The Two-Headed “Donkey” in the Basement (E.6953)

This unusual object was rediscovered during curatorial work in the Garstang Museum stores. The two-headed (or bicephalous) equine figurine, made Two headed horseof terracotta, was excavated by Sir Robert Mond at Thebes.

It was originally thought to be a donkey, the most common equid found in Ancient Egypt.  However, a closer look shows the animals are wearing blinkers and bits, this was unusual for Ancient Egyptian donkeys and it is now thought that this figurine represents two horses. Horses were not introduced to Egypt until the New Kingdom, meaning this object is probably not more than 3500 years old.

Horses were enormously high status animals in Ancient Egypt, when they were first introduced they were very rare and probably only used for military purposes. Horses were so important that only the highest ranking officials were appointed as stable overseers, these officials went on to hold other chief posts, such as viceroy of Kush.

Bicephalous animals are unusual in Egyptian art, it may be that the artist has styled two horses together for convenience. The horse equipment, and a break to the rear of the object, suggest that these horses were hitched to a chariot. This is consistent with contemporary Egyptian art, pairs of horses pulling chariots are often shown on temple walls. Similar objects have been found elsewhere in Egypt, examples include:

  • A Dynasty 18 terracotta horse’s head from Amarna (BM EA 26535)
  • 1st Century BCE example (80.202.26), which is very similar to E.6953. This indicates that this style of object was in some way popular from the New Kingdom to the Roman Period.
  • A collection of horse figurines from Late Period Medinet Habu.
  • Graeco-Roman examples.

Comparable objects have been found in the ancient Near East, at Tell es-Sweyhat very early examples of terracotta horses dated from around 2300BC.  Groups of terracotta horses have been discovered at temples, dedicated to warrior gods, across the Near East, indicating they might have had a votive role. These figures have also been found in Iron Age Israelite houses, and there are examples of glazed terracotta figurines from Susa.  Likewise, examples from Ancient Greece and Cyprus are similar to the Garstang Museum’s pair of horses.

These cultures intermingled, trading with one another and copying ideas and objects, like this pair of horses. This small, thought provoking, figurine is representative of a valuable and powerful military asset in Ancient Egypt, but also indicates connections and shared ideas between ancient cultures.

Lauren Hill

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