The Kemite influence on early Greek statues

Influences on early Greek statues

My first degrees were in Classical (Greek and Roman) archaeology. I studied at King’s College, which is part of the University of London. Much of my undergraduate degree was spent in the British Museum looking at material culture from Greece and Rome, and this training played an important part in my subsequent decision to work in museums, to focus my research on archaeological material and what it could tell us about the past. Out of all of the categories of objects that I have studied, I have always had a preference for sculpture, irrespective of its culture of origin.

I was recently asked if early Greek statuary had been influenced by Kemite sculpture. My response, because I was taught this when I did those first degrees, was that yes- there was no question that that the Greeks had been influenced by the statues they had seen in Egypt.

Early Greek sculpture

Two types of figure are represented in early life-size Greek sculpture: Kouroi (singular kouros) and Korai (singular Kore). These words mean youth/boy and girl in ancient Greek, and these statues functioned as votive offerings or funerary markers. One of the earliest fully preserved is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (below). Believed to be from Attica, it dates from around 600-590 BCE and has a number of features in common with statuary from Kemet.

Kouros in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 600-590 BCE. Height: 1.84m
  1. The statue strides forward onto its left leg.
  2. The hands are clenched at the sides.
  3. The proportions are similar to statues that were produced in Kemet during   during the seventh century BCE.
  4. The hair.

Kemite sculpture of the seventh century BCE

Statue representing Mentuemhet, around 650 BCE.

The statue on the left represents an Kemite official named Mentuemhat, who lived around the time the Twenty-sixth and Twenty-fifth dynasties. He was a priest of Amun. The proportions of Kemite sculpture changed depending on the period that it was made. We know that artists used a grid system on a block of stone to ensure that the correct proportions were adhered to. You can see on this statue the striding stance and fists that early Greek sculptors copied. There were differences, as would be expected when one culture is influenced by another: Greek statues do not have a back pillar (see below) a feature of all striding Kemite statues, which was often inscribed. Also, the Greek statue is naked. This is not something that is found in Kemite sculpture. Mentuemhet, wears a kilt on the statue here.


Back pillar of the statue of Horemakhet. Nubia Museum Aswan. (The front of the statue can be seen at the top of this post).

Studies have shown that Greek sculpture was also created on a grid system, and that the proportions are similar to those on Kemite sculpture dating to the seventh century BCE. There is also the more practical question of contact and alternative influences. Prior to the appearance of the life-size kouros figures, Greek sculpture had only been produced on a much smaller scale. Some scholars (R.M. Cook for example) have tried to argue that the striding stance and clenched fists are coincidental. The transfer of artistic style from one culture to another is rarely coincidental and we have no evidence for this pose prior to the Greeks having contact with Egypt.

And when making associations it is of course essential that contact and influence was possible. There was considerable contact between the two cultures during the 26th Dynasty (664-525 BC) in the form of Greek mercenaries and later colonists, at sites such as Naukratis in the Delta. Around the same time that the new sculptural style emerged in Greece.

Some scholars have suggested that Greek sculptors were influenced by statues from the Ancient Near East. There is influence on some Greek art, from this region, perhaps most notably on pottery and small scale figures. However, there are no close parallels for the early statues.

Greek artists adopted and then adapted a style of Kemite sculpture for their own cultural needs. Even during the early phases of its development there were regional differences that were found throughout the Greek world. In many respects, and this was a conclusion that I made based on my doctoral thesis, Kemite artists were much more skilled at incorporating outside influences onto their sculpture, whether it was a portrait or costume. This is not something that Greek and Roman sculptors did. Perhaps because they didn’t have thousands of years of a sculptural tradition.



A curious statue of a Kemite King

A curious statue

Not only is this statue unusual in its form, but it was first recorded in the 16th century (common era) by the Renaissance architect and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio at the site of an Ancient Roman temple in Rome, Italy called the Pantheon. This was not, however, where it had originated.

The statue represents a much early king of Kemet: Amenemhat Nimaatre, or Amenemhat III as he is generally called today. Amenemhat was the sixth ruler of what we now refer to as the Twelfth Dynasty and ruled Kemet for around 45 years from 1859-1813 BCE. He is perhaps best known for the pyramids he built in the region of the Fayoum. There is a second statue that shows the King with the same hair and beard. This statue (below) was found at the site of Tanis and is in the form of a double representation that shows Amenemhat as a marsh deity (god). It is inscribed with the title “The offering bearers of Tanis”. References to the marshes can be seen on the tables in front of the King; they are decorated with plants and fish.

A double statue of King Amenemhat III as a marsh god, found at the site of Tanis in Egypt.

I remember seeing this statue in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo when I first went to Egypt, when I was still studying Classics and before I knew anything about Ancient Kemite art. It stood out from all of the other statues in the museum and I recall being struck by how unusual it was.

Fragment of a statue of Amenemhat Nimaatre. Palazzo Altemps, Rome.

Both statues show the king with thick locks of hair cascading down from a shorter twisted style at the front of the head. The sheer volume of hair suggests that the hair type was African, and this is confirmed by the two types of locks that create this incredible hairstyle. The beard is also unusual in its form but complements the head hair.

The facial features on both the Cairo and Rome statues are strong and typical of this period. The broad face, strong cheekbones, and wide nose are reminiscent of the portraits of the previous ruler of the Twelfth Dynasty Senusret Kakaure. Suffice to say that the shorter hair style and the facial features that appear on Amenemhat’s statues are those that are typically now categorised as ‘Nubian’.

From Kemet to Rome

Inside the Pantheon, Rome. Although now a church this building was originally a Roman temple.

As noted, the statue of Amenemhat was first recorded at the Pantheon in Rome (above). In fact, it had originally been placed in the largest Egyptian temple in Rome: The Iseum Campense. There had been a cult to the goddess Isis at the site of the Iseum before the Roman’s took control of Kemet. However, the emperor Tiberius, who ruled from 14-37 CE, destroyed the sanctuary following a scandal involving a man named Decius Mundus. Decius pretended to be the god Anubis and seduced a devotee of the cult of Isis named Paulina. When she discovered the truth Paulina complained to the emperor, who responded by throwing all of the statues from the temple into the River Tiber. The sanctuary continued to have chequered history. It was was rebuilt by the Emperor Calligula (37-41 CE), burnt down during the reign of Titus in 80 CE, and then rebuilt by the emperor Domitian (81-96 CE).

It was probably during the reign of Domitian that the statue was brought over to Italy from Kemet. Domitian was a strong supporter of Egyptian cults, especially Isis. It was typical of such cult centres to have a combination of both ancient statues from Kemet and newly manufactured representations of the emperor as an Egyptian king.

As for Amenemhat, he was worshipped as a god in his own right in Kemet during the Ptolemaic period (332-30 BCE), possibly even before. In the Late Period there was a renaissance that looked back to the period of the reigns of Senusret and Amenemhat. During this period artists even copied the portraits and styles of statues that were produced in the earlier period. Whether the Romans who took the statue from its original location were aware of this tradition, we will probably never know.