In February Carol Andrews came to talk to the Essex Egyptology Group about Ancient Egyptian jewellery – in particular that worn by women. She structured her talk as an overview of the various types of jewellery and for each type she looked at both the archaeological evidence and at the artistic representations of the jewellery. Men wore as much jewellery as women, and in fact there are very few if any forms that were specific to women.
One of the common forms of jewellery worn by both sexes is the broad collar, constructed of several concentric strings of beads with pendants on the outermost string. At the ends of the strings there may be large ornate terminals, and the heavier collars needed a counterpoise at the back to keep it attractively balanced around the neck. The first surviving example dates to the Middle Kingdom, but they are depicted on statues at least as far back as the 4th Dynasty (including on the statue of Rahotep and his wife Nofret that is now in the Cairo Museum). Andrews talked about an example from c.1800 BCE discovered at Hawarra which had falcon heads at the ends of the collar and a counterpoise with a matching falcon design. This indicates that it was specifically for funerary contexts (with the falcon heads representing Horus). She also discussed an 18th Dynasty example where the beads are all floral motifs – lotuses, poppy seeds etc. To modern eyes these look feminine but they belonged to both men & women as a substitute for real flower collars (which are depicted in tomb reliefs showing scenes of parties).
It’s just by chance that most of the surviving collars are for women – men definitely wore these collars as well. Broad collars are the most commonly depicted form of jewellery up until the Saite period, after which they are rare except in depictions of the Pharaoh or of deities. In fact, as Andrews pointed out, they’re almost essential for depicting gods who have animal heads. Having a broad collar covering up the top of the shoulders & the base of the neck removes the need to represent the join between the animal head & the human body, many of which would be very awkward indeed. Like the goddesses with snake heads, often represented with a whole snake coiled up or the vulture headed gods whose scrawny necks would somehow need to join to their brawny human shoulders.
Some broad collars were made of precious metals, and the first example of these that she showed us was a fragmentary one found in the Valley of the Kings that she believes may possibly have belonged to Akhenaten. One might think that such heavy & expensive collars would all belong to men (either because it would take strength to wear them or because of the wealth it implied), but Andrews showed us that this was not the case by telling us about three surviving examples that belonged to women. The first was from the burial of three minor wives of Tutmosis III (the material from which is now in the Met in New York) which is a collar with metal beads with inlays, in the shapes of hieroglyphs. Another dating to 1550 BCE has falcon terminals and beads in the shapes of lions, gazelles & other motifs reminiscent of contemporary Aegean art, so perhaps a sign of “exotic” influences for this piece of jewellery. And finally a collar found in Giza dating to the 4th Dynasty has many beetle-shaped beads.
Another sort of necklace that the Ancient Egyptian women wore was a choker – 2 rings with vertical beads between them. None of these survive, we know of them only from depictions in reliefs where all classes of women are shown wearing them. Other necklaces had large pendants made using a technique called cloisonné. Andrews explained that this involved making little compartments with gold which are then filled in with inlaid stones. She showed us several examples of these – mostly from the Middle Kingdom period, when these pendants have only been found associated with women. However the designs on them might seem more appropriate for men – the cartouche of the king, or warlike and smiting scenes. Despite the earlier association with women, by the Late Period these pectorals are only seen worn by men (except in funerary contexts when women still have them).
The Ancient Egyptians didn’t just wear necklaces. Another common form of jewellery is the diadem, which over time came to be solely for women. The earliest known example was from the Naqada II period, so this is a very early style. You can see in my photo above that the Old Kingdom statue of Nofret shows her wearing a diadem decorated with floral motifs, which a common theme that Andrews said was imitating wildflowers. There might also be other motifs on diadems such as protective vulture motifs for senior royal women, or gazelle heads which might be the badge for more junior royal women (minor wives or concubines).
Another common item of jewellery was a fish shaped pendant – these were worn to ward off drowning. Andrews told us a story that the Ancient Egyptians told about the King travelling on the river in a boat rowed by women from his harem (as entertainment for the man who has everything) when one of the girls lost her pendant. The King offered to replace it for her, but she insisted she wanted her own one back – so the court magician parted the waters of the Nile and the pendant was retrieved from the riverbed and the journey could continue. Very reminiscent of the later Biblical story of Moses & the Red Sea, of course!
Both men & women wore girdles from at least 4500 BCE, these were strings of beads that were tied around the waist. One very common form during the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom for women consisted of beads shaped like cowrie shells (or later a more abstract representation of the shells). When these sorts of girdles were first discovered in the 19th Century they were referred to as “wallet” beads in a somewhat Victorian-gentlemanly fashion that ignored the more obvious symbolism. In Ancient Egypt the shape of the cowrie shell was symbolic of the female genitalia, and they were worn close to that region as a protective symbol. There were also sexual connotations – Andrews referenced the dancing girls painted on the walls of Nebamun’s tomb who are young, nubile & wearing nothing but their cowrie shell girdles. But women from higher social classes were also buried with cowrie shell girdles – like the great queens of the 12th Dynasty. Andrews said that this was because the girdles were a symbol of the rejuvenation of their sexuality & fertility in the afterlife. Another sort of girdle worn by women in the Middle Kingdom consisted of beads shaped like acacia seeds. These seeds were used in Egyptian medicine to prevent haemorrhage after childbirth so it’s thought that the girdles were again protective symbols worn round the appropriate area of the body.
There are many representations from the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom periods of women wearing anklets, formed (like chokers) of two rings with vertical beads between them. This form of jewellery dies out in the New Kingdom, Andrews speculated that the cause was an increase in sandal wearing which got in the way of the jewellery and also the the fashion for dresses had changed. Gods & goddesses continued to be represented with anklets tho – this was just a mortal change of fashion. Anklets often came in sets with matching bracelets & armlets, which means that it can be difficult to tell exactly which has been excavated unless the full set is discovered. One thing distinguishes some anklets – generally those worn by dancing girls – is that they have little claw amulets attached to them. These aren’t royal lions claws, they are bird claws probably indicating the gracefulness of the dancer. But interestingly as with the cowrie girdles the great queens of the 12th Dynasty are buried with anklets with claws – again in the funerary context this is likely to represent fertility in the afterlife.
Bracelets are again found from early in Egyptian history – one example was found in the burial of Djer (a 1st Dynasty Pharaoh) which had been robbed a long time before archaeologists got there, what was found was a mummified arm stuck in a crack in the wall which had a bracelet on it. Andrews said this was probably Djer’s own arm, not that of his wife (who may also have been buried there). This example isn’t just early, it’s also unusual in that the way it was discovered means that we have the order that the beads were strung in. Normally jewellery made of beads is discovered just as a collection of loose beads and so the order we see things strung together in a modern museum is pure conjecture (and sometimes museums restring the jewellery they have as they think of better ways to do so). During the Middle Kingdom bracelets often had spacers made of gold beads soldered to a baseplate (or just each other) which kept the rest of the beads in the right place. The great queens of the 12th Dynasty had spacers in their bracelets shaped like lions, over the centuries this motif changed from the regal & powerful lion to more feminine pussy cats via cats in lion poses (in the 17th Dynasty). Another form that bracelets could take was a rigid silver bangle, examples of these are found as far back as the pre-dynastic era. During the New Kingdom period this type was altered by making it hinged – examples of these were buried with three of Tutmosis III’s minor wives.
Earrings were the latest form of jewellery to be adopted in Ancient Egypt, and are not seen before the Hyksos period (the Second Intermediate Period). But they weren’t the result of Asian influences from the Hyksos rulers, instead they came from the fashions of the Nubian mercenaries that fought for the Theban kings of the 17th Dynasty. During the New Kingdom earrings were the fashion for everyone – male, female & children. Andrews showed us several examples of large & heavy gold earrings, all of which were worn in pierced ears (and looked rather uncomfortable to me!). Earrings also show up in depictions of people in reliefs – for instance in Nefertari’s tomb she’s depicted with several different styles of earrings in the different scenes. Even mummy cases are shown wearing earrings. Interestingly, though, the Pharaoh isn’t ever shown wearing earrings – in the question section at the end of the talk Andrews was asked about this & she said that she thought it was a public/private distinction. When the Pharaoh had his crown on and was in formal or ceremonial settings then he didn’t have earrings, but when he was in private he still wore them.
Finger rings were the last type of jewellery that Andrews showed us. A lot of finger rings have been found, some of them even on the fingers of mummies, but you never see anyone depicted in a relief wearing one which is a bit odd. Many rings were used as seals – either with a swivelling bezel (perhaps scarab shaped) or static stirrup shaped rings. Women’s seal rings had their own names on them, which implies they were able to authorise their own documents etc. Other than rings found on the fingers of women it can be hard to tell which gender a ring was for just from the design. The shape of the ring might hold some clues – Neith or Mut are both goddess associated with women, for instance. Frog shaped rings might have associations with childbirth, or cat shaped rings with Bastet. But this isn’t a certain diagnostic, and Andrews showed us a few examples of “feminine” themed rings where it’s certain that they actually belonged to men.
Andrews finished up her survey of Ancient Egyptian jewellery worn by women with a short summary: whilst some forms of jewellery might’ve been more commonly worn by women at one time or another there were no forms of jewellery that were exclusively for Ancient Egyptian women.
This was an fascinating overview of a subject I’d not previously given much thought to. I found it particularly interesting that some jewellery types are only known from archaeological evidence and some only from the art that the Egyptians left us. Accidents of survival can make quite a difference to how we see the past.