(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.
A young black woman stands in a delicately swaying posture, holding a large lidded jar balanced on her hip. Her distinctively African facial features are represented with great skill and sensitivity, and her eyes are realistically painted in black and white. This seemingly subtle touch, together with her naturalistic stance, imparts a captivating sense of life to her figure. The vibrant effect is perhaps surprising, given the small scale of the figure, only several inches high.
Variously described as a dancer or a servant, the girl is naked except for a golden girdle spanning her hips and an amulet around her neck, incised and painted black. Her figure is carved from boxwood, an exceptionally dense and fine-grained material. The naturally light color of the wood seems to have been meticulously stained a brownish red to approximate the rich hue of a dark-skinned person. Most scholars characterize her as Nubian — that is, a native of a land extending from southern Egypt far into the African interior.
The minimal dress of the serving girl may seem surprising to the modern observer but was quite in keeping with female attendant figures of the time, especially adolescent girls. Her shaved head and plaited side lock are also typically Egyptian, while the amulet of the popular god Bes worn around her neck indicates a more distant provenance.
The appeal to Bes for divine protection against all manner of evil influences became extremely popular among the Egyptian people during the New Kingdom, a vibrant period of cultural renewal and territorial expansion. The uniquely frontal representation of the deity, as well as its odd combination of physical characteristics, has always been considered of foreign origin, perhaps lying well within sub-Saharan Africa.
This captivating figure was excavated during the 19th century in a funerary district on the west bank of the Nile River near the priestly center of Thebes in central Egypt. The girl seems part of the burial goods of Meryptah, the chief priest of Amun under Pharaoh Amenhotep III (circa 1390-1352 B.C.). Among the scanty survivals was another statuette of an Asiatic servant, meaning a native of the Middle East. These figures, and perhaps others, were deposited in the tomb to care for their master in death as their actual counterparts had in life.
Attractive as ornament, this elegant figure also serves a practical purpose as a cosmetic vessel. The outsized jar she supports once held some type of prized makeup material, most likely kohl, a kind of mascara, or an unguent made of powdered color suspended in animal fat. The lid protected the contents and pivots outward to permit access. Recipes for these ancient concoctions survive, testimony to the importance of personal adornment in the upper levels of society in ancient Egypt.
Many of the surviving cosmetic jars and utensils feature representations of figures atypical of Egyptian society. In addition to this example and its companion, there is a jar held by a black man, and another carried by a dwarf. It seems that the act of pampered service represented by these figured vessels was intentionally coupled with the obligatory, comprehensive subservience of the other. A more concise statement of the layered authority and social structure of the New Kingdom Egyptian state is hard to imagine.
There had often existed some degree of accommodation, both cultural and ethnic, between the people of Nubia and Egypt. Even during periods of Egyptian dominance, Nubia retained a considerable ability to negotiate relations with its powerful northern neighbor. In addition to Nubia being a source of valuable raw materials, gold and its famed archers, politically motivated unions were often formed between the Nubian elite and their Egyptian counterparts. In many cases, Nubian women became part of the royal family itself and produced heirs to the throne. Tiye, one of the wives of Amenhotep III, may have been Nubian. Among her children was the well-known reformer pharaoh Akhenaton.
One of the most tangible results of these intercultural marriages, and of population dynamics in general, manifested itself in the progressively darker complexion of people living in the southern area of Egypt between Thebes and the first cataract of the Nile. The girl with the unguent jar therefore was not an ethnically isolated presence in the household of Meryptah. She may have been technically free, with the status of the baket, or servant, but may also have been a slave.
Interestingly, one ancient Egyptian word for slave was hem, a term derived from the word for "body," and sometimes also used to refer to statuettes buried with the dead to serve them in the afterlife. Despite this girl's humble status, upward mobility may still have been possible through adoption into her owner's family. If a female slave became a concubine of the male head of household, she might even have provided heirs in the more exalted manner of Tiye.
The young woman seen here serves as a vivid intermediary between two great civilizations whose relationship, at times quite contentious, ultimately resulted in a mutually beneficial exchange of culture and identity. The nature of ancient Egyptian civilization, too often seen in isolation from its neighbors, would not have been as vibrant or authentic without the many contributions of this fabled land to the south.
The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root's editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.
The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.