Sculpture in Ancient Egypt
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Egyptian Sculpture

Badarian figurine
Early Egyptian sculpture (4500 BC)

November 2016 - People began to carve sculptures in Egypt about 4500 BC, about the same time as in West Asia and in southern Africa. These early sculptures are small figurines, mostly of women. Nobody knows why Egyptian artists made these sculptures.

By the time of the Old Kingdom, about 2900 BC, Egyptian artists began to carve life-size stone sculptures. At first sculptors carved these statues sitting down, which is a lot easier to carve. Most of these life-size statues were to put in rich people's tombs after they died. The statues were like replacement bodies for the dead people, to use in the afterlife. To make the statues look more real, Egyptian artists painted the statues too. They painted men dark, to show that they spent a lot of time outside hunting and being manly, and they painted women light-skinned, to show that they were rich enough to stay inside out of the sun, and didn't work in the fields. That's not the color these people really were though.

Rahotep and Nofret
Rahotep and Nefret
(4th Dynasty, about 2500 BC)

In other ways, too, ancient Egyptian sculptors didn't show people the way they really looked. Instead, they tried to show what they were really like inside - their true self. Rahotep was probably old when he died, but his statue looks young and strong.

Learn by Doing - How we Are/How we Look
Middle Kingdom Egyptian sculpture

Bibliography and further reading about Egyptian sculpture:

Eyewitness: Ancient Egypt, by George Hart. Easy reading.

Ancient Egyptian Art, by Susie Hodge (1998). Shows kids how Egyptian art relates to Egyptian religion and culture.

Hands-On Ancient People, Volume 1: Art Activities about Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Islam, by Yvonne Merrill and Mary Simpson. Art projects for kids, though the directions are really aimed at teachers or parents.

The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt (Yale University Press Pelican History of Art), by William Stevenson Smith and William Kelly Simpson (revised edition 1999). The standard for college courses.

Egyptian Art, by Cyril Aldred (1985). Another standard.

Middle Kingdom Egyptian Sculpture
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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