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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!


Filed under Curator's Diary

Object Biography #2: A label of King Djer (Acc. no. 6763a)

Label of Djer

Label of Djer (6763a)

This small (1.8 x 1.9 cm) piece of incised bone doesn’t look like much, but it comes from one of Pharaonic Egypt’s most hallowed places. The Umm el-Qaab (Arabic for ‘Mother of Pots’) area of Abydos was the burial place of the first kings of Egypt. Abydos was sacred to later Egyptians as the cult centre of the Osiris, the god of the dead and of rebirth. Many hoped to make a pilgrimage to the site and those that did left offerings, evidenced by millions of pottery vessels – giving the area its modern Arabic name.

From as early as the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-1650 BC), one of the early royal tombs was believed to be the actual burial place of Osiris. This tomb in fact belonged to Djer, probably the third king of the First Dynasty (c. 3000 BC). When the tomb was first excavated – albeit rather hastily – by Frenchman Emile Amélineau (1850-1915) in 1898 the central chamber was found to contain a basalt image of Osiris lying on a funerary bed. This monument was dedicated by a king during the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650-1550 BC) as a way of demonstrating his piety towards Osiris.

Amélineau’s excavations at Abydos were taken over by the British Egyptologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), whose finds form a large part of the Manchester collection. Petrie’s careful work brought to light much that his French counterpart had either overlooked or discarded – including this small bone tag naming king Djer, the owner of the tomb.

Djer’s was the first royal tomb purpose-built to house plentiful supplies for the king’s use in the afterlife – including his servants, who appear to have been killed and buried in subsidiary graves to serve their king in the afterlife. Storage chambers contained pots, as well as model tools and weapons. Inscribed animal bone tags were used to label bags or other containers of food and drink. Examples such as our tag simply give the king’s name, framed inside a serekh and topped by a falcon representing Horus – god of kingship. The royal name is written with a single sign – a hieroglyph with the phonetic value djer – identifying to whom the contents belonged.

Hieroglyph for Djer

Early and later hieroglyph 'djer'

Petrie’s excavations revealed that the tomb’s extensive wooden elements had been damaged by fire. This perhaps occurred during the First Intermediate Period, as implied by the mention of desecration of the Abydos royal tombs in the literary text ‘The Instruction for King Merikare’.

When Djer’s tomb was reinterpreted as the ‘tomb of Osiris’ some time during the Middle Kingdom, evidence – such as our little bone tag – remained to identify the grave’s original occupant.  Maybe these fragments of Egypt’s (already very ancient) history were never recognised… or perhaps they were deliberately ignored in favour of the association with Osiris, whose burial place attracted so many pilgrims.

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Filed under Egypt gallery redevelopment, Object biography