Daily Archives: February 28, 2012

Curator’s Diary 28/2/12: Identifying bone and ivory in ancient Egypt

Last week, along with other colleagues at Manchester, I attended a Renaissance North West training course at Lancashire Museums Conservation Studios in Preston on the identification of bone and ivory in both ethnographic and archaeological collections. The course provided a great opportunity to pick up practical skills from tutor Dr. Sonia O’Connor of Bradford University – an expert in osseous and keratinous materials, who will be featured as a guide in the new Ancient Worlds galleries. I welcomed the chance to become more familiar with scientific methods used regularly by conservation staff: also a good way to challenge the misconception of curators as locked in their ivory towers, if you’ll forgive the pun.

The course was timely, as I am currently working on the interpretation of bone and ivory objects that feature in the Pre- and Early Dynastic section of the new Egyptian World gallery. While most ivory from Egypt came from native hippopotami, elephant ivory is also attested as an exotic import. Bone and ivory have sometimes been confused for each other, and were put to a variety of uses. More objects of both materials than ever before will feature in the new galleries, including jewellery, utensils such as spoons, inlays for furniture, and tags to identify storage contents.

Hippo ivory tusk (Acc. no. 5074)

Hippo ivory tusk (Acc. no. 5074)

The function of one object, a hippo tusk labelled as a ‘wand’, has, however, resisted classification and so I thought I would highlight it here to invite other interpretations. The ‘wand’ was found along with several others in a Predynastic cemetery at Mahasna in Upper Egypt. The site’s excavation report includes an intriguing photo of the ivory ‘pendants’ and a male figurine of the same material wearing a penis sheath, in the same fashion as those made from gourds used in New Guinea today. Perforations at the base and a loop at the top of our example could allow for attachment to a waist belt – so are the terms ‘wand’ or ‘pendant’ just prudish euphemisms for what seems to be a penis sheath?
Does anyone have other suggestions for the function of the tusk? I’d be very interested to hear them!


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