Jewellery in Ancient Egypt
Jewellery was gender-neutral, to use a modern term, in ancient Egyptian society. Both men and women of all classes owned and wore jewellery, from gold earrings to glass or pottery bead bracelets and faience rings, as well as elaborate wide collar necklaces. Naturally the materials varied according to an individual's financial and social status. Jewellery was, and continues to be, an indication of social status. For example, the broad collars were traditionally given as gifts to male officials as a sign of favour from the Pharaoh.
The wide and complex social function and form of Egyptian jewellery is broad given the long period. In 3000 years of pharaonic history, in which thirty dynasties of ruling families produced over one hundred and sixty kings, as well as princesses and queens, only six major caches of royal jewellery have survived and been discovered in modern times. Gold, unfortunately has always been the target of tomb robberies as it is easy to melt down, reuse and sell. Rings were one of the more common items found in excavations, this is likely due to their popularity and being mass produced.
Examples of major collections :
- Dynasty 18 hoard of Princess of Tuthmosis III (Amenhotep III’s great-grandfather) at Thebes.
- Tutankhamun (Amenhotep’s grandson)
Types and terminology of Egyptian Jewellery:
- Usekh or Wesekh collar: a broad collar often of hammered or repousse gold worn by pharaohs at the beginning of the 18th Dynasty. Later Wesekh collars were awarded by the king as gifts for deserving dignitaries and were thus worn as declarations of honour.
- Mankhet: a counterpoise attached to the clasp of heavy Wesekh collars to balance them on the chest of the wearer.
- Shebyu collars: necklaces in ancient Egypt took various forms and were known by a broad collection of names to describe the small differences. The Shebyu collar as one such variant first believed to have often been worn during the New Kingdom by Thutmosis IV.
- Pectoral: were a popular form of necklace and typically used the outstretched Isis wing motif framing a scarab or kneeling goddess. The long pendent stretched across the chest or pectorals and was hung on a chain. Pectoral necklaces were often layered on top of Wesekh collars.
- Serekh beads- Serekh is a rectangular frame which lies at the base of a design. The frame is traditionally decorated with recessed paneling. This design was found on many façades of early brick tombs and false doors of the Old Kingdom, it is known as palace-façade. Within this decorative pattern is often found the name of Horus and atop the frame perched the falcon of Horus in profile.
- Mehet-Weret: goddess of the sky depicted as a golden cow, or cow headed woman, with a sun disc nestled between her horns. Her name can be literally translated as ‘great flood’ or ‘great swimmer’ as she embodies the celestial waters of the Milky Way.
- Diadem: jewelled crown or headband worn as a symbol of sovereignty.