Monday, September 6, 2010


Rekhmire was “Governor of the Town” of Thebes, and the vizier of Egypt during the reigns of Tuthmose III and Amenhotep II (ca. 1479 to 1401 B.C.E.) during the XVIII dynasty (Wikipedia). This made him the most powerful official in the civil administration during that period of the Egyptian empire’s greatest extent and prosperity. As the most powerful official he rated a large and highly decorated tomb in the Theban necropolis. The illustrations include many illustrating Rekhmire’s duties for the Pharaoh and provide an invaluable record of his duties and daily life for the court.

Wall mural from the tomb of Rekhmire showing
tribute bearers. The giraffe is at upper right and
the miniature elephant following the bear is at
the lower left.

One wall of his tomb shows Rekhmire supervising the collection of tribute to the Pharaoh from foreign emissaries. Rows of figures bearing tribute are illustrated divided by nationality. The top row shows tribute from the land of Punt and includes myrrh, gold, precious stones and ivory, a baboon, monkeys and exotic animal skins. The next row down records the tribute from Mediterranean islands including Crete. These bearers are dressed in Mycenaean kilts. Next in order is a row of Kushite (Nubian) tribute bearers with representative animals including a giraffe, leopard, baboons, monkeys, cattle and dogs, as well as ostrich eggs and feathers. The next in vertical order represents the tribute from Syrians dressed in long white robes and pointed beards with wagons and horses, a bear, and an elephants, weapons and metal vessels, copper ingots and pottery.

Because of space constrictions on the tomb wall these portrayals are shown in a rough echelon of scale, the larger animals are shown as larger than smaller species, but not to full proportion. The tallest animal is the giraffe which stands a little taller than the Nubian leading him. Other animals shown are scaled roughly in proportion down from the giraffe based upon their relative sizes, with one notable exception, the elephant. The elephant is little larger than the bear which precedes it in procession. That makes the elephant the most interesting animal in the tomb and it also brings up a fascinating question. What kind of elephant is it anyway?

Wall mural from the tomb of Rekhmire showing
the miniature elephant following the bear.

There actually was, at this time, a resident population in the Syrian area of a native elephant, the Syrian elephant, Elephas maximus asurus. The most extreme western population of the Asiatic elephant, this became extinct in ancient times by around 100 BC. This was also the largest sub-species of the Asian elephant, standing up to 3.5 meters tall (11½ feet). This size provides a problem with the elephant in the tomb painting. It is portrayed as waist high on its handler, and given the relative sizes of the animals shown it should have been considerably larger in scale like the giraffe on the register above it, - perhaps it is a baby Asian elephant. It seems to portray some features that could belong to an Asian elephant, the domed head and small ears. It cannot however be intended as a baby elephant of any kind because it has a pair of impressively long tusks which would be huge if scaled up to full size. Such tusks could only be meant to represent a fully grown adult animal. There is one other puzzling feature about the elephant in Rekhmire’s tomb, it seems to be covered with hair (compare the portrayal of the elephant’s surface with the bear in front of it). What kind of elephant had small ears, a domed head, huge tusks, and a covering of hair?

The only elephantid with the domed head, small ears, huge tusks, and covered with hair that I can think of was the wooly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). But, in ca. 1479 to 1401 B.C. how could they have seen a mammoth to portray in Rekhmire’s tomb.
According to Wikipedia, “during the last ice age, woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) lived on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean. It has been shown that mammoths survived on Wrangel Island until 1700 B.C.E., the most recent survival of any known mammoth population.” This time frame is close enough to the 1479 B.C.E. of the beginning of the reign of Tuthmose III to make me wonder. The latest date from dwarf mammoth remains on Wrangel Island (1700 B.C.E.) surely does not represent the last individual to perish, so many must have lived longer. That makes it conceivable to imagine an overlap in time between the existence of dwarf mammoths on Wrangel Island, and the creation of Rekhmire’s tomb. Could a representative captive sample of Wrangel Island dwarf mammoths actually been traded from far northeastern Siberia to Syria, to be presented to an Egyptian pharaoh as tribute? Stranger things have happened.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    If we are to take features of this elephant as representing a real one then we should also consider the tusks. These tusks jut at right angle to the elephant's forehead. Real elephant tusks flow much of their length parallel to the forehead.