The Symbolism Of Egyptian Jewellery
When you think about Egyptian jewellery, it is easy to visualise scarab beetles, Pharoah charms, malachite, lapis lazuli and lots of gold.
Colours and shapes presenting in Egyptian jewellery tell us lots about the people who lived in ancient Egypt - their beliefs, priorities and ways of life.
The main colours in Egyptian jewellery are gold, clay red, malachite green, white and blue and these colours represent beliefs and traditions in creation, fertility, creativity, energy, power, resurrection, life essence, the underworld, warmth and balance, spanning over 31 dynasties or 3,345 years.
Jewellery was highly valued in Egyptian society and adorned those who were powerful and religious, able to afford a princely transition to the afterlife. Preserved Egyptian jewellery found in intact tombs has explained much about the people of ancient Egypt and what influences impacted their lives.
The History Of Egyptian Jewellery
Egyptian craftsmen mastered the smithing of precious metals using large amounts of gold in jewellery making 3000 to 5000 years ago in Ancient Egypt – not only to cover over (gild) other materials, but also in decorative purposes.
Throughout the several thousand year history of Pharaonic Egypt, gold was the metal of choice. This was one of the earliest signs of established jewellery making in the world, according to historical archaeological evidence found in the ancient pyramids.
The main use of gold was in jewellery production – ceremonial, religious and funeral – both for the living and the deceased. Gold being very versatile, workable, rare and representative of the sun god Ra, was preferred above other metals as its colour reminded of warmth and creation.
Much literature has surrounded the mystery of Egyptian burial rites in pyramids and the finest jewellery was given to deceased royalty to assist their comfort and passage in the afterlife.
Much of what we know about Egyptian jewellery making was found in the preserved tombs of those who sought to traverse history with fine formal adornment that has lasted the ages and provided us with historical knowledge of those who went before.
Jewellery workshops in Egypt were considered important – goldsmith work was saved in pyramids along with other historical Egyptian relics of great value. Situated within temples and palaces, jewellery workshops were controlled by officials and were valued within Egyptian society, as those who were able to adorn themselves with the finest jewellery were powerful and religious people, or Pharoahs and rulers within the community.
Hence, Egyptian jewellery came to represent power and religious devotion throughout the region.
Most Egyptian jewellery was created with a variety of semi precious gemstones, minerals, metals, man made materials (such as glass) and animal products, obtained in the local hills and deserts of Egypt’s boundaries (with the exception of lapis lazuli, which was imported from other far countries, eg Afghanistan).
The colours of the semi precious gemstones, as well as the meanings of the colours in Egyptian culture shaped the creation and style of Egyptian jewellery so that it could be worn both in life and death to give power to the body. Both men and women wore jewellery in Ancient Egypt, for aesthetic adornment, as a symbol of power and wealth and also as protection from evil.
Ancient Egyptian jewellery occurred as bracelets, brooches, clasps, collars, coronets, girdles, earrings, pectorals (armbands), headdresses, diadems, cartouches, finger-rings (rings) and many more.
Many treasures buried in the tombs of Egypt were stolen by tomb-robbers over the ages, and some treasures were recycled by newly deceased persons requiring afterlife adornment, including royalty.
The famously intact tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun gave the world a historical and archaeological insight into Egyptian culture and symbolism. The wealth of Tutankhamun’s tomb is astonishing but small compared to the vast treasures accumulated by other enduring Pharoahs of Ancient Egypt.
The Meaning Of Common Gemstones In Egyptian Jewellery
RED JASPER, GARNET, BRECCIA, CARNELIAN
Representing the spirit of life through blood, energy, power and life. Worn more often by the deceased, red gemstones were said to appease the god Isis’ need for blood.
Colour of vegetation, crops, fertility and new life (spring season). Linked to the papyrus plant, regarded as a symbol of health and flourishment. Worn to encourage a good harvest.
GREEN SEMI-PRECIOUS GEMSTONES
Including green turquoise, imitation glass, green jasper, green feldspar, prase, chrysoprase, emerald, olivine, serpentine, beryl and peridot were favoured by Egyptians for good health, fertility, resurrection and vigour.
A dark blue semi-precious gemstone, sometimes imitated in glass. Lapis lazuli symbolised the night sky and creative delights. It also represented royalty, hence it was one of the most prized of semi-precious gemstones in Egyptian jewellery creation.
Representative of the Sun God, Ra (linked to “creative power”, warmth, growth and “the creator”). Gold was transcribed from the Book of the Dead as being the main jewellery that should be used in Egyptian funerals, from amulets and pendants to bangles, earrings, rings, anklets, girdles, bracelets, collars and pectorials.
Called “nub hedj”, meaning “white gold”.
The first metal to be used by Egyptian jewelers in the Badarian Period. “Electrum” copper occurred in Lydia (Western Anatolia) and was added to gold and silver to make an alloy for jewellery.
Was used commonly in Egyptian jewellery and would sometimes be gilded (covered in gold leaf).
Was cold-worked to emulate semi precious gemstones, and was easier to work with than the actual gemstones. It is estimated that polychrome glass was used around 2000 BC. Common usage displays archaeologically in enamel inlays, beads, amulets and figurines.
ALABASTER QUARTZ (ROCK CRYSTAL)
The colour white in Egyptian mythology represented purity and omnipotence. White was also regarded the colour of minimality, simplicity and sacredness.
BLACK BURNT ANIMAL BONES
The colour black symbolised death and night. The god Osiris was “the black god”, king of the afterlife and the colour black was associated with the underworld and also resurrection. The silt from the overflowing Nile provided the means for crop fertility and allowed Egypt to name itself “kemet” (the Black Land). Black was also a colour of fertility due to the silt soil association.
Symbolism Of Shapes In Egyptian Jewellery
GIRDLE TIE OF ISIS
An amulet made of red jasper, placed on a mummy’s throat to symbolise power of the living for the afterlife
SCARAB BEETLE (DUNG BEETLE)
Scarab beetles are often carved out of semi precious gemstones and are a form of “glyptic art”, usually carved in softer stones with emery or flint. Glyptic objects included religious carvings of sacred objects and anthropomorphic religious symbols. The scarab beetle in particular symbolised rebirth, due to the rolled dung ball being a birthing chamber for a newborn beetle.
A hieroglyphic symbol resembling the Christian cross that may have evolved from a common sandal strap shape, bow or knot. The ankh represents life and is often carried in the hands of Egyptian gods.
Human royal authorities considered to be divine beings in Egyptian society, susceptible to human weaknesses while containing god-like power. A Pharaoah acted as an important link between the Egyptian people and the gods and it was believed that in death they became a complete deity.
A box (with circular ends) containing the important and many names of a Pharaoh. Cartouches were potent with solar symbology and protection for royalty. The cartouche shape was often used in finger rings and cartouches have been found in many Egyptian tombs, as sarcophagi, decorations and in palace walls, where the hieroglyphics contained the names of the cities and people that the reigning Pharoah dominated.
These were popular in Egyptian jewellery as the left hand ring finger contains a vein that leads to the heart, while the heart lies on the left side of the body. Egyptian symbolism in finger rings explains the origins of modern engagement and wedding rings worn today.
Thanks For Reading...
Thank you for reading my article about Egyptian jewellery. The symbolism behind the colours, shapes and beliefs that created Egyptian jewellery is fascinating and applicable to jewellery we wear today.
The preservation of ancient history and the conclusions we can draw from the presentation of Egyptian jewellery found in tombs gives us an insight into a complex and interesting culture by a sensual people who put meaning and devotion into their life’s surroundings.
© 2013 Suzanne Day