Object biography 28: Hippo ivory tusks from the Ramesseum Tomb

One of Manchester Museum’s most intriguing sets of objects derives from an unusual context – or contexts – known as the ‘Ramesseum Tomb’. Commonly known by the name of the much later ‘Temple of Millions of Years’ of Ramesses II that was built on top of it, ‘tomb 5’ – as it is sometimes referred to – appears to date to the late Middle Kingdom.

Quibell’s publication of the ‘Ramesseum Tomb’ object finds

Excavations directed by James Quibell in 1897-8 encountered a mixed group of objects, including a significant collection of papyrus documents, which have been studied from many different perspectives since. Among the most striking objects found in the mixed deposit accompanying the papyri are several smoothed and incised hippo ivory tusks. Hippopotami exhibit maternal behaviour and are still amongst the most fearsome animals in Africa, hence their particular connection to mothers and infants in ancient times. Once, when presenting a talk about these objects to a group of gynaecologists and obstetricians, the observation was made to me that such objects could have been used as forceps to assist in childbirth: so ‘birth tusks’ rather than ‘magic wands’ (with unfortunate connotations of Harry Potter) seem a good designation.

1799 (bottom) and 1800 (top): Photo by Julia Thorne / Tetisheri photography

Use of hippo tusks for special objects is attested from the Predynastic Period, and remained important in ancient Egyptian material culture – particularly during the Middle Kingdom, when most ‘birth tusks’ are attested. These two worked tusks have been split, smoothed, and incised with powerful apotropaic imagery. A series of entities are engraved upon the surface, although in common with other examples of this type there are no texts added to caption the images. These span entities we might recognise as full deities and those that are not so easy to categorise as such. Thus, from right to left, a frog, a griffin, a vulture, a turtle and a hare. The other fragment of a tusk has a long-necked griffin of the type seen on the famous Narmer Palette; a lion supported by a large ‘ankh’ (‘life’) sign; and a front-facing, snake-grasping depiction of Aha, ‘the fighter’, an antecedent to the much better-known deity Bes. The same deity appears to be represented by a wooden figurine also from the Ramesseum tomb group, and perhaps the same entity is evoked by a mask from the town of Kahun.

This imagery imbues the tusk with ‘heka’ – the ‘magical’ power of the gods that might be used by human beings to fend off the untoward; this was a threatening defensive power, as indicated by the knives held by several of the entities depicted. There can be little down that a tusk such as this was a vital weapon in the ancient arsenal against misfortune. Whether the group of objects from the ‘Ramesseum Tomb’ in fact came from a single burial belonging to a ‘magician’ now seems doubtful, but the objects would undoubtedly have had a particular resonance for those people that used them.

These items are part of Manchester Museum’s ‘To Have and To Heal’ project, an attempt to use ancient Egyptian material culture – visualised through the photography of Julia Thorne – to address big questions in the post-pandemic world while Manchester Museum is closed (August 2021-late 2022) to complete its capital building project. Find out more at the website: https://www.mmfromhome.com/to-have-and-to-heal

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