A Quick Lesson on… Ancient Egyptian serdab statues

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Photo: Djoser’s Ka statue peers out through the hole in his serdab, ready to receive the soul of the deceased and any offerings presented to it. Courtesy Wiki Commons.

Though I should really be studying for my two exams Thursday, I thought i’d do a quick write up on an aspect of Egyptian art that has always fascinated me, the serdab statues, and how they reflect many Egyptian beliefs of the afterlife. So I suppose this is kind of related to my ancient history exam…right?

It is important to keep in mind that Egyptian art was not done for purely ornamental purposes, but was primarily functional. In actual fact, these early representations of the king were not even intended to be viewed by the human eye. Serdab sculptures had the specific role to manifest the position of the ruler/ person in Egyptian society -the ka (spirit) of the person was thought to be housed in the statue after their death, and was (intended to be) permanently kept usually in the serdab of the burial.

A serdab is a tomb-like structure which served as a chamber for the ka statue of a deceased individual. These statues would have faced north, with the wall in front having two eye-level holes for the ka to look out of, which allowed it to engage with offerings made and the burning of incense. 

For instance, the first example we have of this kind of statue is the statue of third dynasty king Djoser found on the north side of his stepped pyramid in Saqqara. 

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Photo: the Stepped pyramid of Djoser, 3rd Dynasty, courtesy the Brooklyn Museum Archives, Lantern Slide Collection.

Essentially, the statues were intended to provide a resting place for the ka after the death of the person, as the Egyptians believed that the aspects of the soul were able to roam the earth, but required a permanent home to return back to (such as the statue). The hieroglyph for the ka is sometimes depicted on the head of the statue to reinforce its intended purpose (see the Ka Statue of King Hor I, Cairo Museum).

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Egyptian hieroglyph for the ka

Ancient Art, 23rd June 2013.

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