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Gender: evidence from figurative depictions ('visual arts')
Sourcebook: Robins 1993

In ancient Egyptian formal art, the man is most often placed in positions of privilege in comparison to the woman.

In general the skin tone of the man is denoted with red ochre, that of the woman with yellow ochre. Modern comments on this phenomenon range from those of the type 'outdoor active men versus indoor passive women', to deeper references to the relation between the different hues as dark and light effects of a single matter. Egyptian writings give no explicit reason for the method of differentiation.

Eighteenth Dynasty depiction of a woman to the left of a man (click on the image for a larger picture):

Several categories of formal art depict men, and only very rarely if ever depict women: stelophorous statues, naophorous statues, standard-bearing statues, block statues. The general category of statues in temples also virtually excludes women other than those with the highest ritual positions.

Women are rarely the principal figure in chapels for the cult of the individual and family after death. Probably as a result of this, some categories of object such as funerary papyri were less often made for women, though individual women did have their own funerary papyrus in the mid-Eighteenth Dynasty, and again in the late Twentieth Dynasty and the Third Intermediate Period and Ptolemaic Period. In the periods where women did have their own funerary papyri, these rank among the finest illuminated manuscripts produced in Egypt (Anhay, Gautseshen, Neskhons, Nestanebetisheru).

See Quirke 1999

Women in activities depicted in visual art

women may sing and dance for cult of gods and goddesses, but they are not recorded making offerings, with the exception of those with the highest ritual positions.

Family chapel:
women generally appear secondary to a man, either husband or son. For exceptions, note chapels of king's daughters at Gizeh, and Kanawati, Hawawish. However, even here the wider cemetery context may have placed each woman secondary to a man. Context is the key to accurate assessment of each case. In museums with chapel monuments of women, where the context is known, the monument of the woman is secondary in scale and position to that of a man. There are three historical periods in which women enjoy a higher profile in the surviving record in art and architecture:

click on the image

Twenty-first Dynasty stela of Neskhons (click on the image to see a larger version)

In chapels, women are shown in scenes of production and leisure, suggesting a formal division of labour. In agricultural scenes, women may pull flax, but generally do not reap grain crops, where a sickle is needed: ethnographic parallels might suggest a sexual and political tabu against women holding a sharp blade, though, if this existed, it did not extend as far as more recent Berber custom forbidding women even to use weaving tools.

click on the pictures to see them enlarged


On the evidence of Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BC) figurative depictions

Harageh cemeteries of the late Middle Kingdom yielded a series stelae including a remarkable example in which a woman named Iitenheb is depicted with another woman and a young boy; unfortunately there is no architectural context - the stela was found discarded in a tomb - and so it is not certain that this stela foregrounding the woman did not occupy a place secondary to a monument giving greater overall prominence to a man in the chapel as a whole.

More evidence for gender and social attitude may come from less formal depictions, as those discussed below, also from the late Middle Kingdom.

Figurines and the theme of fertility

Faience and mud figurines of female figures in the Middle Kingdom, as in the examples illustrated below, are often legless, and the mud examples may be reduced to a pubic trapezoid. This raises the question of whether the figurines represent dolls for childplay or figures for adult ritual. For female figurines without legs in another ancient urban setting, see Reilly 1997

Note in the context of this debate the central focus and different operation of the category of fertility (or more specifically, safe birth) in pre-industrial and part-industrialised societies. Infant and maternal mortality make birth a central preoccupation for the whole society, though most urgent for the potential mothers. Lahun offers us not only examples of these widely attested late Middle Kingdom figurines, but also the only mask from an ancient Egyptian town (preserved in the Manchester Museum), and the earliest manuscript with prognoses and treatments for pregnant women (UC 32057).


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