Statue of the Lector Priest Kaaper, Sheikh el-Balad

The statue depicts Kaaper, the chief lector priest, in charge of reciting prayers for the deceased in temples and funerary chapels. Sheikh el-Balad, Arabic title for the chief of the village, was the name given to this remarkable wooden statue discovered by the workmen of Auguste Mariette, the French archaeologist, because it resembled their own village chief.

The use of wood as a material in sculpture became more established during the 4th Dynasty; it was certainly more ductile and versatile but also more perishable. Works like the statues of the lector priest Kaaper, which have escaped the wear of time, are rare examples of what was a diffuse type.

Statue of the lector priest Kaaper, Sheikh el-Balad. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. CG 34
Statue of the lector priest Kaaper, Sheikh el-Balad. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. CG 34

It is one of the masterpieces of the private statuary of the Old Kingdom. The eyes are inlaid; the rim is made out of copper and the white is of opaque quartz, while the cornea is made out of rock crystal.

The arms were separately modeled and attached to the body, a technique frequently used in wooden statuary. A wooden cane supported the left arm, made out of two pieces of wood joined together.

The statue was originally covered with a light coat of painted plaster, slight traces of which remain, and portrays with extreme realism the satisfied opulence of a well-to-do man pleased with his social position.

The eyes made from alabaster, crystal, and black stone and ringed with copper in imitation of makeup vividly bring the face of the priest to life and reflect his self-important personality.

Standing statue of the lector priest Kaaper, Sheikh el-Balad
Statue of the lector priest Kaaper, Sheikh el-Balad

The attitude of the figure more resembles the traditional typologies of bas-reliefs than of stone statues: he is shown in the act of advancing with his staff of power (here substituted with a copy) in one hand, and probably a cylinder in the other, clothed in a long kilt tied below his navel.

His short hair accentuates the rounded lines of his head and face merging in a composition of full and smoothed volumes.

Unlike stone statues in which the figure is never completely liberated from the material in which it is carved, wood sculptures are more independent, freed from the dorsal supports and filled spaces between the limbs which were worked separately and applied afterwards.

Wooden statue with inlaid eyes of the Priest and Scribe Kaaper (known as Sheikh el-Balad)
Statue of the lector priest Kaaper, Sheikh el-Balad

The personalization of the facial features of the figure means that this work falls into the “veristic” artistic school rather than the “idealistic,” which tended to cancel the physical characteristics of the individual and conform the figure to an ideal type.

The physiognomy of the statue of Kaaper is so markedly naturalistic that, when they discovered it, Mariette’s workers saw in it the features of the mayor of their village, translated in Arabic as Sheikh el-Balad, the name by which the sculpture is still known today.

Old Kingdom, 5th Dynasty, ca. 2494-2345 BC. Sycamore; Height 112 cm. Mastaba of Kaaper, Saqqara necropolis. Excavation by A. Mariette (1870). Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. CG 34