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Sarcophagus Head
Period: Late Period to Ptolemaic Period Fourth to third century BC
Culture: Egyptian
Material: Limestone
Dimensions: 46 cm H
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This beautifully styled head from a sarcophagus or relief may actually depict its subject in a partially finished way, which is attested in the Late and Ptolemaic period. Paradoxically, they are, in a sense, themselves finished objects which represent a special type of item, serving as guidelines for artisans to produce traditional and formal representations of important personages, notably pharaohs and officials. This was especially the case for the emerging Early Dynastic demigods Imhotep and Amenhotep, son of Hapu, High Priest and First Prophet of Amu, and popular gods like Harpokrates or Isis, a tradition that continued until the Roman period.

Our figure wears a linen headdress fastened tightly to expose the ears; the nose is somewhat bulbous, the cheeks full and well-modeled, with a traditional a traditional ‘spiritual gaze’, extended eye-line, the wry, twisted expression of the lips betrays a slight asymmetry. The countenance of the present head and the nature of its dress are similar to prominent examples of Imhotep. One of the best known of these is a seated bronze figure in the collection of the Louvre (Inv. E 4216, Ptolemaic, circa 330-30 BC).

Imhotep is best known as the chief architect of pharaoh Djoser (r. circa 2668-2649 BC) in the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, who built the celebrated Step Pyramid at Saqqara in Upper Egypt which, together with its mortuary complex, is recognized as the first stone building in the world. The high status of the official is recognized in an inscription on the base of a broken-off statue of the pharaoh, where, after the name of the king, Imhotep’s titles read: ‘The treasurer of the king of Lower Egypt, the first after the king of Upper Egypt, administrator of the great palace, hereditary lord, the high priest of Heliopolis, Imhotep the builder, the sculptor, the maker of stone vases…’ The concept of Djoser’s funerary monument was that of an area for the spirit in the afterlife, focused on the pyramid itself. Originally this consisted of one step (mastaba) but was subsequently enlarged until it consisted of six unequal steps rising to 62 metres in height, with a base area of 109 by 125 metres. Facing the pyramid on the south side is the so-called South Tomb with three carved relief panels depicting Djoser performing the heb-sed ritual in which he reaffirmed his fitness to rule. Here it is thought that the king’s viscera (vital organs) were entombed, and with his mummy buried in the main pyramid, the pharaoh fulfilled the requirement of having a northern and southern tomb, symbolizing the two lands of Upper and Lower Egypt. Both buildings are enclosed by a monumental courtyard known as the heb-sed court, used to celebrate jubilee festivals, enclosed by an imposing temenos wall with 13 false doorways, encompassing two additional buildings known as the House of the North and South.

Imhotep’s high status was also confirmed in the New Kingdom with the production of intercessory statues in stone. These portrayed individuals who were considered to have a special relationship with the divine, and were able to more effectively transmit requests and prayers to deities from officials and pharaohs. The best-known of these represent Imhotep who was worshipped as a deified architect at this time.

In the Late and Ptolemaic periods, to which the present head dates, Imhotep was worshipped as a god of architecture and medicine, a tradition that continued into the Roman period, by which time he was assimilated with Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. Saqqara became an important centre of pilgrimage in the classical period, where Imhotep was buried, although the location of his tomb is not exactly known. Excavations under W.B. Emery in the 1920s (under the auspices of the University of Liverpool) at the complex revealed a large number of mummified ibises in pottery containers, the sacred bird associated with Imhotep and also Thoth, the god of wisdom, writing, and learning, and these are thought to have been votive offerings left by pilgrims. These belong to the collection of the Museum of Imhotep in his complex at Saqqara.

The headdress and style of the present head is similar to that of a seated bronze statue of Imhotep in the Brooklyn Museum (Inv. 36.623, circa Late Period, Thirtieth Dynasty to the Ptolemaic Period, 38O-30 BC). Our head bears a close resemblance to a bust of Imhotep of the ‘unfinished’ type in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Inv. 07.228.1, fourth to third century BC).


American private collection, Mr. A.E., by descent from his grandfather Ezeldeen Taha Eldarir, accompanied by a sales invoice from Mr Salhaddin Refik Sirmali, 1941.