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Peseshkef, Ancient Egypt, Old Kingdom, IV - VI Dynasties, 2630 – 2160 BC. Flint. Height 17 cm. Bagot Arqueología - Ancient Art at Brafa Art Fair, Brussels, 21-29 january 2017

CONDITION: Intact apart from a small chip off one of the upper prongs, which has been professionally restored.

The “peseshkef” was a prehistoric flint blade in the form of a fishtail and found in Ancient Egypt. It is considered to be the first surgical instrument in history. It was used from the Late Pre-dynastic Period to cut the umbilical cord after birth.

It was worked from a nucleus of material in the form of the letter Y. Both sides of the blade were fashioned. The inside edge of the extreme forked end has a fine denticulation, which mostly shows no damage, as if this knife-edge were not actually for use for cutting. The handle was perhaps made from an organic material such as ivory, bone or wood. Until such time as further studies can throw more light, it would seem very probable that most of these fishtail knives were fashioned from dark grey or brown flint.

The term “fishtail form” most certainly comes from the use for which it was originally created: it could be easily used to cut any type of cord. Given its religious significance it ended up being used only to cut umbilical cords. Birth had an enormous importance in Egypt, and accordingly it acquired a magic-religious importance. The cutting of the cord represented the disconnection of the mother and the child, and therefore, the separation of their destinies. The mortality rate, moreover, was extremely high. 

The word “peseshkef” comes from the union of two words: “pesesh”, which means “technique of separation”, which separates, and “kef”, which means “that which scrapes away flesh”. The instrument, in this case, is made from flint. 

A series of flint knives were discovered during the excavations of F. Petrie in Ballas and Naqada in the years 1894 and 1895. These had very exaggerated forms and similar, although more sharply pointed morphology. These were named “forked lances” or “fishtail knives”. They came from an earlier period, Naqada I and IID. They are primitive examples, with a wider body than later models, but with more curved prongs. They have been thoroughly worked by the flaking method, making the cutting edge in the forked end. In the same way, the edges of the instrument show little sign of wear, which makes discovering their practical use impossible. Later, it was discovered that in the Dynastic Period they played an important role in the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony.

Most of these primitive “forked lances” have no space or way to be held or sustained. However, a recently excavated knife from Hierakonpolis shows that they could have had cane handles held in place by strips of leather. This example was found in burial 412 of the cemetery HK43 and, just like the other knives with fishtail blades, would have been deposited there as part of the grave goods to accompany the deceased.

Thanks to the set of objects for the ceremony of the “Opening of the Mouth”, found in tombs of the Old Kingdom, these flints have been identified as one of the essential instruments for this act. It was usual to present it on a tray along with small recipients and other instruments such as the adze. The peseshkef was used to touch the mouth of the mummy. The rebirth in the Other World demanded that the mummified body of the deceased would be able to eat. Through this ritual, the mummy regained all the faculties and bodily functions that it had had in life. It is possible that the peseshkef, blunted, as are these ritual ones, represented an imaginary umbilical cord, and at some moment in the ceremony the Sem priest touched the mouth of the mummy with this instrument to symbolize the scene of a second birth. 

The goddess of childbirth, Meskhenet, can be identified by her name in hieroglyphs and by her headdress, the peseshkef. This headdress of the goddess was equated with a symbolic cow’s uterus, in a clear allusion to Hathor, the cow god, protector of maternity. Normally, the gods of the Egyptian pantheon were identified by their headdresses, each wearing a unique symbol. In this sense, the knife that cut the umbilical cord symbolised the goddess of childbirth.

Although the exact function of the fishtail knives has not been determined, their quality in their relationship with the working of flint, and their rarity (as only 200 or so of them are known to be in existence), connect them to the elite of society. Social stratification became much more complex during the 4th Millennium BC and a class of specialized craftsmen was coming into existence specifically to work in the service of the governing elite, whose members had access to a wide range of material goods and, above all, to knowledge, which set them apart from the majority of the population. The demands of the governing class and the producers of fishtail knives were intertwined and connected to the prestige and knowledge of those, who, after all, would be using them.

ProvenancePrivate collection, Barcelona, Spain, acquired in the 1980s. 

Literature- FAULKNER, E.O. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. Aris & Philips. 1994.
- HARER, B. Peseshkef: the First Special-Purpose Surgical Instrument. Obstetrics & Gynecology, vol. 83, 1994.
- PETRIE, W. F. Naqada and Ballar. Bernard Quaritch. London. 1896.
- PETRIE, W. F. Tools and Weapons. British School of Archaeology in Egypt and Egyptian Research Account 30. London. 1917. 
- PETRIE, W. F. Prehistoric Egypt Illustrated by over 1,000 Objects in University College, London. British School of Archaeology in Egypt and Egyptian Research Account 31. London. 1910. 
- ROTH, A.M. The PSS.KF and the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, vol. 78. 1992.
- TEETER, E. Before the Pyramids. The Origins of Egyptian Civilization. Oriental Inst. Museum Pub 33. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago 2011.

J. Bagot Arqueología - Ancient Art - Classical and Egyptian Antiquities. Consell de Cent 278, 08007 Barcelona, Spain