Osiris Can You Hear Me: Egyptian Bronze Sculpture

Ms. Barbara Mendoza is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She received her BA from UC Santa Barbara, and her MA from UCLA. Ms. Mendoza’s lecture topic was a continuation of her studies of bronzes from the Eastern Mediterranean.

Ms. Mendoza noted that there are many bronzes from Ancient Egypt in museums today; however, most were acquired through the art market so little provenience is available for them. She has chosen to pursue an analysis and study of priest and priestess bronze figures for her dissertation topic.

Known Egyptian bronze sculptures have been found in Nubia, the Levant, Greece, and Egypt. Most have been found in secondary contexts, for example, within the doorways of catacombs at Saqqara or within temple precincts. Some have been found in small wooden shrines. Such shine-encased votive figures were usually wrapped in linen. None have been excavated from original contexts. Thus the question presented by most that have survived is; what was their original context, placement and composition? Are there relevant texts associated with any, some or all of them?

Known bronzes date from the late Old Kingdom through the Greco-Roman period, becoming more common during the Third Intermediate Period. Many are associated with wishes for long life and health, having been dedicated to such deities as Neith, Hippocrates and Osiris. We know that common people did not worship in Egyptian temples but most had household shrines where they might logically have kept a small bronze image of a god or goddess. 

Priest and priestess figures comprise approximately 90% of the royal bronzes that are known, but only a few are inscribed, and only about 50% of those have known find spots. 

Bronze figures come in both large and small scale. Most of the large scale bronzes come from the 3rd Intermediate Period and most were made using the hollow cast method, some with a clay core that provided an armature for the piece that is still present inside the sculpture. They generally follow the royal cannon of representation. Some are decorated or inlaid. Solid cast pieces are similar but usually simpler in form and have no clay armature.

Hollow casting is known to have been practiced as early at the 12th dynasty. By the 3rd Intermediate Period Egypt was in a state of disarray and the priests were assuming much greater power. The 3rd Intermediate Period bronze examples show evidence of the increased power of the priesthood. One of the earliest known priest figures is of Konsu-ma. His sculpture contains texts that were not used after the end of the 3rd Intermediate Period.

During the 22nd Dynasty, priestess figures appear for the first time. The figures often hold [or originally held] an object such as a sistrum, a minot, or a statuette of a deity. Depictions of the God’s Wife of Amun, such as appear on the stela of Karumama from the Louvre, depict this noted lady dressed in queenly regalia. 

Priest figures from the 22nd and 23rd Dynasties often appear in the typical garb of a Sem priest, known from as early as the 3rd Dynasty, with the typical leopard skin draped across their body and holding an incense sensor. One of the earliest Sem priest figures may be that of Pashasu’s “brother”. Bronzes found near the central bath at Samos in Greece date from the 7th or early 6th century BC and contain markings similar to those on the statuette of Pashasu’s brother. 
Another type of bronze from Samos dates to the 26th Dynasty and features a striding priest who originally held an object which is now lost. He is known to have been found in the southwest area of the sanctuary but is not garbed as a Sem priest. He holds a flattened canister-like base in his left hand, with a hole in the top to support a god figure.

Another known priest figure is that of Konsuertes, who is definitely a Sem priest. This piece dates from the reign of Psamtek I and is inscribed. The statuette originally held a small deity figure, now missing, on a base in his left hand, with his right hand wrapped protectively around the figure. From the Peristyle Hall 2 of Terrace House 2, of the House of the priest of Dionysus at Ephesus, Turkey, comes a gilded bronze priest figure which may have belonged to a high ranking Roman. The figure contains all the elements of a successful dedication. Placing it in the temple provided a sort of secondary insurance policy for the donor.

Large scale bronze figures were usually commissioned by the elite and there are only about 30 of them surviving. Small scale figures are in greater abundance, with 400 plus known. A very few are from early dynasties, and some date from the New Kingdom, but the majority are from later periods. Generally they are representations of Wab priests. Wab priest were performers of cultic rituals who were responsible for making dedicatory libations for a deceased person. The only known inscribed New Kingdom piece dates from the 19th Dynasty. New Kingdom bronzes feature knobbly heads with delicate features usually in the attitude of an adorant. Some of the Wab Priest figures date from the 3rd Intermediate Period, but most are of Greco-Roman origin during which we continue to have adorant figures, both standing and kneeling. 

Priest figures are sometimes also donor figures. Bronze priest figures may be adorants, donors, offering bearers, supplicants or performers of cultic rituals. They may be kneeling, standing, striding or even dancing. Offering bearers balance their burden on their head or shoulder. Their burden is offered as an appeasement. Supplicants appeared in the Late Period and are shown kneeling, hands on their knees or resting at their sides, sometimes in an attitude of reverential worship.
Some figures are referred to as “pastiche” figures as they are compositions made up of non-related elements composed by a museum or dealer. Priest figures may not even belong to this group, but more research is needed to be certain.

Ms. Mendoza noted that she has, to date, analyzed the inscriptions on the back pillars of 22 of the known, inscribed, small figures and has found that the deities being petitioned are predominately Neith, Osiris, Thoth, Anubis and Hippocrates.

Some votive groups are displayed with small priests adoring the god. Only some are original and are made up of the dedicant, a deity and the presence or absence of an inscribed back panel.
Ms. Mendoza concluded her remarks by asking, “Did the Ancient Egyptians achieve their goal?” and responded by noting that through their names, which live on in such figures as these small bronze figures, the individual lives on, for the Egyptians believe that as long as one’s name lives, so too does the possessor of that name.

—Nancy J. Corbin

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