Tag Archives: ivory

Object biography #8: An inscribed harness finial from a chariot (Acc. no. 9659)

Harness finial Acc. no. 9659

Harness finial Acc. no. 9659

I recently discovered this small object in storage while looking for a piece suitable for visitors to touch on our handling table. Initially, I was unsure of the function of the object (accession number 9659) and invited opinions. Answers ranged from vessel to candle-holder, stamp to spinning implement.

In fact, based on comparison with other artefacts of the same type, this object can be identified as a harness finial from a chariot. It would have been attached onto the yolk between two horses, and would have enabled the reins to run smoothly to control the animals.

A finial in situ on one of the harnesses from Tutankhamun’s tomb © Sandro Vaninni http://www.flickr.com/photos/sandrovannini/4284540920/

A striking parallel in shape and size occurs on one of the chariots from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Interestingly, both seem to have the same deliberate wear or ‘dents’ cut into the upper rim.

Although our example is identified in the catalogue as made of ‘travertine/alabaster’, it seems more likely on close inspection to be made from ivory. The smooth, milky material resembles the stone but has the destinctive criss-cross Schraeger pattern of elephant ivory.

An inscription runs symmetrically around the top of the piece, and reads:

Live, the son of Re, Amenhotep, his fear in the lands…

Unusually, the name Amenhotep is not enclosed in a cartouche, but this name dates the piece to the 18th Dynasty (c. 1550-1295 BC). It seems likely to refer to either Amenhotep III (c. 1390-1352 BC) or his ancestor Amenhotep II (c. 1427-1400 BC) – a famously athletic and war-like king.

The ‘lands’ mentioned in the inscription is an unusual way of referring to foreign countries; Egypt was defined as the ‘Two Lands’, the archetypal united kingdom. But foreign lands were characterised by their chaotic multiplicity, and so the short-hand of ‘three’ (or ‘many’) sums up the multitude lands who were unknown but afraid of the power of the king. A statement about the fear of the king suits the power of the horse, and the chariot, as vehicles of war.

Volunteers Vivian and Patricia discuss the harness finial with visitors

Sadly, the findspot of this object – which was collected by George Spiegelberg, the brother of a famous German Egyptologist called Wilhelm) – is not known. Stables are have been identified at palace sites, such as the Ramesside Delta capital Pi-Ramesse,  but Memphis or Thebes would be more suited to an 18th Dynasty piece, naming Amenhotep. Who knows – perhaps this came from a chariot driven by the king himself?

The details of this object (and, yes, a bit of inference) certainly make for an interesting tale, and one that has already captured the imagination of visitors now able to touch this very tactile piece. I am particularly grateful to the very knowledgeable volunteers on the handling table for suggestions and helpful pointers to comparative images for this and other objects. Each of them tell the stories of these objects daily, and always succeed in bringing them to life.


Filed under Object biography

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