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

  1. Chris Simons

    This is so interesting to me as i have a hippo ivory awl from the Fayum and am desperate to know more about it. Many thanks cameron Chris


    The link is to a similar sorty of thing we have- but ours may well be a forgery!

  3. So it is hollow then? and has perforations in the base? Unless the base is removable, it does not sound like much of a penis sheath. Do we have any dimensions? Such details assist greatly in diagnosis.

  4. Campbell@Manchester

    Hi Dylan, ours is hollow and perforated at the base. It is 28.7cm long and 4cm wide at its widest point. It would be interesting to compare it to other objects of this type.

  5. Ha, I had to google “Egypt penis sheaths” to find this again.

    I’ve been reading a book on the history of disease (Deadly Companions by Dorothy H. Crawford), and in it the author suggests that penis sheaths were worn by men because they believed schistosomiasis entered through the penis. The flukeworm actually burrows through exposed skin, but the Egyptian’s reason for believing it entered through the genitals was because of the bleeding from there. So much so that a historian referred to Egypt as the “land where men menstruate.”

    Schisotosomiasis is still endemic in Egypt and more cases coincide with the flood of the Nile. Eggs have been found in the kidneys of mummies.

    • Campbell@Manchester

      How very interesting! I hadn’t heard about the schistosomiasis connection to penis sheaths (which people seem to periodically Google and find this page!). There was a big study on schistosomiasis based on the Manchester Museum mummies so this is adds to that story nicely…

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