The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt

By W. Stevenson Smith | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
DYNASTY III 2780-2680 B.C.

THE well-known statue of King Zoser in Cairo (Plate 15A) was found still in place in the closed statue-chamber (serdab) beside his temple on the north side of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.1 It faced two round holes in the wall, as though looking out, so that the purifying smoke of incense offered there could penetrate to it, but also that the spirit might move freely to and from this embodiment in stone. The king is wrapped in the long robe associated with the Sed Jubilee. He wears the royal head-cloth over a heavy wig and a long divine beard. He is seated on a throne, like that of Khasekhem, with the wooden frame imitated at the side in raised relief. The youthful suppleness and wiry strength of Khasekhem have given way to a heavier majesty. The wrenching out of the inlaid eyes and damage to the nose have not entirely deprived the full face, with its prominent mouth, of a character which appears also in reliefs representing Zoser (Plate 20A). Although the statue is in general treated in simple masses, the detailed carving of the strands of hair in the wig is a feature which we noticed in the Cairo statuette and reliefs of Dynasty II (Plates 12, and 14). In other fragments of statues from the Step Pyramid complex, which include portions of a colossal figure of the king, this is even more evident. The basically simple form is decorated with an intricate series of flat patterns to represent the strands of hair in elaborate wigs, the beadwork of belts and aprons, or the woven stuff of a girdle.2 The same intricate detail is applied to the reliefs, which, although very low in carving, are boldly simple in composition, with a few large figures and big hicroglyphs. In architecture, also, we find elaborate details carved in relief on the face of the structure. It is this essentially archaic conflict between the desire to ornament the surfaces and at the same time to work with simple masses which lends a family resemblance to the monuments which range from Dynasty II to the reign of Sneferu at the beginning of Dynasty IV. Here also is the origin of two kinds of relief, one relatively high and the other very low, which we find side by side in the finest Giza work in Dynasty IV. As Dynasty III progressed, the bolder treatment, gradually employing relief of greater height, gained favour until the heavier style prevailed in the reign of Sneferu. This tendency towards solidity increases also in the statues and architecture. Eventually at Giza in Dynasty IV the excessive surface detail was refined and brought into better balance with the basic form.

It is the architecture of the reign of Zoser, at the beginning of Dynasty III, which, more than anything else, presents us with a picture of a young civilization approaching maturity. The builders, like the vase-makers of Dynasty I, were unable to resist the temptation to exploit their new-found technical skill. An abundance of vitality and invention led them to attempt things which were later wisely discarded, but the results which they achieved seem as surprising and fresh to us now as they must have to their

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