Explore / Online Tours
Audio description tour
Giant sculpture of a scarab beetle
Audio of this description (2m 18s) (mp3 format, 1.58 MB). To download, right click and 'save target as' (PC) or hold down 'Control' key and click, and select 'Download Link to Disc' (Mac).
The scarab beetle, or 'dung' beetle, is one of the enduring symbols of ancient Egypt, representing re-birth and associated with the rising sun. This giant sculpture of a scarab is made from an oval block of green stone called diorite. It is so dark it is almost black: its gleaming surface pitted and scarred. The block measures just over one and a half metres long and about a metre wide, and stands a metre high. The beetle is carved from the top third of the block, as though it is sitting on a plinth.
Except for its colossal size, the scarab is carved naturalistically. The shell is flat on top but gently curves down at the sides. The edge of the shell is defined by a double line incised into the stone all the way round. Another line cuts across the shell, dividing the front section - the prothorax - from the beetle's wing cases. Each wing case is decorated with a V-shaped groove.
The front section of the shell curves down towards the giant beetle's protruding head, which is topped by a crinkly-edged, shield-like part known as the 'clypeus'. The front legs of the scarab curve towards the head, following the rounded edge of the plinth. The tips of these legs are 'feathered' by notches carved out of the stone. The middle set of legs emerge from the shell immediately behind the front legs, but curve the opposite way, towards the back of the beetle. The rear legs curve around the back, but a large section of the sculpture is missing, including the rear right leg and a portion of the plinth.
This sculpture is one of the largest known representations of a scarab. It is thought to be from the Ptolemaic period - from 305-30 BC - but could be earlier. The sculpture may once have stood in an Egyptian temple but it was found in Constantinople - modern Istanbul in Turkey. It might have been taken there after Constantinople became the capital of the Roman Empire in AD 330. The sculpture was bought in the nineteenth century by Lord Elgin.