Faces from Oxyrhynchus?

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of visiting the University of Edinburgh. In addition to chatting with a fascinating group of graduate students, I was able to squeeze in a quick trip to the National Museum of Scotland. While there, I encountered a life-size limestone statue:

Edinburgh Oxyrhynchus Statue Online Record

Statue of a “citizen of Oxyrhynchus,” National Museum of Scotland, A.1971.674

It is a carved figure with traces of paint depicting a man holding a scroll, quite appropriate for “a citizen of Oxyrhynchus,” as the label described the figure.

Edinburgh Oxyrhynchus Scroll

Detail of s statue of a “citizen of Oxyrhynchus” holding a scroll, National Museum of Scotland, A.1971.674

The label on the figure indicated that it dated to “300-200 BC,” but this is probably an error, as the online record for the statue indicates that it dates to “c. 200-300 AD.” There was no acquisition information either on the museum label or the online record, but the figure was definitely reminiscent of a statue of a female that I saw when I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts when I was in the US for the SBL meeting in November of 2017:

Boston MFA Oxyrhynchus Statue

Statue of a woman said to be from Oxyrhynchus, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Accession Number 1972.875

The overall style of the pieces is similar, as is the remains of paint coating the areas of “skin” on the statues. The MFA has a detailed description of the female statue on the web here, where it is assigned to a date of “3rd to early 4th century A.D.” The statue is described as coming “probably from Oxyrhynchus” and was acquired by the MFA in 1972 from the collection of P.G. Sier (Hilversheim, Holland). There is no acquisition information in the online record of the statue in Edinburgh, but its “Museum reference” number (A.1971.674) suggests it may have been acquired at roughly the same time.

The online record for the Boston figure also indicates that “this life-size tomb stela is one of about twenty, mostly from the city cemetery of el-Bahnasa (Oxyrhynchus).” I haven’t been able to check the print catalog entry for this statue, but I wonder how confident we are about the assignment of the pieces to Oxyrhynchus? There are indeed other similar pieces floating around in different collections that are routinely attributed to Oxyrhynchus, such as a group of sculptures at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, three of which are pictured here and all attributed loosely to the Roman imperial period (from the first century BCE through the fourth century CE):


RMO NL Oxyrhynchus Figures 3

Limestone figures attributed to Oxyrhynchus at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden; F1980 / I.9; F1972 / 8.I; F1980 / I.5


Here again, one of the reference numbers (F1972 / 8.I), suggests the early 1970s as the time of acquisition of at least one of the pieces. There is also a fragment from the Brooklyn Museum, attributed to the 3rd-4th century CE, which definitely resembles the figure in Boston:

Brooklyn Museum Oxyrhynchus Relief

Funerary relief of a woman, said to be from Oxyrhynchus; Brooklyn Museum, 70.132

But again, as far as the online records indicate, the provenance of these pieces does not appear to be secure. Why are these pieces said to be from Oxyrhynchus? Another piece at the Brooklyn Museum suggests an answer: A relief of a child at the Brooklyn Museum (accession number 71.39.2) resembles in a number of respects a piece of sculpture that definitely comes from Oxyrhynchus (we know because it was excavated and published by William Matthew Flinders Petrie in 1925). The bottom of the Petrie piece seems to have been somewhat restored and “trimmed” at some point since its discovery. Here is a side-by-side(-by-side) image of the Brooklyn piece, the Petrie piece in 1925 and the Petrie piece in a more recent photo from the website of the British Museum, where it now resides:

Child reliefs from Oxyrhynchus 3

Left: Relief of a child in the Brooklyn Museum, said to be from Oxyrhynchus. Right and Middle: Relief of a child excavated at Oxyrhynchus by Flinders Petrie; image sources: Brooklyn Museum; Flinders Petrie, Tombs of the Courtiers and Oxyrhynkhos (London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt, 1925), Plate XLV; British Museum EA1975

The pieces are clearly quite similar, but again, the provenance of the Brooklyn Museum is not secure. And the online record offers some interesting information, namely that the boy’s “hands and especially his head have been recut and repainted in modern times. That is why those features appear to be in perfect condition, in contrast to the partially preserved color on his red robe.” The Brooklyn Museum website also mentions the circulation of modern forgeries of Late Antique Egyptian funerary art in the 1960s and 1970s. Pieces very similar to the relief of the child at the Brooklyn Museum were on the antiquities market at least as recently as 2010, such as this piece, which was assigned to the 4th or 5th century CE, auctioned by Sotheby’s in 2010 and attributed to…Oxyrhynchus:

Sotheby's Relief attributed to Oxyrhynchus

Egyptian funerary stele, attributed to Oxyrhynchus; image source: Sotheby’s

According to the Sotheby’s site, it can only be traced back to 1965 when it was on “the Los Angeles art market.”  This is an interesting set of sculptures. It would be worthwhile to trace the ownership history of these pieces to see if they have a confirmable history that goes any earlier than the 1960s and if any actual connection to Oxyrhynchus can be established.

This entry was posted in Antiquities Market, British Museum, Fakes and Forgeries, Oxyrhynchus Sculpture, William Matthew Flinders Petrie. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Faces from Oxyrhynchus?

  1. Interesting. Maybe–though I haven’t a copy at hand:
    Beelden van Behnasa :
    Egyptische kunst uit de Romeinse keizertijd 1e-3e eeuw na Chr. /
    Hans D Schneider
    Dutch Book Book 52 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
    Zutphen : Terra, ; ISBN: 906255119X 9789062551194

    • Yes, thanks. The online records for the Dutch pieces list some further bibliography (in addition to the catalogs associated with the Boston and Brooklyn pieces), but none of it is available online, as far as I can tell. When I’m next in a decent library, I’ll have a look.

  2. Pingback: A Bit More on Sculpture Attributed to Oxyrhynchus | Variant Readings

  3. Pingback: A Working List of Funerary Sculpture Attributed to Oxyrhynchus | Variant Readings

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