Ebony but no Ivory (yet!)
Among our random finds from the West Settlement is a small fragment of fine-grained dark wood that we believe to be ebony. This shows clear signs of working, and was once part of a high-status object.
The ancient Egyptians valued ebony, which can be polished to a lovely sheen, and used it for luxury goods from early in their history. Ebony labels have been found in the royal tombs of Dynasty 1, and this wood is mentioned in texts as early as the Third Dynasty. By the Middle Kingdom, it was being used in the manufacture of a variety of objects, from arrowheads to boxes to small sculptures.
The species of ebony used in pharaonic times was the African Dalbergia melanoxylon, acquired through trade with Egypt’s southern neighbors. Logs of this wood are seen being readied to load onto one of Hatshepsut’s ships in the Punt reliefs from her memorial temple at Deir el-Bahri.
In letters preserved from Amarna (EA5 and EA31), Amenhotep III records that he has sent a large number of ebony objects to some of his neighbors to the northeast: 13 chairs and 100 logs to the king of Arzawa, and 4 beds, a headrest, 10 footstools, and 6 chairs to the king of Babylon! We know that this king was very fond of ebony for himself, as several of his shabtis were made of this exotic wood.
Amenhotep III’s putative grandson, Tutankhamun, included a number of items made from this wood with his tomb equipment. In addition to a child-sized chair, several stools, a bed, and a number of ebony sticks and staffs, he was buried with objects that had ebony veneer or inlay, both common uses for this material.
The ebony was usually contrasted with materials of other colors, such as ivory, cedar wood (which has a reddish color), or even colored faience or glass. It is likely that our fragment was used in this fashion, perhaps as part of a box or chair.
The term for this dark wood in ancient Egyptian was hbny, which morphed through Greek, Latin, and Middle English to become our word, ebony.
January 20, 2016