Although Egypt was timber-scarce, her artisans availed themselves of an amply supply of quality hard woods in order to satisfy their creative impulses. The cultural horizons of ancient Egypt’s long history are replete with examples of magnificent sculptures in wood ranging in size from the miniature to the colossal and in date from the Old Kingdom to the Roman Imperial Period.
The use of wood for funerary furnishings accelerated during the course of the Middle Kingdom when tombs were supplied with coffins and so-called models of daily like, richly painted and minutely detailed. The subsequent New Kingdom continued the use of wood for funerary paraphernalia, best exemplified, perhaps, by the numerous religious figures discovered within the tomb of Tutankhamun, but this period was best known for its wooden sarcophagi. This tradition continued into the Third Intermediate Period when lavishly decorated and varnished wooden coffins were often created as multiples, one resting within the other, as revealed by excavations in Thebes.
During the course of the Late Period (after 664 BC) the use of wood for statues and sarcophagi once again gained renewed currency, particularly during the course of Dynasty XXX (380-342 BC) and into the early Ptolemaic Period. The finest cache of such coffins were discovered in the last century in the Tomb of Petosiris, a temple like, magnificently decorated sepulcher in Middle Egypt near Ashmumein at Tuna el-Gebel, where excavators discovered a multiple burial in a subterranean chamber. The most glorious of the wooden anthropoid sarcophagi found therein is lavishly inlaid with glass and is to be seen on the ground floor of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
This particular example, which was once heavily painted as the minute white traces of the gesso, or stucco, which served as a base coat to which the paint would adhere, reveal, can be dated to the period between Dynasty XXX and the early Ptolemaic Period on the basis of its stylistic characteristics. These include a somewhat corpulent visage with the protruding, so-called golf-ball chin, full lips horizontally arranged, with their corners drilled, and the so-called hieroglyphic, almond-shaped eyes surmounted by plastic eye brows. The ears, in keeping with Egyptian conventions, appear to be larger than in life, and have been designed in such a way that they lie over the tripartite headdress. The deceased is depicted beardless, but the lack of that attribute does not necessarily reflect a gender distinction because anthropoid sarcophagi of the period inscribed for either men or women often lack the false beard. There is a raised ridge at the neck between the lappets of the headdress which represents a broad collar, its original details painted.
Close examination reveals the care lavished by the artists on the modeling of the face with its subtle planes merging to form the corpulent cheeks and to articulate the region surrounding the chin. More noteworthy is the treatment of the eyes as slightly raised discs, their center drill. As a result of such care, this bust from an anthropoid sarcophagus transcends the funerary arts and is elevated into the realm of sculpture in the round.
As a sculptural moment, it finds its best parallels in a limestone bust from a so-called sculptor’s model, now in Brooklyn, with which it shares many stylistic features. These same features are found on a number of limestone anthropoid sarcophagi, several examples of which are presently on view in New York at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. As such, this bust is an aesthetically-accomplished representative of the finest quality sculpture created in Egypt during this period.
Robert Steven Bianchi, Cleopatra’s Egypt. Age of the Ptolemies (Brooklyn 1988), pages 82-3, cat. no. 1 [The Brooklyn Museum of Art 37.37E]. M.L. Buhl, The Late Egyptian Anthropoid Stone Sarcophagi (Copenhagen 1959), page 86, figure 48 [The Metropolitan Museum of Art 86.1.43, inscribed for the Lady Ta-khonsu-ii]. Mohammed Saleh and Hourig Sourouzian, Official Catalogue. The Egyptian Museum Cairo (Mainz 1987), no. 260a [the coffin of Petosiris, JE 46592].