"Each part of the world recapitulates, shares in and experiences the history of the world as a whole"
Fernand Braudel

Kohl pot in the form of a sphinx

second half of 4th century AD
Qustul, tomb Q 14
3.2 cm x 11 cm

This small wood figurine was found in a small leather bag, above the pit of the tomb Q 14 in the necropolis of Qustul. It represents a sphinx sitting on its hindquarters on a small base in the shape of a naos crowned with a typical Egyptian cavetto cornice. The bearded sphinx is styled with an impressive streaked wig of which two pieces fall onto the shoulders and tightened by a diadem with a Uraeus; the eyes are inlaid with ivory.

An opening pierced at the top of the head shows that this statue is actually a kohl pot. Residues of powder were also found inside the receptacle. Kohl is an eye paint which was widely used to enhance beauty and protect the eyes. Kohl pots often accompanied the dead in the tomb, in Egypt and Nubia, from the Pharaonic period onwards.

If the decorative theme of this object is of Egyptian inspiration, its treatment is nonetheless reinterpreted and adapted by local artisans. The sphinx, a mythical creature combining a human head usually with a lion’s body, was an Egyptian creation which was widely disseminated in the ancient world and still continues to inspire contemporary artists. They appeared in the early Old Kingdom and featured the king - the most famous example is the Great Sphinx of Giza. Later they played the role of guardian and patron of temples and tombs. In Egypt it was mostly male and appeared in a lying position. The theme spread widely in the Levant, in the Hittite Empire and in the Greek world. It then underwent many variants, the animal being represented under a feminine aspect, in a sitting position and often with large wings. The sphinx adorning this kohl pot has post-Meroitic features such as his seated position. On the other hand, the theme of the lion enjoyed great favour in this civilization and the treatment of the body recalls some representations of the Nubian god-lion, Apedemak.

The custom of burying grave goods with the dead to evoke his social status or his needs in the afterlife is a constant in ancient societies. However, this practice ended in Egypt and in Nubia from the 6th century, when Christianity and then Islam became dominant.

see also