Cosmetic Ibex Kohl Spoon

Although its theme is natural, this kohl spoon is typically Egyptian: halfway between bas-relief and sculpture in the round, evoking an offering of game yet with the practical aspect of a spoon.

There is no inscription on this piece, which was found in a tomb; its specific function and significance remain something of a mystery.

Cosmetic Ibex Kohl Spoon
Cosmetic ibex kohl spoon

Viewed from one side, this finely worked object in tamarisk wood looks like a bas-relief sculpture with some openwork details whose outline was cut out; or, alternatively, a “flattened” sculpture in the round.

But seen from the other side, it is clearly a spoon: the animal’s body has been carefully hollowed out. The compact form of the object-an ibex with its legs bound, twisting its head to lick its back-appears very natural, reflecting keen observation of nature.

This apparently easy realism hides great artistic mastery. The outline of the object is highly compact, with the legs gathered under the body, the head turning to touch the back, and the horns touching the neck. Great care was taken to design an object without protuberances that might easily have broken.

The ibex in Egyptian art

This animal is a Nubian ibex, which, together with the gazelle and the oryx, was the desert animal most often represented in the attitude of wounded or captured game.

The bestiary of such spoons does not feature the hare, for example, but does include the dog, the hunting companion! Was the dog the Egyptians’ ideal hunter? The animal that typified game in the marshes was the duck, which was represented alive-or practically ready to be cooked. Animal imagery such as this was used to signify offerings of food.

The artistic and religious bestiaries were related, as Egyptian art had an essentially religious purpose, adorning the temples of the gods and tombs of the dead. It reflected a certain vision of the world but also featured recurrent images with a strong cultural reference.

Cosmetic Ibex spoon
Cosmetic ibex kohl spoon

A toiletry article?

The real significance of such a decorative object is still something of a mystery. Considered in isolation, it evokes the kind of offering that was made to the gods and the deceased, but we should bear in mind that it was found in a cemetery of the royal palace of Medinet Gurob in the Faiyum, where court ladies were buried with their personal effects so that they could continue to use them in the afterlife; make-up cases still containing kohl were also found there, together with combs and cream containers.

This context suggests that this object was an everyday item of esthetic value, with a globally positive significance: man’s domination of nature. Making it into a spoon gave it a practical aspect too, to spoon or dip out some item or product that has left no trace of its presence.

New Kingdom, ca. 1550-1070 BC. Tamarisk wood. Dimensions 12 cm long, 6 cm high. Found in a cemetery of the royal palace of Medinet Gurob in the Faiyum. Now in the Louvre, Paris. E 11123