The Manchester Museum holds two examples of an unusual category of object, peculiar to the Middle Kingdom (Acc. nos: 279-280). These take the form of two figures of dwarfs, supporting a vessel for either a lamp wick or to burn incense.
One of our pieces is of limestone, the other is of pottery. Further limestone examples from Kahun are in the Petrie Museum in London. A very similar example was recent excavated by Dr. David Jeffreys of the Egypt Exploration Society in a Middle Kingdom settlement at Memphis.
These find-spots suggest a common domestic context for the lamps, and it is perhaps best to view them as items of household ritual furniture, rather than the equipment of a formal chapel or temple.
The squat proportions of the figures are in contrast to the traditional ancient Egyptian canon of proportion for the human figure, and given the presence of non-Egyptians at Kahun – and presumably at other Middle Kingdom sites too – it cannot be ruled out that the form derives from elsewhere. However, the figure of the dwarf has considerable significance in Egyptian culture, and dwarves are represented throughout the Pharaonic period.
Dwarfism appears not to have been uncommon in ancient Egypt and dwarves were clearly accorded high status from the Old Kingdom onwards, and appear in skilled trades such as jewellery making. They could also occupy high positions at court, as was the case with a dwarf named Seneb – an ‘overseer of palace dwarfs’, ‘chief of the royal wardrobe’ and a priest in the funerary cult of King Khufu. An association with the divine may have existed in the Old Kingdom, although it is not articulated explicitly.
Another Middle Kingdom limestone lamp in Leiden – which, according to the dealer who acquired it, came from Asyut – has a pronounced belly and grasps a snake in each hand. It may therefore represent a female version of lamps, which are assumed to be male in other cases. This piece has been suggested by Maarten Raven as a possible early form of the Pataikos figure, which has strong associations with the protection of family life. More generally, the benevolent aspect of the dwarf is evoked most strongly by Bes, the fearsome god particularly responsible for driving off danger during childbirth. These attestations come mainly from the New Kingdom and later, but fit with the domestic setting in which provenanced Middle Kingdom examples have been found.
Middle Kingdom lamps are thus among the first objects to make explicit the connection between dwarves and protection in a religious context. Our two ‘dwarf lamps’ are best seen in Egyptian positive view of dwarfism. They add to our understanding of Middle Kingdom social practice, evidence for which is so richly represented in the collection at Manchester.
5 responses to “Dwarfs in ancient Egypt”
thank you as ever a very interesting article Seeing the paintings on wall at Hatshepsuts temple it is obvious that dwarfs were a very prized commodity
Speaking as a dwarf myself, I find this a very positive representation of my condition in ancient times. I happened across this article via Google and I’ll be passing it on to the Dwarf network. So often we find dwarves being ridiculed in the past but this is refreshing. Now it’s time to get packed for the Paraolympics!
Hi John, I’m delighted you found and enjoyed the post. There’s lots of evidence of dwarves in ancient Egypt and a considerable literature on the subject. Do drop in to the Museum if you’re ver in Manchester – we reopen our Ancient Worlds galleries at the end of October!
The proportions remind one of Bes at times. Do you think that is what was perhaps intended with 279 and 280?
Yes, I think so – though the iconography is not made explicit. Certainly he was appearing on magic knives/wands/birthing tusks at Kahun in the Middle Kingdom.