Relief of a Carpenter at work

Relief fragment showing a carpenter squatting on scaffolding and working on a wooden object with his adze. Contrary to custom he is shown disheveled and unshaven. New Kingdom, 19th Dynasty, ca. 1292-1189 BC. Now in the Staatlich Museum, Berlin.

Relief fragment showing a carpenter squatting on scaffolding and working on a wooden object with his adze.
Relief fragment showing a carpenter squatting on scaffolding and working on a wooden object with his adze.

“Egyptian artists would be surprised that we consider their work art. Craftsmen toiled in anonymity [with rare exceptions], signed none of their works and attained no fame during their lifetimes. Their society recognized no difference between fine art forms, such as painting and sculpting, and ‘lesser arts,’ such as pottery or cabinetry. Practitioners of any of these skills were regarded as simple workers on a level with, say, carpenters.”

Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians, by Bob Brier, Hoyt Hobbs, 2nd Edition, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, USA, 2008

Relief fragment showing a carpenter squatting on scaffolding and working on a wooden object with his adze, detail.
Relief fragment showing a carpenter squatting on scaffolding and working on a wooden object with his adze, detail.

In Ancient Egyptian art decorum is is the norm to display yourself at your absolute idealised best. For the Egyptians that means; cleanest, finest clothes, completely shaven, hair either under a wig or presented in its neatest style, and usually in absolutely peak physical fitness. What’s different about this image is that it presents this man as he was. Dishevelled is perhaps the wrong word here, but compared to the idealised presentation the Egyptians are known for, this is “dishevelled” on an artistic decorum level, especially for the Egyptians.

The beard was a sign of neglect and was reserved for days of mourning. At the same time, a fake, well-tended beard was a sign of high social rank: the rulers wore a ceremonial beard of great length and squared shape, made from the wool of sheep.