Ani and his wife Tutu play senet in the Other World
Detail from Ani's payprus Book of the Dead EA 10470 sheet 7
Egyptian, Nineteenth Dynasty, c. 1250 BCE
British Museum, London

A charming domestic scene from over three thousand years ago. Senet is a board game. Ani has what look like four pawns or bishops and two cottonreels, and is moving one of the pawns. Tutu sits behind or beside him, with her arm around him, perhaps admiring the skill of his move. He looks rather pleased.

Behind or beside? For, lifelike as the figures are by Ancient Egyptian standards, the garments accurate, the hands delicate, this is still about seven hundred years before some bright spark in Greece is to toy with a few more strokes in their frustrating quest for accuracy in pot-painting, to override their training in what had until then passed for anatomy and perspective, and to realize that if you drew one foot shorter than the other it magically looked better. The Egyptians aren't there yet. They can do feet from the side, faces from the side, eyes full on, fingers curling over hands, people sitting on chairs: each particular component they can do, in its own way, quite accurately. But the realistic combination of them all eludes them; or, perhaps, they know they could do some things better but they don't want do: it wouldn't show what they wanted.

So Tutu is on a chair beside her husband. They both face right. But if you drew her like that she'd block part of him out. And we want to see Ani. It's his papyrus, after all, his passport to not getting eaten or found wanting by underworld denizens. So we depict her behind him, with enough overlap to show she's really beside him. The robe over her legs occludes part of the back leg of his chair. That's enough.

And one other odd thing. She has her hand on his shoulder: his far shoulder. Five fingers amiably clasping him, in correct perspective. Her arm goes behind his back; her hand reappears on his shoulder. Yet you couldn't really do that unless that hand was out on a prosthetic the length again of her arm. It comes from having to depict her as here but there as well, showing what's happening as well as showing all the bits doing it. It's clearly a convention: the artist's grasp of anatomy is almost faultless apart from this quite impossible hold. So that's what they want to show us: affection, serenity, companionship. And it works: that's what it shows. We can almost hear their conversation.

The house or room they're in is stylized: roof, walls, floor, a frame to surround them, nothing more. Their chairs are real, his with a back and looking like it could have been carved in 1800, hers backless with a thick seat or cushion.

His face is an Egyptian tan; he has a stub of beard, and an enigmatic smile; his pupil is further back than his wife's, so he's looking out at us or (by a convention) across/back at her. She has the pale indoor skin of a lady, long wide braided hair, and ornate things in it. One looks like a big gold hairclip, too big to be called a hairclip, with jewellery or chasing across it. The other, on top of her hair, I am quite at a loss to describe. Part plant in front, opening out, red cords behind, perhaps another jewelled knob connecting them. I wonder if any such things have survived in museums?

They're both in clean white linen robes, folds neatly falling to the ground, to just above their bare feet. Her right hand she holds up in benediction, praise, delight at his skill, acknowledgement of...? He's moving the piece with his right hand, near us. The board is attached to the wall. In his further, left, hand he holds a piece of cloth. I don't know why, don't know what it is. But it shows in front of the board. Whatever it was, we needed to see it like that.

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