One of the world’s greatest museums is situated in Turin, in the north of Italy. It is the only museum other than Cairo’s wholly dedicated to Egyptian art and archaeology.
Drawing from a Scratchpad
Among multiplied and various artifacts exposed there, I would like to pay your attention to one small and a very fragile object of the size of 20 x 15 cm. It’s a painting, or more precisely a drawing on a limestone ostracon representing an Egyptian young girl caught in an acrobatic position. An ostracon itself is a potsherd, usually used as a writing or painting surface. At that time it may have served as a scratchpad.
An Acrobatic Somersault
The object comes from the ancient Egyptian village, Deir el-Medina, dating back to the period of the New Kingdom (between 16th and the 11th century BC.). For over four centuries, Deir el-Medina had been home to highly skilled architects, temples and tombs builders, artists and various craftsmen staying in the service of the pharaoh. Thy lived there with their families but usually spent the entire week at work in the Valley of the Kings and Queens. A village artists must have been an author of the drawing probably representing one of girls living in the same community. Village women also served to the pharaoh but as dancers and singers in local temples. Egyptian Dancers played an important role in ancient Egypt. Not only was dancing a form of entertainment but it was mainly associated with religious ceremonies.
The depicted girl is a dancer. She is naked, except for a short black kilt with a decorative patterns on it and circular earrings of gold. The girl is probably performing an acrobatic somersault of a ritual dance. The artist is believed to have drawn first the body and then the head by rotation of the ostracon to a position where the profile could be done in the usual way. After a historian of art, William H. Peck, this way of making the drawing is suggested by the placement of the earring in defiance of the laws of gravity, and a rather unnatural way in which the neck was joined with the shoulders, with strongly elongated arms and legs. Also the shape of the dancer’s breast seemed to be sketched as if the artist imagined a woman’s torso in a standing position.
Egyptian style of art
Creating all the elements of the entire scene separately was very characteristic of Egyptian style of art.
It is like in a case of a child drawing an object without a three-dimensional perspective, but in a way the object is perceived from their position of watching, with its major characteristics. Looking down on a puddle, they can see its shape and what is inside, but when they observe a tree, they see it in its vertical form, and not from the above (which is not possible without flying over the trees!). Now they put all these observed elements together, on one piece of paper and they receive a similar stylistically incoherent whole, created once by ancient Egyptians.
Crescent of the Goddess Nut
Representation of the Woman Dancer seems slightly naive, yet it is very subtle and graceful in its form, depicted with a great skill and imagination. The artistic quality of the design is exceptional and erotically charged. The bare-breasted female is bending nearly over reaching the floor with her stretched arms and despite the drawing’ simplicity, the young woman seems extremely flexible. You may have an impression she has been caught in a nimble and swift dance at the sound of vibrant music.
Her curly long hair touches the ground as her body is bending in a deep bow. As the author, Patrick Hunt has noticed, the Dancer’s pose looks like a reversal of the sky goddess Nut in her downward earth-nourishing bend. Nut connects the earth with the sky, and according to the Heliopolis beliefs, the goddess touches the ground only with the tips of her hands and fingers. Simultaneously, her body covered in stars takes the shape of a semi-circle, which immediately evokes a crescent and its associations with femininity.
Voices of Common Egyptians
Female dancers are usually depicted on tomb walls and temple walls. They are represented nearly naked with golden belts around their waits and collars around their necks. They are wearing jangling bracelets on arms, big earrings, and wigs, unlike our Dancer from Deir el Medina who is represented with her natural hair. All of them are caught in various poses – in profile, in three-quarter profile and even en face, free from being frozen in a hieratic posture of the upper class. They seem simply comfortable and full of life.
I came across the drawing of a female dancer while I was studying for an exam in the first year of studies of History of Art. It caught my eye from the very first moment, maybe because it was not created for formal purposes but probably for pleasure or training as a sketch. I don’t know why an artist chose to draw a dancing woman but his work now can tell us a story about simple people who once lived in Egypt.
‘On the outskirts of Deir el-Medina, the villagers once had attempted to find a water source’, explains Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist. ‘They dug down and eventually they reached more than fifty meters. They wanted to become self-sufficient in water but sadly for them they never did, and what the pit did become was a community dump, and as such became a mine of information. And when this pit and its surroundings were excavated by archaeologists, they made some remarkable discoveries, and the ostracon with the drawing was one of the findings among thousands of these pieces of pottery and stone: some with painted pictures, many with words giving us the real history of the village. These are their notes, reminders, love songs, laundry list, the very voices of common Egyptians.’
Featured image: Dancer, Deir el Medina. Ancient Egyptian depiction of topless dancer with elaborate hairstyle and hoop earrings in gymnastic backbend, on ostrakon (potsherd). Created: 1292-1186 BC. Public Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Dance in “Ancient Egypt” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
“Dance in Ancient Egypt” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed on 14th April, 2021. Available at <https://bit.ly/3wSmxDA>.
“Geb, Nut, Shu” (2021). In: Wikimedia Commons. Accessed on 14th April, 2021. Available at <https://bit.ly/3twasBK>
Peck W. H., Ross J. G. (1978). Egyptian Drawings. Boston, Massachusetts: E.P. Dutton, p. 55.
Hunt (2018). “Turin’s Egyptian Museum”. In: Electrum Magazine. Why the Past Matters. Accessed on 23rd July. Available at <https://bit.ly/2NFuiW0>.
White (2015). “The Workers Village at Deir El Medina”. Published on Youtube. Accessed on 24th July. Available at <https://bit.ly/2uMW780>.
“Ancient Egyptian Tomb Art” (unknown artist) (2018). Photograph by the British Museum. Accessed on 24th July. Available at <https://bit.ly/2NMWjLx>.
“Ancient Egyptian Tomb Art. Necropolis of Thebes” (unknown artist) (2018). In: Carolinarh (2013). Ars Artistic Adventure of Mankind. The History of Art through the millennia. Accessed on 24th July. Available at <https://bit.ly/2LlVFYu>.
Ostracon showing a dancer in an acrobatic position. Limestone, New Kingdom, 19th-20th Dynasty (1292-1076 BC). Deir el-Medina. Drovetti collection (1824). Cat. 7052 (2018) In: Turin Museum. Accessed on 24th July. Available at <https://bit.ly/3dn6dDj>.
Fletcher J. (2013). “Ancient Egypt Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings: Life”, Part 1, BBC. Published on Youtube. Accessed on 24th July. Available at <https://bit.ly/2LPi10K>.