Statue of Nakht

  • Egypt
  • Egypt, Dynasty 12
  • 1960 - 1916 B.C.
  • Acacia wood, gessoed and painted
  • H-152
    probably from Asyut
Catalogue Entry

The statue of Nakht is a rare and beautiful example of life-size wooden sculpture from the Middle Kingdom Period of ancient Egypt.1

Nakht appears in the classical striding pose for men, left foot advanced, and holding a staff in his left hand and a scepter in his right. He wears a short, curled wig and a short kilt with central tab in front. This type of kilt, called a shendyt, was originally a royal prerogative, but by Nakht's time it had been adopted by private people (but only in their tomb representations).

The flesh areas and base of the statue are painted reddish brown. The wig and eyebrows are painted black. These pigments have been applied directly to the wood. The white of the kilt, though, is painted over gesso. Between the gesso and the white pigment layer are two layers of plain-woven linen. The added layers of linen and gesso help to create the impression of a garment actually worn.

Nakht's face is square, with a low forehead. The nose is short and straight. The philtrum is well defined. The lips are full, but not thick, and encircled by a thin ridge, or lipline. He has high cheekbones and full cheeks. The jawbone is strong and angular, the chin slightly bulbous. Eyebrows and cosmetic lines are modeled in low relief. The left eye is inlaid. Its pupil is of black stone, the eyeball of white stone, and the eyelids of copper. (The right eye is modern, the original having been pried out, with some resulting damage to the lid and eyebrow.) The neck muscles and clavicles are carefully and naturalistically rendered. In contrast to the naturalism of the rest of the features, the earlobes are summarily treated as flat disks. This appears to be related to the type of wig.

Nakht's body is that of a young man in prime physical condition. The musculature is well developed, but not exaggeratedly so. A median line bisects the torso above the navel. The right nipple is inlaid, the left one is missing.
Despite losses of paint and gesso and cracks in the wood, the statue is in fine condition. The head, torso, and legs were carved from the trunk of a single tree. The arms, kilt tab, fronts of the feet, left heel, base, staff, and scepter were made separately. The arms are attached to the figure by mortise-and-tenon joints. The tab of the kilt is fastened by a dowel. Massive tangs beneath the feet fit into sockets in the base. Wedges in the sockets keep the figure steady. The fronts of the feet are doweled to the base. (The statue was sawn in half in modern times, as evidenced by the modern saw marks with no trace of weathering in the cut. This has nothing to do with how the statue was made.)

The base is inscribed, "the one honored by Osiris, Nakht." And that is all we know about him. To be "honored by Osiris" the god of the dead, meant that a person had been provided with a proper burial, equipped with everything necessary for a successful passage to the afterlife. Judging by the size and superb quality of this statue, Nakht's burial must have been splendid indeed.

A curious feature of this statue is the presence of incised figures of divinities inside the shoulders on the flat surfaces of the torso where the arms are attached. Naturally, these figures are not visible when the statue is assembled. The purpose of these figures is not certain, but it is likely that they served a magical protective function.

Only about a dozen comparable statues have survived from the Middle Kingdom. Some are as large as--even larger than--Nakht, some are as well preserved, but none surpasses it as a work of art. The most famous is the statue of Chancellor Nakht (no relation) in the Louvre. This statue was discovered in 1903 by the French archaeologists Emile Chassinat and Charles Palanque at Asyut, 407 kilometers upstream from Cairo.2 A second statue of Chancellor Nakht is in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.3 These two large wooden statues stood facing each other in the tomb chapel, where they would have been seen and admired by visitors. The Shumei statue would presumably have been displayed in a similar manner. From the same excavations as Chancellor Nakht came the statues of Ankhef in Cairo4 and Wepwawetemhat in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.5

Between 1905 and 1908, the Italian archaeologist Ernesto Schiaparelli carried out four seasons of work at Asyut. As a result, the Egyptian Museum of Turin has six wooden statues of the type under discussion, more than any other museum. At 210 centimeters in height, the statue of Djefahapy is the largest of all.6 Other wooden statues in Turin include two statues of Minhotep,7 one of Shemes,8 one of Wepwawetemhat, and one with missing base (and consequently anonymous, as the name is invariably inscribed on the base).9 From the same excavations is a large wooden statue in Cairo, also missing its base.10

Closest in style to Nakht is the 205-centimeter-tall statue of Djefahapy in the Louvre.11 Formerly in the collection of Sayed Pasha Khashaba, the statue was discovered in 1913 or 1914 by Ahmed Bey Kamal in the piled-up debris south of Djefahapy's tomb, also at Asyut.12 This Djefahapy is famous among Egyptologists for ten inscriptions in his tomb, including ten contracts with various priests providing for the maintenance of his funerary cult, including the care and feeding of his statues.13

All of the parallels for Nakht come from Asyut. All but the Louvre statue of Djefahapy come from tombs that were discovered intact or relatively intact. Yet only the tomb of Djefahapy is securely dated by inscription, to the reign of Senwosret I (1960-1916 B.C.). The others have been variously dated to the First Intermediate Period (2123-2040 B.C.) and the Eleventh Dynasty (2040-1980), a period of about 150 years, although the recent trend has been to date them all to the Twelfth Dynasty (1980-1801 B.C.). This is based primarily on the texts and coffins,14 but also on the pottery and other finds. To date these tombs precisely it is necessary to consider the whole c