Sacred Adornment: Jewelry as Belief in Ancient Egypt

By Glencairn Museum

The Egyptian jewelry collection at Glencairn Museum enables us to explore ancient Egyptian religious beliefs. By examining the materials and symbols present in these ornaments, we can come away with a deeper understanding of the complex ideas that guided the artists, as well as the hopes and beliefs of those who first wore this jewelry in ancient times.

Dress with ancient jewelryGlencairn Museum

The collection

Raymond Pitcairn acquired his collection of ancient jewelry from a Lebanese antiquities dealer named Azeez Khayat and his son, Victor, during the 1920s and 1930s. Most of the necklaces in this exhibit are made up of elements that originally derived from a variety of ancient sources. As was typical at this time, antiquities dealers would restring ancient beads and amulets into designs that would be attractive to the modern collector.

When Pitcairn purchased the jewelry now in Glencairn Museum’s collection, he intended for it to be worn. Much of it was intended for Mildred, his wife, but their daughters and granddaughters were also allowed to select one necklace each for themselves.

Necklace with earringsGlencairn Museum

The eleven gold rings in this necklace were in all likelihood originally earrings. Azeez Khayat, the antiquities dealer who sold the necklace to Raymond Pitcairn, often created necklaces for his clients by incorporating a variety of elements from different periods of Egyptian history.

Necklace with gold scarabsGlencairn Museum

Materials and methods

The jewelry in Glencairn’s collection represents a diverse assortment of materials, including semi-precious stones and metals such as gold, silver, and bronze.

Necklace with amuletsGlencairn Museum

Some of the earliest jewelry in the collection can be found on this necklace, which features amulets carved from a variety of semi-precious stones including carnelian, amethyst, quartz, and green feldspar.

Wedjat eye mold and amuletGlencairn Museum

One of the most common materials used in the production of Egyptian jewelry was faience, a man-made, self-glazing composition comprised of crushed quartz, alkaline salts, lime, and colorants. Egyptian jewelers used faience to make beads, amulets, inlays, vessels, and figurines.

Most of the faience amulets in this exhibit were mass-produced in ceramic molds like this one. Faience paste was pressed into the mold to make a positive form, and then quickly removed. The amulet was then placed in a kiln. This mold was for making the very popular wedjat eye amulet, which was worn to promote health and well-being.

Necklace with gold pendantsGlencairn Museum

Forms and functions

Over the more than 3000 years of pharaonic history, Egyptian artisans produced a dazzling variety of jewelry meant to be worn by the living and the dead, men and women, human and divine. Egyptian adornment decorated parts of the body from head to foot. Diadems, hairpins, and hair rings adorned the head. Earrings were popular in both stud and hoop styles. Collars, necklaces, and pendants adorned the necks of both men and women. Bracelets, armlets, and anklets could be worn on the arms and legs, and finger rings appeared in a variety of styles. Jewelry was often worn during life and then placed in the burial with the mummy after death.

Ring with Isis (?)Glencairn Museum

A sunk relief (intaglio) image of a seated Egyptian goddess decorates the bezel of this signet ring. She sits on a low-backed throne and holds a staff in her outstretched hand. Her dress is designed with a pattern of beaded netting. The goddess appears to have a uraeus (rearing cobra) at her brow. This may be an image of Isis.

Earrings in the form of snakesGlencairn Museum

Earrings became popular in Egypt around 1500 BCE. These earrings date to the Roman period, and are designed with an S-shaped loop of gold that resembles a snake. Contemporary funerary portraits show women of the period wearing similar earrings.

Necklace with amulets of deitiesGlencairn Museum

Gods and goddesses

The Egyptian pantheon was vast. Certain deities could represent natural phenomena like the sun, the moon, or the inundation of the Nile. Some were closely connected to kingship and the royal sphere, while others protected the house and home. Many deities were associated with death, burial, and the afterlife.

Throughout their lives, the ancient Egyptians revered gods and goddesses, and sought protection and intercession from them through prayers, rituals, and offerings. After death, they hoped to be able to join with them in the afterlife.

Necklace with Taweret amuletsGlencairn Museum

A goddess with a very fearsome appearance, Taweret was in actuality a protective being. She appears as a combination of a variety of dangerous creatures—the hippopotamus, the crocodile, and the lion. Her role in Egyptian religion was to ward off evil, especially the dangers that might threaten a pregnant mother and later her newborn child.

Necklace with Bes amuletGlencairn Museum

Bes is an unusual looking god. Unlike most other deities, he is depicted frontally. He is small in stature, usually wears a feathered headdress, and displays a fearsome expression. He often holds knives, and was responsible for scaring off evil; he especially protected the house and home. Amulets of Bes were worn during life as protection for women and children. Bes and Taweret worked in tandem to protect pregnant mothers and their babies.

Necklace with Duamutef amuletGlencairn Museum

The living and the dead

Jewelry was an important part of daily life for the ancient Egyptians. Adorning the deceased and equipping them with jewelry for the afterlife was equally important. The types of amulets varied between the living and the dead.

Necklace with lotus amuletGlencairn Museum

As a symbol of rebirth and regeneration, the lotus was a popular design, and depictions of this blossom are prevalent in Egyptian art. Lotus flowers are held by both men and women in tomb scenes. In temple scenes bouquets of lotus flowers are offered to the gods. Lotus amulets are often incorporated into broad collars.

Necklace with heart amuletGlencairn Museum

The Egyptians believed that the heart, not the brain, was the center of emotion, thought, and action. One of the Egyptian words for “heart” was ib. Amulets of this type were funerary in nature, and were placed on the upper torso of the mummy.

Necklace with heart scarabGlencairn Museum

Scarabs

The Egyptians were keen observers of nature. Witnessing dung beetles (Scarabeus sacer) pushing balls of dung across the sand, they concluded that it was a dung beetle that rolled the sun-disk across the sky. They also observed young beetles hatching from these balls, and interpreted the scarab as a symbol of rebirth and regeneration.

Scarab ring with deitiesGlencairn Museum

The Egyptians used amulets shaped like scarab beetles as seals, piercing the scarab longitudinally to allow it to be strung on a necklace or incorporated into a ring. The upper side of a scarab seal resembles a beetle, while the flat underside usually bears incised decoration.

This scarab amulet has been incorporated into a ring. The flat underside is carved with a scene of three deities in a boat. Just as the Egyptians traveled on the Nile during their daily lives, they envisioned their gods sailing across the sky in boats. The gods on this boat are flanked by images of the moon.

Necklace with earring and scarabsGlencairn Museum

This necklace includes two ancient Egyptian scarabs carved from steatite. One of the scarabs bears an image of a baboon facing a cartouche with the name of Pharaoh Tuthmosis III. The hieroglyphs above identify Tuthmosis as the “Good God, Lord of the Two Lands.”

Credits: Story

Text and jewelry have been adapted from a 2020-2021 exhibition at Glencairn Museum: Sacred Adornment: Jewelry as Belief in Ancient Egypt.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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