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The Jewelry of Ancient Egypt

What kinds of jewelry did Ancient Egyptians make and wear?

No one, surely, who has had the opportunity to see the glorious treasures acquired from the tomb of Tutankhamen will either forget them or underestimate the ability of the ancient Egyptians to create wonderful jewelry. Although not everyone was permitted to enjoy the golden masks and accoutrements of the Pharaohs, quite a surprising number of people were able, so evidence suggests, to benefit from wearing and enjoying the metal and stone combinations. Gold and copper were available in quite large quantities from the Nubian Desert, with the former going to adorn the nobility and the latter the common people. There was not so much silver, although one naturally occurring alloy known as electrum, a mixture of gold and silver, does lend its pale yellow lustre to the collection. The different levels of purity of the gold means that it appears in different shades, more or less reddish for example, depending on the nature of the impurities involved. Egyptian experts used these variations with great skill to enhance the items they produced.

The ornament most commonly found was the collar, which could be wide enough to cover the body from the neck to the breast. It was, according to the evidence of archaeology, customarily created from concentric rows of beads, some of which were shaped in the form of animals or other items. In some cases, the faience or cloisonné pieces employed were able to form a kind of mosaic living on the skin. The basic form of construction, nevertheless, which was of beads strung on pieces of simple cord, was so simple that at least until the beginning of the twentieth century it was easier and cheaper to sell genuinely ancient artifacts to tourists than to make new, faked ones.

One of the most interesting technologies used by the Egyptians is that of faience. This is created from mixing ground quartz with other materials and moulding it into the desired shape. The result is similar to ceramic in texture and density and has the same pleasing touch. Granular gold is another technique, in which tiny grains of gold are glued onto a background to provide a three dimensional effect. These techniques helped create the profusion of necklaces, ear rings, bracelets and pendants that have been found. The ingenuity of humanity is almost inexhaustible given access to resources and a strong incentive to create. Workmanship of this nature provides not just valuable items but a sense of worth derived from the dignity of labour.

For more details about jewelry in ancient Egypt and, indeed, about the whole spectrum of daily life in that remote but fascinating society, see Barbara Mertz’s splendid account, now newly revised and updated, Red Land, Black Land (New York: William Morrow, 2008).

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