The Art of Mathematics
Ancient Egyptian Figures
When looking at Egyptian wall carvings or paintings, it is important to remember that the paintings which decorated the walls of the tombs in Egypt were intended to keep history alive. These wall paintings provide an extraordinarily vivid picture of life as it was lived in Egypt thousands of years ago.
All the figures in the tombs were drawn according to specific rules dictating how to draw the human body. The head of the character was always drawn in profile, and although the face is to the side, the eye is drawn in full so it could be shown looking straight out. The body is also drawn as though seen from the front. The legs are turned to the same side as the head, with one foot placed in front of the other – the feet are painted from the side.
In ancient Egyptian art, each figure had to be a specific size. In the earliest examples from the Old Kingdom, Egyptian artists used a system of eight horizontal guidelines and one vertical line bisecting the figure through the ear. In the Middle Kingdom until the Late Period a square-grid of 18 units applied to a drawn human figure (standing) allowing its reproduction in various sizes, but always anatomically proportionate.
There were two squares allowed for the face (from the hairline to the base of the neck), 10 squares from the neck to the knees, and six squares from the knees to the sole of the feet. There was a nineteenth square used for the hair, but it was not counted with the rest of the body. The painting would probably have been planned on papyrus paper and then transferred onto the tomb walls by scaling up the drawing.
The concept of the square-grid to keep items in proportion is still used by architects, draughtsmen, designers and artists today.
Now is a chance for the children to make or draw an ancient Egyptian god or king using the same proportions as the ancient Egyptians did. You can find pictures and names of Ancient Egyptian gods at the British Museum website.
Take a grid of 19 cm high (remember 1 cm for the top of the head) and 6 cm wide. Fold it in half lengthways, and divide it into five sections widthways.
Draw the head and the neck from the side view.
Add one eye from a front view. Outline it in black. Add an eyebrow that is curved and black.
Draw the lips from the side view.
Draw a black wig showing the ear.
Shoulders and chest
Draw the shoulders and chest as if you're looking at them from the front.
Hips, legs and feet
The hips, legs and feet are drawn from the side view.
Don’t forget to add clothes
Men wore short skirts.
Women wore straight dresses that were held in place by two straps.
More able pupils could work out the proportion of each part of the body and draw the grid on plain or squared paper.
Children could then measure themselves:
- total height in centimetres
- head to neck
- neck to waist
- waist to knees
- knees to feet.
1 cm hairline to top of the head
2 cm forehead to neck
5 cm neck to waist
5 cm waist to knees
6 cm knees to feet
They would then be able to work out the proportion of each part of the body in comparison to the whole.
They might then draw an Egyptian figure using those proportions and compare or draw themselves using ancient Egyptian proportion. Higher order thinking questions could include, ‘Why were Egyptian gods drawn to those proportions?’
Two final tasks might be:
- using scale factors to enlarge the pictures on flip chart paper A2 or A1 – perhaps pupils could use 1 cm:10 cm. A discussion of ratio may be needed here as the comparison between two or more quantities and part to part i.e. for every 1 cm on my original picture I need 10 cm on my big picture. As a final extension activity, children could discuss what has happened to the area of their picture.
- to follow the same model of proportion using clay or plasticine to make model statues of Egyptian kings.
The bibliography below will provide you with lots of inspiration:
- Robins, G. (1994), Proportion and Style in Ancient Egyptian Art, University of Texas Press, London.
- Luxor News (blog)