Glencairn Museum News | Number 1, 2018
Amid the many fine artifacts in Glencairn Museum’s ancient Egyptian collection, which includes statuary, reliefs, and sarcophagi, there is a category of objects which arguably have a very personal connection to their original owners—the collection of Egyptian jewelry. These are objects which, in ancient times, were worn on a regular basis by individuals for reasons both spiritual and aesthetic. In addition to looking attractive and decorative, much of ancient Egyptian jewelry had protective functions. Further highlighting the importance of these items to their owners, these adornments were included in their owners’ burials, placed in the tomb with the deceased so that they could continue to adorn and protect them in the afterlife.
When considering the Glencairn jewelry collection, which consists largely of strung beaded necklaces, amulets, and rings, it is important to keep in mind that the way in which these bead strings appear today is not the way in which the strings looked in ancient times. The jewelry in the Glencairn collection was purchased over the years by Raymond Pitcairn from Azeez Khayat and his son, Victor Khayat, antiquities dealers who would restring ancient beads in styles or designs that would be attractive to the early twentieth century/modern collector (and no doubt profitable to the antiquities dealer!). This was not an unusual practice. Even today, beads found in excavated archaeological contexts are often restrung in an approximation of what the original pattern may have been. The reason for this is that the material on which the beads were originally strung was organic, likely thread made of flax, and this material is fragile and has a tendency to decay, even in Egypt’s dry climate. When archaeologists find beads, they are often in a scattered deposition, rather than in carefully laid out rows. Individual elements of jewelry in the collection date at least as early as the First Intermediate Period (2130-1980 BCE) through the Greco-Roman Period (332 BCE- 323 CE).
Symbolism: Color and Material
There are a number of ways that these ornaments may have afforded protection to their wearer. First, we can consider the images represented in the form of amulets. These small images can take the shape of deities, animals, birds (which often had a divine association), human body parts, floral designs, and individual hieroglyphic signs representing words with positive or protective meanings. Secondly, we can bear in mind that color symbolism was important to the ancient Egyptians. Color had meaning. Some colors were associated with the sun and the solar aspects of Egyptian religion. Other colors were connected with the idea of rebirth or regeneration. Certain Egyptian amulets were supposed to be made in a particular color, such as the tyet amulet (Figure 1), also known as the Isis knot (Gardiner sign list V39). This amulet is usually made of a red colored material (Figure 2). Therefore, the various hues that these amulets or beads take adds another layer of magical protection for the wearer.
Finally, related to the meanings that different colors had for the ancient Egyptians, it is important that we also take into account the materials of which these objects are made. The jewelry in the Glencairn collection represents a variety of materials. Some of the most commonly seen are: Faience, Carnelian, Amethyst, Lapis Lazuli, Glass, Gold, and Bone (Figure 3). We can consider the raw materials for the colors they display (carnelian is red; turquoise is blue) as well as for the expenses incurred by the ancient Egyptians in using a particular material. Certain materials such as lapis lazuli (Figure 4), a semi-precious stone with a dark blue color (often with flecks of gold-colored inclusions), was a very expensive commodity that had to be imported into Egypt from as far away as Afghanistan. Similarly, there are locations within Egypt where gold can be found, but much of the gold used in Egyptian jewelry was sourced from mines in Nubia, located to Egypt’s south. Other materials were less costly. Carnelian, for example, could be sourced locally in the Egyptian desert (although its quality varies greatly from a deep red to a pale orange). Another very common material present in the Glencairn collection is faience. Egyptian faience is a man-made composition comprised of crushed quartz that self-glazes when fired. It was produced in a variety of colors, and perhaps the Egyptian craftsmen used this material at times to imitate costlier materials of the same hue. Most of the faience objects in the Glencairn collection were made in ceramic molds (Figure 5).
Amulets and Representations
Let’s now take a look at the form of some of the amulets and pendants present in the bead strings in the Glencairn collection and consider the symbolic and religious meanings behind them. We can first turn to the deities who are represented:
Other Images and Symbols
In addition to images of gods and goddesses, there are other magical and protective images that appear on amulets in the Glencairn collection. Let’s take a look at some of these symbols:
In addition to the amulets mentioned above, a few other categories of objects found in Glencairn’s jewelry collection bear mention. When one examines the collection as a whole, one notices that there are quite a number of scarab (dung beetle) amulets strung on necklaces (Figures 35, 36, 37). The scarab was an important symbol for the ancient Egyptians. On one hand, the scarab was a solar symbol. The Egyptians were keen observers of nature and witnessed dung beetles pushing balls of dung across the sand. They conceived of the idea that there was a beetle that pushed the sun across the sky as the daytime hours passed. At the same time, they also observed young beetles hatching from these dung balls and thought of the scarab as a symbol of rebirth and regeneration.
The scarab amulet came to be used as a sort of seal. The scarab amulet is usually pierced longitudinally to allow it to be strung or to be incorporated into the bezel of a ring. The upper side of the scarab seal was decorated like a beetle (Figure 36), while the flat underside bore incised decoration (Figure 37). Sometimes these designs are purely decorative—with spiral designs, for example. Sometimes there are protective images or short texts. At other times the bottom of the scarab contains the name and titles of its owner and would have functioned like a signet ring, to impress the seal of its holder into mud or clay. In this way the seal served two purposes: there was a magical association with the idea of rebirth, and there was also a practical, perhaps administrative function with its use to mark ownership when used to seal things.
Many of the beads in the Glencairn collection are what Egyptologists refer to as “mummy beads.” These are thin, tubular beads made of faience. While it is possible that some of these were originally strung in a long string, it is more likely that these tubular beads were originally part of either beaded broad collars known as wesekh collars (Figure 38) or parts of elaborately beaded net shrouds which covered mummies (Figure 39).
Finally, one should mention a small group of a particular bead-type represented in the collection. From a technological perspective, some of the most remarkable beads in the Glencairn collection are the Roman period glass mosaic face beads. These multicolor round beads are decorated with miniature depictions of human faces. They were painstakingly created by ancient craftsmen using canes of glass (Figure 40). The detail on these beads is incredible!
The Egyptian jewelry collection at Glencairn provides ample opportunity to study ancient Egyptian religious beliefs and magical practices. By examining the materials and symbols present in these ornaments, one can come away with a deeper understanding of the complex thoughts that guided the artists and craftsmen in the creation of these objects, as well as the hopes and beliefs of those who wore them in ancient times.
Jennifer Houser Wegner, PhD
Associate Curator, Egyptian Section
Photography of Glencairn’s ancient Egyptian jewelry courtesy of Edwin Herder.
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