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Ivory figure of a woman with incised features

-4000/-3900

British Museum

British Museum

Carved from the tusk (lower canine tooth) of a hippopotamus, this figure is one of the oldest three-dimensional representations of the human shape known from Egypt. It was found in the 1920s in a grave of the Badarian culture (c.4400–3900BC), the earliest farming society known in the Egyptian Nile Valley.

The head, nose and eyes are disproportionally large, but the whole figure has been well carved and then polished with great care. Its modelling shows a remarkable degree of technical ability at this early date in Egypt's history and its presence gives us some of the first indications for the rich set of beliefs that surrounded death and burial in Ancient Egypt.

The deeply incised eyes and the drilled pupils may once have been filled with coloured paste. Drilling was used to create nostrils in the prominent nose, and mark the nipples and lumbar dimples at the base of the back, a feature exclusive to female anatomy. Other feminine attributes were accentuated with carving. In contrast to the attention to these details, there is little indication of hands where the arms join the body, and the tiny out turned feet are simple projections.

The function of this figurine is unknown. It is one of only six figurines, all female, known from the Badarian period. Two of these are also on display. The variety of styles and poses show that there was no set convention for depicting the human body as was developed later. Their variety also suggests they might have had different meanings. The pronounced feminine attributes on this ivory figurine may indicate that it was intended to represent fertility, as a concept or as a deity, in order to assist the deceased in rebirth in the afterlife, or provide maternal protection during that journey. Alternatively, it may represent the tomb owner herself returned to life and vitality.

Unfortunately, the tomb in which this ivory figurine was found gives no clues since it was badly disturbed. No bones remained, and the only other finds were a pebble for grinding cosmetic pigments and a few beads. Nevertheless, there is no doubt this was a special object, as hippopotamus ivory was a prestigious material, and continued to be highly valued throughout the Badarian and later.

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Details

  • Title: Ivory figure of a woman with incised features
  • Date Created: -4000/-3900
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 14.00cm; Width: 3.80cm; Depth: 2.20cm; Weight: 114.00g
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: incised
  • Registration number: 1929,1106.30
  • Place: Excavated/Findspot Badari, el-
  • Period/culture: Badarian
  • Material: hippopotamus ivory
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Donated by British School of Archaeology, Egypt

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