Disk of Hemaka

On the convex side of the disk of Hemaka there is a hunting scene. A dog tracks a gazelle and then attacks and bites its neck. The figures are enhanced by a skillful contrast of colors. One of the dogs and the horns and hooves of the gazelles are carved from the soapstone disk itself. 

These particular objects known as the Hemaka discs were found in 1936 by the Egyptologist Walter Emery inside a wooden box, we do not know their purpose, but Emery suggested that they may have been used for weaving, although they may have been used as part of a game. This example bears a hunting scene, showing two dogs and two gazelles.

Disk of Hemaka with scene of dogs hunting gazelles. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 70164
Disk of Hemaka with scene of dogs hunting gazelles. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 70164

The second dog and the bodies of the two gazelles are inlaid in pink-veined alabaster. Other decorated spinning disks like this one were found in an open wooden box in Hemaka’s tomb. They were apparently intended for use as small spinning tops.

A stick was inserted in the hole through the center of the disk. When the disk is turned, it creates a scene of dogs chasing gazelles.

The artist was not attempting to portray two contemporaneous scenes, but rather two successive moments in the hunting of the gazelle by the dog. The dog initially tracks its prey and then attacks head-on, biting at its neck.

The figures of the two fighting animals, with the gazelle rolling over with its hooves in the air, serves to offset the rigid symmetry of the composition and to emphasize the movement of the scene.

Disk of Hemaka with scene of dogs hunting gazelles
Disk of Hemaka with scene of dogs hunting gazelles

The dogs, with their more agile and sinuous bodies, can be seen as symbols of victory, while the cruder gazelles with arching backs can be interpreted as symbolizing defeat. The decorated side of the disc is surrounded by a border carved with a pattern of intersecting lines.

Hemaka was an important official during the long reign of the 1st Dynasty Egyptian King Den. His tomb at Saqqara contained a rich funerary assemblage that included numerous decorated discs in stone, copper, wood, horn and ivory.

These were discovered in an open wooden box. Their function is still unclear, they were possibly used as small spinning tops. They would have been rotated in the box on wooden sticks inserted in the holes through the center of each disc.

Early Dynastic Period, ca. 3150-2890 BC. Black steatite. Tomb of Hemaka, Saqqara necropolis. Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 70164