The bust of a Ptolemaic Pharaoh

For this issue, Dr Campbell Price examines a sculpture in the Brooklyn Museum whose original purpose is unclear.

Although immediately recognisable as the image of an ancient Egyptian king, thanks to its distinctively striped nemes headdress, the intended purpose of this object is unclear. Such royal images, very commonly made of limestone, date to between the Late and Ptolemaic Periods (c.400-200 BC), and are almost always truncated ‘busts’, ending just below the lappets of the nemes. They tend to have a flat back, which is often scored with a grid pattern that refers to the standard canon of proportions – a means of controlling the form of an image and scaling it up or down for a given context. It is the use of this proportioning that makes Pharaonic art so recognisable, constraining artisans to work within very clear rules of representation.

In common with hundreds of other examples of this object type, there is a debate regarding its function. These are not fully formed sculptures that have subsequently been broken; they were made in this truncated form. Often termed ‘sculptor’s models’, there is no way of proving whether these were ever functional models used in the production of artworks or for the transmission of designs. Others view them as votive gifts to the gods. They might have fulfilled both functions: in some sense, they represent a gift of sculptural production itself, a way of bringing into existence the royal image (and other things) in tangible form as an act of creation – something appropriate to offer to an all-powerful deity.

right A limestone bust, thought to be Ptolemy II, in the Brooklyn Museum.
A limestone bust, thought to be Ptolemy II, in the Brooklyn Museum. Image: Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.37E. Creative Commons-BY

None of these royal ‘portraits’ approximate the actual appearance of any particular king: this is a generic image of kingship that requires no personal identification. Yet the shape of the face, and in particular the eyes, allows us to be more precise about chronological dating. This example is very likely an early Ptolemaic ruler, perhaps Ptolemy II (284-246 BC). Viewing the potential political situation through modern eyes, it is tempting to imagine that the early Ptolemies – as Macedonian-Greek occupants of Egypt’s throne – might have wanted artisans to practise sculpting the kings in pharaonic style. It seems, however, that in terms of artistic production for formal religious contexts, artisans inherited models of kingship from the Ptolemies’ immediate predecessors: the Nectanebo rulers of the Thirtieth Dynasty.