Terracotta female figurine from el Ma’mariya

In this issue, Dr Campbell Price describes an intriguing Predynastic artefact in the Brooklyn Museum.

With its beak-like head and contorted pose, the appearance of this painted terracotta figurine may seem strange to modern eyes. It possesses an apparent freedom of movement that departs significantly from other renderings of the human form in Egyptian pharaonic art. Yet this simple, abbreviated depiction of male and female bodies is attested in both two and three dimensions in the formative Predynastic Period (c.5000-3000 BC), even though the style did not persist into pharaonic times.

Image: Robert B Partridge

The female figurine’s pose, with arms raised high and curved above her head, is paralleled in two-dimensional depictions on decorated pottery of around the same period. While the significance of the stance – part of a ritual, a dance, or both? – is unclear, the emphasis on the hips and breasts has led to suggestions that the object was connected to the promotion of fertility, or rebirth.

Image: Robert B Partridge

This example was found with others in a cemetery context at the site of el Ma’mariya, in southern Egypt. While such objects may have had a dual function for both the living and the dead, this set of figurines – among the earliest attested human images from Egypt – cannot stand without support and may therefore have had to be held in the hand or placed upright in sand or earth.

Whatever its ancient significance, this figurine’s sense of almost Henry Moore-style abstraction has given it a certain appeal to modern artistic tastes, with a replica even featured in the HBO TV series True Blood.

Dr Campbell Price is Curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester. He is also Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Egypt Exploration Society and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool.