jewellery of the pharaohs

Ancient Egyptian jewellery

What is the history of traditional jewellery in North Africa and the Middle East? Historical context and cultural heritage have left their traces in the traditional jewellery worn in countries as we know them today, and so this blog series takes us back to the distant past. In this blog, I will look at jewellery history in Egypt in very broad strokes: what is the history of ancient Egyptian jewellery?

Jewellery along the Nile

Egypt’s geographical location in northeastern Africa, on the fertile banks of the river Nile wedged in between deserts, has contributed to a recognizable style: while trade and diplomatic contacts brought international influences to Egypt, the country was also isolated enough to maintain its own style. Although jewellery from ancient Egypt seems to be represented well, what we know of today actually reflects only a very small portion of jewellery that once existed.

This is because jewellery of costly materials was often melted down and reused and stones were carved and recarved. Jewellery as is excavated from undisturbed royal burials gives us an idea of the adornment of the elite, while bits and pieces and fragments of faience jewellery tells the tale of local jewellery.

Ancient jewellery: before the pyramids

The use of jewellery in ancient Egypt dates back to early prehistory. When prehistoric communities gradually developed into kingdoms, jewellery was used to express ideology and status. One of the earliest rulers whose tomb has been excavated, is King Djer. He was buried near Abydos around 3,000 BCE, and his tomb is one of the largest of its kind. This was before the pyramids were built. The bracelets found in his tomb are the oldest surviving examples of royal jewellery in Egypt, and share a history of ideology, technology and trade.

Old Kingdom jewellery: the treasure box of the King’s Mother

The Great Pyramid on the Giza Plateau near Cairo was built by Pharaoh Khufu, known as Cheops to the Greeks. The tomb of his mother Hetep-Heres was discovered by chance only a stone’s throw away. A set of 10 silver bracelets per arm, gradually expanding in size so she could wear them from wrist to elbow, were carefully stored in a purpose-made box. They were decorated with butterfly motifs in carnelian and lapis lazuli.

During this period, we also find the use of cylinder seals. These were rolled into wet clay by means of signing and sealing. They take the form of beads and were worn visibly. This type of adornment combines the practical with status: whoever wore these, was able to read and write, and in a position of power.

The use of cylinder seals itself is mainly attested in Mesopotamia (current-day Syria and Iraq), and so these beads also tell us out about contacts and exchange with that region.

Middle Kingdom jewellery: princesses and diplomats

The pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom (2040 – 1780 BCE) chose Dahshur as their burial site. Here they built pyramids surrounded by other tombs, and in the funerary complex of king Senwosret III the treasure of a princess called Sit-Hathor-Yunet was found.

The jewellery pieces show the favoured combination of turquoise, lapis lazuli and carnelian and are very finely made. Among the jewellery were diadems, hair decoration, pectoral pendants, girdles, bracelets and anklets. Judging by the quality of the workmanship, these are believed to have been created in royal workshops, and are likely to have been commissioned by the king himself.

The find of one such pectoral pendant with the name of king Amenemhet III in current-day Lebanon, and now in the National Museum in Beirut, may even indicate jewellery was sent out as diplomatic gifts or traveled with high ranking Egyptians.

New Kingdom jewellery: the time of Tutankhamun

Around 1400 BCE, Egypt was a regional ‘superpower’. Not just the Egyptian Nile Valley, but large parts of current-day Sudan, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria were firmly under the control of the pharaohs. Their span of influence reached even further, as trade contacts were kept with the Aegean world, Cyprus and Mesopotamia.

This resulted in not only an abundance of materials to work with, but in new style influences as well. In turn, luxury goods from Egypt were sent out all over the region. Scarabs bearing the names of pharaohs were exchanged as gifts and propaganda, Egyptian gold was in high demand and local rulers were buried with fine examples of Egyptian craftmanship.

The jewellery of Tutankhamun shows the wide variety of materials used: not just gold and semi-precious stones, but also flowers mixed with gold and faience beads.

A stela of Nubian queen Amanishakheto, paired with a piece of gold jewellery belonging to her

The Nubian kingdoms: jewellery of the warrior-queens

While Egypt has always traded with, and later on conquered Nubia because they needed access to gold, the tables were turned in the 8th century BCE.

The Nubian king Piye, based in Napata in northern Sudan, gathered an army and conquered Egypt. Like the Egyptian kings, the Nubian kings were buried in pyramids, surrounded by lavish grave goods including jewellery. These were all made in an Egyptianizing style and incorporated Egyptian gods and stylistic elements.

Around the beginning of the CE, the Nubian kingdoms had established their capital even further south, in Meroë. Nubian queens ruled in their own right and led a firm resistance against the Roman armies, that had by then invaded Egypt. Queen Amanirenas, who ruled between 40 and 10 BCE, staged a surprise attack on the Roman armies and captured several cities in the south of Egypt.

These Nubian queens are depicted in Egyptianizing style, and always decked out in jewellery befitting their status.

A Fayum portrait from Egypt, combined with a Roman gold necklace.

Roman Egypt: jewellery in an multicultural world

During the Greek and Roman periods, Egyptian tradition mixed with new influences. In Fayum Oasis, elite ladies were buried with a painted portrait that adorned their mummy. These portraits show lifelike images of the deceased, dressed out in their finery.

The people depicted are dressed in Roman style fashion, hairdo and jewellery, and portraits offer much insight into the jewellery worn. Several examples of this jewellery have also been found in archaeological excavations.

Egypt formed part of a long-distance trade network: pearls came from the area of current-day UAE, diamonds, rubies and sapphires were imported from Asia and emeralds were mined in Egypt’s Eastern Desert.

Fatimid jewellery: medieval splendour

Cairo was the capital of the Fatimid dynasty (909 – 1171). The jewellery of this period is exceptionally finely made, using wire filigree and granulation. Not much of it survived, as it was mostly melted down in later periods. Besides in Egypt and Syria, Fatimid jewellery has been found in Spain as well and served there as the basis for later jewellery styles.

The openwork filigree of the Fatimids continued to be produced under the Ottomans, albeit less delicate and in completely different shapes, and so continued into the traditional jewellery of our time.

This blog will continue with the traditional silver jewellery of Egypt.

Where can I learn more about ancient Egyptian jewellery?

Want to find out more about the history of pharaonic jewellery? The e-course on ancient Egyptian jewellery is here for you: jewellery, hairstyles, dress, fashion, fragrance and tattoos in ancient Egypt explained!

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References for further reading

RAWI Issue 7

Bulsink, M. 2015. Egyptian Gold Jewellery. Palma Egyptology 12, Brepols Publishers, Turnhout

Fletcher, N. 2020. Ancient Egyptian Jewelry. 50 Masterpieces of Art and Design. AUC Press, Cairo.

Jenkins, M. 1988. Fatimid Jewelry, its influences and subtypes, in: Ars Orientalis, Vol. 18

Lacovara, P. and Y. Markowitz, 2020. Jewels of the Nile. Giles Art Publishing

Lane, E.W. 1860. An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. The Definitive 1860 Edition. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo (2003).

Markowitz, Y. and D. Doxey, 2014. Jewels of Ancient Nubia. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. Her main field of expertise is jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, as well as archaeological and archaeological revival jewellery. She has authored several books on jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Turquoise Mountain Jordan, and many others. She provides consultancy and research on jewellery collections for both museums and private collections, teaches courses and curates exhibitions. She is not involved in the business of buying and selling jewellery, and focuses on research, knowledge production, and education only.