Statuettes in human form first appeared in Ancient Egypt with the earliest settled inhabitants of the Nile Valley, (the so-called Badarian culture) at about 4200-3900 BC. They continued to be made in a variety of different materials throughout the Pre-Pharaonic or Predynastic period (3900-3300 BC). In contrast to later times, they were never very common. The rarest of these figures, but also the most detailed, were made of ivory or bone. Like this example, most of them represent nude females with their feminine attributes emphasised by carving and careful drilling. With their slim figures, narrow waists and full hips they present an ideal of the female body that will change little over the course of Ancient Egyptian civilization. Their enduring concept of beauty also included a full head of hair (the bald ones may have had wigs) as well as large and alluring eyes.
Many early figurines were carved with large round eyes, or eye sockets, which were probably inlaid with coloured paste or shells. The lapis lazuli squares filling the striking eyes of this example are unique, and it is possible they were added in modern times. Nevertheless, lapis was known to the Egyptians in Predynastic times (the earliest examples dating to about 3700 BC), and the use of this exotic blue stone bears witness to intricate trade networks. These must have already existed across the Near East since the closest source of lapis is found in present day Afghanistan, some 4000km away.
It was once assumed that these female figurines were meant to be concubines for the deceased in the afterlife. This idea can no longer be supported since figurines of women, made in a variety of materials, have been found in the graves of men, women and children and the majority of them are shown wearing clothing. Instead, their presence may have provided magical support for the owner’s rebirth and regeneration through a connection with female fertility and nurturing.