Museum Secrets

A Sitting Duck

March 26, 2021 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins / Paul Collins Season 2 Episode 1
Museum Secrets
A Sitting Duck
Show Notes Transcript

Spring is in the air, and families of ducks are out in force in Oxford. Paul Collins, the Ashmolean Museum's Jaleh Hearn Curator of the Ancient Near East, introduces us to ancient duck with a cheerful story to tell. From the ducks of the time of the pharaohs to the ducks of today, Paul explores this timeless symbol of better times to come.

Box in the form of a duck – View it here

If you want to take a closer look at the object in this episode, you can view it at the link above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters: Lucie Dawkins and Paul Collins

About Museum Secrets: Welcome to season 2 of Museum Secrets. Every week Lucie Dawkins will  take you behind the scenes at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. There are a million objects here in the Museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times. Join us every week for a daily dose of cheer.


Welcome to Season Two of Museum Secrets. I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every week I’ll be taking you behind the scenes at the Ashmolean. There are a million objects here in the museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times. 

The museum feels surreal at the moment, with the great cavernous galleries empty of visitors. But as spring begins to brighten all around us, we are reminded that we are hovering on the edge of coming to life again too. And if you know where to look, the collections are full of all sorts of symbols of hope and new beginnings. Today, we’ve stumbled across curator Paul Collins, contemplating a 3 and a half thousand year old duck. Here he is.


Oxford can seem a very watery place, crossed by rivers and streams, and so the occasional duck is not an unfamiliar sight to many of its residents – on my way to the Ashmolean I have sometimes had to walk around one that is happily sitting or waddling on the pavement. 

But it is not an animal that immediately conjures up images of the Ancient Middle East, where cattle, sheep, goats and pigs were commonly depicted across thousands of years – not perhaps surprising in a region that saw the earliest domestication of these animals. Yet this little duck, looking back over its flattened body, spends much of its time among pots and frescos in a display case in the Ancient Middle East gallery. 

It has always been among my favourite objects, and I occasionally release it from its case to be examined by students as part of a University class I teach in one of the Museum’s study rooms. It needs careful handling but it’s a rare opportunity to discover how light it feels as well as how it fits comfortably into the palm of the hand being only some 15cm long and 4cm high. 

It is clearly a container of some sort, as its body is shaped like a shallow boat resting on a rectangular base with part of the flat upper surface hollowed to form an oval cavity. The cavity is closed by a separate lid, of which sadly only part survives. But this lid would have originally pivoted on a round-topped peg placed at one end of the cavity, with another peg at the other end that probably served to lock it in place. Parts of the bird’s neck have been restored leaving just one original section and the head intact. The duck has a long and carefully modelled beak and the animal looks at us through eyes formed from an incised circle with a small central drill-hole for the pupil.

Its original home was some 4000 kilometres east of Oxford in a region of modern Turkey bordered by Syria and the Mediterranean Sea. This area was also watered by rivers and streams, the most important being the Orontes which flows north from Lebanon, through western Syria into Turkey where it meets the sea. 

Our duck was excavated in 1938 at a site called Tell Atchana by the British archaeologist Leonard Woolley - he had worked briefly at the Ashmolean before leading excavations in Syria and Iraq. At Tell Atchana his workmen uncovered, temples, palaces, administrative buildings and other extraordinary monuments ranging in date between 1800 and 1200 BC.  As a result of this work we known that the ancient city was called Alalakh and that it was the capital of a small kingdom called Mukish. The duck was found in a palace dating to around 1350 BC.

When I show it to my students they often struggle to tell me what material the duck is made from. This is made particularly challenging because they are required - as might be expected - to wear protective gloves. It reminds us how much our instinctive use of touch for exploring the world is restricted in museums, not least by the glass of display cases. This is of course essential for the security of the objects if we want them to survive for future generations. But it makes it much more difficult to work out that this little object is actually made from ivory.

Ivory was a highly prized material around 1350 BC and was widely traded to make luxury objects for wealthy clients. It was used for small containers, parts of furniture, game boards, cosmetic boxes, musical instruments and even elements of chariots. 

It’s perhaps natural to think of elephants when mention is made of ivory, but in fact elephant ivory was quite rarely used at the time and was reserved for pieces of large size and significance. Most ivory objects –including this duck – were made from hippopotamus tusks.

Today the hippopotamus is restricted to sub-Saharan Africa, but in the second millennium BC it was found across a much wider area, through the Nile Valley into Egypt and even in swampy areas of ancient Syria, including the valley of the River Orontes. The hippo is an extremely powerful, agile and aggressive animal and so hunting them was no simple task with the result that ivory was an expensive material.

Even so, there must have been a good number of successful hunts as our duck vessel is far from unique. Examples have been excavated at sites in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel as well as on Cyprus and in the Aegean. Three are known from Tel Atchana alone. They come in two main styles. One style has a forward-facing head with pivoting wings on the body that serve as lids for the body cavity. And the other style, as represented by the duck in the Ashmolean, has its head turned back, often to look at little ducklings doweled into the oval lid. Perhaps our duck originally had some babies on her back?

So what was she used for? It’s presumed that duck vessels were containers for holding cosmetics, perfumed oils or other similar materials – but nobody is really sure as no traces of the contents have so far been discovered. 

These objects do, however, have very close parallels with a number of vessels discovered in elite tombs in Egypt of the same period, the so-called New Kingdom. These are usually made from wood and take the form of a forward-facing duck – probably modelled after an Egyptian Goose - with their body hollowed out to form a container that is closed by a lid shaped like doubled wings. So far so familiar. But somewhat surprisingly, at the rear of the duck is carved a nude swimming girl with outstretched arms – as though she is being pulled through the water by the bird. These objects are often referred to as ‘spoons’ with the girl acting like a handle. They are found among personal belongings in tombs, and as with the duck vessels, no clear traces of the original contents have been detected - their fragile handles hardly lend themselves to frequent use.  

The imagery however helps to suggest a meaning for these objects since it has clear associations with ancient Egyptian symbolism that connected ducks with the Nile as an emblem of rebirth and the swimmer with female eroticism. These ducks with swimming girls may have been exchanged at the time of certain festivals and, very helpfully, a few are inscribed; they give wishes for the new year or good fortune. 

So here we may have an answer to what our duck vessel represents. An East Mediterranean version of an Egyptian tradition focussing on a delightful animal that evoked new beginnings – in much the same way as we might associate a mother duck and a line of ducklings following her as marking the start of Spring and the hope of better times to come.


Thank you to Paul for introducing us to this duck. It’s a reassuring thought that when you are cheered up by the sight of ducks in spring sun, you are not so different from the people of the Bronze Age. It’s a reminder that for thousands of years and across vast distances, humans have had a great capacity to look for the light at the end of the tunnel. Join me next Friday, as we go on an adventure into the colour blue.