Why Was This Sculpture of a Forgotten Pharaoh First Transported to Israel and Ultimately Smashed?
With a close-fitting, curled cap wig topped with a solar cobra, the head of a sculpture found in Israel in 1995 almost certainly depicts an ancient king of Egypt. But researchers are still trying to figure out who the forgotten royal was and why his image was transported to Israel, kept for a millennium, then smashed apart.
The sculpture’s head was found at the ancient city of Hazor in Israel, a location mentioned several times in records of military campaigns led by Egyptian Pharaohs during the 15th-14th centuries BC. The artifact was excavated and reconstructed in 1995.
Aerial view of the ancient city of Hazor (Tel Hatzor), Israel. (Public Domain)
The head is discussed in the recently published book "Hazor VII: The 1990-2012 Excavations, the Bronze Age (PDF)" (Israel Exploration Society, 2017). Researchers describe the artifact and address some of the questions regarding its appearance and destruction in the text.
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Let’s explore the possible identity of the pharaoh first.
In their report (PDF), Dimitri Laboury, a senior research associate at the Belgian National Foundation for Scientific Research (F.R.S.-FNRS) at the University of Liège, and Simon Connor, a curator at the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy, described the artifact as such:
“The person depicted wears a short, close-fitting curled capwig, topped by a uraeus, the solar cobra that rises above the forehead of Pharaoh in ancient Egyptian iconography, thus identifying our character as a king of Egypt beyond any doubt. The thin, high and somewhat irregular stone projection behind the head suggests that the statuette, almost half life-size, was not free-standing, but was leaning against a dorsal panel or a back slab, possibly within a group sculpture, along with a divinity or a female consort (or even a doubled royal representation).”
The pharaoh’s head artifact found at Hazor. Image from “Hazor VII: The 1990-2012 Excavations, the Bronze Age” (p. 576) (Israel Exploration Society)
The researchers write in their report that the head was crafted out of “a piece of graywacke, a metamorphic rock only quarried in the ancient Near East in Wadi Hammamat.” This supports the idea that the artifact came from Egypt. The style of the facial features depicted on the artifact pinpoint its creation to the 5th Dynasty (ca. 2465-2323 BC).
Only nine known pharaohs reigned during that period, so it should be relatively easy to identify the pharaoh portrayed on the artifact, right? Unfortunately, no because the “physiognomy is derived from the official portrait of King Menkaure (also known as Mycerinus), from the late 4th Dynasty” –this was the image practically all pharaoh portraits had until the 6th Dynasty. The typology of the headgear on the artifact doesn’t help to narrow down the pharaoh shown either, as it is apparently common in the royal iconography of the 5th Dynasty as well.
Statue of Neferefre. Abusir. JE 98171, 34 cm. Cairo Egyptian Museum. (Jon Bodsworth) Neferefre’s reign only lasted for a couple of years in the 5th Dynasty period.
In their report Laboury and Connor write, “The history of the statue was surely quite complex, and the kingdom of Hazor must have been eager to use and display a prestige object connected to Egyptian royal imagery.”
Live Science reports that another team of scholars wrote in the recently published book: “Given Hazor's location in northern Israel, the number of Egyptian statues and statuary fragments uncovered at the site is surprising.”
However, it is worthwhile to note that a previous article on Ancient Origins by Sam Bostrom shows the sculpture wasn’t the only of its kind to be found at the site. Another damaged depiction of an Egyptian official was found at Hazor in 2016. It was:
“A large fragment of an Egyptian statue measuring 45 X 40 centimeters made of limestone was unearthed. Only the lower part of the statue survived, depicting the crouching feet of a male figure, seated on a square base on which a few lines in the Egyptian hieroglyphic script are inscribed. The archaeologists estimate that the complete statue would equal the size of a fully-grown man. At present only a preliminary reading of the inscriptions has been attempted, and the title and name of the Egyptian official who originally owned the statue, are not yet entirely clear.”
The remains of a monumental Egyptian statute of a high official from the Middle Kingdom in Egypt, found in the administrative palace at Hazor, north of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. (Photo credit: Shlomit Bechar)
That discovery also added to previous Egyptian statue finds at Hazor, as Bostrom reported:
“In the course of close to 30 years of excavation, fragments of 18 different Egyptian statues, both royal and private, dedicated to Egyptian kings and officials, including two sphinxes, were discovered at Hazor. Most of these statues were found in layers dated to the Late Bronze Age (15th-13th centuries B.C.E.) – corresponding to the New Kingdom in Egypt.”
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Bostrom suggests that the statues may have been sent to the king of Hazor as official gifts (the ruler of the area was rather important at the time) or they were meant to be dedications to a local temple. Perhaps the pharaoh’s sculpture found in 1995 was sent to Hazor for one of these reasons.
Regarding the nature of the destruction of the artifact, Laboury and Connor wrote in their report:
“Interestingly, no other part of the statuette to which it had originally belonged was recovered at the site. The cracks indicate that the nose had been broken and the head detached from the rest of the sculpture before being shattered.”
The cracks in the sculpture of the pharaoh’s head are apparent in these photos. (Gaby Laron / Hebrew University / Selz Foundation Hazor Excavations in memory of Yigael Yadin)
The Live Science article mentions that Hazor was conquered and destroyed in the mid-13th century BC. John Black explained the extent of the destruction of the city for Ancient Origins:
“The archaeological evidence has shown that a violent fire destroyed the palace in about the 13th century BC. The fire was so intense with temperatures going up two times more than the temperatures of a normal fire - up to a stunning 1,300 degrees Celsius. It completely melted clay vessels and the mud bricks that the walls were made of […] After the destruction, the city remained uninhabited for about 200 years.”
Archaeological ruins at Hazor, Israel. (CC BY SA 2.0)
The pharaoh’s sculpture may have been deliberately broken at that time as part of a common practice to mutilate or destroy the statues of kings and dignitaries found during the conquering of towns. This deliberate destruction is a well-known practice from ancient times which has unfortunately continued until today.
Top Image: The head of the unknown ancient Egyptian pharaoh found at Hazor in Israel. (Gaby Laron/Hebrew University/Selz Foundation Hazor Excavations in memory of Yigael Yadin) Background: Detail of the limestone false-door and architrave of Ptahshepses - 5th Dynasty - British Museum. (Public Domain)