Unfinished statuette of King Menkaura (Mycerinus)
Old Kingdom, Dynasty 4, reign of Menkaura
Findspot: Egypt, Giza, Menkaura Valley Temple
Height x width x depth: 36 x 16 x 23.2 cm (14 3/16 x 6 5/16 x 9 1/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Not On View
By the Old Kingdom, Egyptian artists had perfected the process of statue making, in terms of both the exploitation of stone and the achievement of the ideal body form. This object is one of a group of statuettes, found in the Valley Temple of Menkaura, that illustrates exactly how they did it. Representing one of a total of fifteen statuettes discovered there, it marks one of the distinct stages in the manufacturing process.
Using hammers of harder stone, artists began by cutting into a block of stone from all four sides to approximate the shape of the finished product, in this instance, the seated figure of the king. Details of the head and limbs were refined gradually with the aid of copper chisels. A few red lines were painted to mark the location of strategic body parts, thereby insuring that the proper canon of proportion was maintained. By the Middle Kingdom, these few lines expanded into a full grid. This technique allowed the same relative proportions to be achieved regardless of the size of the piece. After the details had been carved, rubbing stones and a powdered abrasive were used to polish the surface. Finally, the sculpture was personalized by means of an inscription that identified the owner and important office held in life. The early, middle, and final pre-polish stages are illustrated by the three sculptures pictured here.
Given the full range of manufacturing stages illustrated by the statuettes, it seems likely that they were deliberately made to serve as models for sculptors working on a larger scale and that there was no intention to ever complete them. Although many unfinished statues are known, these represent the only such series. At first it seems puzzling that artists would have made them from gneiss, a very hard stone quarried from an area near Abu Simbel, far to the south of Giza. However, a clue to the choice of material may lie in the fact that the bottom of one of the statues was polished to a high gloss. Because the ever-practical Egyptian artists never polished the bottoms of their statues more than they polished the visible areas, this suggests that the sculptures were made from stone that was recycled from another object - perhaps one of several gneiss statues of Menkaura’s predecessor, Khafre, which exists today only in fragments.
Although these statuettes were never completed, this does not mean they did not function as complete statues. Nearly four hundred years after his death, priests who maintained the cult of Menkaura installed them on a ledge in the Valley Temple and dedicated offerings to them.
From Giza, Menkaura Valley Temple. 1908: excavated by the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Expedition; 1911: assigned to the MFA by the Egyptian government.
(Accession Date: March 2, 1911)
Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition