Rich in Gold, Rich in Meaning

With the centenary coming up in a couple of years, and the exhibition of his burial goods touring (for the last time! or so they tell us), Tutankhamun’s tomb is a rather topical subject. It’s easy when you think about it, and when you visit the exhibition, to concentrate on the bling – everywhere the glint of gold, after all. But these objects aren’t just pieces of treasure, they also tell us about the rich symbolic culture of Ancient Egypt and how the people of that place lived out their lives. So today I’m going to talk about one of my favourite items from his tomb – the fan handle decorated with scenes of Tutankhamun out hunting ostriches – and talk not just about the beauty of the object, but how it fits into the culture it came from.

The Return of the Ostrich Hunt

Tutankhamun was buried within several coffins and shrines that practically filled the room they were in – a veritable Russian doll of an assemblage. There were three nested coffins around the body, which sat within a granite sarcophagus. Surrounding that were four gilded wooden shrines – giant bottomless boxes. Objects had been laid between the layers of this assemblage, and between the third and fourth shrines (counting from the outermost in) there were ceremonial bows and arrows as well as two spectacular fans. The one I’m talking about today (Carter Object 242, Cairo Museum JE62001, or GEM 284) is made of gilded wood, and was found with a mass of insect eaten ostrich feathers which had clearly once been attached to the business end of the fan. Enough remained to see that they had been alternating white & brown feathers, which must’ve been quite a striking look. It was found at the western end of the shrine – the same end as Tutankhamun’s head beneath its many layers. It was in pretty good nick when it was found, other than the feathers – Carter talks on the object card for it about having to clean it with warm water and ammonia, and re-attach some of the sheet gold which was loose but it doesn’t sound like there was any full-on restoration work going on.

This fan has some rather fine decoration on it. At the head end of it, where the feathers were attached are two scenes that, as I mentioned, show Tutankhamun going ostrich hunting. On the front side you see the king in his chariot aiming an arrow at two ostriches running in front of the chariot, with a hunting dog running alongside him and all of them surrounded by desert plants. Behind the king is an ankh carrying a fan just like this one that we are looking at. The inscription over the top of the scene says “the good god, Nebkheperure, given life like Re forever” (Nebkheperure is one of Tutankhamun’s names) and in front of the king’s face is “Lord of Might”.

On the reverse side (pictured) is my favourite of the two scenes, and why I picked out this object to talk about – it’s the aftermath of the hunt. Tutankhamun is returning triumphant, with servants preceding him carrying his defeated quarry and the fantastic detail of the ostrich wing feathers which will be used to make this very fan carried under the king’s arms. I can’t quite articulate why I like it so much – I think it’s the proud teenager returning home to say “Look, I did this!” aspect of it. It has a much longer inscription which tells us all about how wonderful a hunter the king is.

Down the staff there is an inscription as well – it tells us that this is a real event that is being pictured. This commemorates a hunt that Tutankhamun went on in the Eastern Desert at Heliopolis, where he killed the ostriches that provided the feathers that were an integral part of this fan.

Ostriches provided resources for the Ancient Egyptians, so there were eminently practical reasons to hunt them – not just feathers for fans (or other purposes) as seen on this fan handle either. Ostriches are, of course, made of meat and also a single ostrich egg could apparently feed eight people! And after eating the egg the shell could be used to make beads or other decorative pieces. For most of Egyptian history they are probably all wild, as they only appear in art in hunting scenes or as tribute. But they had been domesticated by the Ptolemaic Period.

As well as being useful for practical purposes, ostrich feathers had symbolic resonance. The symbol of maat was a single ostrich feather and this was also the headdress that the god Shu wore (the hieroglyph shaped like a feather was part of spelling his name). And the atef crown that Osiris wears is the white crown of Upper Egypt flanked by ostrich plumes. A very kingly collection of associations for these feathers that Tutankhamun was so proudly bringing home for his fan.

The activity of hunting has two very distinct connotations in modern Western culture – on the one hand there is hunting for food, this is the image conjured up by the term “hunter-gatherers”. By the Pharaonic period this wasn’t a particularly important aspect of Egyptian life and it doesn’t seem to me that this is what Tutankhamun was engaged in! And on the other hand it is “the sport of kings” (one of the uses of that term anyway), this is perhaps the first interpretation to spring to the mind of a modern Brit like me – an image of posh people wearing fancy clothes riding to hunt an animal for fun (probably a fox, with dogs). And this seems much more the sort of activity we are thinking about here – particularly once you add hunting lodges into your mental picture (like a building on the Giza plateau which may be where Tutankhamun stayed when he was hunting near Memphis). Now it’s very much an image of the young aristocrat at play.

Yet as is my theme today – there’s more to this and the other depictions of hunting on Tutankhamun’s burial goods than that. It may be practical (to at least some extent) and a literal depiction of the king at his leisure, but it’s also symbolic – Egyptian art is very rarely, if at all, a straightforward depiction of something from the real world. The first of these symbolic layers is that showing the king engaging in a pursuit like hunting shows him to be a physically strong and capable man – important attributes for a king. And there is a second more fundamental layer of symbolism. These hunting scenes are often mirrored with scenes of warfare – not in the case of this ostrich hunt fan, but for instance on the hunting box (Carter Object 21) one side of the box has the king on his horse trampling wild beasts and on the opposite side the king is on his horse trampling Nubians. And in both warfare and hunting scenes the quarry or enemies are there as avatars of chaos – this is not just a physically strong king being shown at war and at play, this is the king upholding maat and playing his essential part in keeping the universe the way it ought to be.

Moving on now to think about the object itself, the word “fan” has quite probably got all the wrong connotations for you – certainly it does for me. It conjures up simpering 18th Century CE ladies fluttering little hand held fans and hiding behind them or sending messages with how they held them. Whereas this fan is of a quite different type and when Carter found it he had a quite different image conjured up by the object. In the Catholic Church (until Vatican II) and the Orthodox Church even now there are large fans called “flabella” (singular “flabellum”) which are carried in procession behind the Pope or other senior priest of the church in question, or held beside the altar during the Eucharist. These are of a similar type to this fan I’m talking about in this article, and seem to’ve been used in a similar way.

This is not just extrapolation from a similar style – the fans are seen in Egyptian art throughout Ancient Egyptian history (from at least the time of the Scorpion Macehead in the Predynastic Period) being used in just this fashion. Given the climate of Egypt they had a practical use – for shading the king and for generating a cooling breeze, so that he was never troubled by the heat of the sun. and carrying a fan for the king wasn’t necessarily a low status job – the title “Fan Bearer on the Right Side of the King” (tjay-khu her imenty-nisut) was a high status one held by important members of the Egyptian court. Perhaps a bit like “Groom of the Stool” in medieval and early modern England – a rather menial job, but one that gives you unparalleled access to the king, so a prestigious title.

Of course as with hunting scenes the fan seen depicted on the front side of this fan handle is not just literal but is also there for more than one symbolic reason. It is being carried by an ankh hieroglyph and so it symbolises the breath of life being wafted over the king as he hunts the ostriches. Fans were also linked to the idea of “blowing forth” the waters of the Nile in the inundation, so are linked to fertility and fecundity. The fan’s role in providing shade was also symbolic – a fan might represent one of the parts of a person, the shadow, which I find suggestive given where this fan was found, within the shrines surrounding Tutankhamun’s body. And also the concepts of shade and of protection are linked in the Egyptian mind (and both are connotations of the Egyptian word for shadow, shwt) so depicting the king in the shade of a fan means that the king is under protection. So in that one symbol (and indeed in this one object) are bound up notions of protecting the king and giving him life and fertility, as well as symbolising an integral part of his person.

Hopefully this has been a convincing demonstration that the items in Tutankhamun’s tomb are not just pretty faces – bling and toys for the wealthiest man of his time. They were also deeply symbolic for the people of the time, and help us to understand the culture he lived in. And I’m pretty sure I’ve only scratched the surface! This object is also a demonstration of how one should, I think, always approach Egyptian culture looking for the “and” – what else could this mean or be?

Resources used:

Carter, Howard. 1972. The Tomb of Tutankamen. Book Club Associates.
Dodson, Aidan. 2010. “The Monarchy.” In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge.
Friedman, Renée. 2011. “Hierakonpolis.” In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press.
Hawass, Zahi. 2018. Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, the Centennial Celebration. IMG Exhibitions.
Hawass, Zahi A. 2005. Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. National Geographic Books.
Hawass, Zahi A. 2007. King Tutankhamun: The Treasures of the Tomb. Thames & Hudson.
Hoffman, Michael A. 1991. Egypt Before the Pharaohs: The Prehistoric Foundations of Egyptian Civilization. O’Mara.
Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow.
Patch, Diana Craig. 2011. “From Land to Landscape.” In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press.
Reeves, Nicholas. 1995. The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure. Thames and Hudson.
Romer, John. 2013. From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid. A History of Ancient Egypt 1. Penguin.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. 2007. British Museum.
“Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation.”
Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2001. Early Dynastic Egypt. Routledge.

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All the Common People Adore the Pharaoh

When you visit an Egyptian temple and look around at the decoration one motif you’ll often see repeated on columns and near the bases of walls is of a bird with its wings twisted behind its back. It also has human arms, raised up towards a star (and often beyond that a cartouche of a Pharaoh) and it sits on what looks like a bowl or nest. This is what the Egyptians called a rekhyt bird, easily recognisable by the distinctive crest on its head – we call it a lapwing, it’s a species of plover called Vanellus vanellus.

Rekhyt Bird Motif

One of the first surviving representations of the rekhyt bird is from around the time of the unification of Egypt into a single country. The Scorpion macehead is a large ceremonial macehead decorated on the surviving part with a scene of a man wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt performing some sort of agricultural ceremony. This is King Scorpion, hence the name of the macehead. The part of the decorative scheme we’re interested in today is the top frame of the scene which consists of a row of poles and from each pole swings a rekhyt bird on a rope, hung by the neck. It’s actually a pretty brutal image for a decorative motif, particularly once you know that these birds are generally thought to represent the peoples of Northern Egypt who were being conquered during the unification of the country. Even John Romer, who tends towards a peaceful interpretation whenever he can, sees this as indicating that “the relationship between the court and the people of the Lower Nile may have been somewhat fraught.”!

The next depiction we have of rekhyt birds is less overtly brutal, but nonetheless indicative of oppression. They show up on the base of a large standing statue of the 3rd Dynasty king Djoser (the builder of the Step Pyramid). As his statue strides forth it is walking directly on a depiction of nine bows, a motif found throughout Pharaonic Egyptian art representing the enemies of Egypt. Once Djoser takes his next step onward from crushing his enemies he will stand on a row of 3 bound rekhyt birds, crushing them in their turn. Here the birds are juxtaposed with the enemies of Egypt, rather than being one of them and it’s generally assumed that they now (or always did?) represent the whole of the common people of Egypt – the king’s subjects, who also needed to be kept in their place under the sandal of the king.

It’s not all oppression and death when it comes to rekhyt birds in the Old Kingdom, though. They are also found depicted as part of the scenes of idealised wildlife that were part of the decorative scheme for the mastaba tombs of the elite. Here the birds are alive, and shown flying or sitting in nests. There’s even a case where a child (or perhaps woman) is shown carrying one by its wings – perhaps a pet bird? In the Middle Kingdom there are very few depictions of rekhyt birds, whether as symbolic people or as representations of living things. But when we get to the New Kingdom and on into the Ptolemaic Period & beyond there is a great renewal of enthusiasm for representations of the bird, as seen on the temple walls that still survive. Most of the books I looked at said that the rekhyt bird was used as a way of indicating to the common people where they could stand in a temple when they were let into the outer areas during festivals – a useful visual cue for the illiterate. Kenneth Griffin disagrees because the motif also appears deep inside the temple where only priests could enter, he thinks it’s more plausible that it’s part of making the temple into a model of the cosmos – if you’re symbolising the whole of the world then you need to represent the common people as well even in areas that they were too profane to actually enter in person.

But that’s not the only way the rekhyt bird was used during these periods of Egyptian history. The motif I described at the beginning of this article is a rebus – a collection of symbols that has a meaning as well as being decorative. The bowl shape that the bird sits on is the neb hieroglyph and it means “all”. The 5-pointed star is the dwa hieroglyph which represents the verb “to adore”, which is backed up by the (human) arms of the bird that are raised in the traditional gesture of worship. In this context the bird itself is most likely to represent the common people of Egypt and so the motif reads “All the common people adore…”. In a temple context there’s often a pair of these motifs facing each other with a cartouche in the middle – so the common people are adoring the Pharaoh named in the cartouche. In a palace it’s thought that the tiles with rekhyt birds on them would face towards doors or thrones, directing their adoration at the actual king.

There is still a strong flavour of subjugation to the relationship between king and the rekhyt-people in this motif. They might adore him, but they still get shown on his footstool (there’s an example from Tutankhamun’s tomb) alongside the enemies he’s placing his feet on. And they’re definitely not shown as free. The pose of the bird, sort of lying down on its legs with its wings crossed over behind its back, doesn’t look terribly comfortable – in fact it’s rather reminiscent of the imagery of a bound captive also found in Egyptian art & writing. You can apparently still find ducks in Egyptian markets in the modern day trussed up like this – it not only stops them flying away but it also stops them from standing up properly so they sit there in the same pose as the rekhyt birds waiting for the cook pot.

A salutary reminder that the Egyptian monarch brought order out of chaos by imposing it from the top down and at the business end of a mace. All the common people adore the king, if they know what’s good for them.

Resources used:

“Images of the Rekhyt from Ancient Egypt” Kenneth Griffin (Ancient Egypt Magazine 7: 2)
“A Reinterpretation of the Use and Function of the Rekhyt Rebus in New Kingdom Temples” Kenneth Griffin, Current Research in Egyptology 2006, 2007
“A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

Hundreds of Thousands

I remember one year when I was in primary school we collected frog spawn from some local pond and put it in a fish tank in the classroom so we could watch the tadpoles hatch. And I remember being a bit in awe of just how much there was – all that frog spawn and we’d only taken a little bit of it, and there were so many tadpoles in our fish tank! There were going to be so many frogs! Of course some years later I realised that most tadpoles would get eaten by fish long before they got to be adult frogs, but the point still stands. So it should be no surprise that the ancient Egyptians, who were a lot closer to nature than a city girl in the early 1980s, should have a similar association between frogs and fertility & rebirth. It’s even embedded in their writing system – there is a frog shaped hieroglyph (used as an ideograph for the phrase wekhem ankh “repeating life”) and a tadpole shaped hieroglyph which is used to write the number 100,000.

Frogs appear in Egyptian art & artifacts from Prehistoric Egypt right through into Christian times. In Predynastic times the most common frog shaped object is small stone jars – a suitable size and material to hold small amounts of a precious or volatile liquid. Some of these have been found in non-funerary contexts and have features (like handles suitable for hanging them up) that suggest they were used in life. Sadly none of the jars that have been discovered contained any residue that could be analysed. One always needs to be cautious about making assumptions about prehistoric Egypt based on known Pharaonic beliefs but even with such caveats Diana Craig Patch speculates (in “Dawn of Egyptian Art”) that these may’ve contained substances used during childbirth.

Early Dynastic Frogs

As I alluded to in the last paragraph in Pharaonic Egypt there’s an association of frogs with childbirth. The deity most associated with the frog is a goddess called Heket. She is venerated as the female counterpart of Khnum, and is sometimes shown as a frog-headed woman assisting him at his potters wheel while he forms the person & their ka. Heket first shows up in the Pyramid Texts, helping the deceased king on his way to the sky and his afterlife. By the Middle Kingdom she is associated with childbirth and in particular the final stages of labour – she features in the Middle Kingdom story about the founding of the 5th Dynasty assisting with the birth of the three kings that inaugurated the dynasty. Also in the Middle Kingdom midwives might’ve been referred to as “servants of Heket”. She’s shown on ivory wands from the Middle Kingdom as a frog, and frog shaped amulets are fairly common from the New Kingdom onward. They’re never as common as Bes or Taweret amulets, but even during the Amarna period they are still found in reasonable numbers.

Heket had some of her own temples and her main cult centre was at a place called Herwer (but it’s not known where that actually was). She also appears depicted in temples dedicated to other deities, for instance she shows up in Seti I’s temple at Abydos receiving an offering from the king himself. Due to her association with birth and fertility she becomes associated with the Osiris mythology, for instance there’s a relief in the Late Period temple at Hibis where she’s depicted as a frog overseeing the conception of Horus. Her cult survives through until at least the end of the Late Period, as she’s mentioned in the reliefs of the tomb of Petosiris at Tuna el-Gebel which dates to around 300 BCE.

Heket was not the only deity to be associated with the frog. There are also the four male deities of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad. The Ogdoad are the eight primordial gods that existed before the world was created in the Hermopolitan mythology. They were Huh and his consort Hauhet, Nun and his consort Naunet, Kuk and his consort Kauket and Amun and his consort Amaunet. At first they are depicted as human deities, but later in Egyptian history they are shown as pairs of frog (male) and snake (female) headed deities. As well as this the frog is sometimes depicted with the god Hapi as part of a symbol of fecundity – for instance at the temple at Philae. Frogs as a symbol of rebirth don’t even die out when Pharaonic Egyptian culture fades away – they make it into Coptic Christian iconography as a sign of the resurrection!

And the last bit of frog-related iconography to look out for is tadpoles sitting on shen rings, or associated with notched palm leaves or staves. The tadpole is here as the hieroglyph for 100,000 and the two or three symbols taken together express a wish for the king to reign or live for hundreds of thousands of eternities. I didn’t know about this till I was reading up on frogs for this article, and I wish I had – so many missed opportunities to look out for tadpoles in reliefs!

Resources used:

“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper & Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” Diana Craig Patch
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art” Richard H. Wilkinson

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Something that can be hard to remember when thinking about the ancient world is how vibrantly, even garishly, coloured much of the elite culture actually was. My mental image of Greek statuary stubbornly remains that of pure white marble, even though I’ve seen many representations of “what it once looked like”. Despite knowing better, it was still almost a shock to see Assyrian relief carvings in a recent British Museum exhibition illuminated with the colours they were once painted. So one of the joys of Ancient Egyptian artifacts and architecture is that often you don’t need to studiously remind yourself of the colours, because they are still there to see! Go into any Egyptian gallery in a museum and see the vibrant and intricately decorated coffins. Visit the tombs of kings, queens and even nobles on the West Bank at Luxor and you can see many wall paintings, some of which still look fresh and as if they were finished yesterday. Even some of the temples, where the art hasn’t been locked away underground or otherwise out of the elements, still have enough colour that you are sure you can tell how it must’ve looked when newly painted.

Four columns and ceiling at the temple of Medinet Habu in Egypt showing colour survival on the stone.
Colour Survival at Medinet Habu

The Egyptian approach to colour is not that of traditional post-Renaissance European art, they were not interested in subtle graduations of colour designed to convey a realistic view of a subject. Instead they usually applied their paint in flat washes, colour by colour, and used drawn outlines to give the shapes definition and to add detail. There are exceptions, of course, sometimes the fur of an animal would be carefully painted to look like fur. Or the scales of a fish, or the veining of a fine stone vase. Choice of colours tended towards the schematic rather than realistic, particularly for human skin colour where there were accepted conventions for the colour of Egyptian men (reddish brown), Egyptian women (paler pink or yellow ochre) and various groups of foreigners. Mixing of paints was also less common than in Western art, although it was sometimes done – in particular the addition of white to lighten & opacify another colour. Translucent washes of colour on top of one another were also used – sometimes to produce a different colour through optical mixing and sometimes to indicate that a piece of linen clothing was of such fine quality that the wearer’s limbs could be seen through it.

The main pigments used were identified by Egyptologists in the late 19th Century, but analytical techniques have improved since then. Over the last couple of decades more pigments have been identified and some pigments have turned out to be more commonly used than previously thought. Most of the pigments are mineral based, rather than organic – although black is an exception to that as it was generally made from soot or charcoal.

The yellows and reds were primarily derived from ochre which is a mineral earth that contains iron oxide, and this pigment is still used in modern paints. The colour can range from yellow through to brown depending on the hydration levels of the iron oxide, and ochre that contains haematite is a red colour. As well as this there were other yellows derived from earths containing iron sulphate, and a bright yellow was obtained from orpiment (an arsenic sulphide mineral). Orpiment is an example of a pigment that was once thought to be rare, before modern analytical techniques showed it is part of the standard suite of pigments from at least the Middle Kingdom. As well as being very toxic orpiment also fades quickly, in a matter of hours if it is not varnished, so areas of paint that were a slightly sparkly yellow for the original viewers are now a sludgy off white colour. Another arsenic sulphide used as a pigment is the red mineral realgar which is a more orange-y red than red ochre. It is used from the New Kingdom period onward, and like orpiment it is both toxic and fades (to a yellow colour).

There are multiple white pigments as well. The most common are calcium carbonate and calcium sulphate based, but a more brilliant white was also obtained from a mineral called huntite. The various whites, as with the other pigments, were not just used as substitutes for each other. Sometimes more than one variant was used in the same piece of art to create different effects. The background of a wall painting might be done in a calcium carbonate based white, which would give a creamy white colour. And then the clothes of the figures might be painted in a huntite based white so they stood out as brighter white against the background.

Most greens were mineral based (generally malachite) but some green and almost all blues during the Pharaonic period were made using an artificial pigment. This is another first for the ancient Egyptians as Egyptian blue is the first known artificial pigment. It is made from a mixture of limestone (calcium carbonate), quartz sand and a copper containing mineral (like malachite) or scrap metal. These are heated together with an alkali such as natron to a high heat (~900°C) for some time (as much as 3 days!) until a glassy “frit” is formed. Altering the proportions of the ingredients changes the colour so both greens & blues can be produced – the green was more rarely used than the blue. The glassy substance produced is ground down to be used as a pigment and the finer it is ground the more pale the resulting paint.

Of course, paint is not just pigment – you also need a liquid binding medium to make it flow and stick to the surface you are painting. The ancient Egyptians used either a plant gum (like gum Arabic) or animal glue for this. They might also varnish the finished work, the shiny yellow coffins of the 21st Dynasty are an obvious example of this. Some areas of wall paintings were also varnished – part of the reason that Nefertari’s tomb paintings look so fresh and new is that the reds and yellows have been varnished with egg white & resins.

The survival of colour on so much Egyptian art is part of what makes it eye-catching amongst a sea of marble statues & limestone reliefs. It’s also clear that the distinctive look of the art is not just about how the subjects were drawn. The techniques used to apply the paint and the palette of pigments used are a part of what makes something recognisably Egyptian.

Resources used:

“Egyptian Art” Cyril Aldred
“House of Eternity: The Tomb of Nefertari” John K. McDonald
“The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun” Richard Parkinson
“The Art of Ancient Egypt” Gay Robins
“Illuminating the Path of Darkness: Artificial Light in Ancient Egyptian Ritual” Meghan Strong (talk given to the Essex Egyptology Group, see my write up on my other blog)
“The Coffins of Nespawershefyt and Pakepu at the Fitzwilliam Museum” Helen Strudwick (talk given to the Essex Egyptology Group, see my write up on my other blog)
“Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt” ed. Helen Strudwick and Julie Dawson
“Egyptian Wall Painting” Franceso Tiradritti

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The Four Legged Bird

Many years ago I went to a talk about the birds of Ancient Egypt and about identifying their species from hieroglyphs & art. Sadly I can’t remember the name of the speaker for sure but I think it must’ve been John Wyatt. What I do remember is that he showed us a picture of a Predynastic object decorated with rows of animals, each row a different type of animal. And he pointed out the row with the long-legged long-necked birds, and told us that in every example of this motif the second from the front is the “four legged bird”! So now when I see a comb or knife handle with rows of animals I make a point of looking for the four legged bird – and I’ve always found one.

The four legged bird is, of course, a giraffe. Which doesn’t, at first blush, make it seem less of an oddity to find in Predynastic Egyptian art. Giraffes in the modern era are found in sub-Saharan Africa, not in the Nile Valley. But the Sahara has not always been so arid, and once supported vegetation and animals that we now associate with more southerly regions of Africa including giraffes. As the climate changed and the desert became inhospitable both animals & people were pushed towards the south and towards the Nile Valley. It’s this concentration of people in the valley and the shift from nomadic pastoral life to settled agriculture that kickstarted Egyptian civilisation. During the period from c. 5000 BCE through to c. 3250 BCE the Prehistoric Egyptians would still have had giraffes living alongside them, perhaps even large herds of them. But the giraffes disappeared during the Early Dynastic Period and were gone from Egypt by the early Old Kingdom at the latest. Partly this is down to the continuing aridification of the climate pushing the giraffes’ range south. And partly because of increasing competition with domestic animals as the Egyptian civilisation flourished. Interestingly their disappearance doesn’t seem to’ve involved over-hunting, which is my normal assumption when mega-fauna vanishes from a region in correlation with increased human presence! Giraffe bones are not often found in the Nile Valley, and certainly not in the sort of quantity that would imply hunting them was a significant part of the economy.

So perhaps not surprising after all that giraffes feature in Prehistoric and Predynastic Egyptian art. Giraffes are seen in lot of rock art throughout the period but in terms of more portable objects there seem to be two phases. During the Naqada I period (c. 3900-3650 BCE) giraffes are seen incised on pots and cosmetic palettes. There are also finds of long-toothed combs with the handles sculpted into giraffes. Then during the Naqada II period (c.3650-3300 BCE) depictions of giraffes become less common – a find at Hierakonpolis in 1998 of a pot with a giraffe incised on it is a rare example. And then there is a resurgence in giraffe imagery during the Naqada III period (3300-3150 BCE), including in the motif of rows of animals that I opened this article with. The rows of sorted animals might represent an imposition of order onto chaos, a frequent Egyptian theme, and an assertion of control over these animals by grouping them into types (with the mix of giraffes and birds being “things with long necks and long legs”). Giraffes are also depicted facing palm trees, often a pair of giraffes flanking a palm tree. There’s an example of this on the back of the Battlefield Palette (now in the British Museum) and one on the back of the Four Dog Palette (now in the Louvre). The meaning of this motif is unclear.

A Predynastic ornamental comb carved with rows of animals, including a row of long legged birds which includes a giraffe.
Ornamental Comb Carved with Rows of Animals, the Four Legged Bird is on Row 2, 2nd from the Right

Art representing giraffes does not really outlive the presence of giraffes in the Nile Valley – they are rare in Pharaonic art, mostly showing up on seals. They don’t become associated with any of the mythological underpinnings of Egyptian culture – no god is personified as a giraffe. During the New Kingdom there are more representations, but most of these (like the rather fine example in TT100, the tomb of Rekhmire) are in contexts where they are exotic animals brought as tribute to Pharaoh by African vassals.

But giraffes do live on in Egyptian writing – there is a giraffe hieroglyph (sign E27 in Gardiner’s Sign List). This can be used for the word for giraffe (as a single sign or ideogram for the word) and is otherwise used in only two words. In both of those cases it is used as a determinative (which is a symbol that doesn’t represent a sound but instead indicates what sort of word is being spelt out). These two words are sr (which means “foretell”) and mmj (which means “giraffe”). Neither book I looked at had any speculation on why a giraffe might be used in the word “foretell”, but I like the idea that it’s because the long necked giraffe can see further ahead.

There seems to be tantalisingly little known about giraffes in early Egyptian culture, looking through my book collection I found very few that even mention giraffes. As they show up in well defined motifs on elite objects like large ceremonial palettes it’s definitely tempting to assume that they meant something to the people of the time, rather than just being decorative. But what that is is unknown and I suspect is always going to be an unanswered question – except for the intriguing hint of an association with foretelling the future.

Resources used:

“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs” Alan Gardiner
“Giraffes in Ancient Egypt” Dirk Huyge (In Nekhen News Vol. 10 1998)
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” Diana Craig Patch

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