The Egyptian Serdab

Figure 1. Ra-Wer Serdab Giza Mastaba Tomb 5720 (Ra-Wer).

The Egyptian serdab statue is fundamental in understanding the historico-cultural aspects beneath Egyptian funerary rights. It is vital to consider how and for what purpose the deceased are portrayed in specific ways; this contains both functionalist and post-processual aspects—the former concerning the impact on society and the latter regarding the significance of the individual. In terms of functionalism, the serdab allows us to view the Egyptian civilization as partitive—separated into various aspects such as the ka, ba, and akh. By contrast, we turn to the post-processual to view the importance of Egyptian individuals and the specific significance of the ka, ba, and akh in accordance with each person. Moreover, in relation to the Greek kouroi, there is no direct influence evident between the two funerary statues. There are slight structural similarities—however this does not allow us to draw any profound conclusions. To understand these concepts, we specifically examine the serdab of Ra-wer located in mastaba G5720 at the base of the Giza pyramids in the Old Kingdom.

Figure 2. Location of Ra-Wer Serdab, (Blackman, 250).

The serdab statue maintains a specific role in Egyptian culture—mainly the housing of part of the soul—an “alter-ego” in the hereafter. These statues were not openly displayed in their tombs; however, they were housed in separate chapels located off of the mastabas “where they could only be seen by those who serviced the mortuary cult…they were not readily accessible” (Satzinger, 95). Instead of an open display, a slit appears in the wall revealing the eyes through which the dead may take offerings from friends and relatives, and in special cases be surrounded with incense (Blackman, 253). Specifically, the serdab houses the ka—the vital essence of the deceased. It is here that we explore the concept of the post-processual in Egyptian culture.

Through the serdab it can be observed that there is significant emphasis of the individual and individual parts, and this is aided by the partitive nature of Egyptian funerary rights. The Egyptian soul is separated into three parts: the ba, ka, and akh—the personality, the life force, and effectiveness or creative energy, respectively (Taylor, 19, 20, 32). The serdab of Ra-wer was discovered in a funerary chapel to the south of the mastaba tomb with the inscription “eyes of the ka-house” (Blackman, 251). Again, we see the partitive nature of the Egyptian culture in the ka and eyes of the serdab. It is true, that the entire statue has special importance as a receptacle for the ka, but the eyes have a greater significance, serving as a connection for the living and deceases—“which would give…a reality that [the visitors] would otherwise lack” (Blackman, 254). Thus not only is the post-processual nature emphasized through the ba, ka, and akh, but so too is it reinforced through physical characteristics such as body parts—here the eyes of the serdab or the “eyes of the ka-house”.

Figure 3. Ra-wer Serdab Statue, Alternative View (Ra-Wer).

Alternatively, however, the Egyptians also exhibited functionalist ideals in their culture contrary to the post-processual aspects. The separated nature of this culture is pervasive through the utilization of the ka in the serdab as well as through the ba—with which it is said that one may converse (Simpson, William Kelly). Most interestingly, though, is the unification of these two parts of Egyptian funerary culture through the akh. This piece of the soul or existence is only achievable through death, which is analogous to a divine state: “To be akh, then, was to be an effective spirit, enjoying the qualities and prerogatives of gods…” (Taylor, 32). Moving further, it is a transformative process in which the ba and ka are united into a greater, transcendental form—it was the primary aim of these funeral rights such as the serdab to aid the deceased in becoming akh (Taylor, 32). It is through this cause that we observe the functionalist aspect in that the Egyptian culture maintains a specific goal in the hereafter—they achievement of akh.

Figure 4. Side-by-side Comparison of the Kouros [left] and Serdab [right] (Sakhno and Ra-Wer).

Also of equal importance is the Greek counterpart of the Egyptian serdab—the kouroi statue. It has been stated that these two funerary objects bare similarities; however, through art historical and cultural interpretations, this does not seem to be the case. Greek funerary kouroi are heavily idealized in regards to the pectoral regions and abdominal musculature; they appear static and frozen but also give off a regal appearance; they also appear quite smooth (see Figure 4). By contrast, the Ra-Wer statue is very static and has a rough finish. Though the two may be in similar awkward postures—namely the placement of  limbs, the serdab has a greater naturalistic rather than idealized emphasis on the pectoral and abdominal regions and it is clothed, while the kouros is not. While they may both be constructed using stone and appear similar, the overall appearance and realtion of the two is indeed different. Furthermore, “it seems for reasons of style that there can be no direct influence of Egyptian sculpture on Greek” at this time due to lack of observation, at most, general affinities could have been transmitted, but nothing more (Cook, 25). Overall, the Egyptian serdabs and the Greek kouroi do not have any significant, influential connections to each other during the Old Kingdom period.

The serdab sculpture allows us to see the Egyptian funerary practices and culture in both post-processual and functionalist manners. Through witnessing the ba, ka, and akh in the Egyptian culture—namely the role of the ka in the serdab statue in conjunction with the role of the eyes, we see the segregated ideology in funerary practices. By contrast, we realize one of the ultimate goals through this process—the achievement of akh–to witness the functionalist aspect of this idea. Finally, we look to the dissimilarities between the Greek kouros and the Egyptian serdab, namely the stylistic renderings and a large gap in transmission through observation during the Old Kingdom to emphasize the differences between the two funerary objects.


Satzinger, Helmut, Living Images—The Private Statue

Taylor, J., Death and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt

Blackman, Aylward, The Ka-House and the Serdab. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Oct., 1916), pp. 250-254

Simpson, William Kelly, The Literature of Ancient Egypt, The Man Who was Weary of Life

R.M. Cook, R.M., Origins of Greek Sculpture. The Journal of Hellenic Studies , Vol. 87, (1967), Published by: The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies.

Ra-Wer. Echoes of Eternity. Nelson-Atkins, Ascension Number: 38-11.

Sakhno, Alex, The Greek Kouros.