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The Seated Scribe​, c. 2620-2500 B.C.E., c. 4th Dynasty, Old Kingdom, painted limestone with rock crystal, magnesite, and copper/arsenic inlay for the eyes and wood for the nipples, found in Saqqara (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
MAN: We're in the Louvre, and we're looking at the Seated Scribe, which is an Old Kingdom sculpture that's not life-size from about 2600 BCE, or let's say about 4,600 years old. WOMAN: Right so it's from the Necropolis at Saqqara. MAN: Where the step pyramid is, the Djoser step pyramid. WOMAN: So it's an important Old Kingdom site. MAN: But the sculpture's important for a whole bunch of reasons, not only what it tells us about Egyptian society, but also because it's a remarkably distinct sculpture in what is often a very rigid pictorial tradition. WOMAN: In that he looks very informal. He is cross-legged, seated on the ground. He's holding a papyrus scroll. MAN: He would have been holding, of course, originally, some sort of reed pen. WOMAN: And he does look very human, very natural compared to the more hieratic way that we usually see Egyptian figures. And that has to do with the fact that he's not of kingly, divine, pharaonic status. He's a scribe. He's important. MAN: Extremely important in the hierarchy of Egyptian society. WOMAN: He can write, which was a very important skill, and was obviously of a very high class, because he had a sculpture made of him. But still, he's not a divine figure, and so he can be represented in this more naturalistic fashion. MAN: It's interesting. You said that he was very important. And I think that's expressed in a number of subtle ways. Not only was he literate, and entrusted, in a sense, with the writing of the state, presumably. But there's a little bit of fat around his middle. And archaeologists believe that that's actually a signifier for his wealth. WOMAN: You can also tell that he's middle aged, because-- not only for his fat. But it looks like he has lost some muscle tone in his arms and his chest. And he has a sense of wisdom to him, a little bit individualized-- kind of thin lips, and big ears, and these inset eyes that make him look incredibly alive. MAN: The iris is a rock crystal. It's been drilled, and there's a bit of color behind them. And they're really exceptional. There's some copper that actually surrounds the eye, which is really very beautiful. WOMAN: And he's painted with red ochre, and also a color black for his hair. And if we think about the color, the inset eyes, his individuality, his relaxed, informal pose-- he's very natural. And I see that, but at the same time, he's really not, right? Because he's meant only to be seen from the front. He is a funerary sculpture. And so there is also something meant to be transcendent here. MAN: Well, it's interesting you said meant to be seen from the front, yes. But since this is for the interior of the tomb-- WOMAN: No one was meant to see it at all. MAN: That's right. It really was meant for the afterlife. And it's so interesting that here is sculpture that truly transcends human life. And that was meant for the afterlife, meant for this sort of eternal existence.