Serving Statue of the Baker Nebes, Egyptian, 5th Dynasty, ca. 2494-2345 B.C.E. Painted limestone, 9 3/4 x 11 x 4 3/8 inches (24.8 x 27.9 x 11.1 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 35-17
The term “serving" statue is adopted here, rather than “servant”, to more neutrally reflect the figure’s function without assuming his identity, since it is speculated these types of statues could have represented friends or relatives of the deceased (1-2). Serving statues were placed in the serdab chamber of the deceased’s tomb to aid them in the afterlife and, if representing the deceased’s dependent, to help ensure their dependent’s access as well.
The object is a painted limestone serving statue belonging to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (NAMA 35-17).
The statue depicts a figure kneeling on a platform, feet tucked behind him, kneading dough and/or forming cakes or loaves.
Previously interpreted as a generic, nameless representation of a servant kneading dough, the inscription was found to read “Baker Nebes”, identifying the individual by both name and trade.
RTI - Specular Enhancement
The title “baker” is not commonly seen in Egyptian works. There are some examples of named bakers on tomb chapel wall reliefs, though there is no current knowledge of “baker” being inscribed on any other Old Kingdom serving statue. The name “Nebes” has not yet been found in the literature either, however there is a dearth of resources to consult about Old Kingdom names.
The Baker Negan and other men shaping dough, from the wall relief in the tomb of Iy-neferet.
Image: Schürman 1993, fig. 15b
Baker Ni-meret and Baker Tjenty are named in a large food procession on the east wall relief in the mastaba of Ka-ni-nisut.
Image: Junker’s Gîza II. Die Mastabas der beginnenden V. Dynastie auf dem Westfriedhof, fig. 20
Parallels & Activity
In 1948, James Breasted included NAMA 35-17 in his book, “Egyptian Servant Statues”, describing the figure as “both hands reach forward and seem to be kneading dough” (3). He classified the statue under the category of “Man Forming Cakes or Loaves of Dough”, though similar statues have been interpreted differently.
The figure has little known history before the 1930s, but three close parallels coming from large deposits in 5th Dynasty tombs at Giza, lend considerable support for the figure’s origins. Like the parallels, the figure likely came from an Old Kingdom tomb at Giza that contained several other serving statues.
In light of the translated inscription on NAMA 35-17, which identifies the individual as a baker, it is doubtful that Parallel #2 (Hassan’s “Fuller”) (4) depicts an individual washing cloth. Similarly, it is unlikely that Munich’s example (Parallel #1, ÄS 4862) is a servant grinding flour, especially since the palette these figures kneel behind is much flatter than those seen in wheat-grinding statues. Their fingers also seem to wrap around the two forms they’re holding, making it unlikely that they are grinding.
The best interpretation for NAMA 35-17 seems to be a combination of Breasted’s 1948 classification, and Tooley’s description of OIM 10624: baker kneading dough and/or forming cakes or loaves (5).
We've learned that Nebes was a valued baker in the household of the tomb owner, who was an elite in Old Kingdom Giza. The tomb owner likely commissioned this statue, along with several others, to be included in his mortuary cult. Nebes may have been a personal friend, or simply one of several individuals the deceased saw as an asset to his household whom he wished to continue with him into the afterlife.
MATERIALS & TECHNOLOGY
The process of Egyptian stone working began with a cube of stone being roughed out with stone tools, followed by preliminary drawings on all four sides that guided sculptors as they worked.
Egyptians utilized the geometry of a grid to maintain the figure’s proportions as they methodically worked inward from all sides of the stone. As work progressed, more precise copper/bronze tools were used, especially pointed chisels and drills for details.
The statue would have been finished off by polishing with rubbing stones and sand, and finally painted with pigments bound in a plant or animal-based glue (a water-sensitive system) (6-7). The binder rarely survives on painted limestone objects today, but the pigments can remain.
Tool marks evident on NAMA 35-17 include chisel marks on its underside, and abrasion over the surface from rubbing stones.
Pigments remaining on the surface include black, a pinkish white, and brownish reds. X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) was utilized at over ten locations on the surface to help characterize the pigments present, and certain trends were observed when spectra were overlaid. Though, as a qualitative method, XRF results will need to be paired with other investigative analyses in the future for proper identification.
Reds were generally red ochre (iron oxides), with realgar (arsenic sulfide) sometimes added to achieve a reddish brown color (6). Analysis at locations with original red pigment showed notably high peaks for both iron and sulfur. All areas of red analyzed contained trace amounts of tin, manganese and zinc, which were absent in readings at the bare stone.
Whites were often calcium sulfate (gypsum) or calcium carbonate, and pinks could be made by mixing red ochre with gypsum white (6). A spectrum at the pinkish white paint on the figure’s palette had a notable peak for sulfur, which may support the use of calcium sulfate, but overall, the lower iron content of both the pinkish white and black pigments allowed for a greater depth of reading, resulting in compositions and peak heights nearly identical to the bare stone.
Blacks were almost exclusively made with carbon, which is too light to detect using XRF analysis.
Hover mouse over legend to view annotated map of breaks and approximate extent of previous restoration material.
Old restoration material, such as plaster, shellac and mismatched paint, was found excessively over the surface of the statue, associated with repairs at 7 break locations, including at the neck, waist, and different points through each arm. These repairs were easily a century or more old and occurred before the statue was acquired by the museum, as determined by the object’s records, old photographs, and the materials and methods employed.
Computer x-ray radiography revealed metal pins used at many of the joins—a common repair intervention for statues, though unnecessary in this case.
These outdated repairs were inadequate, inappropriate, and also posed potential risks:
The plaster was a possible source of soluble salts.
The shellac was old enough to be at the end of its use-life, at which point the joins could fail or possibly strengthen to a harmful degree.
Last, if the internal pins were made of iron, they could rust and expand in volume, exerting pressure from within the stone that could cause it to break.
Presence of Soluble Salts
The stone itself was soft—not unusual for limestone, which is calcareous and ranks low on the Mohs scale of hardness (Mohs hardness = 3) (6,8). However, the stone was powdery and excessively soft in many shallow areas of loss, suggesting the presence of harmful salts—common to Egyptian limestone.
Soluble sea salts, like calcium sulfate (CaSO4) and sodium chloride (NaCl, halite), often became inherent constituents of the limestone as it was formed (9-10). If allowed to cycle in and out of solution in fluctuating relative humidity, the subflorescence of these salts can cause the stone to deteriorate and lose integrity, becoming soft, powdery and fragile. This mechanism likely played a role in the significant loss of paint from the surface.
When the figure was disassembled, the stone and restoration plaster were sampled to be analyzed for ionic species through ion chromatography, in order to assess the presence and potential impact of soluble salts. Analysis was performed and interpreted by Chemist Bruce C. Hamper; results are outlined in Table 1.
Powdered limestone samples showed an average total salt content around 1% w/w, with CaSO4 and NaCl as the major soluble salts consistently present throughout the stone matrix. The plaster was found to be gypsum plaster (CaSO4·2H2O), such as Plaster of Paris, but additional analysis is necessary to distinguish its influence on the stone’s overall CaSO4 content.
ENVIRONMENTAL CONDITIONS FOR STORAGE & DISPLAY
The potential harm of CaSO4 crystallizing near the surface is contingent on its exposure to a very high percentage of water vapor in the air—around 99% at 70˚F—which is fortunately unlikely to occur in the object’s current, controlled environment. However, the more attainable deliquescence of halite around 75% RH makes the stone’s NaCl content of primary concern (11). The museum currently maintains 50% + 5% RH at 70˚F, which will avoid halite crystallization, and a stable RH was further ensured by using well-sealed enclosures with mitigating quantities of silica gel.
Previous restorations were removed and replaced with more appropriate, long-term conservation materials, and repairs were visually integrated to a higher standard. New restoration materials were chosen which both chemically and aesthetically respect the object. Restorations were only added as necessary and were contained to areas of loss, which helped return the piece to a more honest state.
Preliminary Removal of Old Restoration Materials
Before reversing the joins to disassemble the statue, join areas hidden beneath old restoration paint and plaster first needed to be exposed.
Restoration paint was removed with the aid of an acetone-retaining gel system (10:90 acetone: Poval 5-74). Poval 5-74 is a partially hydrolyzed poly(vinyl alcohol) that was cross-linked with borate ions. This peelable, viscoelastic gel retained the solvent and kept it at the surface of the plaster, introducing it in a more controlled manner. Quantity and spread of the solvent was minimal while it effectively worked to loosen the paint. After removing the gel, pigment easily lifted with minimal solvent (1:1 acetone:mineral spirits) and cotton swabs, which also helped clear the area of any remaining gel residue.
When the bare plaster was fully visible, a scalpel and other tools were used to mechanically break it apart and shave it down. Large areas of preserved, original paint were revealed on the figure, which had been broadly covered by restoration material.
Pulled cotton was packed into narrow spaces between joins, and ethanol was introduced to the point of refusal using a hypodermic needle to dissolve whatever shellac was present. Poultices were regularly changed out, plaster and solubilized shellac removed, and the process repeated. Following this procedure, joins loosened and released after a couple days, leaving the statue in 6 large fragments.
Disassembly & Cleaning
Surfaces were cleaned of old restoration materials and the 10:90 acetone: Poval 5-74 gel was used to clean the base, which was dirtied and dark from handling and storage. Fragile areas of pigment were pre-consolidated using 2% w/v Paraloid B-72 in acetone. Overall, restoration materials were successfully removed, if not greatly reduced, though overpainting that was too risky to safely remove remains around join areas.
Manganese dioxide (MnO2) stains observed at break surfaces indicated the statue was in a fragmented state while buried in the ground.
Unlike the breaks with MnO2 stains, the figure’s proper right arm had been intentionally sawed-off at the top sometime after excavation. The level cut continued through into the pectoral area. It's theorized the previous restorer had difficulty aligning the fragments, and resorted to cutting the arm off to more easily manipulate it and compensate for other misalignments.
All joins had been misaligned to varying degrees, and the metal pins extracted from 4 of the joins were found to be brass and threaded.
A judicial amount of 50% w/v Paraloid B-72 in acetone was used to join fragments in their proper positions. A detachable reconstruction was made of the figure’s proper right shoulder, using a piece of high density Ethafoam covered in epoxy putty and shaped using Micro-Mesh®. The epoxy took the impression of the break surfaces as it cured over a barrier of plastic wrap, allowing the piece to tightly fit the topography of the space. The reconstructed shoulder was attached in the same manner as the other fragments, using 50% w/v Paraloid B-72 in acetone.
Aquazol 200 in isopropanol bulked with cellulose power was used for all superficial fills, including applied as a layer over the epoxy shoulder addition. The solubility of this fill material allows it to be removed in the future with minimal to no effect on the joins, since B-72 is only slightly soluble in isopropanol. This material was a pleasing color, easy to use and manipulate, and experienced no shrinkage. Fills were texturized and shaped using a bamboo skewer, micro spatula, files, scalpel, pin-vice, and solvent as needed. In many instances, filing marks were mimicked on the fills to match the surrounding damage in the stone, and “paint losses” were shallowly carved out to imitate the appearance of the adjacent original surface.
Inpainting was performed using QOR watercolors, which are colors bound in Aquazol. This line of watercolors worked very well in matching the stone and the earthy reds of the original pigment. Minimal water was used in their application. Though composed of the same binder as the fills, the inpainting can be easily removed without solubilizing the Aquazol fills, so long as it is not removed with excessive amounts of water or aggressive swabbing.
Overall, by mimicking paint losses and the disturbed surfaces surrounding losses (overpaint and filing marks from the previous restoration), a balance was achieved that discretely disguises the newly gap-filled areas.
Proper Right Arm
Proper Left Arm
Materials & Suppliers
Art-Sorb—cassettes of pre-conditioned (50% RH) silica gel
517 Main St., Holyoke, MA 01040
Poval® 5-74—partially saponified grade of polyvinyl alcohol
Kuraray America Inc.,
2625 Bay Area Blvd., Suite 300,
Houston, Texas 77058
Borate (xPVAc-borate)—lab grade borax sodium tetraborate
330 W. 63rd Street,
Kansas City, MO 64113
Paraloid B-72—ethyl methacrylate (70%) and methyl acrylate (30%) copolymer
Rohm & Haas Co., Philadelphia, PA
Supplied by Conservation Support Systems,
P.O. Box 91746,
Santa Barbara, CA 93190
Magic Sculpt—two-part (resin/hardner) epoxy putty
Wesco Enterprises, Inc.,
3235 Monier Cir # 1,
Rancho Cordova, CA 95742
Micro-Mesh™ Regular—cushioned abrasives
Micro-Surface Finishing Products, Inc.,
1217 West 3rd Street,
P.O. Box 70,
Wilton, Iowa 52778
Aquazol 200—water soluble polyoxazoline compound
Polymer Chemistry Innovations, Inc.,
4321 Fremont Avenue, Tuscon, AZ
Supplied by Conservation Support Systems,
P.O. Box 91746,
Santa Barbara, CA 93190
Cellulose—Fibrous Medium (9004-36-6)
EC No. 232-674-9
St. Louis, MO USA,
4144 Main St.,
Kansas City, MO 64111
Treatment performed under the supervision of Kate Garland, Senior Conservator, Objects, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.
Dr. Ann Macy Roth is a Clinical Associate Professor in the Departments of Art History and of Hebrew & Judaic Studies at New York University. She received her PhD from the University of Chicago.
Bruce C. Hamper is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL). He received his PhD from the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. He was aided in this analysis by Christopher Thomas, an undergraduate student at UMSL.
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