The Evolution of Sculpture - Egypt

As with every story, there's a beginning, middle and end. However, Archaeology is about as far from a story as you can get. History changes as older artefacts are found or as more information is uncovered. It's similar to a lottery scratch card; you can remove the silver coating with a penny, but you don't know what you're revealing. It could be nothing or it could be something that changes everything.

When we think of modern-day classical sculpture we think of Metal or Stone as the common medium. Although, with the advent of the contemporary art scene we now have various materials being used to create sculptures. 42,000 years ago it was all about stone and wood. The artists of the day had crude tools they would use to scrape and scratch their lines and curves into their work. The very definition of sculpture has changed as technology has advanced within our modern society. Sculpture was traditionally the process of removing material to reveal an image, now with liquid stone, 3D printers and many other machines and mediums we know that not all sculpture has material removed. 

 So who were the biggest cultures in history to produce this ancient artwork?

Europe has the oldest known carvings, but the near, middle and far east produced some fabulous sculpture also. Around 5000 years BC humanity was awakening to cultural enlightenment with the advent of agriculture and the improvements of tools, in another two Millenium the stone age would transition into the Bronze age. Societies all around the world began creating sculptures and although they were varied in terms of complexity and quality, it was ultimately a step forward for our species in terms of self-expression and skilful execution. Whilst most of these sculptures were of Gods or Kings and Queens, we can see development in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Japan, Babylon, Mesopotamia, and many more civilisations who would begin honing their carving skills

By Ricardo Liberato - All Gizah Pyramids, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The Egyptian art legacy begins around 6000BC with the production of statues and pottery. The Egyptian potters were highly skilled in producing high-quality symmetrical pottery. Eventually, they would take massive strides in their development of tools in the Neo Lithic period. This meant that they could refine their abilities, especially in the field of stonework. The most skilful stonemasons by far were the Egyptians. Their carving skills and artisan abilities exceeded any of the surrounding civilisations. Greece and Rome would rise next but not for another 1500 years would their stone carvings rival ancient Egypts in both delicacy and beauty. When we talk about Egyptian stonemasons we think of the Sphynx and the Great Pyramids of Giza. These are truly iconic Egyptian landmarks and the Sphynx is probably one of the most well-known sculptures in Human history. Show someone a photo of Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate and you may find around 40% of people will tell you what it is but show the same people the Sphynx, and that percentage will rise significantly.

Thutmose, Bust of Nefertiti, 1345 BCE
Photo By Philip Pikart - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Facsimile of the Narmer Palette, c. 3100 BCE
Photo By Daderot - Own work, Public Domain,

What stands Egypt apart from the rest of the world was its knowledge of Metallurgy and Chemistry. It is well established among historians that by 5000BC Egypt had already begun mining metals and experimenting with them. The Egyptians found that by mixing the two disciplines of Chemistry and Metallurgy they could produce alloys which wouldn't be seen anywhere else in the world at that time. They spun gold to make golden threads which could be used to decorate clothes and jewellery. They made swords and daggers with great levels of flexibility so they could withstand impact when hitting shields or other swords and not shatter as their predecessors had. One such dagger in the Berlin museum is a fantastic example of the Egyptian ingenuity in metallurgy. The dagger was made of bronze but was so well made that its detail and flexibility has become a touchstone for Egyptian expertise in metallurgy.

In around 4000BC the Egyptians made even more discoveries as they learned how to make Gypsum into plaster. They used it extensively to line the exteriors and interiors of their buildings much in the way we still do today. This development along with their knowledge and skill in metallurgy gave rise to one of the most recognisable pieces of art in the world - The Mask of Tutankhamun.

In 1323 the boy King of Egypt - Tutankhamun at the age of 18 years unexpectedly died. His funeral arrangements were not even in the planning stage and his temple was the same way. They had to take temples that were being built for other Royal family members and secure them for the King. This is why his burial temple was so small, this fact was a contributing reason as to why it was never ransacked by grave robbers, or discovered until Howard Carter located it in the desert. It also explains how the facemask has such feminine features as it was originally made for Neferneferuaten, one of Tutankhamun's female  predecessors. To form the mask they built a plaster base that contained all the features you would see in the finished item, they then laid very thin sheets of gold on top of it to form the metal outer layer. Such is the intricacy of the mask, that surface scans have revealed that it contains two types of gold - a lighter 18.4 karat shade for the face and neck, and a 22.5 karat gold for the rest of the mask. 

The Mask of Tutankhamun
By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen - Own work by uploader,, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The inscribed rear of Tutankhamuns face mask
By Tarekheikal - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Hand engraved on the neckpiece is this wonderful passage from the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

"Thy right eye is the night bark (of the sun-god), thy left eye is the day-bark, thy eyebrows are (those of) the Ennead of the Gods, thy forehead is (that of) Anubis, the nape of thy neck is (that of) Horus, thy locks of hair are (those of) Ptah-Sokar. (Thou art) in front of the Osiris (Tutankhamun). He sees thanks to thee, thou guidest him to the goodly ways, thou smitest for him the confederates of Seth so that he may overthrow thine enemies before the Ennead of the Gods in the great Castle of the Prince, which is in Heliopolis … the Osiris, the King of Upper Egypt Nebkheperure [Tutankhamun's throne-name], deceased, given life by Ra"

Another example of the Egyptians at the height of their skill and abilities is this sculpture, which shows three figures standing next to one another;Osiris on a Lapis Lazuli pillar in the middle, flanked by Horus on the left, and Isis on the right. This piece is on permanent display at the Louvre in Paris, it is simply astonishing that the Egyptian culture was so far advanced of the rest of the world, that they could produce work of such intricate detail and beauty. If we push the aesthetics to one side a moment and look at the construction of this wonderful sculpture, we see that it is a multi-media sculpture utilising Gold and Lapis as the main two features. Lapis is a rich blue stone that has historically been prized for its rarity and beauty. The central pillar is made of Lapis and adorned with gold laid on the surface to decorate. The three figures are made from gold and are beautifully detailed with full headdresses, and their clothes showing remarkable detail. The outer figures are anatomically correct (as opposed to other cultures at this time which were creating figures with disproportionate arms and heads). Although representing the Gods the outer figures are male and female in form, they flank the God Osirus in the middle. Again, the detail and use of mixed media do not abate, at the bottom of the statue we see Lapis used again to adorn the edge of the base, but during their considerable lifetime they have lost a few of the stones. Likewise, the top of the base seems to have previously been decorated with more Lapis inclusions around the top edge, most of which are now gone (3000 years can take a toll).

By Unknown - Guillaume Blanchard, Own work, July 2004, Fujifilm S6900, Public Domain,

The Egyptian culture dominated the bronze age and it would take 1000 years for its secrets and skills to make it to Britain and China. Compare that to the age we live in today where information is shared instantly. The legacy that the Egyptian culture left our world is still being counted as new discoveries are being made all the time. For the art world, they set the bar very high and gave us a wonderful example of what is possible and how our ancestors put thought into the sculptures they made, much in the way that modern artists do. They considered materials, they pondered composition, structure and balance. They used multiple mediums and applied new technologies, like metallurgy and plaster to their work. These were true craftspeople, true artists. 

Thanks for reading this blog, I intend to do a series of these on Sculpture history. This one has been quite challenging with all the fact-finding and historic research needed. Next time we'll have a look at the Greek culture and see what they contributed to the history of sculpture. 

Images are not our own and are from various sources - links supplied (where possible to locate).  

All opinions are my own and not De Lacey Fine Art's or any other company or body.  

The Evolution of sculpture - Egypt - G Farmer 2019 © Copyright