The Gods Collection: Objects of Protection
Understand Egypt, Understanding Egyptian Jewellery:
From the dawn of civilization, jewellery has been a method by which humans visually communicate wealth, project social status and power. To understand the role of jewellery for Egyptians one must consider how a piece was worn, and by whom it was worn. For example, one might ask: “was the jewellery decorating Tutankhamun’s mummy worn by the living Tutankhamun or was it specially made for his mummy?” The answer is uncertain. What is certain, however, is the production of jewellery in ancient Egypt was prolific. Egyptians of all classes clearly loved jewellery for it’s aesthetic appeal with broad necklaces covered in intricate gold-work, and colourful lapis lazuli and turquoise beads. In addition to the aesthetic value jewellery held in the ancient world, and perhaps to a greater extent, jewellery was imbued with a magical significance.
The magic of jewellery lifted it beyond function as a mere physical ornament. We can deduce the magical power of jewellery from the evidence excavated from tombs. The abundance of pharaonic jewellery that remained draped over mummies, even after tomb raiders visited in some cases, suggests the lavish tastes of the pharaohs and that jewellery was seen as necessary and powerful talismans for the afterlife. In ancient Egypt, jewellery opulently adorned statues of the gods, as well as the mummified bodies of the dead.
The few examples of ancient Egyptian jewellery, that today lie behind glass in museum cabinets, have almost exclusively been excavated from tombs. The design and iconography of this jewellery is indicative of the spiritual function it carried out. To decode the designs and iconography reveals a rich culture of myth and superstition. The uses of scarab beetles, as well as other insect images found in pendants, for example, were not merely decorative but represented concepts such as resurrection. Jewellery can be read like hieroglyphs, images and words merging together in the skilled craftsmanship of jewellers and goldsmiths.
Objects of Protection:
Life in ancient Egypt was hazardous and continues to be filled with potential for danger and harm. Jewellery has historically held symbolic meaning. This meaning has traditionally been made manifest in a physical object; to wear certain ornaments is a way to put on a shield against the world. For example the wadjat eye was “intended to protect the pharaoh in the afterlife” (David P. Silverman, (1997). "Chapter 14: Egyptian Art"ancient Egypt. Duncan Baird Publishers. p. 228). Such protective ornaments are today known as Amulets and were worn across the chest. In ancient Egypt they were called ‘meket’ or ‘nehet’. This name is derived from verbs meaning ‘to protect’ or ‘wedja’ meaning ‘well being’. Amulets were part of an individual’s everyday wear to keep them safe. Amulets were not the exclusive reserve of the elite as every class of society owned and wore jewellery. However the materials used for jewellery varied enormously and can be used as a sign of social status, naturally the quality of materials used for a amulet would reflect an individual’s wealth and tastes. An amulet would often be in the form of an animal and the animal's characteristics were believed to be present in the representation. In addition to substituting abstract qualities, such as courage or health, an amulet could even substitute body parts. For example, a pair of obsidian fingers from the Late Period (c. 600 BCE) were discovered attached to a mummy. The amulet was placed at the point of incision through which the internal organs of the dead were removed prior to embalming, thus sealing the body and preserving it against evil spirits and decay. The carved fingers could therefore represent the god of embalming, Anubis.
A Closer Look:
As part of the Amarna Project, excavations unearthed a skeleton that has been identified as a male of 35-40 years. The feature of note for this skeleton was found on his foot. He was laid to rest wearing a toe ring. The skeleton had not been mummified, which suggests that he was not of a high class. Therefore the skeleton is an interesting example of the average man in ancient Egypt; the tombs of pharaohs which form the majority of our evidence reveal a narrow and elite example of life and burial customs. The placement of the toe ring has been noted as an item of interest by the assistant director of the project, Anna Stevens. The right foot on which the copper alloy toe ring rests has a fracture that continues in the femur. This fracture Stevens writes “healed at an angle and must have caused this individual considerable ongoing pain.” It is unlikely that the toe ring was a rudimentary medical innovation to hold the toe in place while the body was alive. Instead, it is possible that the placement of the ring upon the injured foot suggests the ring was believed to hold some kind of healing powers and bring the injury to the gods' attention in the afterlife.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead:
The Egyptian Book of the Dead was a assemblage of funerary manuscripts, containing individualistically composed magical spells. These spells are similar in form to hymns of today, and would have been recited during religious rituals. Superstitions around evil spirits were common in ancient Egypt. Myths and stories grew up about the journey of the soul to the afterlife under constant threat from phantom animals, such as crocodiles and scorpions. These dangerous animals were representational of the perils experienced by the living. Today such talismans take on a more symbolic and psychological meaning with the decreased threat of nature replaced by the constant threat of fast paced vehicles while just walking down the street.
Later collections of spells were gathered in what is known as Coffin Texts, which the Egyptian's used to aid the transfer of the soul to the afterlife, a manual for the spiritual journey was practical rather than a finite text or doctrinal statement. The original ‘books’ were scrolls on papyrus illustrated with beautiful coloured illustrations and hieroglyphic script to form a narrative. The colour, materials and skilled labour required to make the scrolls meant that the books were typically the preserve of the rich and noble. The stories which they describe would undoubtably have been known by all classes and recited as part of the Egyptian’s religious practice. The heirolglyphic figures of the gods can still be seen in examples preserved in museums, and they illustrate the form and role jewellery took in the journey of the soul after death into the afterlife.