The Seated Scribe

Seated cross-legged, with rolls of belly fat, this painted statue differs from the ideal statues of pharaohs.

Seated Scribe​, c. 2500 B.C.E., c. 4th Dynasty, Old Kingdom, painted limestone with rock crystal, magnesite, and copper/arsenic inlay for the eyes and wood for the nipples, found in Saqqara

Additional resource

This sculpture at the Louvre

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Egyptian collection in the Louvre in Paris. We’re looking at the “Seated Scribe.” This goes back to the Old Kingdom.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:13] This is more than 4,000, almost 5,000 years old. And I think what draws people to this relatively small sculpture is how lifelike it is, given how old it is.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] It’s painted, which adds to its lifelike quality.

Dr. Harris: [0:28] That was not unusual for ancient Egyptian sculpture, although the amount of pigment and coloration that survives here is rather unique.

Dr. Zucker: [0:35] With a few exceptions, the sculpture is painted limestone. The exceptions are the nipples, which are wooden dowels, and the eyes.

Dr. Harris: [0:42] The eyes are incredibly lifelike.

Dr. Zucker: [0:46] That’s because they’re made of 2 different types of stone. Crystal, which is polished on the front, and then an organic material is added to the back that functioned both as an adhesive but also to color the iris. There’s also an indentation carved to represent the pupil.

[1:00] All of this comes together to create a sense of alertness, a sense of awareness, a sense of intelligence that is quite present. It collapses the 4,500 years between when the sculpture was made and today.

Dr. Harris: [1:11] He’s not idealized the way that we would see a figure of a pharaoh. The Egyptians considered pharaohs to be gods, and would never have represented the pharaoh in this relaxed, cross-legged position, and with the rolls of fat that help make him more human.

Dr. Zucker: [1:27] He looks so relaxed, almost like he’s just exhaled.

Dr. Harris: [1:30] That’s true. But there is also a real formality here. He’s very frontal. He’s meant to be seen pretty much exclusively from the front, and there’s almost a complete symmetry to his body.

Dr. Zucker: [1:42] The exception being his hands. His right would have originally held a brush or a pen, and his left holds a rolled piece of papyrus that he’s writing on, which is interesting because it suggests the momentary, even though the Egyptians are so concerned with the eternal.

[1:59] You said a moment ago that he is intended to be seen from the front, but that raises an interesting question. Was this sculpture meant to be seen at all?

Dr. Harris: [2:11] Well, he was found in a necropolis, southwest of Cairo, in a place called Saqqara, an important Old Kingdom necropolis. We don’t know his exact findspot, so we don’t know as much about him as we would have if we did, but you’re right. This is a funerary sculpture meant for a tomb.

Dr. Zucker: [2:21] We would know more about him if the base on which he sits was not cut. It probably would have originally included his name and his titles.

Dr. Harris: [2:29] What’s interesting is that the hieroglyph for “scribe” is quite pictographic and shows a writing instrument — a pen — a pot of water, and cakes of pigment. Scribes were very highly regarded in Egyptian culture. They were one of the very few people who could read and write.

[2:48] It’s impossible to know how much of a portrait this is because we don’t have this man in front of us. We don’t know the degree to which this sculpture resembles him.

Dr. Zucker: [2:56] The sculpture has been carved with real delicacy. The fingers are long and elegant. The fingernails are carefully inscribed.

Dr. Harris: [3:03] He has very pronounced high cheekbones.

Dr. Zucker: [3:06] The only clothing he wears is a kilt, which has been painted white. His skin is a pretty rich red-brown, and the hair and the rims of his eyes are accentuated with black.

Dr. Harris: [3:15] It is wonderful to have this sculpture reaching out to us from more than 4,000 years ago.

[3:20] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Seated Scribe," in Smarthistory, November 25, 2015, accessed May 23, 2024,