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  • Writer's pictureHeru

A Rare Mechanical Figure from Ancient Kemet

He saw her charming, but he saw not half

The charms her down-cast modesty conceal’d.

—James Thomson, 1700–1748 Source:Un



One of the more curious pieces to be found among the extensive Egyptian holdings of The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a small and delicately carved statuette in wood representing a woman wearing nothing more than a heavy, shoulder-length wig (fig. 1). Though the figure is unclothed, propriety is maintained by the surviving right hand, which is strategically placed to cover the sex, while a missing left arm appears originally to have shielded the breasts. The modesty is nonetheless feigned, for at the pull of a string the arms are designed to rise and display the subject’s feminine charms in full. This is no ordinary Egyptian statuette, but a “protoautomaton,” an object type encountered occasionally in the archaeological record of the Nile Valley, though seldom at this level of mechanical sophistication and never with such overtly erotic overtones.2 First seen by Metropolitan Museum curator William C. Hayes at the gallery of New York art dealer Michel Abemayor (1912?–1975) in January 1958, the object sparked immediate interest.3 The outcome of a preliminary examination by the Museum’s then Technical Laboratory was positive: though the piece displayed what appeared to be a layer of “modern varnish,” beneath lay a “carved wood surface” that was evidently “of very ancient date.”4 For Hayes this determination provided sufficient grounds to proceed with the object’s acquisition as “a fine example of small figure sculpture of the best period of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom”—that is to say, the Twelfth Dynasty (ca. 1981–1802 b.c.).


fig. 1. Female figure with internal mechanism. Egyptian, ca. 945–664 b.c. Wood, H. 4⅝ in. (11.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Funds from Various Donors, 1958 (58.36a–c)


Within months of the statuette’s first public display, however, this Middle Kingdom dating was quietly dropped as a stylistic improbability, and the figure was reassigned to the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty (ca. 1550–1295 b.c.).6 Sometime after that—presumably because an Eighteenth Dynasty attribution was itself unconvincing—the pendulum swung back, and a Twelfth Dynasty date was mooted once again.7 By 1990, the now problematic “toy” had been withdrawn from view, consigned as a possible forgery to the study room of the Department of Egyptian Art.8 And there for decades—since it is always easier to condemn than to rehabilitate—the piece would languish, unpublished and essentially unknown.

In 2010, the writer’s attention was drawn to this statuette during a trawl through the Museum’s Egyptian study reserves, prompting a detailed reexamination. The results of this review, detailed in part 1 of the present study, indicate forcefully that the figure is indeed the ancient work Hayes originally perceived it to be, and not the modern piece of gentlemen’s whimsy that others subsequently may have come to suspect.9 The questions raised by this remarkable little object are several, however, and these are addressed in part 2. Who is the intended subject? Why was the figure mechanized, and what was its intended use? Is the piece indeed Egyptian, or merely egyptianizing? The answers ventured point to the exceptional importance of the Metropolitan’s statuette not only as a rare specimen of ancient mechanics but also as key to a broader understanding of identity and role within Egypt’s minor arts during the first millennium b.c.


Part I: Establishing Authenticity and Date The sculpture stands just 4⅝ inches tall and is carved from a light, close-grained wood. The female subject’s feet are placed side by side on an integral base, and she wears a heavy, striated wig that extends below the shoulders. The figure displays what by ancient Egyptian standards is a relatively full body, that of an adult rather than a young girl, with breasts and genital area summarily defined, the usual dimples above the buttocks, and heavy thighs—a piece modeled both competently and tastefully, albeit in the somewhat bland style that has for years frustrated attempts to assign to the work a precise date.

As already observed, the statuette’s physical stance is a curious one: rather than adopting the usual pose of an ancient Egyptian female figure, with arms held straight down on either side, the subject bends a surviving right arm to conceal her sex behind a strategically placed open hand. Stranger still, this arm was designed to lift and expose in tandem with its lost companion (fig. 2).

The motion depended on a true mechanism—a rotating axle introduced into the torso through a square-cut hole in the right shoulder (fig. 3). This aperture gives access to a large, neatly cut void and a small, drilled exit hole. One end of the axle is fashioned as a tenon, and onto this tenon the figure’s right arm is firmly mortised. The axle’s distal end preserves the remains of a similar tenon—now little more than a rounded stump—that originally carried the left arm. The positioning of this missing arm, and the likely reason for its loss, are considered below

fig. 3. Detail of right side of statuette shown in fig. 1, showing square-cut aperture to receive the axle

The axle (fig. 4) was hand-carved from a single piece of dark hardwood, with its middle section fashioned in the form of a spool around which a string could be wound. This string, now missing, was tied in place through a single, transverse piercing in the center. How the axle was made to turn is revealed by an X-radiograph (fig. 5): this shows the precise form of the axle cavity and the string’s course through a narrow channel running from the floor of the cavity, down the statuette’s left leg, and out through the base (fig. 6).10 The mode of operation was simple: grasp the figure by the waist, pull the string to turn the axle, and watch as the arms miraculously rise.11

fig. 4. Right arm and axle removed from statuette shown in fig. 1

fig. 4. Right arm and axle removed from statuette shown in fig. 1

fig. 6. Diagram of fig. 1, showing the operating mechanism (axle in beige, string in pink)

Sampling and Testing Since the exceptional character of this object has provoked considerable skepticism over the years, the question of authenticity was revisited in collaboration with the Museum’s Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation. The detailed scientific research upon which the following paragraphs are based was coordinated by conservator Ann Heywood and carried out between 2011 and 2013. Visual examination of the figure’s three surviving elements, together with material sampling of the torso, indicated that both the body and the surviving arm were very probably carved from boxwood (Buxus sp.), the material of choice, experience would suggest, for the production in ancient Egypt of high-quality, smallscale sculptures of this type.12 A macroscopic examination of the axle suggests that it was carved either from a species of ebony (Diospyros L.) or from African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon).13 Most interesting of all, radiocarbon (C-14) testing revealed that the tree from which the body was sculpted was felled sometime between 910 b.c. and 800 b.c.—that is, during the Twenty-Second Dynasty (945–712 b.c.).

While the materials from which the figure was constructed were appropriate for an ancient work of art, still the possibility remained that old wood might have been employed to carve a completely modern figure and mechanism. Further examination was therefore necessary. As the statuette had received little substantive treatment since its arrival at the Museum, a detailed investigation could be undertaken of the underlying surface.15 The modern coating (“varnish”) first noted in 1958 was removed, greatly reducing the darkened, saturated appearance of the wood. The earlier surfaces of the work’s three components were then examined using X-radiograph fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF).16 The results were instructive. Trace elements of calcium, iron, and chlorides on the body, arm, and axle provided a likely indication of age, while traces of copper on the body and arm possibly reflected the use of copper tools. A sample of the wig’s pigment fill (now mostly lost) was examined by polarizing light microscopy and identified as a carbon black mixed with a small amount of Egyptian blue.17 Elevated levels of copper were also noted. While the trace of Egyptian blue may represent nothing more than an impurity, its presence speaks well for the antiquity of the figure. If the coloring was applied deliberately, then its presence could point to an identification of the subject: with its hair mimicking the appearance of lapis lazuli, clearly the figure would have been intended to be understood as the image of a goddess.18

Dating and Likely Origin The carbon-14 test results provide a reliable point of departure for determining the figure’s date of production. Since the tree that supplied the statuette’s wood was felled no earlier than the late tenth or ninth century b.c., previous attributions to the Twelfth and Eighteenth Dynasties may obviously be ruled out. If the wood was carved soon after the tree was felled, the work may be assigned to the Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1070–712 b.c.), a dating that in fact correlates with the figure’s heavyset femininity. That the statuette appears to have been laid out according to a proportional grid19 strengthens the presumptions of antiquity and local Egyptian workmanship—or at least of a work designed and realized by a native craftsman rather than by a foreign (Mediterranean) artisan following a vague, egyptianizing aesthetic.20

Stylistic Anomalies While a proposed dating within the first half of the first millennium b.c. seems consistent with both the scientifically established age of the wood and the figure’s overall style and proportions, a number of idiosyncratic features displayed by the piece warrant consideration and comment.

The first peculiarity of note is the modeling of the figure’s wig. Although it is of the same tripartite pattern as wigs traditionally worn by Egyptian divinities, the hair is arranged not with the usual central parting but in a decidedly odd manner—with a T-shaped parting that divides side to side and also backward (fig. 7a). A second curious feature is the manner in which the hair falls over each shoulder, leaving a large and deep triangular void through to the level of the neck (see fig. 1). As anomalous as these details at first sight appear, however, neither one is unique: an extensive search through the literature reveals sound Egyptian parallels for both (figs. 7b,c).21

fig. 7a. Detail of statuette shown in fig. 1, showing the parting of the wig on the crown

A third and more disquieting feature is the form of the statuette’s surviving arm: eccentrically angled and positioned, it appears to break every rule of Egyptian sculptural representation. Yet it is clear that the three surviving components of the artwork—torso, arm, and axle—share a long common history, and thus that a crooked right arm was indeed part of the original design. Microscopic examination confirms that the arm is carved from a wood similar to the wood of the torso, while XRF readings for this limb are consistent with those of the main figure. The undue width of the surviving right shoulder, moreover, would seem to rule out any suggestion of modern alteration—i.e., the possibility that the statuette might originally have been a static work that was subsequently “improved” in modern times by sawing off the arms, hollowing out the torso, and adding a winding mechanism.

The most convincing of all the evidence supporting the statuette’s proposed age and authenticity is the revelation that the figure’s curious pose is not unique. Two direct parallels have now been identified: one in Berlin (fig. 8a), which, like the Metropolitan’s sculpture, covers the genital area with its right hand; and a closely similar piece on the website of the Young Museum of Ancient Cultural Arts, Burnet, Texas, which shields with the left (fig. 8b).22 Albeit with bodies somewhat fuller in form than that of the Metropolitan Museum figure, and wearing wigs of a significantly shorter, more fashionable style, these two images represent obvious variations on the same theme, differing from the Museum’s work only in date.23 With the Metropolitan statuette to be assigned to the earlier part of the Third Intermediate Period on grounds of material analysis and style, the two static images, judged on the basis of style alone, are clearly slightly later.

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