Plaster body covering

Egyptian
Old Kingdom, Dynasty 5 or 6
2465–2150 B.C.


Findspot: Egypt, Giza, Tomb G 2037 B (X shaft)

Dimensions

Mask height: 21 cm (8 1/4 in.)

Accession Number

39.828

Medium or Technique

Plaster

On View

George D. and Margo Behrakis Gallery (Gallery 207)

Collections

The Ancient World

Classifications

Mummy trappings

This modern-looking sculpture brings to mind a figure in quiet repose. Made of plaster, it was molded directly over a body that had been wrapped in multiple layers of linen, and then buried in a simple wooden coffin. The head is slightly raised and splayed at the back because it lay on a wooden headrest, fragments of which were also found. Because coffins were often quite narrow, the body had to be angled slightly on its side. That requirement would account for the manner in which one leg is crossed over the other.

Burial practices and styles of mummification changed constantly throughout Egyptian history. At first, the body was buried in a simple pit in the desert, where the dry climate preserved it. With the development of larger and more complex tombs and coffins, the flesh, ironically, was subject to decay, and artificial ways to preserve it were sought. By Dynasty 4, internal organs were removed and the body was desiccated before being wrapped in linen. Sometimes features were modeled and painted directly on the cloth. Covering the head (or the head and torso) with plaster was a short-lived custom of Dynasties 5 and 6, particularly at Giza but occasionally at nearby Saqqara and Abusir as well. It has been suggested that these body coverings replaced the reserve heads that were sometimes placed in the burial chambers of what were for the most part Fourth Dynasty tombs. By the First Intermediate Period (about 2100-2040 B.C.), masks that covered the head and chest were made beforehand of cartonnage, painted, and placed over the body. Still later, entire coffins of anthropoid shape were made of cartonnage and the body inserted through a slit at the back.

This Giza body covering is the finest of its kind. Details of the face, including the straight brows, thin straight nose, widely spaced eyes, and straight mouth set off by a sharp line were carved separately into the wet plaster. Stylistically, these features are similar to those found on stone sculpture of Dynasty 5 or 6. The navel is marked by a depression. The molded ridges around the abdomen may indicate that originally the figure was clothed in a kilt.

Provenance

From Giza, tomb G 2037 B (shaft X). 1939: excavated by the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Expedition; 1939: assigned to the MFA by the government of Egypt.
(Accession Date: September 1, 1939)

Credit Line

Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition