In Focus

Ancient Egyptian schist reliefs

The following essay is from the 1996 publication Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art.

The DMA owns two schist slate reliefs (1979.1, 1991.114) that may have come from a throne supporting a seated figure or from an architectural monument such as a shrine. Both figures are in sunk relief of an exceptional purity and elegance.

The figure of Thoth strides to the right, in the usual Egyptian convention of a walking man, with the lower body and head in profile and the torso in a frontal posture. The god's left hand is extended and holds a twisted staff, while the right arm is crooked and holds another twisted staff at the elbow. The ibis head is framed in a formal wig. The figure wars a short kilt belted at the waist. Each staff bears symbols of the years of the king's life and hopes for a long reign. At the bottom of each staff is the circular hieroglyph meaning "a million" or "eternity." The fragmentary hieroglyphic inscription at the top of the relief signifies "divine speech," presumably the words Thoth will utter.

The intense vitality of the relief is remarkable. Each part of the body, including the naturalistic head of the sacred ibis, is outlined with iconographic clarity. Thoth, the god of wisdom, writing, scribal learning, and lunar activity as well as scribe to the judges of the dead in the afterworld, blesses the king's reign in a form convention dating back to the Old Kingdom.

The large object from which these reliefs come was intended for the pharaoh Psamtik II. This is clear on the relief with the double-figured Nile god Hapi. Above the deity tying together Upper and Lower Egypt is the following inscription: "The King of Upper and Lower Egypt. The Lord of the Two Lands. Nefer-ib-re. The sone of Re, of his body, Psamtick [II]." Flanking the central inscription and appearing before each part of the Nile god are two hieroglyphic texts, both of which read: "[I] give [you] all life and dominion, like Re, forever."

As in the earliest stages of Egyptian history, the kings of the Late Period are described as immortal saviors of the land, embodying in themselves the fertility of the Nile Rive and the blessings of the gods. The Nile floods, which brought rich silt from Ethiopia, the highlands of Africa, and the Sudan to feed Egyptian fields, appear graphically as the god Hapi. An androgynous figure with a drooping belly and pendulous breasts, he wears the divine false beard and ties together the lotus and the papyrus, the sacred water plants of Upper and Lower Egypt. Although Hapi is a more grotesque combination of man and nature than Thoth, he, too, is depicted here in an elegant way, looking rand, upright, and full of vital energy.

These reliefs belong to the very end of traditional Egyptian art made for native rulers. The kings of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, who came from Sais in the western Egyptian Delta, had returned Egypt to native rule after the Nubian dominance of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. Following these Saite kings, Persian, Greek, and Roman rulers largely controlled Egypt. In a span of less than a hundred and fifty years, the Twenty-sixth Dynasty kings briefly recalled the grandeur of earlier Egypt. Throughout the Late Period, including the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, the scribes and priests of Egypt, followers of Thoth, kept the art, writing, and symbolic traditions of ancient Egypt alive in troubled times. In one way, this scribal tradition even has links with the twentieth century, since the ritual language of the modern Egyptian Christian Church is Coptic, the last remnant of the old Egyptian tongue, which has continued to be used from the first centuries of the Christian (or Common) Era.

The period of Psamtik II is interesting not only from an Egyptian point of view, but also as a time of contact between Egypt and the newly resurgent, exploratory Greek peoples. After a Dark Age following the rapid decline of the Mycenean kingdoms, the Greeks of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. once more traded and settled colonies abroad. One of their most important settlements was at Naucratis in the Egyptian Delta, founded in the late seventh century B.c.E., supposedly by people from the city of Miletus. Through this treaty port (a port designated for foreigners), the Greeks absorbed the millennia-old traditions of Egypt. As early as the time of Psamtik I, known to the Greeks as Psammetichos, the Greeks were impressed by the grandeur of Egyptian constructions. They brought back to their homeland the lessons of Egyptian architecutre and the human warmth and solidity of Egyptian monumental sculpture. The sturdy stance of Thoth and Hapi was part of the inspiration for the first Greek monumental sculptures.

The reliefs were in the collection of Arthur Sambon in France before World War I. They were exhibited at the Galerie Georges Peit in May 1914. In their recent history, the reliefs were auctioned by Sotheby Parke Bernet, London, in April 1978. The Thoth relief was purchased for the DMA in 1979. Its companion relief with the Nile god Hapi was purchased by a private collector, who placed it on loan to the museum for many years and then gave the piece to the DMA in 1991, thus once again joining two works from the same ancient object.

Excerpted from

Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 22-23.