The lion is sculpted with a mixture of realism and stylization.
Its watchful face, the musculature of its body, and its paws,
toes curled in repose yet promising powerful action with their
claws, are modelled with graphic naturalness. The details of its
mane, however, are rendered more geometrically - the ruff of hair
around the face forms a circle continuous with the ears, and the
fall of mane over the chest is regularised into a bib-like square.
The body is proportionately quite small for the head, probably
because of the technical limitations imposed by the medium, yet
the overall impression is one of dignity and strength. The oval
base with a rim may have been added for technical as well as functional
This rare example of Egyptian sculpture in clay comes from the
temple of the hawk god at Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt, where
it was excavated by a British expedition in 1898. Hierkonpolis
is the most important site associated with Egyptian rulers around
the time of the formation of the unified Egyptian sate (Dynasties
‘0’ to 2, about 3100 - 2650 BC).
it made from?
The material of which the lion is made is the most readily-available
pottery clay in Egypt - Nile silt, the mud of the riverbanks.
This rather coarse medium was usually improved by being tempered
with straw, or mixed with a finer clay; when fired, it became
a red-brown colour, with a blackish interior core. The colour
could be enhanced by applying a coat of red ochre, and burnishing
or polishing the surface when dry. This resulted in ‘red-polished
ware’ which was used for tableware throughout Egyptian history
(Sackler Gallery, case 35).
In the New Kingdom, red-polished ware was also the medium for
small, moulded figure sculpture (Sackler Gallery, case 51). Hand-modelling
larger sculpture presented a much greater technical challenge,
both in artistry and ceramic production. Fragments of pottery
sculpture of various periods have been discovered on a few other
sites, but this lion is a unique survivor in terms of its good
state of preservation and high artistic accomplishment.
was its purpose?
The pottery lion may have been made as a guardian figure. As guardian
figures, lions were often placed in pairs to flank the entrances
to sacred enclosures, a function which they also fulfilled in
mythology. The excavators of Hierakonpolis reported the discovery
of pieces of another pottery lion in a different part of the site,
suggesting that the surviving figure in the Ashmolean may have
had one or more companions within the sacred precinct at Hierakonpolis.