The fluid pose and chest-beating gesture of this extraordinary figure evoke a stately performance. Egyptian relief representations depict such figures as part of a troupe of similarly genuflecting divine beings with falcon and jackal heads. This troupe is usually seen attending the sunrise or the birth and coronation of a king; three-dimensional figures of the same type were set around the processional shrines of certain gods, doubtlessly to accompany the epiphany of the deity during a procession.
It is not easy to explain the presence among the animal-headed divinities of the human-headed figure wearing—as seen here—the regalia of a pharaoh. Some scholars interpret the figure as the representation of an actual king. Others understand it as a mythical being that introduces royal aspects into the otherworldly ritual. Whatever its exact meaning, this masterpiece of wood carving was certainly part of a temple's equipment. Its ritual character was further emphasized by a covering of lead sheet, now vanished.
Several interesting and surprising aspects of the figure’s manufacture were illuminated in a technical examination that included X-radiography, ultraviolet light, infrared reflectography, and elemental analysis.
The figure is composed of nine sections of wood, eight of which are extant. The wood is African blackwood, a member of the rosewood family that was commonly used in ancient Egypt. X-radiography reveals at least five types of joins, each carefully chosen to provide the strongest and most rigid joints possible, including rectangular and trapezoidal tenons, loose dowels, and keyed-in wood sections with tenons to prevent movement (see Conservation and Scientific Analysis Figures 1 and 2).
A 1922 photograph of the statuette shows that the figure was once covered with a metal cladding which was subsequently removed and lost (see Conservation and Scientific Analysis Figure 3). A tiny fragment of the lost cladding was discovered in an ear and found to be composed of almost pure lead, as opposed to silver as originally assumed. An analysis of traces of a calcium carbonate ground confirmed traces of lead overall due to contact with the cladding. Although Egyptian wooden objects were generally covered with a ground and then painted and/or gilded or silvered, no other examples of lead-clad statuary are known.
Fine black lines are visible on the surface of the wood. These lines were better visualized with infrared reflectography since the carbon-based ink strongly absorbs IR radiation. (see Conservation and Scientific Analysis Figure 4) The solid and dotted lines along the sides of the torso and arms and the individual X or T marks on many of the figure’s joints were apparently applied as "tailoring" lines and marks for measuring out and planning the placement of the lead sheets.
The results of this technical examination, and specifically the care taken during manufacture and the unusual and possibly symbolic use of lead sheeting, contribute to our understanding of this masterwork and its ancient context.
Ann Heywood, Marijn Manuals, Mark Wypyski, Department of Objects Conservation, 2016
Peytel Collection, Paris, by 1922; exhibited "Centenaire de Champollion," Louvre, Paris, 1922; Behague Collection, Paris; exhibited Egypte-France, Paris, 1949; Josephson Collection, New York from 1987; acquired by the Museum, donation and purchase, 2003. Frequently published.
Heywood, Ann 2010. "Lead cladding on a wooden royal figure: an unusual ancient surface reconstructed." In Decorated Surfaces on Ancient Egyptian Objects: Technology, Deterioration and Conservation [Proceedings of a conference held in Cambridge, UK on 7-8 September 2007], edited by Julie Dawson, Christina Rozeik, and Margaret M. Wright. London: Archetype Publications, pp. 9–15.