Group Statue of Seneb and His Family

Seneb was a dwarf who served as a high-ranking court official in the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, circa 2520 BC. Despite his diminutive size, Seneb was a person of considerable importance and wealth who owned thousands of cattle, held twenty palace and religious titles and was married to a high-ranking priestess of average size with whom he had three children.

Seneb is seated on a rectangular seat together with his wife, Senetites, and his children stand before him. Seneb has short black hair and wears a short white kilt. His wife rests her right hand on her husband’s shoulder and her left hand on his left arm in an affectionate pose.

Group Statue of Seneb and His Family
Group Statue of Seneb and His Family

Senetites, who held the titles of Priestess of Hathor and Neith, wears a black wig that reaches down to her shoulders and a long white tunic. The artist rendered her face with a smile to show the woman’s satisfaction at being depicted with her husband and children. The son and daughter are shown standing in front of their father in the place where the legs should be.

Here, the Egyptian artist succeeded in creating a balanced composition for the figures of the family. His successful career and the lavishness of his burial arrangements are indicative of the acceptance given to dwarfs in ancient Egyptian society, whose texts advocated the acceptance and integration of those with physical and mental disabilities.

Seneb is depicted with his wife and children in a painted sculpture from his tomb, rediscovered in 1926, that is a famous example of Old Kingdom art. It shows him sitting cross-ledge don a block of stone with his wife embracing him and his children standing below him where the legs of a full-size person would ordinarily have been.

The composition of the scene thus achieves a harmonious symmetry. It depicts Seneb realistically with the facial features and shortened limbs of an individual with achondroplasia,a common form of dwarfism. Paintings and carvings in the tomb give his titles and depict various scenes from his life, such as carrying out inspections of his estate and holding symbols of his office.

Seneb was buried in a mastaba – flat-roofed brick tomb – located in the West Field of the Giza necropolis near modern Cairo, where a large complex of ancient Egyptian royal tombs and mortuary structures was built, including the Great Pyramid. It was rediscovered by the German archaeologist Hermann Junker in 1926. The tomb is situated close to that of another dwarf, Perniankhu, a high-ranking royal courtier who may have been Seneb’s father.

Two of the couple’s children, one boy and one girl, stand below Seneb where the legs of an ordinary person would be. They are depicted nude with their index fingers placed in their mouths and a lack of hair falling on one side of their heads, indicating that they were below the age of puberty, when Egyptian children were given and “adult” haircut.

Seneb and his son are shown with darker skin colouring than his wife and daughter. This was a standard artistic convention used to indicate gender and status, reflecting the fact that high-ranking females would remain indoors and retain a light skin colour while males would gain a darker skin from the hot Egyptian sun.

The names of three children are recorded, thought he third child was not depicted on the sculpture – presumably for reasons of symmetry. They were named after Seneb’s royal masters; his son was called Radjedef-Ankh, his eldest daughter was Awib-Khufu and his younger daughter was Smeret-Radjedef. They are depicted with normal proportions, suggesting that they did not inherit their father’s condition.

Group Statue of Seneb and His Family
Group Statue of Seneb and His Family

The sculpture’s roughly cubical arrangement cleverly ensures that the overall composition retains a harmonious equilibrium. It is lightened by the artist dispensing with a back slab and incorporating negative space into the piece.

By putting the children in the place of Seneb’s legs, the artist adds to the sense of symmetry. He creates the same impression that would have been made by an ordinary seated figure, preserving an appearance of normality without disguising Seneb’s unusual physique. The family’s names and titles are given in inscriptions placed on either side of the children and on the horizontal face of the base.

Seneb’s dwarfism is depicted realistically in the sculpture. It portrays him with a large head but small arms and legs. This possibly indicates that he had achondroplasia, a common form of dwarfism that most severely affects the fastest-growing parts of the body – particularly the femur and humerus, which become short and squat – and stunts the forearms and lower legs.

It also affects the head, producing a relatively large skull with a bulging forehead and often a depressed nasal bridge. An alternative diagnosis is dysmelia – a condition that produces short arms and legs. Seneb’s wife Senites is portrayed far less realistically; her depiction is of a piece with other contemporary portraits of high-ranking Egyptian women.

Seneb’s name means “healthy” – perhaps given by his mother as a wish for survival when he was a baby. Many Egyptians possessed similar names, not to denote an absence of disease but to convey a positive message of healthiness and vigour.

Dwarfism was not seen as a defect in ancient Egypt, unlike in many other cultures. Egyptian texts advised the acceptance of those with physical or mental disabilities, and there were even two dwarf gods, Bes and Ptah. A number of dwarfs gained prestigious roles and were given lavish burials in proximity to their royal masters.

Seneb’s career is documented on his false door and the plinths of his statues, which record twenty titles including “beloved of the lord [king]”, “overseer of weaving in the palace”, “overseer of dwarfs” – presumably indicating that there were others in the palace, “overseer of the crew of the ksship” – referring to a ceremonial or cult boat, “overseer of the jwhw” – possibly referring to animal-tenders, and “keeper of the God’s seal of the Wn-hr-b3w boat” – referring to a papyrus bark used in certain festivals.

His titles suggest that he might have started his career as an official in charge of royal linen and possibly also pets, a role in which other dwarfs are known to have served, and subsequently gained higher-ranking posts in charge of royal or cult boats.

Alternatively, he could have been born into a high-ranking family and was given roles appropriate to his birth rank. Seneb also carried out religious rites in his dual role as a priest. He was titled “Priest of Wadjet”, priest of “the large bull which is at the head of Stpt” and of the bull Mrhw. He participated in the funeral services for kings Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid, and his successor Djedefre [Radjedef]. His wife Senetities, a woman of normal stature, was likewise a priestess, serving the goddesses Hator and Neith.

Old Kingdom, 5th Dynasty, ca. 2494-2345 BC. Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 51280