Egyptian jewelry

Items of personal adornment from the Nile Valley are an important part of the history of jewelry. More than mere body ornament, jewelry in ancient Egypt was used to display rank, proclaim wealth, and designate social status. It was also fashioned into powerful amulets, objects of barter and trade, accouterments of daily attire, diplomatic gifts, military honors, and propagandistic tools.

The Egyptologist Walter B. Emery once commented that the Egyptians “were greatly addicted to the wearing of jewelry.” No doubt his observation was based on archaeological evidence demonstrating that jewelry was worn by the living as well as the dead, by mortals as well as by representations of the gods, and by men as well as by women and children. Since precious metals are eminently recyclable, the body of material from ancient Egypt that has survived probably represents only a fraction of the jewelry produced. This situation is compounded by a long history of tomb robbery. In addition, jewels obtained surreptitiously were often disassembled, the precious stones unmounted, and the metal melted down by a profitable underground network of thieves, craftsmen, and officials.

Our understanding of Egyptian jewelry comes from a variety sources. Most valuable are ornaments recovered during controlled excavations. For example, a Predynastic (Naqada II) diadem from Abydos, now in the British Museum, was discovered in a burial attached to the head of a woman. Composed of gold, garnet, turquoise, and malachite beads, the circlet represents one of the few beaded ornaments where the original pattern of the beadwork was recorded. As a result, the form, method of construction, and use of what would otherwise be a handful of beads are known. Additionally, the archaeological record provides information concerning the sex and social circumstances of the owner. Such knowledge, crucial if we are to determine the role and meaning of jewelry in society, is sadly lacking for most ornaments. Another important resource for the jewelry historian exists in the detailed recording of jewelry and jewelry-making in sculpture, paintings, and reliefs. In fact, some ornaments, such as the heart-shaped dmḏ-pendant worn by Old Kingdom officials and Middle Kingdom kings, are known exclusively from representations. The more common situation, however, is an inability to match a known jewel with an ancient image. This is even the case for entire classes of ornament—for example, Tutankhamun was buried with numerous finger rings and ear ornaments, yet the young king is never depicted wearing either form of jewelry.

Texts also supply essential insights into the materials, forms, manufacture, and purposes of jewelry. An interesting jewelry-related vignette occurs in the Westcar Papyrus, which tells the story of a boat trip designed for the amusement of King Sneferu. The rowers, twenty young ladies from the harem, wear fish amulets of turquoise in their hair. With the exertion of rowing, one fish is lost in the lake and all action stops while the waters are magically parted and the amulet retrieved. Although Sneferu ruled during the Old Kingdom, the text dates to the Middle Kingdom. Fish amulets, believed to protect the wearer from drowning, were found in burials contemporaneous with the text. The text, in this case, is in agreement with the archaeological and art historical findings.

Materials and Techniques

A wide range of materials was available to the ancient jeweler, and those selected were chosen for aesthetic, practical, and symbolic reasons. Symbolism was particularly significant, since the bulk of jewelry worn in ancient Egypt served amuletic ends. Gold, considered “the flesh of the gods,” was valued for its inherent properties of sunlike brilliance, malleability, and resistance to corrosion. Egypt had both alluvial and quartz-vein deposits of this precious metal, which was eagerly sought by all strata of society. Silver had to be imported from the Near East and the Aegean. A manifestation of “the bones of the gods,” silver symbolized the moon and lotus blossom, a flower that defeats darkness and death as it opens under the warming rays of the morning sun.

While casting was a known metalworking technique in ancient Egypt, ornaments of precious metal were more likely to be fabricated from hammered sheet metal, which was cut, shaped, and joined through crimping or soldering. Wirework was primarily accomplished through strip-twisting, as the draw-plate was not available until the Roman period. Handwrought wires were used for securing beads and amulets, chain-making (for example, the loop-in-loop chain), as well as decorating metal surfaces. For jewelry designed exclusively for burial, the metal was often quite thin, as the jewels of the deceased were not subjected to the wear of daily life. Gilding, an inexpensive means of achieving the look of solid gold, was also used to enhance less costly materials such as wood, steatite, and faience.

The stones most prized for jewelry were those nowadays classified as “semiprecious.” They included carnelian, green feldspar or amazonite, turquoise, and lapis lazuli. Carnelian and amazonite were obtained locally while turquoise and lapis lazuli were imported from the Sinai and Afghanistan. Other stones—malachite, calcite, banded agate, porphyry, olivine, fluospar, rock crystal, obsidian, hematite, jasper (red and green), and serpentine— were used less frequently. Changing tastes and availability may have influenced the use of some stones—for example, amethyst was thought to be “fashionable” during the Middle Kingdom, while peridot and emerald, obtained from the Red Sea area, were not incorporated into jewelry until the Ptolemaic period. Most stones, however, were selected for their hardness, rarity, and color. In antiquity, color was synonymous with essence—the red-orange of carnelian symbolized power and dynamism; the green of amazonite and turquoise represented regenerative growth; and the brilliant blue of lapis lazuli was associated with the heavens and the life-giving Nile. By the Old Kingdom, a tricolor scheme of red, blue/green, and deep blue had been established for royal and courtly jewels—a color arrangement that eventually became the standard for all mixed-material constructions. In Nubia, Egypt’s neighbor to the south, the color palette varied— demonstrating the cultural specificity of certain substances.

The semiprecious, hard stones were used to make a variety of ornaments, including beads, amulets, and pendants. These forms constitute the most popular items of adornment throughout the ancient world. The same stones were also extensively employed as inlay material. Those who could not afford the hard, colored stones for jewelry used steatite (soapstone), a readily available soft stone that was easy to carve and that could be made harder through heating. Hardness was more than a practical matter, as the Egyptians equated this property with endurance and longevity. In addition, firing in a kiln provided the opportunity to alter the neutral color of steatite through the application of glazes in the blue-green and black color range. Although glazed steatite was widely used for beads and amulets, it was rarely employed for inlaying.

Organic substances were utilized for objects of adornment from the earliest of times. Flowers, seeds, shells, resin, and plant fibers were easily manipulated and accessible to all members of society. Patterned shells from the Mediterranean and Red Sea were bartered and can be found in burials far from their source. Cowrie shells, believed to possess amuletic powers, were popular throughout Egyptian history. Pierced and strung as girdles, they were worn by young women to protect and enhance their reproductive capabilities. Facsimiles were even made in precious metal, a practice illustrating the Egyptian penchant for mimicking one material with another. Ivory, obtained from the tusks of the elephant and hippopotamus, was valued for its rarity, symbolism, and visual appeal. A relatively soft material, this animal product was carved into hairpins, finger rings, bangles, cuffs, ear ornaments, amulets, and beads. It was also used as an inlay material and could be dyed a variety of colors. Pearls were not known in Egypt until the Ptolemaic period, although the nacre lining (mother-of-pearl) of the Red Sea oyster was exploited for bangles, rings, ear ornaments, and beads. Rectangular nacre plaques, pierced at the long ends and woven flat in vertical rows, were worn on both arms in sets of three by men of the Nubian Pan-Grave culture; these men were reputed to be skilled archers and resided in Egypt where they were enlisted as mercenaries. This form of ornament and its pattern of use is diagnostic of the culture, demonstrating the role of jewelry in identifying groups of people.

Probably the most commonly used material for jewelry was faience—a non-clay, quartz-based, glazed ceramic that could be modeled by hand or shaped in a mold. When first made, the faience surface gleamed, an attribute reflected in its ancient Egyptian name ṯḥnt, meaning “that which dazzles.” One of the advantages of faience derives from the range of colors available to the craftsman, whose technical skill increased dramatically during the New Kingdom. For a long time, faience was regarded as an inexpensive, substitute material. New scholarship suggests that the Egyptians believed faience possessed magical properties, based on the dramatic transformation—from dull, white paste to a glimmering substance—that takes place during heating.

Soon after glassmaking was established in Egypt during the New Kingdom, it found application in jewelry production. Like faience, it could be set in molds to produce objects in the round or cut for use as an inlay material. Probably the most famous glass inlays are the brilliant, blue strips of glass incorporated into the nms head-dress of Tutankhamun’s mask. Some glass and stone inlays were employed simultaneously, as in the belt buckle of Queen Nofretari, which demonstrates the primacy of color in material selection. Although the basic constituents of faience and glass are similar (silica-lime-alkali), glass has fewer impurities and requires higher firing temperatures. To fabricate beads—the most ubiquitous of glass ornaments—colored glass rods (about 0.5 centimeter in diameter) were heated over an open furnace and wrapped around a metal rod. One particular bead, the stratified “eye” bead, was developed in Egypt during the reign of Thutmose III. It proved so popular with Egypt’s neighbors that both the form and technique were extensively copied. The talismanic blue “eye” bead produced in the Middle East today has its origins in ancient Egypt.

Enameling, the fusion of powdered glass through heating onto a metal surface, derives from the Egyptian predilection for colored surfaces and experience with glassmaking. In many respects, enameling imitates stone-inlaying in that the objective—broad zones of uniform color—can be achieved through either method. Though technically more sophisticated, enameling would have eliminated the need for costly stone imports such as lapis lazuli. In addition, enamels can be set in small and curved areas difficult to fit with cut stones. The final product is also far more refined and delicate.

The earliest known example of enameling in the Nile Valley dates to the twenty-first dynasty. It exists in the form of a circular medallion with stylized palmettes set in the center of a gold bowl. The bowl was recovered from the tomb of General Wendjebauendjed in the 1920s but has only recently been highlighted as one of the earliest examples of the enameler’s art. The fact that no jewelry with enamels was found among the royal treasures from Tanis does not establish the medallion as an isolated example—rather, it only emphasizes the incompleteness of the plundered finds and our lack of knowledge of the period. There is, however, ample evidence of an extensive enameling industry during the Ptolemaic period. Enameling appears to be the preferred method of applying color to metal surfaces during that time.

The Craftsmen

To judge by the titles and material resources afforded the various specialties, there was a clear division between the “fine” and “applied” arts in ancient Egypt. The most esteemed artists were sculptors and architects. Of lesser influence were skilled painters, followed by outline draftsmen. At the opposite end in rank and status were craftsmen who created objects of daily life, and, although many items in this category demonstrate extraordinary craftsmanship and aesthetic sensibility, their makers failed to achieve the recognition reserved for large-scale work. The jewelers of dynastic Egypt are known to us from relief, paintings, and stelae. Private tomb decorations are especially valuable in that they illustrate groups of artisans busy at work in spaces that feature workbenches, simple furniture, and tools. A typical vignette occurs in the Saqqara tomb of the sixth dynasty vizier Mereruka. Depicted are jewelry specialists, including weighers, melters, goldworkers, and bead stringers. Finished ornaments, such as a wsḫ-collar with falcon terminals, a diadem with streamers, and a beaded choker are incorporated into the scene. Interestingly, several dwarfs form part of the work crew. Dwarfs are almost always represented in Old Kingdom scenes of jewelry-making, possibly because of their association with Ptah (patron of artisans).

From the New Kingdom, there are several surviving scenes of jewelry production in the tombs of high officials, whose duties included the supervision of temple craftsmen. Probably the most famous occurs in the Theban tomb of Rekhmire (tomb 100), an early eighteenth dynasty vizier of Thutmose III. Rekhmire routinely conducted inspections of Amun temple workshops where the arts of metalcraft and jewelry fabrication proceeded at a rapid pace. Men trained in smithing and bead-drilling, and stringers worked in assembly-line fashion, although the most skilled of the fabricators undoubtedly practiced their trade in a more relaxed environment. The names and titles of individuals involved in jewelry-making are known from funerary stelae such as the limestone stela of Ahmose, an eighteenth dynasty metalsmith designated “Chief of Metalworkers.” The trades in Egypt were hereditary and it is possible that Ahmose’s son Meny, who is shown standing to the right of his seated parents, was similarly employed.

The Forms

Although ancient Egyptian jewelry is admired for its aesthetic appeal and craftsmanship, it is the striking and exceptional nature of its iconography that sets it apart from the ornaments of other cultures. Egypt was one of the few societies in world history that did not establish sumptuary laws limiting the use of certain materials to elites. There was an early attempt to restrict powerful motifs, such as the bee and falcon, to the ruling class, but with the passage of time and the democratization of the afterlife as experienced during the First and Second Intermediate Periods, these restrictions were lifted. While jewelry fulfills what has been described as a basic human urge to decorate the body, it also promotes other ends. It is not surprising that in a culture generally characterized as a theocracy, the religious, amuletic role of ornament frequently dominated. During prehistoric times, when beads, amulets, hairpins, and bangles constituted the greater corpus of jewelry, the materials and forms were chosen with the object of protecting the wearer. It is no coincidence that most Egyptian jewelry was designed to encircle, and therefore magically protect, various parts of the body. The head, neck, arms, wrists, fingers, waist, and ankles were all designated as areas in need of safeguarding.

By the end of the Old Kingdom, the basic forms and styles of Egyptian jewelry were well established, although “fads,” many in response to foreign influences and new technologies, can be detected in all periods. Probably the most enduring item of jewelry was the beaded broad-collar, a neck ornament worn by both sexes and by a range of anthropomorphic deities. These beaded collars offset the standard Egyptian dress, which consisted of a near-white kilt for men and a plain, colorless linen sheath for women. In a study of Old Kingdom beaded collars that examined both excavated examples and representations of collars in sculpture and relief, Ed Brovarski determined there were two basic types: the wsḫ-collar (“the broad one”), which consists of multiple rows of densely spaced tubular beads strung in an upright position, and the šnw-collar (“that which encircles”), composed of trapezoidal segments of tubular beads alternately arranged in vertical and horizontal rows. The wsḫ-collar was further distinguished by a bottom row of drop pendants, whose shape derives from a long-bodied beetle, an insect believed to possess the power of everlasting life. The two forms of the beaded collar have several characteristics in common that can be applied to Egyptian ornament in general. First, they illustrate a preference for symmetry in that the right half of each collar is a mirror image of the left. This symmetry was expanded to include matched pairs of wristlets, armlets, and anklets. Like the collars, they were usually fabricated from beads woven with linen (flax) threads. Another shared feature is that of graduation, wherein the largest beads were situated in the center with the remainder tapering toward the ends. Both have terminals (endpieces) that serve to gather the multiple strands of thread into one twist or braid for tying around the neck. Both also have counter-poises, which hang down the back of the neck and were designed to relieve some of the collar’s weight.

During the Old Kingdom, another hallmark of Egyptian jewelry was developed—namely, the incorporation of text into the design and fabric of a jewel. The writing of names was particularly important in that the act of setting one’s name in a lasting, magical material insured the wearer against decay and destruction. Although nonroyal names and titles, as illustrated in the inscribed terminals of the sixth dynasty architect Impy, are known to exist, most ornaments with text feature divine or royal names. For the ordinary person, a jewel with the name of a deity or king guaranteed the wearer’s protection by potent forces. The thousands of finger-ring bezels inscribed with the names of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Tutankhamun found in the ruins at Amarna testify to the popularity of such items. Inscriptions could also draw on a rich system of symbols and emblems imbued with special properties. In this category fall such magical signs as the ʿnḫ (“life”), ḫprr beetle (“to exist”), šn (“protect”), wḏʒt (“sacred eye”), and ḏd pillars (“stability”).

Although the beaded collar remained a staple of Egyptian jewelry, the form evolved so that by the New Kingdom, it included openwork designs composed of signs, amulets, and floral elements made of brightly colored faience. Collars were sometimes worn with a pectoral, a trapezoidal pendant suspended from a necklace of beads. Although representations of the ornament date to the Old Kingdom, the earliest surviving examples were found in the Middle Kingdom burials of the princesses Sithathoriunet (at Illahun) and Sithathor and Mereret (at Dahshur). These jewels, as well as other treasures recovered from the princesses’ tombs, represent some of finest ornaments ever crafted in Egypt. Each is fabricated from gold sheet with carnelian, turquoise, and lapis lazuli inlays set in cloisons. The metalwork is “open,” with sections of metal worked separately and later assembled and soldered so that negative spaces fill the void between the hieroglyphs and symbols. The back of each jewel has delicately chased linework reiterating the patterns colorfully detailed on the front. The burial of Tutankhamun contained twenty-six pectorals found on the mummy and in several elaborate containers; these are bolder in design and, from signs of wear and ancient repairs, several were worn in life.

Ear ornaments do not appear with any regularity in Egypt until the end of the Second Intermediate Period, although they were worn in Mesopotamia and Nubia much earlier. By the New Kingdom, several forms of the earring were in vogue, including the hoop, the pennanular ring, the stud, and the plug. They were worn by both sexes, although women are more frequently shown wearing them. For some reason, kings were not depicted wearing this form of adornment, although sizable ear lobe perforations have been identified on several royal mummies. There is also an absence of representations of the finger ring, a jewelry item that came into fashion during the Middle Kingdom. The earliest rings appear to be plain wires, worn on several fingers of each hand. The scarab was eventually threaded onto the wire, forming a central bezel that could be enhanced by a decorative metal surround or collect. By the New Kingdom, rings for elites were elaborate constructions with bezels occasionally incorporating miniature sculptures of horses, divinities, and sacred animals. Less ornamental and more affordable was the stirrup signet ring. Typically cast in multipart molds, the signet evolved from the rigid (nonswivel) scarab ring, whose base was inscribed with signs and/or symbols. Signets were made in faience, as well as in gold, silver, and bronze. Like scarabs, many were commemorative and may have been distributed during festivals or in celebration of the king’s accession. New faience formulas developed during the late eighteenth dynasty, which resulted in a more durable faience body, made the wearing of these rings possible. Faience continued to be used for rings throughout the Third Intermediate Period, when the ring style changed to a wide, openwork band.

Egyptians frequently wore jewelry on their wrists, arms, and ankles. Less formal arrangements consisted of strings of beads and amulets, while more traditional decorations were part of coordinated parures, composed of a beaded collar (with counterpoise), wristlets, armlets, and anklets. Wrist ornaments show the greatest variety of forms, with bangles, cuffs and tight-fitting, multistrand, beaded jewels popular during most periods. A distinguishing element that could be added to the latter was the ornamental clasp. Clasps were often made of sheet metal and inlaid with semiprecious stones. Like pectorals, the designs for clasps encompassed hieroglyphic signs, symbols, and emblems. They could also incorporate three-dimensional elements, as in the bracelet clasp (now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MMA 26.8.121) belonging to one of Thutmose III’s wives; the mini-sculptures in this example are reclining cats of gold and carnelian.

Like most jewelry in ancient Egypt, armlets were worn by both sexes but with less frequency than wrist ornaments. The reason for this may partly reside with practical problems posed by body movement and gravity. To compensate for their weight, armlets need to fit firmly on the upper arm to prevent slipping. A solution to the problem is evident on the highly embellished armlet of Queen Aahhotep of the early eighteenth dynasty (in the Cairo Museum, CG 52642). While the front of this jewel is massive—a hollow box in the shape of a cartouche flanked by two three-dimensional sphinxes—the back of the encircling gold band contains a metal tab, several inches long, designed to secure the armlet in place. With regard to anklets, there appears to be less variety, although one form—the anklet with claws—protected female wearers against scorpion bites.

The jewelry that has survived from Egypt derives from burials and is therefore funerary in nature. From representations and texts, however, we know that many items that adorned the deceased and were stored in containers in the tomb were also worn in life. Many jewels show signs of wear and repair. Other ornaments, however, were designed exclusively for burial; in this category are decorations so flimsy in construction as to rule out wear, as well as ornaments whose primary function was to protect the wearer during the perilous journey into the next world. Included in this group are barrel-shaped swrt-beads that were strung and worn around the neck of the mummy, falcon-headed terminals on broadcollars, and collars—frequently of chased gold sheet—with images of the vulture and cobra goddesses. Some jewels, such as the Gold of Honor necklace and gold ʿwʿw-bracelet, were prized awards and signs of office—ornaments proudly worn in life and death.

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