Bowl with hippopotami
Naqada I, 3850–3650 B.C.
Findspot: Egypt, Mesaid, Tomb 26
Height x diameter: 6.8 x 19.4 cm (2 11/16 x 7 5/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Pottery (Nile silt ware)
Egypt: Pre-Dynastic and Dynastic (Gallery 105A)
The scene on this early bowl already displays many of the qualities that would become canonical in Egyptian art. Stylized hippopotami are depicted in profile, with their essential features - mouths, eyes, ears, legs, and tails - shown as discrete symbols rather than realistically; yet combined they form a visually coherent and aesthetically pleasing whole. A landscape setting is indicated both by the wavy, concentric lines of the central rosette representing a pool of water or perhaps the Nile, and by the zigzag lines around the border of the bowl that suggest cliffs on the horizon. The three hippopotami wade peacefully in the intervening space.
This bowl is one of the finest examples of what is known as “cross-lined ware.” It was handmade of reddish Nile silt clay, burnished, coated with a thin red slip, and then decorated with linear patterns in thick, creamy white paint. The cross-hatching for which the ware is named may initially have imitated basketry. The best artisans, however, added figures and created unique narrative scenes, many of which portray animals, such as the hippopotami seen here. The hippopotamus motif was destined to recur throughout Egyptian art, serving both as a symbol of the destructive god of chaos, Seth, and as a protective amulet to ward off danger. Other dangerous animals also occur on cross-lined pottery, particularly crocodiles, which are sometimes shown being hunted with nets. It is possible that these vessels were intended to impart the creatures’ power to the vessels’ owners, granting them success in the hunt and safety from danger. Most of the best examples come from tombs, and may have been made specifically as funerary offerings.
The scene on this bowl shows stylized hippopotami in a landscape setting. The animals are shown in profile, with clearly articulated eyes, ears, legs and tails. The wavy concentric lines of the central rosette are meant to represent water, while the zigzag lines around the border suggest cliffs on the horizon. Scenes of wild creatures may have been intended to impart their powers on the vessels’ owners, granting them success in the hunt and protection from danger in the afterlife.
From Mesaid (Mesa'eed) tomb 26, no. 6 [M/26/6]. 1910: excavated by the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Expedition; March 2, 1911: assigned to the MFA by the government of Egypt.
Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition