[Giza, January 18, 1910] “In the evening, just before work stopped a small boy from the gang at the thieves’ hole in strip I appeared suddenly at my side and said “come.” In the power part of the hole the female part of the statue of bluish slate had just come into view in the sand. It was too late to clear it. But immediately afterwards a block of dirt fell away and showed a male head on the right,-a pair statue of king and queen. A photograph was taken in failing light and an armed guard of 20 men put on for the night.” – George Reisner (“Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pharaohs,” 269)
In 1910, George Reisner discovered a masterpiece of Egyptian sculpture when excavating Menkaure’s pyramid complex at Giza. Now housed in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, this unfinished statue of King Menkaure and a female originally assumed to be his wife, was uncovered in the western corridor of the king’s valley temple (Lesko and Friedman, 7). The Old Kingdom dyad depicts the two very poised, stately figures of nearly equal height in similar striding motions. The King is portrayed in an idealized fashion, typical of Old Kingdom art, sporting a nemes headcloth and false beard (Hawass, 141). Menkaure’s body is smooth, youthful, and athletic. His form also follows the guidelines of the Old Kingdom’s canon of proportions, and his striding left foot is a typical of royal sculpture of the time (“Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids,” 53). His face is generalized with its full cheeks, prominent eyes, and faint smile, nearly identical to the features of his female companion (Hawass, 141).
Although this is not an individualized depiction, the statue does contain a few unique features. For instance, the uniform stature and pose of Menkaure and his companion highlight their equality; normally the man is depicted as taller and females do not exhibit this striding pattern. Also, the warm gesture of the woman’s hands securely embracing his arm and torso demonstrates the pair’s intimacy and gives us a glimpse into the humanity of this king (Hawass, 140).
Aside from its appearance, the dyad’s location is of the upmost importance. The river valley temple lied on the banks of the Nile River, making it easily accessible for the Egyptians. The remains of an adjacent priest village and other archaeological evidence make it clear that a cult was being carried out in this temple (Hawass, 144). Thus, this statue was intended for public viewing and most likely tied to cult activity. Moreover, according to Binford’s theory, social persona can be observed in burials and there is a direct correlation between the social status of the deceased and their relationships (Pearson, 28). Because Menkaure was a pharaoh with a pyramid complex and many elite grave goods such as this dyad, it is safe to assume that he had ties with a great number of people in society. This suggests that many Egyptians were active in his cult center and interacted with images of the deceased. It should be addressed that it is challenging to separate out Menkaure’s social persona and his religious significance because of the statue’s cult context. We thus must be delicate in analyzing this relationship. However, the dyad can probably tell us a great deal about how Egyptian treated social persona and idealized their dead.
Because of the cult context and idealized appearance of the statue, it is also helpful to consider this artifact from a functionalist standpoint, which can help gain insight into Egyptian beliefs of the pharaoh and death itself (Pearson, 22). However, it should be stated that with this approach come some difficulties. It can be bold to make such general assertions and conclusions about society as a whole and cause us to overlook individual aspects of the pharaoh himself (Pearson, 22). The sources sited in this paper assume a functionalist approach and make statue about what the statues reveal about Egyptian beliefs and structure. Understanding this overreaching nature, I proceed with caution as I explore functionalism myself.
That being said, “Egyptian art was not made for purely aesthetic purposes but was in fact primarily functional. The King was the key element of the society, not because of the political power of his office but because o his centrality to Egyptian ideology and religion” (“Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids,” 51). The Menkaure dyad demonstrates this notion; the King appears similar to other statues of Old Kingdom pharaohs like Khafre and Khufu that also have muscular, stylized bodies and generalized faces. Non-royal statuary of this time, however, reveals more personal characteristics of the individual (“Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids,” 281). Perhaps the dyad therefore functions as a stock, cult image that presents the king in the ideal pharaoh body. The nature of these stylized figures thus suggests that the position of pharaoh itself and not the individual ruler was considered divine (“Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids,” 51). It then makes sense that statues such as the Menkaure dyad function more as idealized cult images than of accurate individual representations.
Besides suggesting that Old Kingdom Egyptians thought the position of pharaoh to be divine, the Menkaure dyad may also give us more insight into their beliefs on death. Firstly, it is generally understood that Egyptians believe death is a continuation, not an end, of life. The deceased still need a body to dwell in and require sustenance to survive, much like in life (lecture 2/20/13). Menkaure’s athletic body, with its toned features, is the perfect form to exist in in the afterlife. Perhaps, then, the Egyptians idealize this youthful form in order to present the dead as the best version of themselves. In this way, they are able to permanently preserve the image and idea of the pharaohs as beautiful, cultic figures in death.
Clearly the preservation of the body and the quality of its image are incredibly important in the Old Kingdom society. Egyptians seems to place a high value on this preservation. Menkaure’s dyad may be stately and clearly royal, but the pair is also immortalized as warm and peaceful, with their embracing position and faint smiles. These figures do not seem fearful of their state, suggesting that the Egyptians in general did not fear death either, but rather prepared for and embraced it.
Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids. Verona: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999. 51-281. Print.
Hawass, Zahi. Mountains of the Pharaohs. Doubleday, 2006. 140-146. Print.
Lesko, Leonard, and Florence Friedman. Egypt and Beyond. Charlestown: Brown Univeristy, 2008. Web. <http://www.gizapyramids.org/pdf library/friedman_fs_lesko.pdf>.
Pearson, Michael. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. Stroud: Sutton, 1999. 21-44. Web.