It is often the little things in museums that will fascinate you the most, so it is always worth stopping to look in the myriad of cabinets and displays that you may miss if you are going straight to the Mona Lisa or Van Dyck paintings. So always stop for a moment and look.
One such item is this stunning limestone relief plaque of two quail chicks, which probably dates to the late period (664-332 BC) or Ptolemaic period (332-30 BC) in Egypt. It is object number E11129 in the Musée du Louvre, Egyptian collections in Paris, and can usually be found in room 644 of the Sully wing.
It is a sculptor’s trial piece or model, or perhaps a teaching piece, and measures 22 cm high by 11.5 cm wide. The two finely carved chicks are shown in profile, standing one above the other, the remains of the carved surface at the edges giving the impression that they are set within a frame. The chicks are not identical, but vary slightly, with the lower chick having more carved detailing to the feet and more delineation to the feathers along the wing and side of the body.
The quality of the carving is incredibly fine, and one could easily see this as an absolute masterclass in the art of relief carving and the study of nature. Egyptian craftsmen were quite astute at understanding nature and translating it into a stylised design, as we see here. However, we should understand that these chicks are not meant to be seen as chicks at all, but rather represent a letter in the alphabet. The quail chick was in fact the hieroglyph for the letter W or the corresponding sound oo or u in ancient Egyptian. Quite often hieroglyphic texts were carved with painstaking detail on temple walls, so this is probably just a model to ensure quality control in the execution of a temple carving or to train sculptors in the appropriate way to delineate this hieroglyph.
Many such plaques survive from a range of periods and can be seen in almost every museum that has an Egyptian collection. They offer insight into the creative process. While we may now see this as a small artistic masterpiece, it was never meant to be viewed as such – this was simply a day at the office for a hard-working, ancient Egyptian craftsman.
by Tara Draper-Stumm
*For an introduction to Egyptian hieroglyphs and their meaning see W.V. Davies, Egyptian Hieroglyphs(London: British Museum Press, 2002) and B. McDermott, Decoding Egyptian Hieroglyphs: How to Read the Secret Language of the Pharaohs(San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 2001).
*See also the Louvre website for further details on this object.