The 26th Dynasty, also known as the Saite Period, is traditionally placed by scholars at the end of the Third Intermediate Period or at the beginning of the Late Dynastic Period. In either case, the Saite Period rose from the ashes of a decentralized Egyptian state that had been ravaged by foreign occupation. Supported by the assistance of a powerful family centered in the Delta town of Sais, the Assyrians finally drove the Nubians out of Egypt. At the close of this campaign, Ashurbanipal’s kingdom was at the height of its power; however, due to civil strife back east, he was forced to withdraw his forces from Egypt. Psamtik I, a member of the family from Sais, seized this opportunity to assert his authority over the entire Nile Valley and found his own dynasty, the 26th of Egyptian history. Known as the Saite Period due to the importance of the capital city Sais, the 26th Dynasty, like many before it, sought to emulate the artistic styles of past pharaoh in order to bolster their own claims to power and legitimize their authority.
Yet despite that artist sought to replicate models of the past, Egyptian art of this era was infused with a heightened sense of naturalism. This fact is likely due to the influx of Greek culture. The Saite rulers recognized that Egypt had fallen behind the rest of the Mediterranean world in terms of military technology. Thus, they were forced to rely upon foreign mercenaries, many of whom were Greek. With ties between these two cultures firmly established during the 7th Century B.C., commercial trading quickly blossomed. Special entrepots for foreign traders were established, including the famed center of Naucratis, a Delta town in which Greek merchants were permitted access. During the Saite Period, two great powers of the Mediterranean world became intimately linked, commercially and culturally. As the exchange of ideas flowed across the sea, the Greeks began to experiment on a monumental scale while the Egyptians began to approach art with an enhanced sense of realism.
The funerary rites and rituals of Egypt are among the most elaborate and celebrated burial traditions in the ancient world. The foremost concern was the preservation of the body, in order that it might be reborn in the afterlife. While the painstaking mummification process achieved this goal of counteracting the effects of physical decomposition, the ancient Egyptian were not satisfied with a wrapped body alone. Gorgeously decorated mummy cases and sarcophagi developed over the course of thousands of years so that the body could be properly presented to the audience of the gods awaiting the deceased’s arrival in the next world. These cases were created from a variety of materials, including stone, wood, and cartonnage, that were utilized depending upon the wealth and status of the deceased. Some of the earliest examples were relatively unadorned, featuring the general shape of the body highlighted by idealized facial details. Later, they evolved into ornate memorials that sought to recreate the specific appearance of the memorialized individual, both in terms of physical feature as well as clothing and jewelry. Polychrome paint infused the works with color and the finest examples were gilt.
This gorgeous fragment comes from the front of an anthropomorphic sarcophagus lid that would have once held the body of the deceased. Here, the artist has clearly succeeded in capturing the individualized facial feature of the deceased despite the idealized tendencies inherent in the style.
Subtle features like the figure’s full, fleshy cheeks, round jaw line, and bulbous nose effectively declare this representation to be that of a specific person while simultaneously maintaining an adherence to the standard type. The unadorned wig that crowns the head, the man’s almond-shaped eyes and clearly defined brow, and his sweetly smiling mouth all have their precedent in some of the earliest works of Egyptian funerary art. Created during the twilight of the Late Dynastic Period, this gorgeous fragment of a head reveals that traditional Egyptian art forms continued to thrive despite the increasing influx of Hellenistic tastes.