This wooden head with its long beak is that of an ibis, an animal considered sacred in ancient Egypt and related to Thoth, the god of writing and wisdom. The beak has incised details and the face has strong, almost piercing eyes. In some of the more wealthy offerings, like this ibis head, the whole was covered in gold leaf, because the Egyptians believed that the body of the gods was made of gold and because of the relations they saw between the head and the sun.
The head once crowned a mummy bundle containing a mummified ibis. Usually such heads were attached with the head turned backwards, the beak resting on the back of the animal, as if the bird was sleeping. It was attached to the bundle by means of threads; for this purpose the ends are looped for attachment. Some traces of linen wrappings from the mummy are preserved on the bottom.
The majority of the mummified animal remains from ancient Egypt are testimony to the religious phenomenon of sacred animal cults, the popularity of which increased during the seventh century B.C. and which remained active until the edict of Theodosius in AD 379. During this period, millions of birds, in particular ibises and birds of prey, were captured or bred in captivity for the sole purpose of being mummified. These mummies were made available as votive offerings to pilgrims who visited sanctuaries dedicated to falcon deities, such as Horus, and to Thoth, the ibis god. Priests from these cult centers regularly deposited the mummies in catacombs or unused tombs.
Already Herodotus (Histories II, 67) wrote that, like dead cat were brought to Bubastis to be embalmed and buried, ibises were taken to Hermopolis, the major cult center of Thoth. The necropolis that was associated with this city can be found nearby, at Tuna el-Gebel. The custom of burying mummified ibises in the vast subterranean network of galleries here lasted almost 700 years. The number of ibises deposited is not known exactly but well surpasses one million. Moreover, not only Hermopolis had an animal necropolis. Many others have been uncovered throughout Egypt. The major one is located in North Saqqara, which - apart from galleries for ibises - had catacombs for the Apis bulls, for baboons, for ibises, for birds of prey, for dogs and for cats.
Renate Germer, Das Geheimnis der Mumien. Ewiges Leben am Nil (München - London - New York, Prestel Verlag, 1997), p. 59, fig. 52-53;
Beatrix Gessler-Löhr, "Weg zur Unsterblichkeit. Mumien und Mumifizierung im Alten Ägypten", Antike Welt22 Heft 1 (1991), p. 58-60, fig. 1.
Véronique Berteaux - Dieter Kessler - Joris Peters - Angela von den Driesch, "Mummified, Deified and Buried at Hermopolis Magna - The Sacred Birds from Tuna el-Gebel, Middle Egypt" in Manfred Bietak (Hrsg.), Ägypten und Levante / Egypt and the Levant XV (2005), p. 203-244;
Salima Ikram (ed.), Divine Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt (Cairo, American University in Cairo Press, 2005), more specifically p. 44-71 (Paul T. Nicholson, "The Sacred Animal Necropolis at North Saqqara. The Cults and Their Catacombs") and p. 120-163 (Dieter Kessler - Abd el Halim Nur el-Din, "Tuna al-Gebel, Millions of Ibises and Other Animals");
Dieter Kessler, Die heiligen Tiere und der König. Beiträge zu Organisation, Kult und Theologie der spätzeitlichen Tierfriedhöfe Part 1 (Ägypten und Altes Testament. Studien zu Geschichte, Kultur und Religion Ägyptens und des Alten Testaments, 16) (Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 1989), p. 194-219;
Dieter Kessler, "Herodot II, 65-67 über heilige Tiere in Bubastis", Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur18 (1991), p. 265-289;
Paul T. Nicholson, "Preliminary Report on Work at the Sacred Animal Necropolis, North Saqqara, 1992", Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 80 (1994), p. 1-10, pls. I-II;
Nadine Vaksic, Untersuchungen zu Mundöffnungsräumen von Tierfriedhöfen - im Vergleich (GRIN Verlag, 2008);
Thomas Whittemore, "The Ibis Cemetery at Abydos: 1914", Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 1 (1914), p. 248-249, pls. XXXVII-XXXVIII.
Late Period, 664 - 30 B.C.
Length 24 cm, height 3.2 cm, width 2.8 cm.
Dutch private collection, acquired from Christie's New York, sale 8804 of 18 December 1997, lot 85; previously Christie's New York, sale of 15 December 1993, lot 53; previously US private collection, 1970s or before.
Intact with much of the gilding remaining, some expected losses to the gesso and gold leaf in a few small areas only, as shown. Otherwise in good condition overall. Comes with a custom mount.