Ancient Egyptian jewellery is famous for its beauty, elegance and colour; but what was the symbolic meaning of different colours and designs, and how did fashions change over time?
Everyone wore jewellery in ancient Egypt, whether poor, rich, royal, or divine; yes, even the gods wore jewellery and were offered beautifully crafted pieces during temple rituals. Jewellery was first and foremost an adornment, but as such, it also expressed a person’s wealth and status in society, much like today. Perhaps even more importantly however, especially when faced with malevolent invisible forces, jewellery could have amuletic powers, its material and shape powerful enough to protect the wearer from harm. Indeed, so potent was the power of jewellery that the wearer didn’t even need to be alive to enjoy its magical benefits; jewellery protected the dead as well, and helped them into the afterlife.
The ancient Egyptians were blessed with an environment rich in natural resources. All the minerals and gemstones necessary for stunningly beautiful jewellery were available to them. The principal metal, gold, was mined in the Eastern Desert and the Nubian Desert, turquoise could be quarried in the Sinai, and the rock layers of the rugged mountains of the Eastern Desert supplied jasper, garnet, amazonite, agate, amethyst, feldspar and carnelian. The ancient Egyptians acquired a few other materials through trade as well, including obsidian from the southern Red Sea area, silver from Anatolia, and lapis lazuli from northeastern Afghanistan.
The ancient Egyptians considered gold to be the ‘ﬂesh of the gods’, which is why its use was so ubiquitous in royal burials. Its colour was also a reﬂection of the bright sun, and therefore symbolic of Ra, the great creator god. The dark blue of lapis lazuli mirrored the blue of the heavens, as well as the dark blue of the primeval waters from which creation came. Turquoise could also be tied to the colour of the sky, and that of the Nile waters. The greenish shades, such as amazonite and green feldspar, represented plants, growth and fertility, and by extension, rebirth and eternal life. Red jasper and carnelian symbolized blood, and therefore life, though red was also associated with fire and power. The ancient Egyptians seems to have regarded red as a protective colour when used in jewellery or amulets, such as the red jasper tyet amulet of Isis, but in other contexts, it could be associated with the desert, storms and disorder.
From the earliest times, the Egyptians looked for ways in which to reproduce their favourite jewellery colours using less expensive materials. Very early on, they learned how to coat materials with blue and green glazes, before discovering how to fire powdered quartz, which could be moulded to form any shape. Eventually this material, called faience, was not only glazed blue and green, but also red, yellow, black and white. By the time of the New Kingdom, the ancient Egyptians made glass, and with it, imitated the colours of carnelian, turquoise and lapis lazuli.
The earliest jewellery in Egypt seems to date to ca. 5500 BC. Girdles of disc beads made from steatite and glazed green were found among burials from the Badarian culture in Middle Egypt. From then on, jewellery-making rapidly developed. Highly sophisticated pieces have been discovered from the First Dynasty, ca. 3100 BC, such as four bracelets, with different shapes of beads in gold, lapis lazuli, turquoise and amethyst, and serekh-emblems in gold and turquoise, discovered in the tomb of King Djer at Abydos, and are now exhibited at the Cairo Museum.
By the time of the Old Kingdom, the Pyramid Age, ca. 2700 BC, the colours of court jewellery were set, with gold as the metal, and red, blue green, and deep blue as the colours of the stones. This combination is stunningly evidenced in the later Middle Kingdom jewellery of Princess Sithathoriunet, found in her tomb beside her father’s pyramid at al-Lahun, dating to ca. 1990 BC. Worn by the princess in life, the jewellery pieces had been put in an ebony box, inlaid with ivory, carnelian and gold, which, in turn, had been placed within a small recess in the antechamber of her tomb. Over time, rainstorms brought mud into the tomb, filling in the recess, and rotting the wood of the box; now covered with mud, the jewellery remained hidden from tomb robbers, and was found by archaeologists Flinders Petrie and Guy Brunton in 1914.
Among the princess’s jewellery was a gold pectoral inlaid with turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian and garnet, hung on a necklace of alternating drop and ball beads, made of gold, carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and feldspar. The pectoral depicted a cartouche with the crown name of her father, King Senusret II, ﬂanked by protective falcons. There were also matching bracelets and anklets, and a leopard-headed girdle, with gold leopard heads alternating with amethyst pellet beads; within each leopard head were tiny stones, which would have rattled as the princess moved. A second necklace was made of gold, carnelian, lapis lazuli and green feldspar drop beads, separated by amethyst ball beads. Petrie was given permission to take the jewellery with him to England, and in 1916 the pieces were bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is where they remain.
Before Petrie and Brunton’s discovery, similar hoards of royal female jewellery had been found at the pyramids of the Middle Kingdom rulers Amenemhet II and Amenemhet III at Dahshur. Jacques de Morgan excavated at these two pyramids in 1894–95, and the jewellery he discovered can be seen in the collection of the Cairo Museum. De Morgan also worked at the Senusret III pyramid at Dahshur, but missed the entrance shaft into one of the burials. In 1994, a team from the Metropolitan Museum discovered this entrance, and made a stunning find of jewellery in the shaft leading down to the burial of Queen Weret II. In a recess, missed by tomb robbers, were almost seven thousand beads of gold, carnelian, turquoise and lapis lazuli. There were also small gold pieces that had been strung with the beads: crouching lions, leopard claws and cowrie shells. When reconstructed, these beads formed four bracelets, two anklets, and a bead girdle. The gold cowrie shells – items associated with women, and thought to protect fertility – belonged to the girdle.
There were also two amethyst scarabs, each of which had a small hole through the length of its body. A gold wire would have been inserted through this hole and its ends twisted together, enabling the scarab to be worn as a ring. Widely used in jewellery for both the living and the dead, the scarab symbolizes the rising or newborn sun, and so carries with it the promise of eternal life. Many scarab rings have been found on mummies, apparently always on the third finger of the left hand, leading one scholar to suggest that this must have been the ‘ring finger’ in ancient times.
In the Middle Kingdom, scarab rings became fashionable, and were commonly worn. The scarabs, at first suspended on gold or silver wire, were now set in gold frames or mounts, and then with a bezel, so the scarab could be swiveled to reveal the inscription on the bottom. This way, a person’s scarab ring could be used to stamp and seal; as a result, large numbers of scarab seals have been found from the later Middle Kingdom. By the New Kingdom, beginning ca. 1500 BC, this type of ring develops into a solid gold signet ring, stronger and more practical for the purpose of sealing.
For less expensive types of rings, not meant to be used as a seal, the most commonly used material was faience. These kinds of rings were often handed out on special occasions. Large numbers of faience signet rings bearing the name of King Amenhotep III (ca. 1390–1350 BC) were found during excavations at the royal palace at Malqata on the West Bank of Luxor, where this king celebrated three heb-sed festivals. At these grandiose events – at which Amenhotep displayed his continued right to rule before assembled courtiers – faience signet rings must have been handed out as presents to guests.
Earrings were another type of jewellery that became popular in the New Kingdom. These seem to have appeared in Egypt right before the New Kingdom, and may have been an inﬂuence from Nubia. Both women and men wore earrings, although their use was more restricted among men, and even then they tended to only be worn by the elite. Even kings had pierced ears, with Tutankhamen’s jewellery including both earrings and ear studs. Just like rings, earrings, studs, and plugs could be made out of faience, and were the equivalent of ‘costume jewellery’ today.
Although the royal female necklaces discussed above were all examples of necklaces composed of a single string of beads, the most commonly worn necklace in ancient Egypt was the broad collar, or weshket in ancient Egyptian. This was composed of multiple horizontal rows of cylindrical beads strung vertically. Usually, the lowest horizontal row took the form of drop or pendant beads, which were often ﬂower-shaped; this type of collar is often depicted on ancient Egyptian statues, and was worn by men and women, royalty, and divinities. Broad collars were also placed on mummies. The beads of broad collars were made of gold, semi precious stones as well as faience.
There is a wonderful collection of ancient Egyptian jewellery in the Cairo Museum, in three rooms on the second ﬂoor at the back. The largest room in the middle contains the jewellery from the tomb of King Tutankhamen; when viewing these pieces, keep in mind that it has been estimated that 60% of the jewellery originally placed in the tomb was stolen by tomb robbers in ancient times. On the left is the Tanis Jewellery Room, which displays the jewellery from the royal tombs of Dynasties 21 and 22 (ca. 1050–750 BC) found at Tanis. On the right is the Middle Kingdom Jewellery Room, exhibiting the royal female jewellery discussed above.
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Lisa Sabbahy has a PhD in Egyptian archaeology from the University of Toronto, and is assistant professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. She first came to Egypt in the summer of 1973 with an urban studies programme about the history of the city of Cairo, and has been fascinated with it ever since.