An archaeologist documenting the painted sculptures in Egypt has reconstructed the working methods of the ancient artists who created them. The research, published in the review antiquity, reveals how Egyptian artists organized their work, and that apprentices received on-the-job training as masters. Although archaeologists have already understood the stages of production of Egyptian art, it is rare to find evidence of this in finished works.
The reliefs cover the walls of a chapel in the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut – a female pharaoh who reigned from around 1473 to 1458 BC – and show a procession of 200 bearers of offerings, distributed in three registers on two walls. The temple stands on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor, near the Valley of the Kings.
âThe numerous figures presenting the repetition of certain elements, as well as their exceptional state of preservation, created a unique opportunity to take a closer look at the people working in the chapel, on the technological process of their work, its organization and its conditions. says Anastasiia Stupko-Lubczynska, archaeologist from the University of Warsaw, Poland, and author of the research paper.
Stupko-Lubczynska discovered that less experienced artists sculpted the torsos, arms and legs of the figures, while master sculptors worked on faces and corrected mistakes. Masters and apprentices carved the wigs of the figures, as each took a long time to complete. It also appears that the artists were split into two teams, each working on their own wall. This led to differences in the quality of the work and some of the artistic choices made.
The sculptures also shed light on how apprentices were trained. Archaeologists previously believed that artists received training outside of current projects, but this was not the case at the Temple of Hatshepsut. The examination of Stupko-Lubczynska revealed that the masters correct the mistakes of the apprentices and allow them to carve sections on their own. In a register, an apprentice sculpted the wigs on a line of figures. In other cases, the master and the apprentice worked on the same wigs.
âOne of these wigs, made largely by a master and only in part by a student, shows a virtuosity that cannot be found elsewhere, in a sense. [saying], “Look how you got to do that!” “, Although it was rather impossible for a beginner to reach this level,” says Stupko-Lubczynska.
There were surprises too. Normally, each phase of the sculpting work erases the previous stages – so, for example, the execution of the reliefs destroys the evidence of the drawing stage, says Stupko-Lubczynska. “It was therefore a great surprise to find in the chapel a trace of a square grid, which was used to transfer a pre-planned composition from a portable medium (papyrus or tracing paper) to a wall.”
Documenting ancient reliefs “introduced an experiential approach”, which allowed the team to identify with ancient sculptors and discover their working conditions and their joy in creating, explains Stupko-Lubczynska. “I’m sure they must have been satisfied when a given item was properly carved, frustrated when it wasn’t, and maybe just like us they left the prettier items, such as faces, ‘for dessert’ – to be sculpted after the rest was done.