Reserve head

Accession Number
Current Location
House of Death (ground floor), Offerings case
Object Type
Sculpture, Reserve head
Old Kingdom
Fourth Dynasty
Stone/minerals (Limestone)
Height: 230mm | Width 140mm | Depth: 140mm
Number of Elements

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A reserve head. The head has close-cropped hair, eyebrows that are sculpted in raised low relief, and no ears present. Additionally, a "cranial groove" is present; a careful and deliberate cut that typically starts from the top of the cranium and extends to the back of the neck. Traces of green pigment are present on the right side of the object, although this is perhaps copper residue from objects stored with it (this is the case with some other objects in the collection), rather than an indication that it was originally painted. Reserve heads are one of the most distinctive types of objects dating to the Old Kingdom, specifically to the Fourth Dynasty and the reigns of Khufu and Khafre (2551–2496 BC). They are attested mainly from the site of Giza, although others are noted from Abusir, Saqqara, and Dahshur. Only around thirty-seven are known, most of which are made of limestone. Their function is not so clear, with Ludwig Borchardt (1863–1938) first suggesting that they served as an alternative home for the spirit (ka) of the deceased owner if anything were to happen to their body. It has also been noted that the heads have a certain amount of individualisation mixed with idealisation. Most of the heads show some form of damage or mutilation, which has been the subject of much debate. This includes the ears being broken off or chiselled away, while others display the cranial groove (fig. 3). Roland Tefnin (1945–2006) suggested that the heads were ritually mutilated to prevent them from harming the living. Alternatively, Peter Lacovara believes that the "mutilations" were guidelines used by the sculptor in the creation of the reserve head. Given the rarity of reserve heads, some Egyptologists who have visited the Egypt Centre collection have dismissed it as a fake. Yet the size, material, and form of W164 match well with those excavated at Giza and elsewhere.


Anonymous. 1996. The face of Egypt: Swansea Festival exhibition: 5 October 1996–5 January 1997. Swansea: Glynn Vivian Art Gallery. [Cat. 116] Lacovara, Peter. (1997) ‘The Riddle of the Reserve Heads’. KMT 8, 4: 28–36. Malek, Jaromir 1999. Topographical bibliography of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic texts, statues, reliefs and paintings VIII: objects of provenance not known. Part 1: royal statues, private statues (Predynastic to Dynasty XVII). Oxford: Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum. [p. 305, nr. 801-260-700] Mendoza, B. (2017) ‘Reserve Head’. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Version 1, February 2017. 1–14. Available from Millet, Nicholas. B. (1981) ‘The Reserve Heads of The Old Kingdom’. In Studies in Ancient Egypt, the Aegean, and the Sudan: Essays in Honor of Dows Dunham on the Occasion of His 90th Birthday, June 1, 1980, ed. W. K. Simpson and W. M. Davis. Boston, MA: Department of Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern Art, Museum of Fine Arts. 122–131. Nuzzolo, Massimiliano. (2011) ‘The ‘Reserve Heads’: Some Remarks on Their Function and Meaning’. In Old Kingdom, New Perspectives: Egyptian Art and Archaeology 2750–2150 BC, ed. N. Strudwick and H. Strudwick. Oxford: Oxbow Books. 200–216. Picardo, N. S. (2007) ‘‘Semantic Homicide’ and the So-called Reserve Heads: The Theme of Decapitation in Egyptian Funerary Religion and Some Implications for the Old Kingdom’. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 43: 221–252. Roehrig, Catherine. H. (1999) ‘Reserve Heads: An Enigma of Old Kingdom Sculpture’. In Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids, ed. Anonymous. New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art. 72–81. Tefnin, Roland. (1991) Art et magie au temps des pyramides: L’enigme des têtes dites ‘de replacement’. Monumenta Aegyptiaca 5. Brussels: Fondation egyptologique reine Elisabeth. Vandersleyen, Claude L. (1977) ‘Ersatzkopf’. In Lexikon der Ägyptologie 2, ed. H. W. Helck and W. Westendorf. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz. 11–14.

3D Model