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Origin of the State. Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt

(Cracow, Poland: 28th August - 1st September 2002)
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Representing the Human Body on Late Predynastic - Early Dynastic Labels


Institute of Archaeology, University College London, London (England)


This paper discusses how early Egyptians conceptualised the human body and articulated it in material form on a series of Late Predynastic and Early Dynastic bone, ivory and wooden labels.

Presumably attached to funerary equipment in royal and high status tombs in Upper and Lower Egypt, the labels are inscribed with a range of signs and motifs. Among these images are a variety of figures apparently representing human bodies and body parts. Patterns in their composition and form demonstrate that at this early date Egyptian artisans already adhered to a particular style of depiction, rendering visual representation of the human body within the perimeters of specific conventions.

The study of the human form can contribute to our understanding of the way the Egyptians saw the body, whether as a unified whole or as separate parts comprising a whole (Meskell 1999: 14-117). I explore how body images are composed and manipulated, and what can be understood from the position of the limbs and the twisting of the body as shown on the labels. The paper discusses how and why the body was broken down into particular components and it attempts to ask what the fragmentation of the body or unification of body parts might tell us about Egyptian concepts of body and self. This study also examines the joining of body parts with inanimate objects, a representational device characteristic of this early Egyptian art.

Moreover, through an examination of the iconography of the body, it may be possible to relate representations of the human form to social concerns, particularly notions of identity including ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, occupation, rank, status, etc.

In the course of this paper I demonstrate the value of going beyond a descriptive categorical account of early Egyptian material culture to consider alternative and innovative approaches to the study of human representation in the Late Predynastic-Early Dynastic Periods. By applying these approaches, it may be possible to identify relationships between material representation of the human body and developing beliefs and attitudes which characterised early Egyptian concepts of the body.


MESKELL, L, 1999. Archaeologies of Social Life. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.


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