Ancient Egyptian jewelry
- Pages: 7
- Word count: 1575
- Category: Isis
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All Egyptians, from Pharaohs to the poor, adorned themselves with different types of jewels. All jewelry, pectorals, earrings, crowns, necklaces, and amulets were essential in factors such as aesthetics, rituals, religion, and protection. Also, ancient Egyptians placed significant emphasis on the color, design, motif, and the material from which their jewels were made. Most of these pieces of jewelry were made from gold, silver, electrum, carnelian, copper, amethyst, glass, bone, and lapis lazuli. This essay focuses more on the jewels of the dynastic period in Egypt. It analyzes the various purposes and meanings of different gems in aspects other than aesthetic adornment.
Jewels, especially gold and silver, have existed in Egypt since the pre-dynastic period. Schorsch asserts that ancient Egyptians incorporated these two minerals, as well as electrum (an alloy of gold and silver) in funerary objects and personal possessions in a quest to fend off evils spirits. Moreover, one’s ownership of these minerals reflected his or her economic status. Just as the current world places more significance on gold than silver, dynastic Egypt also believed that gold was more valuable than silver. Their belief is surprising since gold was in more supply than silver in the country at that period. Schorsch states that dynastic Egypt had to source its silver from far regions such as Afghanistan, while gold was available in Egypt and the neighboring Nubia. Therefore, regardless of the proximity of gold to Egypt as compared to silver, people that had more gold were viewed as wealthier in society. More significantly, the color gold held more aristocratic and spiritual significance, compared to silver’s silvery-white hue.
The Essence of Color
Different colors had significant meaning to ancient Egyptians. Schorsch states that each pure mental has a unique color. The author also contends that when ancient Egyptians added gold to silver, the whitish color of silver will remain dominant. On the other hand, adding even a small amount of silver to gold would dilute the golden and yellow hue of the mineral. Most ancient gold-silver alloys from dynastic Egypt were mixtures of gold, copper, and silver, thus forming a dark color. The silvery-white color of silver significantly linked to the moon and purity. Most of the Egyptian lunar gods were sculptured in silver monuments to symbolize their purity. These interpretations of the symbolism found in gold and silver are evident in funerary and temple inscriptions that date to the Ptolemaic and Ramesside periods. Furthermore, ancient religious texts used in Baines’s article on color terminology and classification show that colors such as gold were used in monuments as descriptions of the bodily forms of Egyptian gods.
Since the sun also possesses a yellow-reddish hue, pieces of jewelry made from gold were symbols of solar gods. Therefore, the yellowish color of gold represented rebirth. Green colors, just like gold, symbolized revelation, and symbolized health. For instance, the Egyptian god Osiris had green skin as a sign of his power over death. According to ancient texts, Osiris could resurrect the dead. Moreover, ancient Egyptians believed that red represented victory, blood, and strength. A jewel, called the Isis knot, symbolized the Egyptian god, Isis. Dynastic Egyptians believed that the image of Isis had to be in red to signify his strength (figure 1).
Figure 1: Red tyet amulet; Isis
Source: Glencairn Museum, ‘Sacred Adornment: Jewelry as Belief in Glencairn’s Egyptian Collection; Red tyet Amulet’
The image represents Isis, a goddess, and wife to the god, Osiris. The amulet became famous during the dynastic period and is associated with Isis’ blood. The tyet had to be made using a blood-red stone to symbolize Isis’ Strength. The amulet is a funerary jewel that is placed on the deceased neck during burial.
Protection Purposes in terms of the Shape of the Jewelry
At times, the images represented in the form of these amulets were a sign of protection. These pieces of jewelry would take the shapes of deities, birds, floral designs, or human body parts with positive meanings according to the Egyptian culture. For instance, the Anubis amulet usually appears as a man with the head of a jackal (figure 2). The jackal was a god linked to mummification. As per Egyptian dynastic myths, Anubis (deity) assisted in placing the dismembered parts of Osiris together, and tying them with linen, thus creating the first mummy. Also, Egyptians had pieces of jewelry made of a cream-gold goddess with a lion-like face (figure 3). Goddess Sekhmet’s amulet, worn around the neck, gave its wearer powers to fight back in times of danger.
Figure 2: Anubis
Source: Glencairn Museum, ‘Sacred Adornment: Jewelry as Belief in Glencairn’s Egyptian Collection; Anubis’
This amulet was prevalent during the eighteenth dynasty. It is a funerary amulet that depicts Anubis, a god whose role was to protect the mummy. The charm was placed on the neck of the deceased.
Figure 3: Sekhmet
Source: Glencairn Museum, ‘Sacred Adornment: Jewelry as Belief in Glencairn’s Egyptian Collection; Sekhemet’
The goddess Sekhmet existed between the 26th to 30th dynasties. The amulet of Sekhmet took the form of a lion to show fearlessness and protection. The jewelry could be worn in life and death.
All ancient Egyptians were buried with several adornments. Sometimes, archeologists would find these pieces of jewelry placed on the bodies while others had worn these jewels. The amount and type of jewelry worn by the mummies symbolized one’s socio-economic status. For instance, the jewelry found in the eighteenth dynasty Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, showed substantial use of gold adornments. The tomb was also intricately designed with electrum, silver, and gold. Ancient Egyptians believed that the dead would enjoy the companionship of their earthly belongings even after death.
Therefore, Tutankhamun’s tomb had thousands of objects, twenty of which were of electrum, gold, or silver minerals. Most of these adornments were collars, pectorals, and numerous other jewels. The pectorals found in the Pharaoh’s tomb signified the Union of Upper and Lower Egypt, religion, and the solar system. Bianucci et al. also state that specific jewels were adorned in life and death. These include four-finger rings, two pairs of golden-ribbed earrings, a necklace of delicate beads, and a girdle. Along with a serpent amulet, the Isis tyet, and a heart scarab, ancient Egyptians believed that these pieces of jewelry would protect them from evil in the afterlife. When Egyptians wrapped jewelry inside a mummy’s body, it symbolized a protective barrier that guarded the diseased for eternity.
Military Honors and Political Stability
Since the Egyptian dynastic era lacked currencies, Pharaohs would gift successful military men with jewelry. Therefore, jewelry also symbolized victory in wars and bravery. Tomb robberies were common crimes during the dynastic period. A person would gain insight into the political stability of a region in Egypt by the prevalence of tomb raiding. For instance, Schorsch states that some jewels and minerals must have been missing from Tutankhamun’s tomb, a symbol of poverty in some areas of Egypt.
Similarities and Differences between Ancient Egyptian Jewelry and Maori Tattoos
Just as the Ancient Egyptian jewelry may be seen as a symbolism of aesthetics and social status in a literal sense, the Maori Moko (tattoos) can be interpreted only as a sign of chiefly rank. The use of gold in Egypt and Moko in the Maori society parallel as they symbolize aristocratic descent. However, Gell states that the Moko signifies other factors, such as sexual eroticism. Additionally, both tattoos and jewelry served significant purposes. The chiefly Maori Moko functioned as a signature while making treaties with white settlers while different jewels, especially gold, contained religious writings. These two cultures differ in that the Maori Moko deferred in designs and were on human skins, thus couldn’t be stolen. The Ancient Egyptian jewels, however, were affected by tomb raiders and imitators.
Talismans, amulets, and other types of jewelry help people understand a country’s culture. Dynastic Egyptians believed that gold, silver, and other minerals had substantial magical powers. A jewel’s color, as well as its shape, also held significant meaning. The kind of jewelry one adorned would also allude to their socio-economic status.
- Baines, J. ‘Color terminology and color classification: Ancient Egyptian color terminology and polychromy.’ American Anthropologist, 87, no. 2, pp. 282–297, (1985). doi:10.1525/aa.1985.87.2.02a00030
- Bianucci, Raffaella et al. ‘Shedding new light on the 18th Dynasty mummies of the Royal Architect Kha and his spouse Merit.’ Plos One,10, no. 7, (2015). //journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0131916
- Foroughi, Mahda and Javadi Shohreh ‘Examining the symbolic meaning of colors in ancient Egyptian painting art and their origin in the environment.’ The Scientific Journal of NAZAR research center (Nrc) for Art, Architecture & Urbanism, 14, no. 53. (2017): 60-80
- Gell, Alfred. Wrappings in Images. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1993
- Glencairn Museum. ‘Sacred Adornment: Jewelry as belief in Glencairn’s Egyptian Collection; Red tyet Amulet (online image),’ 2017. //glencairnmuseum.org/newsletter/2018/1/30/sacred-adornment-jewelry-as-belief-in-glencairns-egyptian-collection
- Glencairn Museum. ‘Sacred Adornment: Jewelry as Belief in Glencairn’s Egyptian Collection; Anubis (online image)’, 2017. //glencairnmuseum.org/newsletter/2018/1/30/sacred-adornment-jewelry-as-belief-in-glencairns-egyptian-collection
- Glencairn Museum. ‘Sacred Adornment: Jewelry as Belief in Glencairn’s Egyptian Collection; Sekhemet (online image)’, 2017. //glencairnmuseum.org/newsletter/2018/1/30/sacred-adornment-jewelry-as-belief-in-glencairns-egyptian-collection
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- Schorsch, Deborah. ‘Precious-Metal Polychromy in Egypt in The Time of Tutankhamun.’ The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, vol. 87 no.1, 2001, pp.5571. doi:10.1177/030751330108700106
- The Met 150. ‘The Met Collection.’ 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection