July 31, 2012

The Fantastical Fauna of Early Egyptian Art

Palette in the shape of a pair of turtles, ca. 3650-3300 BC; graywacke, 6 x 6 5/16 in.

The artists of Egyptian antiquity had a marvelous sensitivity when it came to picturing animals. I've always been moved by the birds and cattle and wildlife in low relief carvings (you can see a couple of examples in this blog post), but I'd been mostly unaware of the sculpture that came before the Dynastic Age, before the Pharaohs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an enlightening show which I was lucky enough to see this spring, titled The Dawn of Egyptian Art; it's on view until this Sunday, August 5th. I just treated myself to the catalog, and photographed these images from it. Although there were human figures in the sculpture on view, it was the animal carving that completely delighted me. Can anyone fail to be enchanted by the pair of turtles with their surprised eyes and small feet projecting from the large simple curve? 

Guinea fowl-shaped palette, ca. 3650-3300 BC; graywacke, 7 5/8 x 5 13/16 in.

The early Egyptians lived in small villages along the Nile, with their burial sites, in which these objects were found, on higher land. Palettes were used to grind minerals into paint for outlining the eyes. Some of the palettes were used before being placed in tombs, but others were not. The form of these pieces seems so modern, as though they were sculpted by a 20th century artist. The shapes are satisfying, and also tender, and amusing.

Cow's head with horns, ca. 3650-3300 BC; graywacke, 3 16/16 in.

Picasso? this is close to the simplicity of Picasso's bull's head made with a bicycle seat (with holes in it) and handlebar.

Elephant-shaped palette, ca. 3650-3300 BC; graywacke, 8 1/4 x 5 1/2 in.

During the Predynastic period there were sufficient rains to encourage a wide range of wildlife along the Nile and up into the lower desert and the Eastern and Western deserts. There were elephants in Egypt during this early period––they were found in elite burial sites in Upper Egypt, Hierakonpolis––but when the climate became drier during the time of the Pharoahs, they moved south.

Amulet in the shape of an elephant's head, ca. 3650-3300 BC; ivory, blue frit; 1 7/8 in. 

This piece is startling in the clarity of its curved lines and round eyes.

Hair combs with ostrich, giraffe, antelope, wildebeest, ca. 3700-3300 BC; bone or elephant ivory; heights from 3-7 1/2 in. 

These beautiful hair combs, surmounted by animals of the desert, were probably worn by women at a special event. I like how each of the animals appears to be standing on a small hill, integrating the shape of the animal with the curve of the comb.

Frog shaped jar, ca. 3400-3300 BC; limestone inlaid with shell, lapis lazuli, and turquoise; 3 5/8 in.

Frogs were plentiful along the river; as the yearly flooding receded, many young frogs were seen in the mud, so they became a symbol of fertility and rebirth. It is therefore assumed that frog shaped jars contained a substance used at childbirth. This is another charming creature.

Jar in the shape of a squatting bird, ca. 3300-2900 BC; limestone inlaid with shell, 3 3/4 x 4 7/8 in.

In a show full of lively and amusing depictions of animals, this little bird might be my favorite. It is probably a duck, perhaps sitting on a nest. The tilt of the head with its inlaid eyes give the bird such a bright presence that it seems it could get up and fly, or at least waddle away. 

Ibis-shaped vessel, ca. 3300-2900 BC; red limestone breccia; height 5 1/8 in. 

The ibis is a more formal bird, carved in a complexly patterned stone, the body of the jar echoing the shape of its body. 

Jar in the shape of mating hippopotami, ca. 3650-3300 BC; limestone; 5 x 2 1/2 in.

I love the stylized heads of these two hippos, one raised, one lowered, with lines across their snouts. The catalog informs me that the mating and reproduction of animals was very important to the ancient Egyptians, so it's not surprising to see an image like this. The first image above, of the dual turtles, may also be a mating pair.

Ceremonial Palette (The Four Dog Palette), reverse, ca. 3300-3100 BC; graywacke, 12 5/8 x 6 3/4 in.

A few hundred years later, in the Early Dynastic period, the sculpture becomes more sophisticated, closer to what we think of as typical Egyptian art. There were ceremonial palettes in the show that were just spectacular (as always, you can click the image to see it larger). Elegantly detailed, with refined and flowing lines, these pieces were transfixing.

Ceremonial Palette (The Battlefield Palette), reverse, ca. 3300-3100 BC; graywacke, 12 5/8 x 11 5/8 in.

Both palettes I've illustrated have a central palm tree flanked by animals. I'm always amazed at how much volume and living presence Egyptian sculptors were able to show with such delicate low relief. Like the earlier work above, so much seems to depend on a sensitive, felt line, which has its beginnings in the outlines of the simple forms of gray palettes. 


  1. Great collection! Thanks, Altoon.

    1. You're very welcome, R. I just love these works. And this is just a small sample.

  2. Altoon, I loved this show too. And your images are terrific, a good record since I didn't have the cash to buy the catalog. I also really like seeing how, at the end of the show the more typically iconic Egyptian styling started to appear. But this was a revelation for me. Utterly delightful one. Enjoy your time away!

  3. So full of life! I fall in love with Egyptians when I look at their portrayals of animals -- they are so rich and deeply observed and felt, even when, as in most of these, there's very little detail. Sorry I missed the show, and thank you for the post!

  4. Thanks for your comments Deborah and Susan. It's not hard to fall in love with these works, whether in person or just in reproduction.

  5. So elegant, formal yet containing the natural grace of the creatures.

  6. thanks so much Altoon. I love the little bird too and the elephant. its a joy to see them. also, reliefs are great. i just saw at the Morgan Library the seals which are back and Albers' work on paper was wonderful.

  7. I'm so glad you like these pieces, Elizabeth and alicia.
    alicia, I would have loved to see the Albers show. I'll take a look and see what they have online.

  8. Thanks for sharing these beautiful pieces Altoon!I have never seen them before!There is a very African feel to so many of them.

  9. Are they very early pieces?
    In any event I very much enjoyed them!

    1. Terry, the purpose of this exhibition was to bring these underknown works to the attention of the public. Quite a few of them are in the Met's collection. And yes they are early, which I wrote about in the blog post above; the dates are listed under each piece.