Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Sed Festival Block of Akhenaten in the Fitzwilliam

This talatat block features king Akhenaten in two complete scenes including on the left side of the face a crudely carved scene of the king beneath the rays of the Aten. These rays terminate in open hands above the scene of the king before an altar making offerings while wearing the white crown with his arms raised in exaltation.

The second larger scene on the right side of the talatat face is slightly better executed and features the king in Sed festival robes beneath the rays of the Aten which terminate in hands holding alternating ankh signs and was scepters while a row of three attendants is bent over in the background adoring the king. The king strides forward holding his flail and scepter out from his body while the attendants are faced the same direction.

The scene is surrounded by cartouches and hieroglyphic inscriptions with one cartouche behind the king and two large cartouches in front with the lower half of two more beside each other to the extreme right of the block. The clumsy hieroglyphic inscription tells us the Aten titulary and a place name "Jubilation in the horizon [or seat] of the Aten"*.

The hieroglyphs tell also that the attendant behind the king is his chief prophet carrying his sandals. The attendant in front of the king is his lector priest holding a papyrus roll and the third attendant is in front of the lector priest but only the back of his leg remains of this figure. From here on the face of the block has been destroyed.

Why would the central focus of the block be complete in the manner of a lesser scenic block instead of it displays one of the most important events in Akhenaten's life? The Sed Festival was important political propaganda and worthy of notice on the walls of his monuments and for an entire Sed festival scene to appear on a single block leads me to ask what the surrounding blocks contained that the king needed to be kept small within his own monument?

Other talatats generally contain only fragments of the royal family as they are of course depicted far larger than their subjects who themselves regularly occupy two or more bricks but the Fitzwilliam piece is far different in conception.

The block is pleasing to look at with the benefit of the contents being of great importance in king Akhenaten's reign, the block being forgivingly damaged where it was probably least important. How would you mount this on a temple wall or even a shrine so as to be set out from the other blocks in the construction?

Certainly, the two cartouches on the far right of which only the bottom of the cartouches is present on the block allude to a block above as do the rays of the Aten in both scenes but that would have left the solar disk of the Aten at the bottom of those blocks.

The damage to the right side of the block makes this illusion that there was a block there unknown. Nothing about the bottom of the block says that there was any connection with a block below and the same is true of the left side which appears to be independent of a block next to it.

But at the same time, it may well be an artists draft to be followed by the artists at the monument if so one would wonder about the misshapen crown and it would be doubtful that this artist would have been in charge of decoration for a larger much more expensive monument.

Though the talatat wall in the Luxor museum from the Gem Pa-Aten displays king Akhenaten 2.5 talatats high with the Aten at the bottom of the above block below the floor line of that block, these blocks are far more central to an overall program of temple decoration and much more finely executed. While a talatat found recently at Sheikh 'Ibada is merely the head and neck of a king's wife from a much larger and dominate scene.*

The other thought is that the block maybe by an artist copying a larger monument on to the talatat as practice but this would seem to be in mistake too as the preciousness of a cut block of stone to be used by an amateur seems unlikely. An important scene in a monument of which would have been hard to discern from surrounding blocks causes me problems and makes me feel the block that has no provenance may well be a forgery perhaps created from a backing cut off another talatat and used to create the Fitzwilliam block?

Let's take the case of the famous forger of Egyptian art Oxan Aslanian who specialized in the art of the Amarna period. While in Egypt between 1900 and 1914 Mr. Aslanian was carving pieces in the style of the Old Kingdom until he moved to Germany where in the 1920's he became inspired by Amarna Period art.

Unlikely the master of Berlin creating fake Amarna pieces in Germany in the 1920's would then send them to Egypt to sell but the possibilities that an early experiment in his art while still living in Egypt may have been some Amarna pieces including the Fitzwilliam piece.

Artists rarely begin at the styles they become known for this is more often than not the result of years of experimentation and the late Mr.Aslanian would have been no different. Unfortunate that Major Gayer-Anderson did not provide anything on the Fitzwilliam's blocks provenance and though not considered to be in the regular style of Mr. Aslanian it's conception is greater than the hand that carved it, a master forger may have been at work on the block.

The idea that the block was created between 1900 and 1914 by Mr. Aslanian is a stretch I realize however master artists are very rare with only a few in each generation especially when they are in the right place. I recently viewed a number of pieces displayed on the Mansoor Collection of Amarna Art website. These soulless pieces are in doubt whether authentic or not, they are however not the work of a master but of a lesser artist who lacks imagination and has only copied other well-known pieces.

The creativity in the Fitzwilliam talatat is clearly above the talents of the Mansoor artist. Furthermore, there are a number of other pieces in the Fitzwilliam that have come from the Gayer-Anderson collection including E.G.A.3077.1943, a block with a man's head which appears the face was carved after the block was broken.

Let's hope further research may someday clear up the lost history of the Fitzwilliam's talatat but whichever way it goes the "Jubilee Scene" 2300.1943 is a wonderful and important work of art.


Photo of block: The Fitzwilliam Museum
  • *1 Akhenaten and Nefertiti, Cyril Aldred pg.97

Oxan Aslanian: The Shifting Values of Authenticity and Fakes

The Mansoor Amarna collection:

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