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The ancient Egyptian Artist A non-existing Category?


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The article aims at questioning the Egyptological communal opinion that “in ancient Egypt, there was no artist in the proper sense of the word”, as stated in the Lexikon der Ägyptologie (III, 833). It starts with a brief historiography of this assumption before addressing the issue of the definition of art and artist, in general, and more specifically from an ancient Egyptian point of view. After a broad statistical overview of the numerous Egyptological data which allow us to trace members of the trades recognized as artistic by ancient Egyptians themselves, it analyses how one may study their social profile and perception in Antiquity, before concluding on the necessity to re-integrate the concept of artist in the discourse of Egyptology
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This volume challenges assumptions about—and highlights new approaches
to—the study of ancient Egyptian society by tackling various thematic social issues
through structured individual case studies.
The reader will be presented withquestions about the relevance of the past in the
present. The chapters encourage an understanding of Egypt in its own terms through
the lens of power, people, and place, oering a more nuanced understanding of the
way Egyptian society was organized and illustrating the benefits of new approaches
to topics in need of a critical re-examination. By re-evaluating traditional,
long-held beliefs about a monolithic, unchanging ancient Egyptian society, this
volume writes a new narrative—one unchecked assumption at a time.
Ancient Egyptian Society: Challenging Assumptions, Exploring Approaches is intended
for anyone studying ancient Egypt or ancient societies more broadly, including
undergraduate and graduate students, Egyptologists, and scholars in adjacent fields.
Danielle Candelora is Assistant Professor of Ancient Mediterranean History at
SUNYCortland and co-director of excavations at South Karnak. She received her PhD
in Egyptology from UCLA. Her research focuses on immigration in ancient Egypt,
the reception of foreigners, strategies of identity maintenance and advertisement.
Nadia Ben-Marzouk is Postdoctoral Fellow at Tel Aviv University and the
University of Zurich. Her research explores craft production, producers, and
modes of technological transmission in the Bronze and Iron Age Levant, Egypt,
and east Mediterranean. She received her PhD from UCLA.
Kathlyn M. Cooney is Professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture and Chair of
the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA. Her research
in 21st Dynasty con reuse focuses on the socio-economic and political aspects of
funerary and burial practices in ancient Egypt.
Challenging Assumptions, Exploring
Edited by Danielle Candelora, Nadia
Ben-Marzouk, and Kathlyn M. Cooney
Cover Image: PRISMA ARCHIVO/Alamy Stock Photo
First published 2023
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Ben-Marzouk, and Kathlyn M. Cooney; individual chapters,
The right of Danielle Candelora, Nadia Ben-Marzouk, and Kathlyn M.
Cooney to be identified as the authors of the editorial material, and of the
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A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Candelora, Danielle, editor. | Ben-Marzouk, Nadia, editor. |
Cooney, Kara, editor.
Title: Ancient Egyptian society : challenging assumptions, exploring
approaches / edited by Danielle Candelora, Nadia Ben-Marzouk,
andKathlyn M. Cooney
Description: Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY : Routledge, 2023. |
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2022009204 (print) | LCCN 2022009205 (ebook) |
ISBN 9780367418281 (hardback) | ISBN 9780367434632 (paperback) |
ISBN 9781003003403 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Egypt—Civilization—To 332 B.C. | Egypt—Social life
and customs—To 332 B.C.
Classification: LCC DT61 .A627 2023 (print) | LCC DT61 (ebook) |
DDC 932/.01—dc23/eng/20220601
LC record available at
LC ebook record available at
ISBN: 978-0-367-41828-1 (hbk)
ISBN: 978-0-367-43463-2 (pbk)
ISBN: 978-1-003-00340-3 (ebk)
DOI: 10.4324/9781003003403
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List of Abbreviations
List of Figures
List of Tables
List of Contributors
Introduction 1
1 Investigating Ancient Egypt’s Societies: Past Approaches
and New Directions
Danielle Candelora, Nadia Ben-Marzouk, and
Kathlyn M. Cooney
Power 9
2 Power and the Study of Ancient Egyptian Society
Nadia Ben-Marzouk
3 Hidden Violence: Reassessing Violence and Human
Sacrifice in Ancient Egypt
Roselyn A. Campbell
vi Contents
4 Making the Past Present: The Use of Archaism and
Festivals in the Transmission of Egyptian Royal Ideology
Jerey Newman
5 Divine Kingship and the Royal Ka
Jonathan Winnerman
6 Trade, Statehood, and Configurations of Power in Ancient
Egypt (Early-Middle Bronze Age)
Juan Carlos Moreno García
7 The Social Pyramid and the Status of Craftspeople
inAncient Egypt
Caroline Arbuckle MacLeod
8 Ancient Egyptian Decorum: Demarcating and Presenting
Social Action
John Baines
9 Co-regency in the 25th Dynasty: A Case Study of the
Chapel of Osiris-Ptah Neb-ankh at Karnak
Essam Nagy
People 101
10 The Egyptianization of Egypt and Egyptology: Exploring
Identity in Ancient Egypt
Danielle Candelora
11 Ancient Egyptian “Origins” and “Identity”
S. O. Y. Keita
12 Eight Medjay Walk into a Palace: Bureaucratic
Categorization and Cultural Mistranslation of Peoples
in Contact
Kate Liszka
Contents vii
13 The Value of Children in Ancient Egypt
Caroline Arbuckle MacLeod
14 Orientalizing the Ancient Egyptian Woman
Jordan Galczynski
15 The Ancient Egyptian Artist: A Non-Existing Category?
Dimitri Laboury and Alisée Devillers
16 Hellenistic Warfare and Egyptian Society
Christelle Fischer-Bovet
17 Revealing the Invisible Majority: “Hegemonic” Group
Artefacts as Biography Containers of “Underprivileged”
Gianluca Miniaci
18 Reevaluating Social Histories: The Use of Ancient Egypt
in Contemporary Art
Nicholas R. Brown
Place 223
19 People of Nile and Sun, Wheat and Barley: Ancient
Egyptian Society and the Agency of Place
Kathlyn M. Cooney
20 Shifting Boundaries, Conflicting Perspectives:
(Re)establishing the Borders of Kemet Through Variable
Social Identities
Danielle Candelora
21 Urban versus Village Society in Ancient Egypt: A New
Nadine Moeller
viii Contents
22 Reassessing the Value of Autobiographical Inscriptions
from the First Intermediate Period and “Pessimistic
Literature” for Understanding Egypt’s Social History
Ellen Morris
23 Othering the Alphabet: Rewriting the Social Context
of a New Writing System in the Egyptian Expedition
Nadia Ben-Marzouk
24 Language Policy and the Administrative Framework
ofEarly Islamic Egypt
Jennifer Cromwell
25 New Methods to Reconstruct the Social History of Food
in Ancient Egypt: Case Studies from Nag ed Deir and
Deir el Ballas
Amr Khalaf Shahat
26 Stop and Smell the Flowers: A Re-Assessment of the
Ancient Egyptian “Blue Lotus”
Robyn Price
27 The Body of Egypt: How Harem Women Connected a
King with his Elites
Kathlyn M. Cooney, Chloe Landis and Turandot Shayegan
AASOR Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research
ADAIK Abhandlungen des deutschen archäologischen Instituts Kairo
ÄA Ägyptologische Abhandlungen
ÄAT Ägypten und Altes Testament
AegLeod Aegyptiaca leodiensia
ÄgLev Ägypten und Levante
AegTrev Aegyptiaca treverensia
AfP Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete
AJA American Journal of Archaeology
AJPA American Journal of Physical Anthropology
AnzÖAW Anzeiger der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften,
philosophisch-historische klasse
AOAT Alter Orient und altes Testament
AOB Acta orientalia belgica
AltorForsch Altorientalische Forschungen
ARA Annual Review of Anthropology
ArchVer Archäologische Veröentlichungen
ASAE Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte
AUC American University in Cairo Press
AW&E Ancient West& East
BACE Bulletin of the Australian Centre for Egyptology
BAe Bibliotheca aegyptiaca
BAR Biblical Archaeology Review
BAR-IS British Archaeological Reports, International Series
BASOR Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research
BASP Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists
BeitrÄg Beiträge zur Ägyptologie
x Abbreviations
BES Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar
BiblArch The Biblical Archaeologist
BIFAO Bulletin de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire
BM British Museum
BMMA Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
BSAE British School of Archaeology in Egypt (and Egyptian Research
BSFE Bulletin de la Société française d’Égyptologie
CAJ Cambridge Archaeological Journal
CdE Chronique d’Egypte
CoUP Cornell University Press
CRIPEL Cahier de recherches de l’Institut de papyrologie et d’égyptologie de Lille
CSSCA Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology
CSSH Comparative Studies in Society and History
CUP Cambridge University Press
CurrAnthr Current Anthropology
CzIE Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University
EdE Études d’égyptologie
EEF Egypt Exploration Fund
EgUit Egyptologische uitgaven
FIFAO Fouilles de l’Institut français d’archéologie oriental du Caire
GHP Golden House Publications
GIFAO Guides de l’Institut français d’archéologie oriental
GM Göttinger Miszellen
HUP Harvard University Press
IFAO L’Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire
JAEI Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections
JAH Journal of African History
JAMA Journal of the American Medical Association
JAmH Journal of American History
JAMT Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory
JAR Journal of Archaeological Research
JARCE Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt
JAS Journal of Archaeological Science
JEA Journal of Egyptian Archaeology
JEgH Journal of Egyptian History
JESHO Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
JJP Journal of Juristic Papyrology
JNES Journal of Near Eastern Studies
JRAI Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and
JSSEA Journal of the Society of the Studies of Egyptian Antiquities
LingAeg Lingua Aegyptia–Journal of Egyptian Language Studies
Abbreviations xi
LingAeg— Lingua Aegyptia–Studia Monographica
MÄS Münchner ägyptologische Studien
MDAIK Mitteilungen des deutschen archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo
MDOG Mitteilungen der deutschen Orientgesellschaft zu Berlin
MFA Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
MIFAO Mémoires publiés par les membres de l’Institut français d’archéologie
MKS Middle Kingdom Studies
MMA Metropolitan Museum of Art
MMAEE Metropolitan Museum of Art, Egyptian Expedition
NINO Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten
NYUP New York University Press
ÖAW Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften
OBO Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis
OCE Oxfordshire Communications in Egyptology
OIMP Oriental Institute Museum Publications
OIP Oriental Institute Publications
OIS Oriental Institute Seminars
OJA Oxford Journal of Archaeology
OLA Orientalia lovaniensia analecta
OrAnt Oriens antiquus
OUP Oxford University Press
PdÄ Probleme der Ägyptologie
PfIA Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, University College
PUL Presses Universitaires de Liège
PUP Princeton University Press
RACE Reports of the Australian Centre for Egyptology
RdE Revue d’Égyptologie
RecTrav Recueil de travaux relatifs à la philologie et à l’archéologie égyptiennes et
RES Res: Anthropology and aesthetics
SAGA Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altägyptens
SAK Studien zur altägyptischen Kultur
SAOC Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization
SASAE Supplément aux Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte
SAWW Sitzungsberichte der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften,
SCA Supreme Council of Antiquities
SDAIK Sonderschrift des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo
SIA Studia Instituti Anthropos
xii Abbreviations
SUNY State University of New York Press
TAPA Transactions of the American Philological Association
UAzP University of Arizona Press
UCP University of Chicago Press
UC Press University of California Press
UEE UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology
Urk. Urkunden des ägyptischen Altertums
WorldArch World Archaeology
YUP Yale University Press
ZÄS Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde
ZPE Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik
3.1 Awooden label (left) from the tomb of an ocial named
Hemaka at Saqqara seems to show a bound individual being
stabbed in the chest by a second individual, who collects the
spilled blood in a vessel (detail on right). 25
4.1 The Narmer Macehead. 30
4.2 Statue of Netjerikhet Djoser in festival garb, part of a statue
triad from the festival courtyard of the Step Pyramid complex
atSaqqara. 33
4.3 Ebony “year label” of Den from his tomb at Abydos. 35
4.4 Relief of Netjerikhet Djoser from the South Tomb of the Step
Pyramid complex. The relief reads “creating (a statue) at the
Great Southern Weshet-Court 37
8.1 A. Group of two (originally three) prostrate figures of statues
of high ocials prostrating. Mid 12th Dynasty, ca. 1850 . B.
Senwosret lid. 82
8.2 Blade of ornamental axe of Ahmose (ca. 1540–1505 ), from
the burial of Queen Ahhotep in Western Thebes. 83
8.3 The executant, in a scene in the open court at the temple
of Isis in Philae. Reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphos,
285–245 . 84
8.4 A. Fragment of painted relief in the tomb of Reneny at Elkab.
Reign of Amenhotep I, ca. 1500 . B. Detail of scene of
Amenemhab adoring king Thutmose III, with hieroglyph of
prostration. Tomb of Amenemhab at Thebes (TT 85). Reign
ofAmenhotep II, ca. 1420 . 85
xiv Figures
8.5 A. Tomb of Ramose at Thebes (TT 55), hall, west wall,
north,detail. Early reign of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten, ca.
1350 . B. Detail of processional scene in the very eroded
sed-festival reliefs in the temple of Amenhotep III at Soleb,
Sudan. Ca. 1360 . 87
9.1 Relief showing Taharqo and Tanutamun, performing heb sed
before God Osiris from Osiris-Ptah neb-ankh Chapel. 94
9.2 Image Showing Taharqo& Divine Adoratrice chapel Osiris neb
ankh gate. 96
9.3 Relief from a chapel in the Temple of Mut, Karnak, showing
Taharqo before Mut, with Nesptah, Montuemhat and Nesptah,
standing behind him. 97
9.4 Relief shows the singer of Amun, sister of Montuemhat,
governor of Thebes, standing behind Shepenwepet II, chapel of
Osiris in the Ished-tree. 98
12.1 Section42, PBoulaq 18. 128
12.2 Sections46–46& 49, PBoulaq 18. 130
12.3 Section69–70, PBoulaq 18. 136
14.1 The North Triangular Court of the Temple of Mentuhotep II
with pit tombs under discussion marked. 153
14.2 Artistic rendering of the tattoos on the individuals from Pit 26. 154
15.1 A. Detail of the scene of inspection of the workshops in the
Theban Tomb of the Vizier Paser (TT 106). B. Depiction of
the Vizier Mereruka as a painter in the doorway of his mastaba
in Saqqara. 168
15.2 A. The socio-professional class distribution of the depicted
artists. B. Chronological distribution of the two analyzed
corpora: workshop scenes and individualized pictorial
representations. 170
15.3 A. Chronological distribution of self-thematized
representations of artists by trades. B. Monumental
distribution of self-thematized representations of artists
by trades. 171
15.4 Epigraphic drawing of the self-portrait in assistenza of Sennefer
in the tomb of his father, the servant (lit. “the call listener”)
Amenemhat in Deir el-Medina (TT 340). 175
15.5 Double depiction of “the lector-priest and scribe of the house
of the divine books of the Great-House” Ihy-em-sa-Pepy, aka
Iry, in the scene of “watching the painting and the work [of the
sculptor]” in the tomb of the governor Pepy-ankh-heny-kem at
Meir (T Meir 2). 177
17.1 Boots Adidas X17 Deadly Strike of Mohammed Salah, football
player of the Liverpool football team in 2018, as exhibited in
the British Museum in 2018. 197
Figures xv
17.2 Tiles in faience from the Building K II in the Eastern Cemetery
of Kerma, MFA 20.1224. 198
17.3 Sketch plan and drawings of the contents of the tomb 1159A in
the Western Cemetery at Deir el-Medina, Thebes, belonging
to Sennefer (M) and Nefertiry (F). 200
17.4 A. Fingerprint analysis. a: figurine from Lahun with
fingerprints (circled in red), b: finger regions and ridge breadth
measurement parameters. B. Clay figurines from Lahun
organized by showing the dierent steps in their manufacture of
their production. 205
17.5 A. Detail of the cuboid rod segment, ManchM 1795. B. Detail
of the waist of the limestone truncated-leg female figure,
ManchM 1789. C. Detail of the right side of the wig of the
limestone truncated-leg female figure, ManchM 1794. 206
18.1 “Nefertiti 5” by Egyptian Contemporary Artist Hossam Dirar.
2018. Oil on Canvas. 213
18.2 “Nefertiti” by Egyptian Street Artist El-Zeft. 2012. Cairo, Egypt. 215
18.3 “100Years of Theft” by Egyptian Contemporary Artist Ammar
Abo Bakr. 2012. Frankfurt, Germany. 216
18.4 “Nofretete” by Isa Genzken. 2018. Paint and Plaster. 219
18.5 Fred Wilson (American, born 1954). Grey Area
(Brown version), 1993. 220
21.1 Map of the settlement sites discussed. 259
23.1 Similarities and dierences between the early alphabet and
Egyptian writing system. 286
23.2 Leaders of the Aamu of Shu, Tomb of Khnumhotep (Tomb 3)
at Beni Hasan. 12th Dynasty. 288
23.3 Possible examples of capitalized Aamu identity. Aand
B. Tomb and scarab of the “Deputy Treasurer, Aam” at Tell
el-Dab‘a. C. Donkey rider identified variously as Khebeded at
Serabit el-Khadem in Sinai. D. Statue of Aam dignitary at
Tell el-Dab‘a. E. Obelisk from Serabit el-Khadem in Sinai
depicting modified Egyptian soldier classifier (Gardiner sign
A14A) holding a fenestrated axe and possible papyrus scroll
or writing board, interpreted as an expedition scribe. 290
23.4 Graphic similarities between the early alphabetic script and
inscribed personal objects in various craft circles. A. 13th Dynasty
scarab from tomb at Tell el-`Ajjul. B. Wadi el-Hôl Inscription 2,
with fifth grapheme highlighted and mirrored. C. Above: First
andlast graphemes from Wadi el-Hôl Inscription 1 and human
head grapheme from Lachish dagger. Below: Limestone dagger
mold from Tell el-Dab‘a. D. Lachish dagger. E. Wadi el-Hôl
Inscription 1. F. Stone mold bearing resemblance to modified
Egyptian soldier classifier (Gardiner sign A12) on Sinai 163. 294
xvi Figures
23.5 Similarities between specific graphemes in east Mediterranean,
southwest Asian, and Egyptian scripts during the second
millennium . 295
25.1 Map of the study area, predynastic Nag ed Deir and New
Kingdom Deir el Ballas, both in Upper Egypt. 317
25.2 A. Tigernut rhizome (Cyperus esculentus) from cemetery 7000
Nag ed Deir found in Basket N7459. B. Beer mash was found
in a wavy-handled Jar from tomb N7402 from the Predynastic
cemetery of Nag ed Deir. C. Pasticia fruits (Pistacia Lentiscus L.)
from Tomb 7626, Cemetery 7000. 318
25.3 Multiple fruit species found from cemetery 1–200 at Deir el Ballas. 321
26.1 Blue water lily featured both in bouquet atop oerings and
wrapped around jar beneath table. Tomb of Maya, Saqqara, 18th
Dynasty. 326
26.2 Wood bust of Tutankhamun as Nefertem emerging from a blue
water-lily, 18th Dynasty, JE 60723. 330
26.3 smȝ-tȝ.wy located on the side of the throne of the east colossus
of Ramses II, inner courtyard, Luxor Temple. 334
3.1 Subsidiary burials from the 1st Dynasty royal tombs
and enclosures. 20
12.1 Section61, PBoulaq 18. 135
21.1 Selection of settlement sites and their urban attributes. 257
25.1 AMS carbon Dating and δ13C stable isotope results. 316
A Non-Existing Category?
Dimitri Laboury and Alisée Devillers
Due to a general lack of connections—or even dialogue—with art history, Egyp-
tology has long and often tended to skirt the issue of art and artists when dealing
with ancient Egyptian monumental and figurative productions. This avoidance sig-
nificantly contributed to the widespread opinion—especially among scholars, and
above all, among Egyptologists—that “in (ancient) Egypt, there was no artist in the
proper sense of the word,” as stated in the first sentence of the entry for “artist” in
the canonical Lexikon der Ägyptologie. The aim of this chapter is, first, to underline
the historical dimension of such a vision, second, to analyze the methodological
biases that led to this widely accepted conclusion, and, third, to emphasize the
importance and quality of the Egyptological documentation for anyone wanting to
study artists, their status, and perception in ancient Egyptian society.
Historiography of the Question
The common opinion that artists did not exist in ancient Egypt has deep roots,
going back to the classic foundations of Western culture. As a matter of fact, ancient
Egyptian art has haunted (Versluys 2015, 2020, 15–16) the history of Western art
through what is usually called Egyptomania, i.e., the re-use of Egyptian style or
motifs as a source of inspiration for artistic creations, from at least Middle Bronze
Age Crete till nowadays. Hence it has always been around as a point of reference in
the Western tradition. When art history emerged as a discipline or critical approach
to artistic production, mainly from the 18th century  on, it was thus so fully
integrated into the artistic landscape or “art-scape” that the influential philosopher
Hegel, in his seminal Lectures on Aesthetics, wrote that Egyptians were “among the
ancient people, the actual people of art” (Hegel 1842, 445).1
DOI: 10.4324/9781003003403-18
164 Dimitri Laboury and Alisée Devillers
But the ancient Egypt resurrected by the Enlightenment was largely a rein-
vented one, based on classical authors’ perception of and discourse about Pharaonic
civilization (Assmann 2014). So, in this context, ancient Egyptian art was funda-
mentally seen through the lens of Greek or classical art, as is perfectly revealed in its
appraisal by the founding father of ancient art history, J.J. Winckelmann:
Among the Egyptians, art did not advance much beyond its earliest style, and
it could not easily have attained the heights that it did among the Greeks. ...
The history of the art of the Egyptians is, as is their land, like a large desolate
plain that can be fully surveyed from two or three high towers.
(Winckelmann 1764, 31, 68, quoted from
Mallgrave 2006, 128, 145)2
Although still using the concepts of art and artist, early art history’s helleno-
centric vision of ancient Egyptian art crystallized the cliché of the immutabil-
ity of that artistic production—already armed by the Greek philosopher Plato
(Davis 1979)—soon (re)interpreted as its repetitiveness and, consequently, its lack
of creativity,3 i.e., the absence of a key-element in our modern conception of art
and artist.
Another factor used to discredit Egyptian art as true art goes back to the early
19th century: the invention of the concept of art for art’s sake—again, strongly
influenced by a certain reading of Greek art and classicizing aesthetics. As
M. Eaton-Krauss recalls, “Egyptologists long debated whether the statuary, painting
and relief created during the three millennia of pharaonic history could properly be
considered art, since those products were intended to serve an essentially utilitar-
ian purpose in the context of Egyptian civilization, above all in the funerary cult”
(Eaton-Krauss 2001, 136).4
It is against this aesthetic and ideological background that the founder of scien-
tific Egyptology, J.-Fr. Champollion, had to fight, arguing that judgments “con-
trary to reason and equity” were expressed anytime someone wished to assess
ancient Egyptian art “by taking as a term of appreciation or parallel the art of the
Greeks, i.e. the art of a people totally foreign to Egypt” (Champollion 1824–6,
7–8). Half a century later, G. Perrot and Ch. Chipiez, who were not Egyptologists
but wrote an important Histoire de l’art dans l’Antiquité, kept on defending the idea
that, in ancient Egypt, “as everywhere else,” next to “many mediocre artists,” there
were “eminent artists, whose talent must have been expensively paid” (Perrot and
Chipiez 1882, 634).
Nonetheless, as Egyptology developed into an autonomous academic discipline,5
specifically at the turn of the 20th century, although the convenient expression
“ancient Egyptian art” remained, an increasing reluctance to consider its makers as
real artists grew and expanded. Mainstream Egyptological discourse further tended
to pinpoint more (pseudo)emic arguments in this perspective: the so-called ano-
nymity of ancient Egyptian art;6 the usually collective dimension of its production;
and, to question the concept of art itself, the alleged absence in ancient Egyptian
The Ancient Egyptian Artist 16 5
textual sources of a lexical equivalent or of any theoretical discourse about it. There
were, of course, a few noticeable exceptions, such as the works of J. Capart or
H. Schäfer, or the largely overlooked list of dozens of “Egyptian artists’ signatures”
compiled by E. Williams Ware as early as 1927.7 But her interpretation of them was
countered twenty years later by J.A. Wilson, who claimed that pictorial depictions
of artists were never meant to commemorate their skill but only to allow them to
accompany their patron in his afterlife, as servants among their fellows (Wilson
1947). When H. Junker wrote the first Egyptological book entirely devoted to
ancient Egyptian artists and their social status, he reached the conclusion that they
could obviously enjoy great respect and prestige, including from the pharaoh him-
self, and, interestingly, compared them in this respect to physicians (Junker 1959),
rather than later artists. Almost two decades later, R. Drenkhahn preferred to
describe Egyptian art makers as manufacturers or skillful craftsmen, rather than art-
ists, though with very few possible exceptions (Drenkhahn 1976). More recently,
N. Kanawati and A. Woods concluded that “The widely held view that Egyptian
artists were actually craftsmen is unjustified” (Kanawati and Woods 2009, 75).
This hesitation or oscillation in categorizing ancient Egyptian art makers—as
(true) artists, artisans, or craftsmen—has continuously confused the Egyptological
debate about ancient Egyptian art. As the works mentioned here plainly reveal,
the confusion is mainly due to two factors: first, a historical stratification of past
(sometimes ancient and strongly Eurocentric) assumptions; and second, as is often
the case in similar scientific disputes, a striking negligence to define the concepts
What is Art and What is an Artist?
Over the last century, art history has gradually freed itself from its initial Eurocen-
tric and “modernocentric” filters, and it is now accepted that art cannot be defined
on the basis of criteria such as the absence of a “utilitarian function” of objects, the
collective dimension of production, the anonymity of artists or the lexicalization of
the concept of art and a theoretical written discourse about it. Indeed, with only
a few exceptions, ancient Greek art had a primarily religious function absolutely
similar to that of Egyptian art (Steiner 2015), as well as all Christian works of art.
Should we stop considering Michelangelo’s Madonna sculptures as artistic mas-
terpieces because they were meant to be set up in churches? Besides, who would
refuse the status of artist to Pheidias, Raphael, or Rubens on the pretext that they
worked with rather extensive teams or workshops? The number of actors in the
making of an artwork is above all a matter of eciency, mainly determined by the
quantitative importance of the task to carry out; and, moreover, its increase never
annihilated the creative mind that designed the work.
The study of the emergence of artists’ signatures in the late pre-classic Greek
world plainly revealed that such claims for authorship might only appear in spe-
cific sociological contexts: when there is an emulation between patrons, who may
benefit in terms of prestige from engaging a specific artist (Duplouy 2005, 2006).
166 Dimitri Laboury and Alisée Devillers
Furthermore, while Early Modern artists were inclined to sign some of their cre-
ations on the model of their ancient Greek predecessors, notably according to
Pliny’s testimony,8 most of their work has been identified by scholars on the basis
of archives and collections inventories, i.e., on collective memory that was written
down and, by chance, preserved to us. And finally, ancient Greek art is a perfect
example of an undisputed properly artistic tradition for which there was no real
word to describe it, nor any written theory about it, though the latter might be
reconstructed from the way ancient Greeks commented on their artworks (Steiner
So, what is art? From a broader and more anthropological vantage point,10 art
may be defined as an aesthetic statement recognized as such in a given society. It
is above all a question of collective recognition of what is deemed to be endowed
with the aesthetic added value that characterizes art and art objects, and moves us.
In other words, no kind of authority decides what qualifies as art, but rather soci-
ety at large, in its collective practices. So, from a contemporary etic point of view,
ancient Egyptian art definitely exists because, for instance, every major art museum
around the world displays a collection of ancient Egyptian art, hence recogniz-
ing it as such by its collective practice and treatment. From an emic perspective,
and as a socio-cultural construct, such an artistic recognition should therefore be
expressed—and consequently sought out and analyzed—through ancient Egyp-
tian common practices, i.e., how ancient Egyptians used and interacted with their
monuments and objects (Den Doncker 2019), and also how they referred to or
categorized them.
Importantly, according to ancient Egyptian vocabulary, there were two ways
to produce artificial things: they could just be “made” (iri) or created through
a process called h
.mw.t. So, for instance, the professional manufacturer of arrows
is an “arrow-maker” (r-h
.ȝ.w), whereas his neighbor in workshop scenes who
builds chariots is a “h
.mw(.w) of chariot” (h
.mw(.w)-wrry.t/mrkb.t) (Wb I, 216.15; III,
82.9–10). The term h
.mw(.w) is attested in association with prestigious and
sophisticatedly crafted goods, such as a chariot or a wsr-rudder, or with precious
materials: the h
.mw(.w) of gold, i.e., the goldsmith, or the h
.mw(.w) of precious
stones, i.e., the jeweler (Wb III, 82.9–13).11 The various practitioners of the h
might also be more simply designated as h
.mw(.w), but the specification of the object
of their work is systematically absent when reference is made to sculptors, as if the
latter were the h
.mw(.w) par excellence. Interestingly enough, on a more metaphorical
level, the demiurge is also described as h
.mw (Wb III, 82.14) or h
.mw(.w)-b (of
heart),12 while the excellent scribe or author is often portrayed as h
.mw(.w) of his
fingers, words, or “excellent in his h
.mw(.t),” just like his artistic colleagues (Wb III,
83.1–3).13 The Egyptian concept of h
.mw(.t) is always associated with a special
mastery of the actor and an aesthetic added value attached to his product; and the
divide between what belongs to h
.mw(.t) and what does not is plainly a cultural
construct, just as it is for the current notion of art, which undoubtedly appears
as the best translation or modern equivalent for the ancient Egyptian concept of
.mw(.t) (Laboury 2016, 374–76).
The Ancient Egyptian Artist 167
The hieroglyph chosen to encode the notion of h
.mw(.t) 𓍎 is also very signifi-
cant: it represents the flint drill that was utilized from pre-dynastic times onward to
produce prestigious hard stones vases,14 a practice at the root of the entire ancient
Egyptian tradition of stone working, i.e. at the origins of the specific tradition of
Egyptian art. As such, this hieroglyphic choice denotes the existence of some sort
of a discourse on art and its tradition in ancient Egypt.
This discourse has often been doubted because it was never found textualized in
a theoretical form—just like in ancient Greece. In a society with a complex writing
system and limited literacy such as ancient Egypt, writing was clearly restricted to
specific genres, among which such a treaty would never find its place, especially as
theoretical approaches were largely alien to the ancient Egyptian way of thinking.15
Written and unwritten manifestations of an oral discourse on art in ancient Egypt
are nevertheless easily detectable.
For example, the famous first verses of the Maxims of Ptahhotep (P 52–59) state:
Do not be arrogant because of your knowledge, but consult with the igno-
rant man as with the learned. One cannot reach the limits of art (n
dr.w h
.m(w).t), and there is no artist who is endowed with his full eciency
(nn h
.mw.w pr ȝh.w.f). Good word is more hidden than the green stone, yet it
is found in the possession of the female servant at the millstone.
Though h
.mw(.t) allows the creation of an alliteration with “female servant”
.m.t Stauder 2018, 253, n. 14) (or the other way around?) and the concept might
also refer to rhetorical skill, this double reference to the topic of h
in the incipit of the instruction, focusing on humility, is quite striking and sounds
like the quotation of a proverb. If so, this would mean that everybody in ancient
Egypt knew or was supposed to know that “one cannot reach the limits of art”
or “full eciency” in this domain, a very well attested topos in the general history
of discourses about art.16 Another case is a dialog staged in the wall decoration of
the Theban tomb of the early Ramesside Vizier Paser (TT 106; Figure15.1A),
where the royal dignitary visits a sculptors’ workshop and congratulates the chief
artist as follows: “May Ptah praise you, sculptor! This statue of the Lord that you
have made is extremely beautiful (nfr nfr). ‘Make it become “like the ancient one”
(m pȝsy)!’ as One said in the Palace—life, prosperity and health” (Assmann 1992).
Even if the scene is fictional, the Vizier refers directly to a royal command regard-
ing the style to implement in the creation of the king’s statues in the time of Seti
I, whose artistic production is precisely characterized by an archaizing tendency.
Unwritten or non-textual evidence pointing to the existence of an oral discourse
about art in ancient Egypt should also be considered. For instance, the 6th Dynasty
Vizier Mereruka had himself portrayed in a large-scale painting on an easel in the
first tableau at the entrance of his mastaba in Saqqara (Figure15.1B), a scene which
was copied by followers down to the Ramesside period (Pieke 2016,236–38). This
speaks volumes about the high esteem in which ancient Egyptian painters could be
held. Furthermore, the many manifestations of a conscious and targeted inspiration
168 Dimitri Laboury and Alisée Devillers
FIGURE 15.1 A. Detail of the scene of inspection of the workshops in the Theban
Tomb of the Vizier Paser (TT 106). Photograph G. Menendez—U Liège.
B. Depiction of the Vizier Mereruka as a painter in the doorway of his
mastaba in Saqqara (after Duell 1938, pl. 6). Courtesy of the Oriental
Institute of the University of Chicago.
in previous phases of ancient Egyptian art history, “which required knowledge of
older styles from producer and viewer” (Price 2017, 395), also imply the existence
of a discourse about art and, moreover, of some sort of connoisseurship and—
we would dare to say—art-historical knowledge on behalf of educated ancient
A Broad Statistical Overview of the Data
The concept of h
.mw.w also allows us to determine from an emic vantage point
which trades were considered by ancient Egyptians as properly artistic, in the sense
defined previously. A. Devillers categorized material producers attested as calling
themselves h
.mw.w or practitioners of the h
.mw.t as follows:17
.mw.w without further specification (often h
.ry or my-r h
sculptors, who might also be described as qs.ty, snh, or tȝy-mdȝ.t
.w-qd(.wt), a title usually translated as painters or draftsmen
metalworkers or smiths, whether a nby, a h
.mt.y, or a tȝy-bsn.t
qd.w or builders
..w or carpenters
tbw or sandal-makers
Quite striking from an etic point of view is the fact that this list comprises what
we typically regard as the “fine arts, but also some specialties we would classify
nowadays among crafts or craft industries. It should nevertheless be noted here
that mdh
..w (carpenters) who presented themselves as h
.mw.w could be experts in
the production of particularly sophisticated objects, definitely endowed with an
The Ancient Egyptian Artist 16 9
aesthetic added value in an emic perspective, such as sacred barks (e.g., Urk. IV,
1630–2, or Frood 2007, 136–39), and the extraordinary craftsmanship of some
shoes from the grave goods of Tutankhamun might support a similar reasoning
about sandal-makers. But more importantly and beyond any attempt of justifica-
tion, this broader definition of the scope of the concept of art as h
.mw.t reminds us
of the crucial importance of the Berufstypologie or “typology of functions” (Jäger
2004; Widmaier 2013) as a cultural construct, which may hence vary—some-
times considerably—from one culture to another. In other words, this usage of the
word h
.mw(.w) plainly reveals that whether Egyptology should qualify the makers of
Egyptian art as artists or craftsmen is in fact a purely etic issue, engendered by our
cultural representation of functions, and actually rather irrelevant from an ancient
Egyptian perspective.
Using this emic definition of artists, A. Devillers gathered every attestation
of them in the available Egyptological documentation in order to analyze their
self-thematization, both individually on their own monuments and collectively, in
workshop scenes, when they represented themselves as trades. The goal is to use
those self-depictions to reconstruct the sociological representation of ancient Egyp-
tian artists, i.e., the way they presented themselves—through their own media—as
well as the way they were perceived by their own society. As a prelude to her
complete study, we would like to mention here a few statistical data yielded by this
recent research that seem particularly relevant in the context of the present chapter.
A. Devillers collected more than 700 individualized pictorial representations of
artists, with only fifty-nine of them occurring in 126 workshop scenes. Because of
its exceptionality both in terms of quantity and quality, the documentation from
Deir el-Medina was excluded from this census in order to avoid bias in the statistical
interpretation. With such figures, even if the collection is, very likely, not exhaus-
tive, it nevertheless provides a sucient statistical basis to get a broader picture about
artists and artistic trades in ancient Egypt, or, at least those who had access to com-
memoration and a written death (Doudet 2005), and could thus leave a trace for us.
First of all, almost 70% of the corpus pertains to practitioners of the so-called
or traditional “fine arts,” and even more than 80% if one considers the h
without any further specification as sculptors (Figure15.2A). So the overlapping
with our “less classically artistic” trades might be marginal compared to the number
of sandal-makers, carpenters or qd.w actually active in ancient Egypt; perhaps the
examples labeled as h
.mw.w were specific cases, rather than a general classification
for these trades. It is also interesting that high-ranked artists could have multiple
titles, denoting versatile or multi-talented artists.
The chronological distribution (Figure15.2B) of the workshop scenes, indi-
vidualized artist depictions, and an overlap category (when a named artist appears
in a workshop scene) reveals that there were always more individualized pictorial
representations of artists than workshop scenes, the latter being particularly favored
during the Old Kingdom. Most of the named artists were depicted outside the rep-
resentation of their professional sphere, so with additional functions. Subsequently,
the number of individualized artists rather dramatically increased in the Middle and
170 Dimitri Laboury and Alisée Devillers
FIGURE 15.2 A. The socio-pr ofessional class distribution of the depicted artists. B.
Chronological distribution of the two analyzed corpora: workshop
scenes and individualized pictorial representations.
New Kingdoms. As for the various trades, the distribution of their monumental
presence (Figure15.3A). appears more or less constant over time. Sculptors always
represent the largest group (even more if unspecified h
.mw.w were actually sculp-
tors), suggesting they were relatively wealthy. Asignificant increase of metalworkers
and particularly goldsmiths occurs in the New Kingdom, probably correlating with
the historical context and the imports of gold and other precious metals.18
The monumental distribution according to trades (Figure15.3B). is also inter-
esting from a sociological perspective. If a wide price-range of monuments is
attested, it is clear that metalworkers—especially in the New Kingdom—could
more easily aord a tomb—the most extensive of these means of commemora-
tion, a sign of prestige and economic success—whereas painters and sculptors more
often shared or mutualized tombs (e.g., Davies 1925; Zivie 2013). The stele was
The Ancient Egyptian Artist 17 1
FIGURE 15.3 A. Chr onological distribution of self-thematized representations of artists
by trades. B. Monumental distribution of self-thematized representations
of artists by trades.
the most frequent self-thematizing monument used by Egyptian artists, a sort of
entry-level object within the range of durable commemorative monuments, sug-
gesting a sub-elite social level for many of those artists, despite some sophisticatedly
creative stelae (e.g., Lowle 1976; Krauss 1986).
On the Social Profile and Perception of Artists
The body of texts known as The Satire of Trades (Jäger 2004; Widmaier 2013),
and in particular The Instruction of Khety, has often led Egyptology to subordinate
the social status of artists to that of scribes. However, these scribal compositions,
whose explicit aim was to assert the superiority of the scribal profession over “any
other functions,” constitute a cultural discourse created by scribes and, by defini-
tion (since it was meant to be read), intended for their own community—in which
so many Egyptologists seem to have been inclined to recognize themselves, thus
172 Dimitri Laboury and Alisée Devillers
falling into what could be called the “scribal trap.19 Furthermore, Egyptological
evidence proves to be in flagrant contradiction with the arguments presented to
disparage the social status of artists in those texts and, to the contrary, suggests a
close sociological proximity between art practitioners and scribes, a more than
plausible motive for the latter to wish to distance themselves from the former
(Laboury 2016).
As early as 1959, H. Junker demonstrated the considerable social respect in
which ancient Egyptian artists could be held, though this was certainly not the case
for all of them. As M. Eaton-Krauss underlined, “Representational and textual
sources make it clear that artists of the courts and temples enjoyed a higher status
than the men who made cons, furniture, stone vessels, and similar goods. She
adds: “During the Old Kingdom, men who were depicted carving and painting
statues were, with few exceptions, the only figures in workshop scenes whose
labels included names that supplemented titles” (Eaton-Krauss 2001, 137). Such an
individualization on monuments ordered by and made for others is closely related
to proper artistic signatures. As previously seen, general art history has shown that
the emergence of these individualizing emphases is primarily determined by the
prestige granted to the commissioning patron and thus bespeak as much a sense of
authorship as a social recognition or valorization.
The responsibility and prestige for the creation of a monument were of course
claimed by the patron(s) who financed the work, but also occasionally by the lat-
ter’s supervisor(s), as is exemplified by the famous statement of Amenhotep son of
Hepu: “Ihave created (qmȝ) for him (the king) a mountain of quartzite” (a colossal
statue of 40 cubits high) (Urk. IV, 1822, 13). According to the sociological circum-
stances of the work’s production,20 the makers or artists were not necessarily on
the sidelines. Thus, in privately sponsored Egyptian art, signatures are indeed not
so rare. They might be textually explicit,21 but also much more subtly appended,
notably through the well-known artistic strategy of the self-portrait in assistenza, or
self-inclusion into the composition (ex. in Laboury 2015).
A double signature in the form of an explicit self-portrait in assistenza in
the Old Kingdom cemetery of el-Hawawish is of particular interest for it sheds
some light on who could consider oneself—and hence be considered—as the
creator of an artwork in ancient Egypt: in two 6th Dynasty tombs, the painter
Seni portrayed himself along with his brother, “the scribe of the house of the
divine books of the Great-House (i.e., the Palace), Izezi” (Kanawati and Woods
2009, 8–11, 19; Laboury 2016, 379–81). In the first tomb, made for the gover-
nor of Akhmim Kheni (TH 24), Izezi, a palette in his hand, is described as “the
one who decorated () th[is] tomb,whereas in the second funerary chapel,
made for Kheni’s father, Tjeti-iqer (TH 26), the two brothers are facing a small
panel of three columns of texts that reads: “the painter Seni, he says: “Iam the
one who decorated () the tomb of the governor Kheni and moreover, Iam
the one who decorated this tomb, being alone!” Obviously, ancient Egyptian
art had already addressed, four millennia ago, a question raised last century by
conceptual art: who’s the artist? The maker (in this case, the painter) or the
The Ancient Egyptian Artist 17 3
designer (here, the scholar brother)? For ancient Egyptians, the answer was
clearly both of them.
But fame and social recognition could also be gained and transmitted without
written claims. This is well exemplified by the case of the famous tomb of Pahery
of Elkab (T Elkab 3; Laboury 2016, 2017, 241–47; Allon and Navratilova 2017,
13–24; Devillers 2018). Before becoming governor of his hometown and Esna,
Pahery had a career as a painter of Amun in Thebes, and, naturally he made use
of his talents to produce a very creative and attractive iconographic program for
his single chamber funerary chapel. In the late 20th Dynasty, more than three
centuries after the governor Pahery had been buried in Elkab, the high priest of
the local goddess Nekhbet, Setau, hired an expert from Esna—named Merira—to
faithfully copy in his own funerary monument (T Elkab 4; Kruchten and Del-
vaux 2010) or use as a direct source of inspiration—with only few adaptations and
some updates (notably for the garments)—the neighboring tomb chapel of Pahery,
which seemed to have kept its reputation as the tomb of the governor who used to
be an artist. Oral memory of the fame of an artist may also explain similar cases of
copies or intericonical references in ancient Egyptian art, such as the diusion of
some motifs created by an anonymous painter—undoubtedly a star of his time—in
the tiny and unfinished tomb of the horologer priest of Amun, Nakht, in Thebes
(TT 52), some of them attested well beyond the Theban necropolis (Laboury 2017,
236–40, esp. n. 14, and forthcoming).
The exceptional stela of the “chief of artists, painter and sculptor” Irtysen (Lou-
vre C 14) (Barta 1970; Mathieu 2016; Bryan 2017, 2–10; Stauder 2018) emically
provides us with a unique insight into what was expected from a good artist in
ancient Egypt, including which criteria could make his success and renown. As
a royal chief artist under Mentuhotep II, Irtysen was obviously very proud of his
accomplishments and presented himself as “an artist excellent in his art (ink grt
.mw.w qr m h
.m(w).t.f), one who has come out on top through what he knows
(pr h
.r-tp m rh.n.f). As every commentator of the stela has underlined, the core
of this very sophisticatedly devised (Stauder 2018) self-thematizing inscription is
structured by the repetition, four times, of the expression w.( ), “I know,”
introducing four kinds of abilities Irtysen asserted to possess, respectively sacred or
intellectual knowledge (including “the secrets of hieroglyphs,sštȝ n mdw-ntr, “the
conduct of festive rituals,sšm.t-.w nw h
.by.t , and “magic” or “generative force,h
nb [Stauder 2018, 252]), proportions mastery, iconographic expertise, and techni-
cal competences. So, in his self-evaluation, next to classic artistic skills relating
to image creation and techniques, Irtysen pointed at his scholarly and ritualistic
knowledge, a dimension directly derived from the ancient Egyptian “theory”—or
conception—of images and their function(ing) (Eschweiler 1994; Laboury 1998).
Many dierent sources demonstrate that master artists in ancient Egypt were
highly educated and literate. The majority of wealthy artists who had access to
commemoration—and thus left a trace of themselves—displayed clear signs of lit-
eracy as well as priestly titles. These often included distinguished ones, such as
“lector priest” (hry-h
.b) or “scribe of the divine writings” (sš md.t ntr and variants)
174 Dimitri Laboury and Alisée Devillers
(e.g., Junker 1959; Newberry 1895, 3, 20, pl. 12, 15; Stefanovic 2012, 186–67,
189–90; or Kahl 2016, 18, pl. 41), associated with the mastery of hieroglyphs and
sacerdotal expertise, both obviously needed to create a religiously eective work.
Besides, “giving birth” (ms) or “life” (snh) to an eective image also required chief
artists to be ritually competent (Traunecker 1989; Derchain 1990; Fischer-Elfert
1998), and often initiated (bs) in highly restricted sacred knowledge (Kruchten
1989), as evidenced by the autobiographies of the chief royal sculptor Hatiay and the
coeval “director of artistic functions” of Pharaoh and “chief of the king’s goldsmiths”
Amenemone, of the post-Amarna era (Kruchten 1992; Frood 2007, 117–33).
But, again, such was clearly not the case for every expert involved in artistic
production in ancient Egypt—as everywhere else. Evidence of this unavoidable
artistic reality may be found within the community of artists and craftsmen at
New Kingdom Deir el-Medina. Unlike almost every other member of the crew
in the Thutmoside period, a sdm-š or “servant” (lit. “the call listener”) named
Amenemhat managed to have a very small decorated funerary chapel (TT 340;
Cherpion 1999, 3–55, pl. 1–23) in the local cemetery thanks to the talents of
his son, Sennefer (without any title), who depicted himself in a self-portrait in
assistenza as someone “who writes correctly and causes his (i.e., his father’s) name
to live” (Figure 15.4). Despite this boastful (self-)assertion, the decorative pro-
gram of this tiny tomb chapel is surprisingly simple, directly derived from the
iconography of funerary stelae, which were plainly part of Sennefer’s visual culture;
moreover, J.-M. Kruchten (1999) demonstrated that Sennefer clumsily reproduced
formulae learned by rote, such as h
.tp-d-(ny)-sw.t, which he tried to adapt or emend
almost exclusively with uniliteral signs, thus making many errors that betray his
actual and rather low level of literacy. So, even if this genius, self-taught, novice
scribe was patently a professional painter working for Pharaoh’s projects, he proved
to be practically incapable of designing an original iconographic program and a
fortiori texts to complement it. As a matter of fact, he belonged to a category of art
practitioners and, more generally, to the many people who were not meant to have
access to written or monumental death and are hence normally below the Egypto-
logical radar, i.e., practically undetectable as individuals in the usual Egyptological
material. The recontextualization of the case of Sennefer nevertheless compels one
to conclude that these forever anonymous artists, craftsmen, and workers certainly
constituted the majority of the artistic force in ancient Egypt (Laboury forthcom-
ing). By chance, the Sennefer’s exceptional will to go beyond the limitations of his
art and hieroglyphic abilities aords us a rare but very telling insight into the diver-
sity of skills and education of the actors of artistic production in Pharaonic society.
Of course, by definition, those who had access to commemoration evoke a
more—or at least a rather—successful career. In practice, many of them were chief
artists (h
.ry) or director (my-r) in their trade, quite often cumulating titles, talents,
or expertise. Those who managed to move up the hierarchy could reach enjoyable
positions within the social elite of ancient Egypt, including at the court, in the
close circle of Pharaoh. This was the case of the chief royal sculptor Hatiay, men-
tioned earlier, commissioned by the king in post-Amarna time to “give birth (ms)”
The Ancient Egyptian Artist 175
FIGURE 15.4 Epigraphic drawing of the self-portrait in assistenza of Sennefer in the
tomb of his father, the servant (lit. “the call listener”) Amenemhat in Deir
el-Medina (TT 340). After Cherpion 1999, pl. 8.
176 Dimitri Laboury and Alisée Devillers
to cult statues “of all the gods” all over Egypt, and who presented himself as an
intimate counselor of the sovereign, so that he was allowed to “eat the bread from
the royal meal and be quenched with his beer” and received the “gold of favor by
the King himself” (Kruchten 1992; Frood 2007, 117–29) and the contemporary
“director of artistic functions” and “chief of the king’s goldsmiths” Amenemone,
owner of an imposing tomb at Saqqara (Ockinga 2004), was also, it seems, a close
confidant of Pharaoh (Frood 2007, 131), whereas “the director of the painters of
Amun” Dedia and “the great artist of the carpenters of the sacred barks of all the
gods of Upper and Lower Egypt” Iuna were entrusted with similar missions of
artistic and sacred restorations by the Crown (Lowle 1976; Urk. IV, 1630–2). Less
than a generation before, “the favorite of the perfect god, the director of works and
sculptor” Thutmose, portraitist of the royal family, established his house and work-
shop in an exclusive residential area in the city of Akhet-Aten (Krauss 1983), while
his colleague “the director of works and chief sculptor in the grandiose monuments
of the king (...) in Akhet-Aten, Bak, son of an equally titled father, portrayed him-
self as “the assistant instructed by his Majesty in person” (Krauss 1986).
As in many other professions in ancient Egypt—and in most preindustrial
societies—artistic education and knowledge transmission were based on
apprenticeship (Lazaridis 2010; Cooney 2012) and, as a norm, on a father-to-son
transference model (Laboury 2020, 88–91, 95–96). Hence, the majority of those
socially successful artists were in fact favored by birth as heir of an already estab-
lished artist, if not a real dynasty of artists. This was, for instance, the case of the just
mentioned “director of painters of Amun” Dedia, father of two painters of Amun,
and himself the seventh generation of his family to hold that title (Lowle 1976).
Additionally, the names of the first two of these ancestors “revealed the Levantine
origin of Dedia’s family, showing that foreign birth was no hindrance to entering
the profession and rising to a position of authority in it” (Eaton-Krauss 2001, 137).
While evidence of gender diversity is completely lacking, since no ancient
Egyptian female artist seems to be attested so far,22 there were nevertheless some
clear possibilities of social mobility into as well as out of the artistic professional
sphere. Pahery of Elkab became a painter of Amun, and apparently a quite success-
ful and famous one (Laboury 2017, 241–47, esp. n. 27–28), although his father,
the tutor of prince Wadjmose (son of Thutmose I) and scribe Itiruri, apparently
displayed no special connection with the artistic world. Eventually, Pahery took
on the function of “confidant of the treasurer” ([mh
.-b n] my-r htm.t) and “scribe
accountant of grains in the southern district” (Davies 2009, 142, 152), and, as
noted earlier, became governor of Elkab and Esna.
Pahery also demonstrates that the mobility of ancient Egyptian artists was not
only social, but also—and in fact primarily—geographic (Laboury 2020, 91–92,
forthcoming). Indeed, as we have just seen with Hatiay, Amenemone, Dedia, and
Iuna, numerous textual sources refer to artists who were commissioned by the king
to work in dierent locations throughout the country, and even beyond (Laboury
2016, 377–78). Apparently renowned ones could also travel in order to fulfill their
tasks for private patrons. Among other examples, we may cite the 6th Dynasty
The Ancient Egyptian Artist 17 7
FIGURE 15.5 Double depiction of “the lector-priest and scribe of the house of the
divine books of the Great-House” Ihy-em-sa-Pepy, aka Iry, in the scene
of “watching the painting and the work [of the sculptor]” in the tomb
of the governor Pepy-ankh-heny-kem at Meir (T Meir 2). After Junker
1959, 89.
case of Izezi (see earlier). He was most likely attached to the royal Residence in
Memphis, and designed tombs at el-Hawawish. His Memphite colleague, “the
lector-priest and scribe of the house of the divine books of the Great-House”
Ihy-em-sa-Pepy, whose “beautiful name” was Iry, decorated the tomb of the
governor of Meir Pepy-ankh-heny-kem (Junker 1956). The latter was obviously
so proud of having been able to hire the scholar painter Iry that he allowed (and
more likely asked) the artist to create an unprecedented scene whose subject was
the tomb owner “watching the painting and the work [of the sculptor],” displayed
on the first wall one encounters when entering the funerary chapel (Figure15.5).
Those artists out on business—whether for the King or for privately funded
projects—were probably otherwise regularly employed by a royal institution.
Indeed, whenever an aliation is mentioned, it is always to the King (or his resi-
dence), or to a state temple, i.e,. to a royal institution. In other words, all artistic
resources in ancient Egypt were institutionally monopolized by Pharaoh, the main
producer, consumer and patron of arts. “Yet,” as M. Eaton-Krauss rightly under-
lined, “some freelance work was possible within that framework in all periods.
Sculptors and painters might be sent from one place to another by the king, with
a specific commission, or delegated to work temporarily for a favored ocial, but
they did not travel on their own from place to place in search of work” (Eaton-
Krauss 2001, 136–37). Next to those main and usual employers, the king, royal
institutions, and the elite, art practitioners could also work for less wealthy cus-
tomers. As has always been the case throughout the history of art, they could oer
their services to their close social circle, including family and friends. Stylistic and
serial analysis of low(er)-cost stelae and statuettes23 produced during less-centralized
periods of ancient Egyptian history, such as the late Middle Kingdom and Second
Intermediate Period, further suggests that some artists—maybe among the less
gifted or skilled ones—might also have taken part in the “mass production” of less
expensive—and thus less prestigious—objects for local consumption in religious
centers or, above all, necropoleis (Marée 2010; Connor 2018, 15–21, 27, 2020,
193–99, 207–8, 248–50).
178 Dimitri Laboury and Alisée Devillers
“[Rew]ard (well) the artist, so that he acts (well) for you!” reminds the instruc-
tion of the New Kingdom papyrus Chester Beatty IV (v° I, 4). This idea was
already thematized in iconographic and textual epigraphy of elite tombs in the Old
Kingdom (Abu-Bakr 1953, 73; Junker 1959; Roth 1994; Kanawati and Woods
2009), with later echoes First Intermediate Period texts, as well as in funerary
chapels of the 18th Dynasty (Davies and Gardiner 1915, 36–37, pl. 8). The actual
price of artworks—by definition open to variations—is often dicult or impossible
to determine (Roth 1994, 236–38), but, A.M. Roth reconstructed a remuneration
system fitting the pre-monetary barter economy of ancient Egypt. Artists were
compensated for their work by food, typically bread and beer, or supplies for liv-
ing, supplemented by goods that could be more durably kept or even stoked (and
thus played a role equivalent to money), usually textiles (Roth 1994, 236–38). The
same remuneration system was used at Deir el-Medina, both for the regular salaries
delivered by the king to the members of this royal institution, and for their internal
and parallel business of “informal workshop” practices (Cooney 2006), when they
crafted and sold objects, especially funerary goods, in and outside of the village.
The wages of Deir el-Medina crew members reveal that village artists were quite
well paid (Janssen 1975), as is further suggested by their funerary material culture
when compared to that of the cemeteries of mere workers and lay-people exca-
vated at Amarna (Rose and Zabecki 2009; Stevens, Dabbs, and Rose 2016; Stevens
2018a, 2018b). K.M. Cooney (2007) was able to show that the price or economic
value of artworks and crafted objects in Ramesside Deir el-Medina could vary
considerably according to the intrinsic value of the materials used as well as to the
quality of the workmanship. It is particularly interesting to note that “the charge for
decorating a con exceeded the price of the con itself—attesting to the higher
value placed on the work of a draftsman over a joiner” (Eaton-Krauss 2001, 140),
or, in an object-based perspective, highlighting the added economic value that
characterizes art objects. In this respect, the textual material from Deir el-Medina
reveals that “a wooden statue cost about twice the monthly grain ration of a drafts-
man” (Eaton-Krauss 2001, 140), and a small decorated tomb at least “20 months’
wages” (Cooney 2008, 91).
As a matter of fact, ancient Egyptian artists were far from the fleeting figures Egyp-
tology long used to consider, or—to be more accurate—avoided considering. The
evidence that still allows their detailed study, from various perspectives, is as rich
and diversified as it is plentiful. The issue is thus not at all a matter of available data,
but rather of assumptions (and their almost ideological grounds and consequences)
inherited from the history of the discipline. However, if we engage with this corpus
from a proper art historical vantage point, it leads us to the inevitable conclusion
that, even if every actor in the production of ancient Egyptian monumental and
figurative culture was certainly not a true artist according to our modern concep-
tion or etic point of view, at least some of them, the most important ones, could
The Ancient Egyptian Artist 17 9
clearly be considered and valued by Pharaonic society as artists, experts, and master
creators of objects endowed with a special aesthetic added value, i.e., “artists in the
proper sense the word.
Besides, contrary to their Greek and Roman colleagues (to whom they have so
often been compared), who were regarded by their own society as laborers “who could
not aord to have leisure and had no time for politics” (Vollkommer 2015, 111),
ancient Egyptian artists were obviously not just mere manufacturers of beautiful
objects. As we have seen, ancient Egyptian artists were true intellectual elites of
their society, essential actors in the latter’s material agency on reality, endowed
with the knowledge and thus the power to create bridges between this world and
the beyond and to actually bring things about. While Greco-Roman artists could
occasionally establish privileged relationships with their elite patrons, in this very
dierent sociological and metaphysical context (determining the function ascribed
to images and artistic objects), their Egyptian counterparts were able to move up
the societal hierarchy themselves and become, as artists, part of the elite, joining, at
least for the happy few, the ultimate circle of Pharaoh.
For those reasons, there is a real need to consciously re-integrate the concept
of artist into the discourse and vocabulary of Egyptology, as a key-figure in a soci-
ety that produced and consumed so many artworks, and for which art and artistic
objects were plainly so meaningful. However, in view of the extreme diversity
of ancient Egyptian artists, which actually encompasses almost the entire social
spectrum (as, by the way, within most of the other cultural contexts studied by art
history), the concept is certainly to be considered in the plural from a sociological
vantage point, so that the relevance of its equation to a single and unique social
category remains truly questionable. Thus, one should not speak of the ancient
Egyptian artist, but, definitely, of ancient Egyptian artists.
1 A similar opinion was expressed by G.B. Adriani in the mid-16th century . Freed
2001, 127 showed a comparable judgment in ancient Greek sources (in this case by
Hekataois of Miletos).
2 The purpose for Winckelmann, who never saw Egypt, nor Greece, was to demonstrate
that the only worth of former artistic traditions lay in their paving the way for the Greek
miracle, given his fascination for Greek art. As he acknowledged himself, he heavily
relied on classical authors and Roman imitations of ancient Egyptian art, which appear
as a “counterpoint to the Roman taste for artworks of Greek inspiration” (Swetnam-
Burland 2015, 319). Winckelmann thus played a major role in reviving, promoting, and
entrenching the classic (and post-classic) vision of Egyptian art as an antithesis of Greek
and Roman art, a visual definition of Egypt as the embodiment of otherness (compared,
of course, to Western standards), in line with the well-known logos of Herodotus about
that culture: “in most of their manners and customs, [Egyptians] exactly reverse the
common practice of mankind” (II, 35). This contrastive view had a deep impact on
the development of the Egyptological look on ancient Egyptian art; see comments in
Laboury 2017, 230, n. 6. As the art historian E. Gombrich cautioned: “We must never
forget that we look at Egyptian art with the mental set we have all derived from the
Greeks” (Gombrich 1960, 122).
180 Dimitri Laboury and Alisée Devillers
3 See, for instance, the opinion of the French novelist G. Flaubert, commented upon in
Laboury 2017, 229. On the distinction to be made between tradition—or a certain form
of permanence or a wish for immutability—and repetitiveness and lack of creativity, see
Laboury 2017.
4 Her next sentence being (not without a touch of irony): “Nowadays, specialists agree
that the Egyptians did indeed make art.
5 And gradually became more and more (self-)isolated, as emphasized by Moreno García
6 Assmann 1995, 139 kindly mocked this assertion by suggesting, on the contrary, to
characterize ancient Egyptian art as “eponymous,” in the sense that, in ancient Egypt,
“each work of art is related to a name, however not the one of the artist, but that of the
commissioner, who is also the depicted one.
7 As she noted (Williams Ware 1927, 185), the first to draw attention to such signatures,
claims of authorship, was, it seems, A. Erman, in 1893. It’s interesting that other pre-
modern artistic traditions suered from the same preconceptions in scholarly discourse;
see, for instance, the case of Western Medieval iconography (Baschet 1996).
8 See Matthew 1998; Wang 2004; McHam 2008; or Boa 2013. According to Pliny, most
influential ancient Greek artists, such as Apelles or Polykleitos, used to “inscribe their
complete works ... with a sort of provisional signature,” i.e., the imperfect form of the
verb “to make,” “as if art was something always in progress and incomplete” (N.H.Praef.
26, quoted after Baxandall 1971, 64), an idea that mirrors a famous statement in the
Instruction of Ptahhotep, commented here later on.
9 As Steiner underlined, “It has become a commonplace to point out that just because
the Greeks lacked a word for something doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist or couldn’t be
recognized and made a topic of inquiry, reflection, and debate.” (Steiner 2015, 23).
10 Excellent synthesis on anthropological perspective on the issue of art in Morphy 2010.
11 Ancient Greeks also considered craftsmanship and preciousness of material as essential
criteria of distinction and prestige to evaluate the artistic quality of artworks (Steiner
2015). On the importance of those criteria in the valuation of craft products in ancient
Egyptian practices, see Mazé 2018.
12 The creation of the demiurge may also be presented as (a) h
.mw.t (Wb III, 84, 20–21), just
like buildings or clothes, described “als Kunstwerken or “artworks” (Wb III, 84, 18–19).
13 This metaphoric use of the concept of h
.mw(.w/t) is of utmost importance from a general
art-historical point of view since, for instance, it doesn’t seem to be attested for its Greek
and Latin equivalents, tekne and ars (Shiner 2001, especially p.19–20). So, among those
three ancient cultures, the one that developed the concept that is the closest to our mod-
ern notion of art is definitely the Egyptian one, despite the long history of Egyptological
reluctance in this respect (see earlier).
14 On the prestige and evolving value attributed to those stone vases in historical times, see
Mazé 2018.
15 See Laboury 2017, 230, n. 5. The same applies, for instance, to mathematics, medicine,
or astrology in ancient Egypt, for which we do have textual evidence, but no theoretical
16 See n. 8.
17 On those various titles and their meaning, the study of Steinmann, published in a series
of articles in 1980, 1982(a& b), 1984 and 1991, remains pioneering and fundamental.
18 Those figures compare with the ones for Greek and Roman artists in Vollkommer
(2015, 126–30), with more or less the same proportions for the various trades (including
undesignated h
.mw.w as sculptors), so with a dominating presence of the latter’s corpora-
tion and social importance.
19 On scribal culture and (self-)discourse, see Ragazzoli 2019. Interestingly, the same ten-
sion and rivalry is also attested in the classical world (Muller-Dufeu 2011, 65–84) and
was thematized in early Modern times through the motto ut pictura poesis, “as is painting,
so is poetry.
The Ancient Egyptian Artist 181
20 As seen earlier, competition between patrons could always be a good trigger to allow or
invite artists to sign their work (compare with Duplouy 2005, 2006). But other incen-
tives, such as personal connections, could also operate; see, e.g., the references in the
following footnote or the comments in Laboury 2017, 242, and n. 26.
21 In addition to the examples gathered by Williams Ware 1927, see, for instance, Keller
2001; Hill and Schorsch 2007, 18–21; or Davies 2009.
22 The only evidence for women practicing arts in ancient Egypt are the two small ivory
painter palettes in the name of princesses Meritaten (Cairo Museum JE 62079) and
Meketaten (MMA 26.7.1295).
23 They are generally characterized by a lesser quality or sophistication of craftsmanship
and more aordable material, such as limestone, serpentinite, or steatite. On those two
criteria, see n. 11.
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