This piece is an example of what are known as “funerary models”, small sculpted groups that were placed in the tombs of the Egyptian elite between the 23rd and the 19th centuries BC. Like the reliefs and paintings on the walls of aristocratic tombs in other eras, only here in three dimensions, these models portrayed scenes of everyday life in the Nile Valley: fishing, workshops, ploughing, gathering harvests and counting livestock.
Although it is not obvious to modern eyes, the realism of these compositions was essential. Here, the layer of stucco covering the wooden figurines allowed the characteristic forms of the cattle (like their large necks, their well-defined posteriors and the shape of their hooves) to be moulded with great attention to detail, whilst the colours and the addition of real fabric loincloths – if genuine – reinforced the desired authenticity. The aim was not to give the illusion of life, but rather to capture the essence of the characters so they can be viable in the afterlife. Through the magic of imagery, the models would replace the reality of this world in the hereafter. In this case, the purpose of the two cows, safely protected by their herdsmen, is to guarantee all the benefits of cattle farming to the deceased for all eternity: milk, meat, leather, horn and social prestige.