Ivory label of King Den: From the William MacGregor Collection

The name of King Den in a serekh on the ivory label. Image: J Peter Phillips

This small rectangular tag provides what appears to be a revealing insight into a moment in Egyptian history – and also asserts the all-important power of the pharaoh. It is made of ivory and is pierced with a round hole, indicating that it was originally strung for attachment on to another object, perhaps a commodity. The suggestion that the label was intended to identify a pair of sandals – because of the incised image of a pair of feet on the reverse – is perhaps a little flimsy, but no other obvious explanation presents itself.

Although small, the surface is crisply incised with a scene of one of Egypt’s earliest rulers, King Den of the First Dynasty (c.3000 BC), in the act of smiting a captive. The king’s name appears above the scene in a serekh, or ‘palace façade’, that contains the phonetic signs rendering Den’s name. This is surmounted by a falcon representing the god Horus – an avatar of the king. An image of the jackal-god Wepwawet is mounted on a pole to form an associated emblematic standard. Later pharaonic art attributed divinity to anything mounted on this sledge shape.

King, falcon and jackal all face towards the right, while the subdued adversary of the king faces in the opposite direction, his face partly obscured by the staff the king holds as he prevails. The scene is framed within a desert landscape – with the hill rising behind the enemy perhaps representing the wild Eastern Desert, as the sign later used to write the word ‘east’ appears as a sort of caption.

The hieroglyphic signs behind the smiting king have generally been interpreted as indicating the name of an official ‘Inka’ who may have provided the goods to which the label was once attached – although this is merely educated guesswork.

The ‘label’ is said to come from Abydos – whence many such ivory and bone labels have derived – but the present piece entered the British Museum through the extensive collections of Reverend William MacGregor, making its precise provenance unclear.