Friday, July 21, 2006

Before the beginning of the 1st Dynasty in 3100 BC...

Before the beginning of the 1st Dynasty in 3100 BC, the Egyptians already had access to precious metals, and throughout the Dynastic Period they acquired it in ever increasing quantities, at first from the Eastern Desert and Nubia, later too as tribute and spoils of war from Syria and the north.
The Egyptian craftsmen used these enormous amounts of gold in many and varied ways - to gild lesser materials, to plate wood and stone, solid casting it into small statuary, hammering and cutting sheets of it into elements of religious and ceremonial furniture and funerary equipment. However, its most widespread use was in the production of jewelry, both that worn by the living and, in particular, that made expressly for the adornment of the corpse. Egyptian funerary beliefs required that the mummified body be bedecked with the finest products of the jewelry- maker's art and, whether for amulet or collar, pectoral or diadem, the first choice of material, indeed the prescribed material according to some of the funerary texts, was gold.

Materials used in Ancient Egyptian Jewelry

The Egyptian jewelry-maker did not use precious stone; what he held the most valuable the modern world would consider at best only semiprecious. It is, perhaps, even more surprising that some of the most characteristic and pleasing effects were obtained using man-made materials, such as glazed composition and glass in imitation of semi-precious stones. Furthermore, most of the materials used were chosen not just because their colors created a particular effect, but because colors for the Egyptians had an underlying symbolism or amulet significance. Indeed, in the case of funerary jewelry, certain materials were strictly prescribed for the magical properties of their coloring. Thus Chapter 156 of the Book of the Dead required the amulet in the form of the Girdle Tie of Isis, placed at the throat of the mummy, to be made of red jasper, whose blood-like coloring would enhance the words of the spell: You have your blood, Isis; you have your power.

Green was the color of new vegetation, growing crops and fertility, hence of new life, resurrection even. It was, in particular, the color of the papyrus plant, which in hieroglyphs actually wrote the word wadj, meaning 'to flourish' or 'be healthy'. Wadj was also the name for the emerald-green mineral malachite when it was employed as Egypt's principal green pigment for painting and as the main constituent of green eye make-up. But the green stone most favored by the Egyptians was turquoise -mefkat- whose Egyptian name in the Late Dynastic Period was used as a synonym for 'joy' and 'delight'. Apart from turquoise (and green glazed composition and glass in imitation of it), the principal green stones employed by Egyptian lapidaries were green jasper, green feldspar (also known as Amazon stone), prase, chrysoprase, olivine, serpentine and, in the Graeco-Roman Period, beryl and peridot.

Dark blue was the color of the all-embracing, protective night sky, of lapis lazuli- and of the deep-blue glazed composition and glass made to imitate it. Curiously enough, khesbed (hsbd), the principal word for lapis lazuli, was used in the Late Dynastic Period, like the word for turquoise, as a synonym for 'joy' or 'delight'. It is difficult to believe that the Egyptians could not really distinguish between blue and green, yet the suggestion that the usage arose because of the linking over a long period of the materials turquoise and lapis lazuli is not very convincing.

Red was the colour of blood with all its connotations of energy, dynamism, power, even life itself. But it was also the colour of the evil-tempered desert-god Set, patron of disorder, storms and aridity, and murderer of his brother Osiris. This curious dichotomy is reflected in the fact that khenmet (hnmt), the word for red jasper, was derived from the verb hnm, 'to delight', but cornelain, with its orange-red hue, was considered an ill-omened stone and in the Late Dynastic Period its name, herset (hrst), also meant 'sadness'. Sard was the third red stone employed by the Egyptian lapidary, and from the New Kingdom onwards all three could be imitated by red glass and glazed composition.

The Egyptian jewelry-maker made use of an amazing variety of stones, minerals, metals, man-made materials and animal products. Most were obtained locally in the hills and deserts within Egypt's boundaries and from creatures which inhabited the Nile Valley and surrounding areas, but some, most notably lapis lazuli and silver, always had to be imported from beyond Egypt's farthest frontiers.

Examples from the Materials used by Egyptian jewelry makers:

* Alabaster;
* Amethyst (a translucent quartz (silicon dioxide));
* Beryl :a transparent or translucent yellowish-green aluminum- beryllium-silicate with a glassy sheen;
* Breccia is a sedimentary rock in which angular white fragments are set irregularly into a red-colored matrix;
* Feldspar or Amazon Stone is an opaque, green or blue-green potassium-aluminum-silicate;
* Garnet is a transluent red iron- or magnesium-aluminum-silicate with a violet or brown tint;
* Lapis Lazuli is an opaque dark-blue;
* Quartz (Mtlky) is a hard, opaque white variety of silicon dioxide;
* Turquoise is an opaque, pale sky-blue or blue-green copper-containing basic aluminum phosphate which the Egyptians obtained alongside copper ore at Wadi Maghara and Serabit el-Khadim in Sinai;
* Gold production of jewelry of every description: amulets, pendants, diadems, pectorals, bangles, earrings, finger-rings, anklets, torques, elements of collars, girdles and bracelets were all manufactured from the precious metal. Indeed, certain chapters of the Book of the Dead demanded that prescribed amulets and funerary jewelry be made of gold;
* Silver was at first called by the Egyptians nub hedj (nbw hd), later just hedj, which means literally 'white gold';
* Copper was the first metal known to the Egyptians and as early as the Badarian Period it was being made into beads. Bangles and finger-rings;

Egyptian Craftsmen

In Egypt the great workshops attached to the temples and palaces where fine-quality jewelry was produced were under the control of high officials; it is their names which have survived and in their tombs that the manufacture of jewelry was depicted. Far less often are known the names of the craftsmen who actually shaped semi-precious stones into inlays, delicately tapped and chased precious metal into jewelry elements or strung beads into intricate collars, and most of those named are goldsmiths - the Egyptian term is neby. Although part at least of the jewelry-maker's art involved working with precious metal (indeed, it is no accident that the activities of precious-metal workers and jewelry-makers are always depicted side by side), still remarkably few of the skilled craftsmen who called themselves neshdy, earlier mesneshdy, are known. This word is best translated as 'jewelry-maker', although it actually means something more like 'worker in semi-precious stones'. However, the ability to shape a hard stone into an inlay to fit snugly within a cloison or to form an intricately detailed amulet from a pebble was the essence of the Egyptian jewelry-maker's art, far more than the craft of the 'bead-maker' - iru weshbet - or 'stringer together of a collar' - seti nub. Nevertheless, a recent study has identified less than thirty named men who bore the title over a period of fifteen hundred years, from the early New Kingdom to the end of the Ptolemaic Period, and no tomb of a neshdy has ever been discovered.

Bracelets and bangles

The Egyptians used the same term, menefret (mnfrt), for bracelets and anklets but by adding the words 'for the arms' - net awy (nt'wy) - they were able to distinguish quite clearly the functions of these ornaments, which often came in matching sets. Another even less informative term, 'appurtenance of the arms' - iryt awy ('ryt 'wy) - was employed in the same dual way.
The earliest bracelets are in some ways little more than shorter versions of the strings worn around the neck. The finest examples - four in all were found on a wrapped arm in the tomb of Djer at Abydos. The one nearest the wrist consists of lapis lazuli and hollow gold balls, flanking irregularly shaped turquoise beads and gold triple ring-bead spacers, with a single hollow gold rosette at the centre; these are strung on gold wires and animal hair plaited together and were originally closed by a loop-and-ball fastening. The best-known bracelet is composed of twenty-seven alternating turquoise and gold plaques, the latter apparently cast in an open mould in the form of an archaic crouched falcon atop a rectangular serekh, with its characteristic palace facade paneling. The serekh usually contained the Horus name of the king, associating him with the ancient falcon-form sky-god, and a series of dots on each bead may be a crude rendering of the serpent hieroglyph with which Djer's name was written. The beads are graduated in size, with markings on the back of each to indicate its position; a single pyramid-shaped bead of gold at each end acts as a terminal. A series of gold plaques embossed with the cartouche of Sety II surmounted by feathers, with suspension rings at each corner, came from the Gold Tomb in the Valley of Kings; although eighteen centuries later than Djer's serekhs, these plaques presumably formed a similar royal bracelet.


In the Badarian Period simple rings of horn or stone were probably worn on the finger. That was certainly the function later of small strings of beads, gold-foil bands and wires of copper or silver closed by twisting the ends together. By hanging a scarab on the wire before twisting it shut the most popular form of Egyptian finger-ring came into being, although sometimes, as in the case of a 17th Dynasty woman buried at Qurna, it was merely held in place on the finger by a fiber cord. Two fine early examples of scarab finger-rings were owned by Sithathoriunet. In each the gold wire shank is twisted together opposite the gold scarab bezel; the scarab's wings are inlaid with strips of turquoise and lapis lazuli, its thorax with cornelian, its head with green stone and its legs with cornelian and blue and white composition. There were a number of finger-rings in Mereret's cache, of which two gold examples have an elongated oval rigid bezel, one patterned with tiny granulation lozenges, the other chased with four spirals. Her remaining gold rings have scarab bezels, one of them inlaid exactly like that of Sithathoriunet, the others made of lapis lazuli, turquoise, amethyst and glazed composition, some with texts, the others plain.