A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
An unusual statue was found by chance this spring during construction in a Nile Delta town northeast of Cairo. Made of limestone, it depicts a woman with inlaid ivory and obsidian eyes sitting on a chair with lion's legs. On each side of chair are baboons, one of which holds a mirror. Attached to her chest are three statuettes of children, two girls and a boy. Two of the children wear necklaces made of carnelian set in the limestone (the necklace worn by the third child is now missing). Suspended from each necklace is a heart amulet, also of carnelian. For ancient Egyptians the heart was the seat of intelligence, memory, and feelings. Another girl (whose lower body only is preserved) sits on a cushion on the woman's lap. Identification of the person or deity represented by the statue, which is 35.4 inches high and 9.8 inches wide, is uncertain.
The statue was found in January 1997 by a citizen digging to lay a house foundation 300 meters from the ruins of the temple of Pepi I (Dynasty 6, 2332-2283 B.C.) in the town of Zagazig. The modern town is encroaching on the archaeological site of Tell Basta, the ruins of Bubastis, capital of the eighteenth nome of ancient Egypt and home of the cat goddess Bastet. A local deity of the Delta region in early dynastic times, Bastet or Bast was often depicted as a cat-headed woman after the New Kingdom. Her cult flourished in Dynasty 22 (945-712 B.C.) and later periods. Bastet was a beneficent deity associated with fertility, the moon, and festivity. A cemetery of cats sacred to Bastet, mentioned by Herodotus, was near the temple of Pepi I.
Zahi Hawass, director-general of Giza and Saqqara for the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, believes the sculpture may date from about 1550 B.C. It may be later, from the Saite period (Dynasty 26, 664-525 B.C.), according to Mohamed Bakr, an Egyptian archaeologist who has worked in the area. "The rapid urban expansion of Zagazig in the last decades, especially after establishing the university, led to destructive consequences on the archaeological site of Tell Basta," says Bakr. "Many housing projects now cover two-thirds of Bubastis."
Ali Hassan, secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquties, described the statue as "exceptional" when it was officially unveiled on March 10, 1997. It will be displayed at the Cairo Museum.