Middle Kingdom birth tusks, and an enigmatic coffin in Turin: troubling authenticity – Stephen Quirke
Birth tusks are distinctive objects of Middle Kingdom sacred art, formed by removing the rough outer layer of a hippopotamus tusk, and cutting back one half to produce a smooth shining tusk in profile. Over seventy examples are documented from excavations since 1860 in Egypt, Nubia and the Levant. A hundred more are known to have been purchased up to 1973, including modern imitations already in 1888. Most bear a procession of divine figures, and inscriptions on a few invoke their protection for women and children. The Egyptologists James Breasted and Flinders Petrie published two unprovenanced tusks bearing figures that are in an otherwise unparalleled style, and might be modern additions. However, a visit to Turin revealed equally disconcerting figures on an enigmatic coffin on display in the Museo Egizio. Confirmation of authenticity? or again the mark of a modern hand? Depending on the answer, these three objects may extend and change our picture of one unique window on the past. In this paper Stephen Quirke seeks to understand the birth tusks as an object type, and then grapples with the curatorial dilemma: how to incorporate into our research and display the unprovenanced museum artefacts without parallel from excavations. Is their story a tale of ancient Egyptian or of modern dreams?
Stephen Quirke studied Egyptology at the University of Cambridge, specialising in hieratic writing of the Middle Kingdom with a focus on social history. He worked for nine years as curator in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum, before moving to University College London to become Curator at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. Since 2013 he has worked as a teacher in the Institute of Archaeology at UCL. His publications include, with Mark Collier The UCL Lahun Papyri (2002-2006), Hidden Hands: Egyptian Workforces in Petrie Excavation Archives, 1880–1924 (2010), Exploring Religion in Ancient Egypt (2014) and Birth tusks: the armoury of health in context - Egypt 1800 BC (2016). He is currently working on a study of the thousands of purchases in Egypt by the archaeologist Flinders Petrie from the 1880s to the 1920s.
The event will be held in English and will be introduced by Christian Greco, Director of the Museo Egizio.
It will be broadcast via streaming on the Museum's Facebook page and Youtube channel.