A small sarcophagus mask, made of wood, with delicately carved details, making the face idealised and youthful. Wonderful are the fleshy lips, drawn into an enigmatic smile, executed in a way that is typical for the New Kingdom. The noble nose with its large nostrils and the high cheekbones also point to this period. The eyes are large and wide-open, with the eye lids and eyebrows indicated.
It is not known exactly what initiated the wish for mummification in ancient Egypt. Possibly the observation that bodies of animals or humans - that had been buried in the sand - had been naturally preserved gave rise to the idea. Although early attempts at artificial preservation were recorded from the Naqada II Period at Hierakonpolis, including the extraction of internal organs and the wrapping of specific parts of the body, mummification proper started around 2600 B.C., during the 4th dynasty.
It was important for the ancient Egyptians to preserve a dead body in as life-like a manner as possible. After treatment of the body, the result was a dried out but still recognizable human form. The Egyptians would make this more life-like by filling out sunken areas of the body, and by adding false eyes. In the 5th dynasty the first attempts were made to suggest the appearance of the deceased. Mummies were then sometimes covered in a thin coat of plaster which was modelled, especially on the face.
The wish to protect the dead body against any harm coming from outside could already be seen in predynastic burials, with mats or baskets being put over the body. The Egyptians now combined both ideas, protection and preserving a life-like appearance, by using the materials that gave the body its life-like appearance for protective purposes as well. They would for example place a mask on the head of the mummy, originally made of cartonnage (layers of linen with plaster) with the facial features modelled and painted, but soon such masks were created from stronger material. The early masks covered the head and extended down the back and over the chest. In the New Kingdom, the wish to reproduce a completely life-like mummy and to protect the body as much as possible led to the development of the anthropomorphic coffin.
The wish to protect the body was connected to the idea that in the hereafter a person would continue his life as he had lived it while on earth, and therefore would need his body. But from a religious point of view it was also necessary that the body was life-like. According to the ancient Egyptian beliefs a human consisted of several aspects, one of them being the body and one of the others being the ba (the aspect of freely moving around, often translated incorrectly as “soul”). It was the ba that would fly out of the tomb daily, usually in the shape of a bird or a bird with a human head, to be “recharged” by the sunlight; in the evening the ba would return to the mummy and rest on it, thereby transferring the energy of the sun to the body.
But if the body was destroyed, or if the ba could not recognise it and therefore was lost and could not return to the body, the ba could not function effectively. Therefore both preserving the body and giving it a life-like appearance was essential.
Salima Ikram, “Mummification”, in Jacco Dieleman - Willeke Wendrich (eds.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology (University of California, Los Angeles. 2010); Salima Ikram - Aidan Dodson, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity (London, Thames & Hudson; Cairo, American University in Cairo Press, 1998), p. 166-275.
New Kingdom, circa 1550-1292 B.C.
Height circa 15 cm.
Dutch private collection, acquired from Arteas Ltd., London; before that old French private collection, Paris.
Several age related (but stable) cracks and other minor damage to the wood, as shown on the photographs. In spite of this an exceptionally attractive mask, much older than most wood masks on the market.