Red Pottery Lion
about 2,325-2,175 BC

Gallery 6, Ancient Egypt


Focus on the Object

The Lion
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 reasons.

Where’s it from?
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).

What’s 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.

What 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.