Jewelry in Egyptian Society
Throughout the 30 centuries of ancient Egyptian civilization, there was a common appreciation of jewelry among both men and women of all classes in the Egyptian community. Most Egyptians wore some form of jewelry and were also buried with their ornaments for the afterlife. Jewelry such as necklaces, neck collars, rings, bracelets, amulets, and diadems was fashioned in a variety of materials, depending on the wealth and status of the wearer.
Predynastic Egyptians discovered the malleability of gold and its resistance to tarnishing. These properties, combined with its natural radiance, made it a sought-after material in the use of ornaments that signified the elite status of its owner. The popularity of gold jewelry flourished throughout Egypt’s long history as evidenced by the staggering volume of gold ornaments that have been unearthed in archeological excavations.
Access to Gold
Most of the gold used in ancient Egypt was obtained from the Eastern Desert region, the mountainous area between the Nile and the Red Sea, with some mines located as far as 800 miles south of Cairo. According to available records, there were at least 1300 active mines in antiquity and a complex enterprise of gold production and goldsmithing proliferated on the banks of the Nile. Tributes and conquests from abroad also filled the ancient Egyptian coffers with gold. Nubia, located in present-day Sudan, was believed to be a notable source.
Predynastic Mining Roots
Nebu was an Egyptian symbol for gold and the hieroglyph was depicted by a golden collar with ends hanging off the sides and seven spines dangling from the middle. The references to gold were present in the writings of the First Dynasty between 2925 to 2775 BCE, however, the Predynastic Egyptians were already mining gold between 4000 BCE to 3001 BCE (in the time before a written language had been established). Although Egypt was rich in gold, its extraction wasn’t an unremarkable feat given the rudimentary tools at the disposal of ancient Egyptians.
Gold mining and metallurgy were established into an elaborate system over time, and ancient Egyptians established the foundations still employed in modern metalsmithing. By the time of the New Kingdom, the vast gold-mining enterprise was under the royal command and monopoly, and was run by a workforce comprising convicts and slaves. It was a difficult and dangerous job and the work conditions were treacherous and frequently fatal.
Creating Gold Ornaments
Goldsmiths hammered raw gold into sheets and used a variety of techniques to create finished products. Techniques were developed locally or borrowed from foreign cultures to turn this coveted metal into luxurious jewelry. Precious stones or glass were embedded into gold to create sophisticated designs, and gold was also inlaid or soldered into other types of jewelry or items to enhance them.
Silver-Tainted Gold Jewelry
Ancient Egyptians remained undeterred by the lack of purity of gold, as most relics including jewelry contained silver in some or significant amounts. Electrum, a naturally occurring gold-silver alloy that contains between 20 and 80 percent gold, was a valued material. Egyptian goldsmiths manipulated the natural “taint” of Electrum caused by the uneven tarnishing of the gold and silver components to imbibe artful red imperfections in finished products.
For ancient Egyptians, gold had religious connotations as it was believed to be a divine metal and the flesh of the sun god, Ra. Initially, the use of gold was reserved for kings and royals, however, it was expanded to priests and nobles over time. Archeological excavations revealed an unfathomable amount of personal ornaments, allowing a small glimpse into the riches of ancient Egyptian society.
Unfathomable Wealth and Looting
100 years ago, in 1922, Howard Carter exhumed the relatively intact tomb of Tutankhamun in a discovery that not just mesmerized academia but captivated the whole world. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of his discovery was the vast wealth and riches that accompanied Tutankhamun to the afterlife, as he was a relatively insignificant king. Burials of pharaohs that were more significant likely contained a wealth of unfathomable proportions that unfortunately succumbed to the looting that had already become rampant in antiquity. There are relatively minimal artifacts remaining from the Early Dynastic periods.
Legacy of Grand Gold Jewelry
Despite the tragic looting of excavation sites that has continued to contemporary times, there still remains a notable legacy of gold jewelry from ancient Egypt displayed in museum collections all over the world that provides a brief glimpse into the unfathomable wealth and sophistication of the world’s most popular ancient civilization.