Ancient Egyptians had a sophisticated understanding of precious metals and how they could be altered. They used their understanding to create a lot of beautiful jewelry. The attitude toward jewelry in ancient Egypt was different than our current outlook for many reasons.
You've likely seen images of the ornate Egyptian jewelry found in tombs and carvings. We'll cover the history of ancient Egyptian jewelry so you can understand what you're looking at the next time you stop into the museum.
The History of Ancient Egyptian Jewelry
The construction and use of ancient Egyptian jewelry was dependent on a few factors. The attainment of precious metals and cultural significance were very important. Different metals held different levels of significance and were used to signify different things.
The Egyptians were very interested in adorning themselves with beautiful things. Men, Women, and Children were all decorated in fine jewelry. Even the dead were adorned with their jewelry. Their families believed that decorations gave a better chance of success in the afterlife.
The scarab, for example, is a piece of jewelry with religious significance. The dead were to be buried with a scarab because it represented rebirth. It was thought the presence of one of these would ensure a higher level of reincarnation in the next life.
Metals of Antiquity
In order to create much of their jewelry, the Egyptians had to have access to precious metals. There are seven "metals of antiquity," which much of our modern civilization was built upon.
Those metals are gold, copper, silver, lead, tin, iron, and mercury. They were discovered at different times. Gold was the oldest known material (discovered around 6000 BC), and mercury being the newest (around 750 BC).
A lot of ancient Egyptian jewelry pieces were constructed from gold, which you can see in images of royal tombs and other sacred Egyptian areas.
The wealthier people in society used more gold than copper, with the less fortunate resorting mainly to copper. There were not many, if any, examples of silver in ancient Egypt, as there were no readily available silver mines. Gold was especially popular because it represented the flesh of the gods to ancient Egyptians.
This being said, there was more emphasis placed on the stones that lined the metal than focus on the kind of metal being used. The type and color of stones held significance in the eyes of the Egyptians, thinking that they brought health, luck, and prosperity in some cases.
Jewelers were able to manipulate their materials in order to create new and beautiful colors. Gold, for example, could be combined with different materials in order to create reds, greys, and browns. Copper was also an element that could be manipulated to adjust colors.
Common Forms of Jewelry
Due to the fact that Egypt is so hot, there was less emphasis placed on the amount of clothes you were wearing, and more respect given to the jewelry that adorned your body. This lead to a highly sophisticated jewelry culture, yielding some of the most beautiful pieces that we've found in the ancient world.
Jewelry was given legal significance in the ancient world as well, Egyptian men having to wear a ring with a family emblem engraved on it for identification. This ring was used as a sort of stamp in many cases.
Interestingly, instead of signing a name or marking on legal agreements and official documents, men would simply seal the paper with their family ring. This was strictly for men, however, with women not needing to wear one.
Other common forms of Egyptian jewelry were ankle bracelets, bracelets, armbands, beautifully adorned collar pieces, crowns, earrings, necklaces, rings, and girdles. These adornments were especially important for the nobility.
Jewelry for Pharaohs
The pharaoh was the head of the civilization, requiring first the most beautiful jewelry, and second, an easy and seamless journey through the afterlife. Pharaoh's were ensured to represent all of the animals, colors, and spiritual markers necessary to be properly sent into the afterlife.
Some of these representations included antelopes, birds, cats, tigers, scarabs, and jackals. The pharaoh was also laid to rest with an assortment of the most beautiful, colorful stones available. These were also thought to improve the deceased's travels into the afterlife.
Most importantly, though, was the presence of the pharaoh's mask. This was a golden face mask that represented the likeness of the pharaoh. If the mask wasn't accurate, they thought, the pharaoh would not recognize it and return to it in the afterlife.
The masks were made of gold sheets with precious metals and stones used as eyes and other features. The most impressive collection of these tomb adornments is that of King Tut. A lot of the imagery that comes to mind when we think of ancient Egyptian jewelry is a result of the beauty found in Tut's tomb.
King Tut's Tomb
The tomb was home to a large and beautiful scarab beetle which was made from lazuli. There was another scarab in the form of a bracelet that was believed to belong to the pharaoh as a child. Ornate collars, pectoral adornments, diadems, figurines, earrings, and the most memorable golden mask known to man were also present.
It's thought that earrings were relatively unknown before King Tut's time, and the earrings found in his time were likely brought from Western Asia. Additionally, his tomb housed eleven collar pieces and over twenty amulets, showing just how much emphasis was placed on both the afterlife and the nobility in ancient Egypt.