accession number EA684

Article By Matt Szafran see details below.

The Ka was one of at least five different components making up the Ancient Egyptian ‘soul’, and whilst it doesn’t have a direct analogue in modern cultures, and even in Ancient Egypt varied throughout time, it can be thought of as the part of the person which lives forever. The Ka required constant food and was the recipient of offerings made by the living and also symbolic offerings from tomb models, provisions or representations of food. The Ka also required a vessel to inhabit to be able to receive these offerings. Typically this was provided by the preserved remains of the deceased.

However before the Ka can inhabit this, the preserved remains need to be ritually activated and brought back to life. This was performed in a ritual usually referred to as the “opening of the mouth” ceremony, where ritualists would perform a number of rites, use ceremonial tools to reanimate the deceased and make offerings of meat. Once the ritual has been performed the embalmed and wrapped corpse is transformed into a living “sah”, the Ancient Egyptian word for a mummy – however rather than simply meaning a preserved corpse (in the way “mummy” typically does today) it is a much more complex and meaningful term representing a divine and eternal entity. Whilst the opening of the mouth ceremony is most commonly thought of and depicted with regards to creating the sah, it was also performed on any statuary representation of the deceased along with any tomb sculpture or reliefs.

Just as with creating the sah, this then produced a living entity which the Ka could then inhabit. To the Ancient Egyptians sculpture was not the art form it is today and instead was seen as an act of creating life, with sculptors literally called “one who causes to live” and the act of sculpting being referred to as “giving birth”. Once activated and brought to life the statues and reliefs form a metaphorical insurance policy, giving the Ka somewhere to go in the event of anything happening to the saH. Statues may also be placed in temples and other locations outside of the tomb allowing the Ka to travel to, and receive offerings in, those locations. Just as the coffin containing the sah would have the owners name written on it, each statue would have its owner’s name carved into it and tomb reliefs and paintings would also have the owners name carved or painted on them. This then allows the Ka to inhabit any activated object which bears its name. It was very common for statues to be reused by other people, both contemporaneously and also in later periods.

To achieve this the name of a new owner would be carved into the statue. In some cases this was in place of original owner, and in other cases alongside the original owner thereby effectively sharing the statue between the two individuals. A very notable culprit of this is Ramesses II (or Ramesses the Great as he is often known), who would have the cartouches of his name added to, or replaced on, impressive statuary and monuments of previous kings. Even if their owners wanted their statuary to last for all eternity, it was exceptionally common for statues to be deactivated. Whilst there is no known ritual for this, there is a much more basic approach which was undertaken; physical damage. The most typical damage seen on extant statues is the removal of the statues nose, thereby stopping it from breathing and killing it.

Another very common form of damage is to the arms, which are a symbol of power and their removal could have been seen as a mechanism to prevent the statue from harming and stopping anyone with ill intent. Many visitors to an Ancient Egyptian sculpture gallery would dismiss the damage as simply being due to wear and tear caused during the “statues” long existence. However on closer inspection it is possible to see that the damage was in fact much more deliberate.

For example, the British Museums Ancient Egyptian sculpture gallery has a display of three incomplete statues of Senwosret III (EA684, EA685, EA686), each of which has had their noses and arms removed and show very deliberate chisel marks indicating that this was not simply accidental breakage.

The direction of the chisel marks also implies that this damage was done whilst the statue was still standing. As the damage is indicative of deactivation, rather than simply destruction, this shows that the statues were damaged by people who believed that the statues were alive and this ritual destruction was a necessary precaution, even though they knew that this act would also deprive the deceased of their desired afterlife. The story of “Khonsemhab and the Ghost” provides a contemporary illustration of the belief that without the tomb and its contents the spirit of the deceased is stranded for eternity. So the next time you are looking at Ancient Egyptian sculpture, look at any damage and try to work out if it appears to be deliberate and if it is what that would have meant for the beliefs of its original owner and the person(s) who damaged it.

Guest Article: By Matt Szafran

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