the subject.

Rahotep and Nofret.

Rahotep was a king's son who lived early in the Fourth Dynasty (2615–2492 b.c.e.). He was probably a son of King Sneferu and the brother of Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid. His wife, Nofret, held the title "One Whom the King Knows," indicative of her high rank. Statues of this couple were discovered in their tomb in 1871 c.e. Because the paint on these statues is fully preserved, they reveal the pristine, original appearance of Egyptian sculpture. They are fully painted. The colors are almost surely symbolic. Rahotep's skin is painted a dark red derived from ocher. This color associates the deceased Rahotep with the sun god. Nofret's skin is painted yellow/gold, symbolically linking her skin with a goddess's skin. An alternative, frequent suggestion for the difference in skin tones between men and women is that men spend more time in the sun than did women in ancient Egypt, and so they were portrayed as lighter in color. This explanation, however, assumes that Egyptian artists fixed on this one detail as important enough to include visually in a sculpture. Since Egyptian art is largely conceptual, conveying ideas rather than visual reality, it seems likely that the color is symbolic rather than a representation of visual reality. The eyes on both statues are inlaid rather than carved from the same stone as the rest of the statue. The sculptor carved the eyes from rock crystal with a flat back. On the back, the iris and white have been added in paint. A hole drilled in the center, also painted black, represents the pupil. The front was highly polished, resembling the cornea of a living eye. The crystal was surrounded with a metal frame and placed in the socket carved in the statue. The effect is amazingly life-like. These crystal eyes must have been quite valuable in ancient times. They are only rarely preserved in statues, usually the loot of ancient tomb robbers who often left a statue behind without the eyes. The seated statue was also a common pose for high officials. These statues are very early examples, thus they do not preserve the later conventional hand gestures. Rahotep and Nofret both place the right arm across the chest. He holds the right hand in a fist while she lays it flat against her body. Rahotep's left arm stretches on his lap toward his knee. The left hand is positioned as if it held some insignia of his office. Her left arm and hand are hidden behind her cloak. Later in the Old Kingdom, both men and women will reach forward with the left arm for offerings in the conventional pose for three-dimensional sculpture.

Portrayals of Officials.

In addition to royalty, another large class of Egyptian sculpture portrays the officials who ran both the secular and religious institutions. These men and women were often younger sons and daughters of the royal family in the Fourth Dynasty, but later in the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties included self-made commoners who somehow developed a relationship with the king and thus rose in society. Egyptian artists developed a set of conventions for portraying these officials during the Old Kingdom. The standing statue of Ity-sen is an excellent example of the conventions for a standing statue of an official. Originally it was part of a group of three figures. Ity-sen stands with both arms at his sides. His hands hold peg-like objects that might represent offerings of cloth. His left leg strides forward, indicating that Ity-sen is walking forward to receive his offerings. His upper body is youthful with careful modeling of the pectoral muscles and the clavicle. He wears a simple kilt with a pleated apron. The muscles around the knee are modeled as well as the bones of the knee. The overall effect is a youthful and vibrant man in the prime of life. This effect was the artist's usual intention. Statues like this functioned as containers for the deceased's soul and allowed the deceased to continue life after death eternally young.

Group Statue.

A family group of statues which represents an official, possibly named Irukaptah, his wife, and son, illustrates Egyptian use of hieratic scale—size based on importance—in three-dimensional sculpture. Irukaptah is a conventional standing male official roughly three times larger in scale than his wife and son. This difference in scale points to the Egyptian convention that the main figure of a group can be presented on a completely different, larger scale than the less important figures. Irukaptah wears a heavy but short wig. His facial features suggest a date in the Fifth Dynasty. His eyebrows are straight, and his eyes are wide open. There is no cosmetic line. Though the nose is damaged, it is still possible to see that the sculptor carefully modeled the area where the nose met the cheeks. His mouth is set in a somber expression with carefully modeled lips that end in a point. He has a strong, rounded chin. The upper body is carefully modeled with a clavicle, pectoral muscles, and a groove that runs through the center of the abdomen to the navel. The muscles of the shoulders and arms are also carefully modeled. Irukaptah wears a simple wraparound kilt with a pleated apron. His legs display careful modeling of the knees and the muscles surrounding them. His wife kneels at his left. She wears a short wig that reveals some of her natural hair at the forehead. She wears a tight dress that reveals her youthful breasts and also the pubic triangle. She crosses her left arm over her abdomen and holds Irukaptah's left calf with her left hand. Irukaptah's son stands on his right. The portrayal of the son follows Egyptian conventions for representing a child. His hair is gathered in a side lock that curls at the end. He holds his right hand up with his index finger pointing to his mouth. He is also nude. These conventions would have conveyed to the viewer that the subject is a child, even though he is larger than his mother. Though the expected inscription was never carved on this statue, the conventions of scale, dress, and pose make it easy to interpret.

Second Style.

Three wooden statues of Metjetji illustrate both the conceptual nature of Egyptian sculpture and the emergence of a second style in Egyptian art in the later Old Kingdom. Though all three statues bear inscriptions identifying the subject as Metjetji, a high official of the late Fifth or early Sixth Dynasty, the facial features are not at all similar. Egyptian artists individualized a statue by adding a person's name in hieroglyphs to the base or on the statue itself. The facial characteristics normally resembled the king's face, the living god on earth. With such a "portrait" an official could merge his personality with that of the god and enter into the afterlife. Thus the three statues, though different in appearance, represent only the concept of the man Metjetji. The three statues also represent the emergence of a second style in addition to the idea of the youthful and idealized standing male figure. The three statues seem to portray Metjetji at different stages of his life. The statue of Metjetji holding a walking staff is most like other conventional images in style. It resembles, for example, the standing statue of Ity-sen in basic conception. The statue depicting Metjetji in the most conventional pose with both arms at his sides also begins to exhibit characteristics of the second style. The figure is much less robust looking. His arms, torso, and legs are elongated. His body is slimmer and less muscular. The facial features are more exaggerated and less idealized than in the more conventional style of Egyptian art. Finally, the statue with the open palm pose is very much more elongated and expressive in its facial features. Some scholars have considered it an individualized portrait. The face, arms, torso, and legs are even more attenuated and slender than in the previous example. From the Sixth Dynasty until the end of ancient Egyptian history, artists used the idealized, traditional style alongside the attenuated second style in certain period. Many scholars have suggested that the motivation behind the development of this second style was religious. Yet the details of how and why it developed have not been explained.

Reliefs of Officials.

Old Kingdom artists carved reliefs of officials on their tombs' walls. These representations were also conventionalized, using standard poses for standing and seated officials. Reliefs could be either raised or sunk, depending on placement in the tomb. In raised reliefs, the artist cuts away the background, leaving behind an image raised above the surface of the stone. Sunk reliefs cut the image below the surface of the stone. Raised relief in Egypt was most effective in dark interior spaces where it caught the diffused light. Sunk relief was more visible in bright, outdoor spaces where the intense light of the Egyptian sun was brightest. All relief was painted.

Standing Pose in Reliefs.

A relief of the official Akhety-hotep is a conventional standing figure of an official. Akhety-hotep stands with a staff in his left hand and a scepter in his right hand. The staff is a simple, tall walking stick which only men of authority carried. The scepter is also a hieroglyph for the word "power." The fact that Akhety-hotep holds this scepter conveys the basic message that he is a high official. The pose portrays Akhety-hotep's face in profile with a frontal view of his eye. His shoulders seem to twist to a frontal view while his torso violently twists back to a profile. Only his nipple remains in the frontal view. From his waist to his feet, the view of Akhety-hotep is in profile. The artist, however, has given him two left feet, also a convention of Egyptian relief. Both feet display the arch and the big toe as closest to the viewer. This view should only be possible of the left foot. Finally, the hieroglyphs directly in front of his face spell his name, thereby individualizing this conventional image as one particular official. In fact the image of Akhety-hotep is properly a hieroglyph. In hieroglyphic writing, the final sign in a name is an image of a man or of an official if a man had achieved that status. Thus the image acts as the final hieroglyph in the writing of his name.

Seated Official in Relief.

The relief of Setjau illustrates a typical offering scene with a seated official. Reliefs of seated officials before an offering table were placed above the false door in a mastaba tomb. Here the priests offered food, drink, cosmetics, ointments, ritual oils, and clothes to the deceased during the ritual. This relief depicts Setjau receiving these gifts that he needs in the afterlife while sitting on a stool carved with animal legs. Even through the damage, it is possible to see that his face is in profile, except for the eye that the artist has carved frontally. The shoulders twist to a frontal view while the torso, legs, and feet are in a profile view. Setjau holds a ritual object in his clasped left hand. His right arm reaches forward with an open hand touching the offerings on the table. This gesture suggests he has received the offerings that the priests made. This hand, as is commonly the case, appears to be a left hand too, though it is attached to the right arm, nearer to the viewer. The thumb is at the bottom rather than the top, the place the viewer would expect it if this relief were a version of visual reality. Setjau is surround by hieroglyphs. The top horizontal line contains his titles and name, individualizing this conventional image. The hieroglyphs around the offering table enumerate the offerings that Setjau can expect to receive for eternity.


Workers appear in scenes of farm life and manufacturing in Old Kingdom tombs. In the relief called Men Presenting Cattle it is clear that the same conventions governing portrayals of kings and officials did not apply for agricultural workers, or indeed any workers in Egyptian society. The three workers are all balding, not anything like the idealized kings and officials. Though the basic conventions can be found in Egyptian representations of workers, the man at the upper right side of this relief might represent a comic view of workers. This man is balding and nude. In general Egyptian artists only portrayed nudity for the children of the upper classes. Rather than having an idealized body, this man displays a pot-belly. Moreover, his right foot is forward as he walks rather than the conventional left foot. Though such a detail might seem minor, viewed against a background of hundreds of examples from Egyptian art, this is a major deviation from the conventions. Egyptian artists could exercise much more freedom in their depictions of workers than they could when portraying kings and officials. This freedom also stems, in part, from the fact that the scenes of daily life required more complicated poses in order to depict certain actions.


Metropolitan Museum of Art, Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999).

Edna R. Russmann, Egyptian Sculpture: Cairo and Luxor (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989).

—, "A Second Style in Egyptian Art of the Old Kingdom," in Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologishen Instituts Abteilung Kairo 51 (1995): 269–279.

see also Architecture: Fourth-Dynasty Architecture and History

About this article

The Old Kingdom

Updated About content Print Article


The Old Kingdom