The recent change in the understanding of this magnificent head demonstrates how much we have learned about the Middle Kingdom in the last decades. In 1953, the former curator William C. Hayes described the piece as an image of King Amenemhat I (ca. 1981–1952 B.C.). He did put a question mark behind this king’s name but declared that the “resemblance [of this head] to the extant portraits of Amenemhet (sic) I is very striking.” Today, we confidently date the piece to the first half of Dynasty 13 (ca. 1800–1750 B.C.) even without the lower part that might have been inscribed with the name of the ruler — identified as such by the nemes headcloth and uraeus cobra. Yes, this pharaoh, like early Middle Kingdom works, shows no facial folds and furrows that indicate the pharaoh’s advanced age and the burden of his office (e.g., MMA 17.9.2 and 26.7.1394). The face is smooth and exudes a confident youthfulness as did the images of rulers of the early Middle Kingdom (e.g., MMA 66.99.4). However, the quartzite head lacks the characteristic sculpted eyebrows and cosmetic lines, the thick lipped mouth and highly stylized ears of early Middle Kingdom heads. Instead we see a bony forehead, rounded brow ridges and softly lidded eyes, all hallmarks of royal images from the middle of Dynasty 12 onwards. Especially characteristic is the quartzite king’s sensually undulating mouth that is strikingly similar to many images of Amenemhat III (ca. 1859–1813 B.C.). While these observations make it impossible to date the quartzite head earlier than Amenemhat III, its youthful expression and stylized ears rule also out an identification as Amenemhat III himself or even one of his immediate successors at the end of Dynasty 12. From the beginning of Dynasty 13, on the other hand, the kingship of Egypt underwent a not yet quite understood transformation. Most Dynasty 13 pharaohs — especially during the first half of the period — ruled only a few years and hereditary succession appears to have not generally been observed. It is not clear whether these rulers all died young (not a convincing generalization) or stepped aside to make place for another. What we do see in the art, is that Dynasty 13 royal images predominantly captured even more than Dynasty 12 ones a general understanding of kingship rather than the individual personality of a certain ruler. One can detect, in fact, two main lines along which the sculptors of Dynasty 13 shaped their ideal king’s image. One group was clearly motivated by a strife for continuity and thus created royal images as — often somewhat frozen — copies of rulers’ statues of Dynasty 12. The other group followed a yearning for a strong young hero to appear as leader of the country in not untroubled times. Using all the subtleties of sculptural modulation that had been developed during later Dynasty 12 the sculptors expressed strength in a work’s prominent facial bone structure and graceful divinity in a smiling mouth and sensitively introverted eyes. The present piece is clearly of the latter kind.
Purchased in Cairo from Khouam Brothers by J. Pierpont Morgan and donated to the Museum, 1912.
Connor, Simon 2015. "Head of a Statue of a Thirteenth Dynasty King." In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, pp. 89–90, no. 31.
Oppenheim, Adela 2015. "Introduction: What Was the Middle Kingdom?." In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 6.
Oppenheim, Adela 2015. "Artists and Workshops: The Complexity of Creation." In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 23.
Arnold, Dorothea 2015. "Pharaoh: Power and Performance." In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 72.