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Head of a God or a Royal Figure

This fragmentary red granite head in all likelihood depicts either a royal figure or a deity. The archaizing features of the triangular face are delicately sculpted, featuring a broad nose, prominent cheekbones and a rounded chin. The fleshy lips are pursed into a serene smile, further accentuated by the indented corners of the mouth. The preserved eye, slender and almond shaped with an extended cosmetic line, is deeply recessed to receive now-missing inlays. The remains of a crown are preserved low on the forehead, confirming the royal or divine status of the depicted individual, which could already be assumed by the sculptural quality and the use of red granite from the quarries of Aswan, an expensive material.

The surface retains its original polish and toolmarks can be observed in raking light. A subtle patina on the on the proper left side reveals a glimpse of the interment conditions of the piece in post-pharaonic times.

The head appears to be a work of the Third Intermediate Period, when artists drew inspiration from the elegant, idealizing style of the 18th Dynasty.

The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt

Although the formal beginning of the Third Intermediate Period is fixed to the death of pharaoh Ramesses XI in 1070 BC, the New Kingdom had been in decline since about a century prior. During a period of great turbulence known as the Late Bronze Age collapse, Ramesses III managed to defeat the dreaded Sea Peoples in two separate battles, but the international system of trade and exchange between the eastern Mediterannean's most powerful nations had already collapsed by then, and many of the greatest cities and palaces of the region had been violently attacked, plundered, and destroyed. Despite Egypt's survival, pharaonic power eroded following these events, opening opportunities for rulers from Libya and later also Nubia (Kush) to seize control.

The pharaohs of the 21st Dynasty ruled from Tanis in Lower Egypt, while Middle and Upper Egypt where in control of the high priests of Amun from Thebes, although it should be noted that relations between these two powers where complex and certainly not always hostile. Sometimes the pharaoh and the high priest of Amun were even related to one another. The country was briefly reunited by the kings of the 22nd Dynasty, but fell apart again quickly afterwards.

The 21st and 22nd Dynasties of Egypt is well known for the spectacular discoveries by the French archaeologist Pierre Montet in the 1930s-40s. In the ancient capital city of Tanis, Montet found and excavated the intact tombs of three pharaohs, bringing to light magnificent artefacts such as a gold and lapis lazuli funerary mask and a silver coffin, both belonging to pharaoh Psusennes I. Since silver was considerably rarer and more expensive than gold in Egypt, this tomb illustrates that despite the political instability, Egypt was still at heart a wealthy country.

The beginning of the Late Intermediate Period is also important for of a number of historical documents of unparalleled significance, such as the so-called 'Misadventures of Wenamun', a written account that provides exceptional insight into the political and economic conditions in Egypt and Phoenicia, as well as shedding some light on everyday religious and diplomatic attitudes during these transformative times, among other things.

Object information

Aswan red granite
Date and place:
Egypt, Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1070 - 664 B.C.)
Private collection J.K., Belgium, 2006; Collection Axel Vervoordt; Christie's New York, 6 June 2006, lot 178; Collection of The Rockefeller University, New York, 1974; Private collection Alfred E. Mirsky (1900-1974); Acquired from Spink & Son, London, 1960.

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