Tag Archives: Ramesseum tomb

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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Object biography #3: A female figurine from the ‘Magician’s tomb’ (Acc. No. 1790)

Ramesseum figurine 1790

Acc. no. 1790 © Paul Cliff

This wooden figurine (20.2 cm high) is among Manchester Museum’s most discussed Egyptian objects. It represents a naked female, with the face of a lion and two movable arms, attached with pegs. In each hand she holds serpents made of metal. The figurine is just one piece from an intriguing group found amidst debris at the bottom of a late Middle Kingdom (c. 1773-1650 BC) shaft burial known as the ‘Ramesseum tomb.’ This name derived from the location of the shaft at the rear of what later became the mortuary temple of Ramesses II. Many of the other objects from the tomb are also in the Manchester collection.

Between 1885 and 1886, W. M. Flinders Petrie and James Quibell discovered and cleared the shaft. The tomb’s contents included ivory protective ‘wands’, ivory clappers, model food offerings, and female fertility figurines. In association – but not connected for sure – with these was found a box containing 118 reed pens (Acc. No. 1882) and a large number of texts written on papyrus. These are known as the ‘Ramesseum papyri’ and are held in the British Museum and other institutions. Information on this fascinating set of documents has now been made accessible by the BM’s Richard Parkinson in an online research catalogue on the museum’s website. The papyri contain largely magico-medical texts, but also literary compositions together with an onomasticon, hymns, and rituals. This unusual collection of evidence suggests the tomb belonging to a skilled, literate individual who used objects such as our wooden figurine in performance. A lector priest – or ‘magician’ – is commonly assumed, hence the burial became known as the ‘magician’s tomb’.

Pens from the Ramesseum tomb box (Acc. no. 1882)

Pens from the Ramesseum tomb box (Acc. no. 1882)

The Ramesseum group is of special importance because, collectively, it suggests a social context for the use of objects and texts together in performance. Could these have belonged to a literate, ritual expert – a practitioner of magic – in the late Middle Kingdom? These issues will be explored using Manchester’s Ramesseum objects in the new Egyptian World gallery.

Acc. No. 1790 is certainly one of the most well-published pieces in the collection (her entry in our digital catalogue has 19 images – while many have none!). She is often used to illustrate the practice of ritual and magic – though no one is quite sure how she ‘worked’. That the figurine was used is indicated by signs of alteration to fit the feet into a base. Does she actually represent a deity, or wear a mask? Which divine face is it: female version of the lion-headed dwarf gods Bes or Aha? And are the serpents she grasps – thus rendering them harmless and under her control – the same as the snake ‘wand’, now in the Fitzwilliam, found entangled with hair in the Ramesseum tomb? She raises many more questions than she answers.1790 nude female figurine

I recently discussed the meaning of the figurine with some Manchester University anthropology students examining the archaeological evidence of ritual. One of the group inferred a sexual connotation to the figure’s nudity, but was rebuffed by a colleague who thought this an imposition of a modern, Western perspective. While there is plentiful evidence from Pharaonic Egypt for nude female fertility figurines, including several from the ‘Magician’s’ tomb’, 1790 does not fit easily into this category.

It is, I think, important for Egyptologists and museum professionals to admit to the limits of our knowledge when examining objects. While we can offer educated guesses based on comparable material and cultural context, admitting uncertainty about an object’s function ought not to be taboo. 1790 and its findspot in the Ramesseum tomb group offer a more tantalising glimpse than most.


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