Besides awakening our enthusiasm, art can, and should, inspire analysis. To carry out such analysis, however, requires understanding what questions to ask of a work. Let us take an obscure statuette as an example, and attempt to draw forth as much information as possible. A first step would be to refer to the recognized sources in Egyptology, such as Jacques Vandier's monumental Manuel d'Archéologie égyptienne [vol. III, p. 437: Standing woman.A. Arms hanging down naturally along her body, hands open and parallel to her thighs]. This informs us as to the work's typology, without however divulging anything further. Using our own resources, as limited as they may be, let us try to set up a technical worksheet, by submitting the work to close scrutiny, without neglecting a single detail (for each and every detail has something to say), gleaning a maximum of data from each of our observations, and analyzing the results with all due logic. We may hope - indeed, have every reason to hope - that the statuette itself will disclose its secrets. Such an analysis is best accomplished in a series of steps.
The work consists of a standing woman figure, whose arms hang straight down the sides of her body, and whose left foot is set forward; she wears an ankle-length, close-fitting gown, and a long wig with sidelocks that frame her face and hang over her shoulders down to the top of her chest. She leans against a pillar covered with hieroglyphs on its reverse side.
The piece is made of mediocre-quality limestone that is coarse and granular, and hence a far cry from the lovely blond limestone from the Upper Egypt quarries. Coming instead from the Delta region, this limestone is at once flaccid and brittle, making it treacherous to the chisel, as the Greeks would - mainly by trial and error - painfully experience.
The sculptor's technique is oddly complicated, involving as it does both great subtlety of detail and a certain awkwardness in the handling of the work's overall shape. Thus, the ear is delicately rimmed, the wig skilfully adjusted, but the arms are too long, the waist too short, and the legs excessively thick. Just these few observations are enough for us to guess the type of artist responsible for this work: someone who had good training but who lacked the sort of natural gift gracing artists during the great periods of art history characterized by flawless works.
At this first stage of our analysis, we can already sum the situation up to a certain degree: what we have here is a statue of a woman of very small proportions, carved in a coarse material by a skilled artist who, however, was not blessed by genius. This data can furnish us with a basis to attempt to date the work: there exists a period where small-size statuettes were preferred to the large figures of former times, and where artists were appreciated more for the skill with which they executed a work than for the ingenuity of their creation. That era is the Late Period (Dynasties 21 to 30, that is 1085 to 333 BC), and more particularly, Dynasties 25 and 26, known as the Saite period (751 to 525 BC).
Closer scrutiny confirms our hypothesis: the figure's archaist pose, its rigidity, its conventional nature - all bear witness to an attempt to return to the plastic language of the first dynasties. For the duration of two centuries, this backward-looking artistic attitude represented the basis of Egyptian aesthetics. Our stranger is reminiscent of the female figures shown bearing offerings for the mastabas, or certain wives of the officials who made a name for themselves during the reigns of the various rulers - Sahouré, Teti, and the Pepis I and II (Dynasties 5 and 6, 2565-2265 BC).
However, the resulting plastic qualities of our woman figure are as far from those of her illustrious ancestors as are the Neo-Gothic works, produced during the reign of Charles X, from the great cathedrals of the original Gothic period. The comparison is not unreasonable: under Psamtik I, just as under Charles X, the tarnished image of the throne and state could only be re-embellished by resorting to the models of great times past. This desperate attempt to revive a system considered obsolete, to justify royal prerogatives through former glory, is one of the most significant features of the so-called Neo-Memphite school.
At this second stage of our analysis, we can ascribe an almost certain date to our statuette - Dynasties 25 and 26 - and a site of origin, namely the Saite workshops. Shall we attempt to delve even further into its past? Might we discover what function this woman served, or even her name?
Getting back to our examination of this figure, we note that its impressive wig, falling in long, face-framing sidelocks, constitutes a vulture cap. We already know that the vulture cap, since time immemorial, was the ceremonial headdress of the queen mothers and "Divine Adoratrices" (celibate priestesses) of Amon. Actually, the royal or divine nature of our figure is clearly evidenced: closer inspection reveals a minute cavity in her forefront, which was destined to receive a little bronze or gold uraeus (cobra head). There can be no doubt that this is a royal-blooded woman, perhaps a queen mother or a "Divine Adoratrice". Further scrutiny reveals a second indentation on the flattened section of the wig, marking the position of an added diadem. Most likely, this was the Amonian headdress style topped by two huge feathers or plumes. This second cavity presupposing divinity allows us to situate this woman in the upper echelons of the clergy, no doubt ranking as a priestess.
The Cairo antique dealer from whom this statuette was acquired in 1969 maintained it came from the Sais dig. His assertion is troubling: why, in the Delta capital, would one have honored a priestess who, as we know, paid allegiance strictly to Thebes? Historical records can illuminate us: the annals of the Saite period contain information to the effect that Psamtik I (663-609 BC) sought to ensure the allegiance of Upper Egypt by having his daughter Nitocris adopted by the "Divine Adoratrice" Chapenoupet II, daughter of the pharoah Piankhi. Thus Nitocris, rebaptized Chapenoupet III, became a precious instrument of royal policy. This is no doubt what afforded her a special cult-status beyond her own realm, and as far as within the walls of her ancestors.
This brings us to the conclusion of our analysis: to all appearances, this is a statuette from the Saite period, representing the priestess Chapenoupet III. Perhaps, someday, new discoveries concerning this period may invalidate our results. The point of this exercise, however, is to show how a strictly methodical analysis of a monument, no matter how modest a piece, can - with a minimum of knowledge and logic - throw light on the basic character of an entire era.