Ancient Egypt and Archaeology Web Site

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Bird Lady: Painted terracotta figurine of a woman
 
The Brooklyn Museum of Art, between 1906 and 1908, sponsored an expedition that excavated early sites in southern Egypt and brought back many objects of historic and artistic value. This is one of the most important and recognized of those. Dated to the Predynastic period, Naqada IIa c.3500-3400 BC. Excavated by Henri de Morgan at the village of Ma'mariya in 1907.
The earliest Egyptian art, created during the pre-dynastic period (4400-3100 BC), exhibits a style that does not continue into historical, dynastic times (after 3100 BC). All of this art comes from graves that belonged to non-elite people. The objects created for these tombs might be considered folk art. The earliest art is handcrafted pottery with a surface ripple that potters created by running a comb over the surface. This pottery was made during the Badarian period (4400-3800 BC), named after the village of Badari where archaeologists first found it. William Flinders Petrie discovered a nearly complete sequence of objects for the subsequent period at the village of Nagada in southern (upper) Egypt. Thus Egyptologists refer to the different chronological stages of this art as Nagada I (3800-3500 BC), Nagada II (3500-3300 BC), and Nagada III (3300-3100 BC). Nagada III overlaps with Dynasty 0 (3200-3100 BC), a newly identified period when Egyptian kingship first appears. One very common object of Nagada I is a ceramic jar or cup made from a red polished clay with a black rim. Egyptologists call it black-topped red ware. The black colour often extends to the middle of the jar. Potters built these jars by hand with a coil of clay. The potter smoothed the coils once the pot was built. The potter then fired the pot upside-down, producing the black rim. These pots first appear in Nagada I and continue into Nagada II. The emphasis on abstract decoration, though often beautiful, is not typical of Egyptian art in the historical period after 3100 BC. This distinction, however, cannot be used to argue convincingly that a different group of people inhabited Egypt after the historical artistic style emerged.
Artists made some of the most interesting early figures during Nagada II and III. Some figures were animal-shaped palettes resembling fish, turtles, and birds. These were often made from schist, a very commonly used stone in this period. Egyptians used these palettes to grind galena, a naturally occurring mineral, into eye-liner called kohl. Kohl both emphasized the eyes and possibly protected them from the glare of the sun. The Egyptians also believed it protected the eyes from disease. Some of the shapes of these palettes, such as the fish, represent symbols of fertility and rebirth. The tilapia-fish, for example, carries its fertilized eggs in its mouth. It thus appears that the offspring are born alive from the mouth rather than hatched from eggs. The Egyptians thus included the tilapia among their fertility symbols.
 
People in Nagada II and III also concerned themselves with human figures. Among the first human figures were the female figurines that the archaeologist Henri de Morgan discovered in the village of Ma'mariya in 1907. Found in graves, her face appears beak-like. She wears only a long white skirt that covers her legs completely. Her bare arms extend upward in a graceful curving motion. Though these figurines are among the most famous pre-historic sculptures from ancient Egypt, it is impossible to determine with certainty whether the figure represents a priestess, a mourner, or a dancer. Furthermore, it is completely unknowable whether she is a goddess or a human. The generally abstract style used in this sculpture, with each part of the body reduced to a simple organic outline, does not continue into the historical period. Yet very similar female figures occur painted on pottery contemporary with the figurines. The female figures painted on pots are prominent in river scenes that include a boat with two cabins, two male figures, and palm fronds on the shore. Some examples depict mountains beyond the riverbank abstracted to triangles. The female figure is the largest element in the composition, suggesting, as was true in historic times, that she was the most important figure. The figures, boat, palms, and mountains are in red paint on a light buff clay, typical of the Nagada II period. Though the abstract style is not typical of the later period, subject matter such as river scenes were popular throughout ancient Egyptian history. If this is indeed a religious scene, it would be an early example of a common Egyptian subject for art.
Henri de Morgan, who died in 1909, was the brother of Jacques Jean Marie de Morgan (Director General of the French Service de Antiquities 1892-1897). Jacques trained Henri and used many of the same techniques that provoked the scorn of Sir William Flinders Petrie. Petrie did excavate a number of similar, but significantly less quality, figures. He typically grouped these as "steatopygous figures."
 
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Note: from the above images that the 'face' of the figurine shows clear bird like characteristics. The hands do seem to be representing fingers.
 

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