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The Reserve Heads: An Ancient Mystery Unraveled

Dieselnoi studies the history and culture of ancient Egypt, and he is also a collector of Egyptian art.

Discovery of the First Magical Head

In 1894, a strange discovery was made during an excavation near the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis. The first 'reserve head' was unearthed. In later years, other 'magical heads' were found and most of these were dated to a brief period in the 4th dynasty, spanning the reigns of Khufu and Khafre. 31 of the currently known 36 heads came from the cemeteries at the Giza pyramid complex, all from elite graves of either important officials or people with family ties to King Khufu. Over the past 12 decades, there have been many theories about what the function of the 'Ersatzkopf' might have been, but all were lacking in some way or another. Now, more than a century after their first discovery, a theory is put forward that could finally help us to understand a little bit more about these beautiful works of art.


What's a Reserve Head?

If you set eyes on a 'reserve head' for the very first time, you may be forgiven if you assume that you were looking at a character straight out of a sci-fi movie. What we are actually dealing with are ancient Egyptian sculptures created some 4500 years ago. A typical 'reserve head' is a life-size (or slightly bigger) statue of a head, neck only, no shoulders. Typically carved out of limestone, the statue has a flat base so it can stand upright. The head is bald or is very closely shaven. In almost every example strange mutilations occur, such as the intentional removal of the ears from the statue. Sometimes it's impossible to tell whether we are looking at a male or female subject, but without a doubt it is clear that the sculptures have all the features of individual portraits. The serene stare into the distance is directed slightly upward, adding to the strange, timeless quality of these pieces.


The Enigma

As far as Egyptian artwork goes the 'reserve heads' have some very weird characteristics, and Egyptologists through the years have struggled to find a reasonable explanation for them. The main problems are:

  • There is no satisfactory explanation for the purpose of the heads.
  • The sculptures are in some cases purposely mutilated. Removal of the ears is common and in some cases deep lines are carved into the skull. It is not clear as to why this was done.
  • The depiction of separated body parts is highly uncommon in Egyptian culture for reasons of a religious nature.
  • The statues are only found in a select number of graves. Not every tomb from the same period in the same location has a 'reserve head'. Also, no other sculptures of the deceased were found in any of the tombs with a reserve head.
An example of mutilation on the back of the head

An example of mutilation on the back of the head

A look into the serdab at the Ka statue of  king Djoser

A look into the serdab at the Ka statue of king Djoser

Common Explanations for The Reserve Heads

In the past a number of Egyptologists have provided theories on the nature of the reserve heads but none of them has really stood the test of time. These are the most common suggestions (although there are many more):


The first theory proposed by Borchardt, was responsible for giving them the name 'Ersatzkopf'. He believed that the 'reserve heads' were to replace the original in case it was lost or destroyed.

Ka Statue

Another explanation was that the heads had a similar function as the Ka statue that we normally find in a serdab. The Ka statue would offer shelter the soul of the deceased, but with the small hole in the serdab it was able to go out and move about.

Sculptors' model

A third suggestion was that the heads were sculptors' models.

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Prototypes for Mummy Masks

The last thesis is that the heads were used as models for mummy masks

None of these theories hold up to scrutiny.The first two theories mentioned do not explain the mutilation and neither explains the incompleteness. The last two theories can also easily be dismissed. Why create a sculptors' model if you are not going to create a sculpture? And regarding the mummy masks: archaeological evidence clearly shows that the mummy mask were sculpted directly onto the faces of the deceased.


The Opening of the Mouth Ritual

A more comprehensive explanation was proposed in 1991 by Tefnin. He argued that the scraps were ritual mutilations intended to 'kill' the heads before placing them in the tombs. This was done in order to make sure that the heads could not harm the deceased. He draws parallels to the mutilating of dangerous hieroglyphs in the Pyramid Texts. For instance the hieroglyphs with a snake would be chiseled away, to prevent the snake from attacking the tomb owner in the afterlife. Tefnin went on to link this ritual to another somewhat enigmatic practice called 'the opening of the mouth' that was performed during the burial ceremony. Even though this theory does explain the strange mutilations to the heads, it still leaves us with a number of unanswered questions:

  • What was the purpose of placing the heads in the tomb?
  • Why is it that not all elite tombs from this period have a reserve head placed in them?
  • What is the reason for the uncharacteristic incompleteness (only the head) of these sculptures?

The Connection to King Khufu

In 2011 a paper 'The ‘Reserve Heads’: some remarks on their function and meaning' by Massimiliano Nuzzolo, was published as part of a the book 'Old Kingdom, New Perspectives: Egyptian Art and Archaeology 2750-2150 BC'. If you are interested in the subject matter I highly recommend reading this paper. It seems to provide us with a solution to the riddle that has been puzzling us for so long now.

Nuzzolo places the 'reserve heads' in the context of the new religious doctrine that identifies Khufu with the sun-god Re, changing the nature of kingship. The new cult emphasized the divinity of the king. Nuzzolo argues that the intention of the heads was not to assist the deceased to be reborn in the afterlife, but rather the opposite: the detached heads were to make sure that the deceased were incapable of being resurrected without the explicit intervention of the king. King Khufu alone could resurrect his dignitaries by magically reattaching the heads to the body, and restoring the physical integrity of the body of the deceased. The ritualistical removal of the ears may have served to prevent the owner from hearing offering formulae. This would severely undermine the possibility for the deceased to be transitioned to the next world, and this way the rebirth of the deceased became totally dependent on the willingness of the king to grant them the favor.

So with this thesis we are provided with answers to previously open questions. We now have a purpose for the sculptures. The mutilations can be (partially) explained. We can understand why the heads were exclusively reserved for only the highest officials and the anomalous incompleteness is no longer inexplicable.


Weighing the Evidence

Evidence for the theory is quite compelling. There is no doubt that king Khufu tried to change the nature of kingship. There is proof that the king prevented direct cults in private tombs. The restrictions he put on decorations in these tombs that would assist the resurrection, is an indication of the control exerted by the king. Only the offering scene on the slab stelae seems to have been allowed, but this could only be of use to the owner of the grave after the king magically reassembled the body.

Further evidence is provided in the form of texts. In pyramid texts there are many references to severed heads. To show you just two examples:

"Raise yourself, Teti, for you have received your head, your bones have been assembled for you, your limbs collected for you, the earth on your flesh cleared away from you and you have received your unmouldering bread and unrotting beer."
(PT 373: § 654–655)

"… awake Teti, Raise yourself ! Receive your head, collect your
bones and clear away your dust."
(PT 413: § 735–736)

Nuzzolo offers many other textual references to support his theory, also from private coffin-texts but also from the famous 'Westcar Papyrus'. He provides further evidence to support the thesis based on the strict organizational structure of the cemetery and the way the tombs are aligned to the great pyramid.

Case Closed?

However convincing this thesis is, it is doubtful the debate ends here. Nuzzolo does provide us with a unique and highly original perspective on the riddles surrounding these strange, anomalous heads, but we suspect that there are too many things that are still to be discovered. So it would be premature to simply declare this case closed. However, I think we are certainly a lot closer to the truth than we were before. I do look forward to the next episode in superb mystery.


Nell Rose from England on March 02, 2017:

How fascinating! I love mysteries, and ancient egypt is one of my favorites. I had never heard of these heads before, so I learned something new! thanks!

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