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A Century of Giving

Wooden bust of a woman, fragment

Egypt, Middle Kingdom, start of Dynasty XII

wood, eyes inlaid with copper, obsidian and alabaster, 15 x 6.6 cm

The Fitzwilliam Museum: E.1.1989

Egyptian statuette before conservation

statuette trapped in old plaster support, 1988

This Egyptian fragment is one of the great treasures of the Fitzwilliam collection. Acquired in Egypt in the 1950s as a tourist souvenir, it was brought into the Museum in 1987 for identification by the owner who knew nothing of it value.

This is all that remains of a full sized statue, perhaps nearly 60 cm (2 feet) high, made of solid wood. The arms may have been separately joined. Termites have channelled away the body, eating under the painted surface, but, miraculously, sparing us the beautiful face, neck and one breast. Part of a long wig is still visible, as are traces of colour in her bead necklace.

We can only speculate on the woman's identity, but - even some 4,000 years later - her beauty remains compelling. Her large, slanting eyes with their exaggerated curve, long, elegant ears, straight brows and lower lip cut with a faint smile, are astonishingly life-like.

Her eyes are inlaid with high quality materials: copper-alloy for the surrounds, the whites (delicately touched with red at the corners) are calcite, the irises are obsidian, and the brows made of ebony. There is evidence she was once painted flesh-colour, and may have been naked, or worn a close-fitting white garment.

At some point in the recent past, the fragile wood had been encased in a modern coarse lime plaster which was starting to decompose. After the owner had agreed to lend the statue to the Museum, intricate conservation - during which the plaster support was painstakingly removed - was carried out by Julie Dawson in the Department of Antiquities. In 1989, this exceptionally high quality fragment was bought by the Friends for the Museum.

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