This striking head represents one of the rare instances in which Egyptian artists sculpted a partial figure. Slightly over life-size, it is noteworthy for its austere beauty and serene gaze. Although perhaps not a true portrait like that of Ankhhaf (p. 78), it nevertheless exhibits a number of distinctive traits. Because of its round face, pronounced cheekbones and full, sensuous lips, George Reisner called it a “Negroid princess.” He found it at the bottom of a tomb shaft in the Western Cemetery at Giza, where robbers most likely tossed it after plundering the burial chamber. A second head with a much more elongated face and facial features was found beside it, and Reisner considered that to be her Egyptian husband. Unfortunately the tomb itself provides no clues as to the racial identity or sex of either head. However, a touch of red paint remaining on the ear of this head hints that the subject was male rather than female, because red is the traditional male skin color on sculptures. To further complicate matters, the tomb only contained space for a single burial, so exactly which head belonged there is not clear.
The function of this piece also remains enigmatic. Just over thirty such heads have been found, mostly at Giza, and mostly datable to the brief period in Dynasty 4 spanning the reigns of Khufu and Khafre. Although all are approximately the same size, each is distinctive. All have been found either in the burial chamber or at the bottom of the shaft leading to it. In contrast, other types of Old Kingdom sculptures have most often been found in chapels above ground attached to tombs, where they could magically partake of food offerings. Upon excavating one of these heads at the beginning of the twentieth century, a German archaeologist postulated that its purpose was to replace the head of the deceased should anything happen to it. Since that time, these sculptures have been known as “reserve heads.”
Over the years others have suggested different functions for these heads. Several archaeologists believe that they served as models or molds for other sculptures. The fact that many, excepting the present example, show signs of deliberate mutilation, led another scholar to theorize that they served a magical function during the burial ceremonies but were ritually “killed” to prevent them from subsequently harming the deceased. Whatever their purpose, they were in vogue for a very brief period, until they were superseded by face and body coverings in plaster and then cartonnage, a material consisting of layers of linen stiffened with gesso.
From Giza, tomb G 4440 A. 1913-14: excavated by the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Expedition; July 2, 1914: assigned to the MFA by the government of Egypt.
(Accession Date: July 2, 1914)
Reserve heads (also known as 'Magical Heads' or 'Replacement Heads') are distinctive sculptures made primarily of fine limestone that have been found in a number of non-royal tombs of the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt; particularly from the reigns of pyramid-building pharaohs Khufu to Khafre. Whilse each of the heads share characteristics in common with each other, the striking individuality of the pieces make them some of the earliest examples of portrait sculpture in existence. Their purpose is not entirely clear, but it is suggested that the head was made to serve as an alternate home for the spirit of the dead owner should anythingh happen to its body.
Photography and photogrammetry by Zhejiang University.