From at least as early as 4500 BCE, in the Badarean phase of the Predynastic period, the Egyptians were using gemstones for jewelry. Several chapters of the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead) mention particular gems as the ideal materials for specific types of funerary amulets. When imitation gems began to be manufactured from glass, from the eighteenth dynasty onward, it became more common to add the word mʒʿ (“true”) after the terms for such stones as turquoise, lapis lazuli, and amazonite, presumably to indicate their authenticity.
During pharaonic times, the Egyptians were carving and piercing a wide variety of stones, including malachite, garnet, hematite, mica, serpentinite, lapis lazuli, olivine, fluorspar, turquoise, and microline (amazonite, a green feldspar), as well as many varieties of quartz, such as amethyst and rock crystal. By the Ptolemaic period, they were also using emerald.
The earliest Egyptian beadmakers probably carved and pierced gems with flint or chert tools, but by the Naqada phase (4000–3100 BCE) of the Predynastic period copper drills were being used with abrasives—quartz sand and emery (7 and 9, respectively, on the Mohs Scale of Hardness)—to perforate the stone. The copper wires that were used to cut small gems from the Predynastic period onward sometimes left behind distinctive serration marks on the beads. By the New Kingdom, jewel makers were employing sophisticated bow-drilling equipment to drive the drills. This technological development is indicated by the fact that six Theban tombs, dating to the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties, contain scenes showing the drilling of stone beads. The wall paintings in the tomb of the eighteenth dynasty vizier Rekhmire include scenes of temple workshops in which all kinds of objects, from royal statuary to jewelry, were being produced. In the gem-processing scene, one workman is shown drilling three beads simultaneously.
The British Egyptologist Denys Stocks (1989) has undertaken innovative studies of Egyptian gemstone working, by means of a series of reconstructions and experiments based on the surviving artifactual and artistic evidence. Although no New Kingdom multiple drills are known from the archaeological record, Stocks hypothesized that the bow shaft was probably made from some kind of bamboolike reed, such as Arundo donax. He was then able to use the evidence from the Theban tomb scenes to create a replica of the ancient multiple drill and bow. The bows depicted in the tomb of Rekhmire were longer than those represented in other tombs (at about 120 centimeters/47 inches in length), and Stocks noted that the operators of the drills had their fingers entwined in the bowstrings at the far end (a technique which his experimental work showed to be essential for multiple drilling).
Highly prized by the Egyptians was turquoise, an opaque blue-green or pale sky-blue gemstone, the greener form of which was considered special. Many of the Egyptian inscriptions in the turquoise mines at Wadi Mughara and at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula refer to the procurement of a substance called mfkʒt. This word was once translated as “malachite,” but it is now taken to mean “turquoise.” By the Late period, the word mfkʒt had become a synonym for “joy,” presumably indicating the auspicious nature of the material, which, like other green materials, served as a metaphor for fertility and rebirth. Turquoise was used primarily for jewelry from the Predynastic to Greco-Roman times. The earliest significant piece of jewelry incorporating turquoise gems is a bracelet from c.3000 BCE, consisting of thirteen gold and fourteen turquoise serekh-plaques, each crowned by a falcon, excavated from the first dynasty tomb of King Djer at Umm el-Ga'ab, Abydos.
Known to the Egyptians as ḫsbd (mʒʿ) or tfrr, lapis lazuli was used for beads and inlay at least as early as 3500 BCE, the Naqada phase of the Predynastic. The deep blue color of ḫsbd meant that it was identified with the night sky. From the later Predynastic period onward, it was also carved into amulets and scarabs. It was carved into vessels only between the Naqada III period and the Early Dynastic period (apart from one Middle Kingdom example). A temporary cessation in its use occurred during the second and third dynasties, and this two-century gap may correspond to a roughly synchronous dearth of lapis lazuli in Mesopotamia, perhaps caused by a loss of commercial contact with the mines at Badakhshan (in Afghanistan), the only ancient source so far identified.
The cache of twelfth dynasty treasure found at Tod comprised a set of four bronze chests containing numerous gold and silver items, several lapis lazuli cylinder seals from Mesopotamia, which were presumably intended to be recycled by Egyptian craftsmen, as well as beads, unworked fragments, and large blocks of stone. Lapis lazuli was used frequently in jewelry until the Third Intermediate Period and was featured in the jewelry placed in the tomb of Tutankhamun and in the tombs of the rulers buried at Tanis, but thereafter it became a less common element in personal ornamentation. In the Late period, it was one of the most popular materials for very small amulets.
Among the hardest of the materials worked by the ancient Egyptians were the varieties of quartz (7 on the Mohs Scale of Hardness). Both milky quartz and rock crystal seem to have been known to the Egyptians as mnw ḥḏ (“white quartz”). Milky quartz is a cloudy, white stone that, from the late Predynastic until the end of the Early Dynastic period, was frequently carved into pendants and funerary vessels (numerous examples survive in the elite tombs at Abydos and Saqqara). In the Old Kingdom, it was also used for the model vessels forming part of the funerary ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth, later becoming a popular material for inlay and beads during the Middle Kingdom.
From the Predynastic period onward, rock crystal (the colorless, translucent form of quartz) was used for beads and small vessels. During the New Kingdom, it was often used for inlay and as a decorative element in prestige goods, such as weaponry (e.g., the pommel of Tutankhamun's iron dagger) or funerary equipment. Many of the red inlays in the jewelry of Tutankhamun's tomb consisted of rock crystal or milky quartz placed over a bed of red cement, to achieve the effect of carnelian or red glass. Prase, a green form of quartz (which the Egyptians perhaps called prḏn), was also sometimes used for beads during pharaonic times.
Amethyst is a translucent, violet form of quartz, the Old Egyptian word for which was probably ḥsmn. Although in a few instances, amethyst was used for beads, amulets, and small vessels from the late Predynastic period to the end of the Old Kingdom, it was restricted to items of jewelry that date either to the Middle Kingdom or to the Roman era. The most successful uses of amethyst in Egyptian jewelry tend to be necklaces or bracelets comprising simple alternations of gold and amethyst amulets, as in the case of the twelfth dynasty girdle of Sithathoriunet from Illahun. There is some evidence for the trading of amethyst with Crete from at least the Middle Kingdom onward (perhaps in exchange for such products as animal horns, oils, and lichen).
The term chalcedony has been used to refer to a number of types of gemstones, including yellow-red carnelian and brownish-red sard. The Egyptians appear to have used the terms ḥrst and ḥrst dšrt (“red ḥrst”) to refer to carnelian and sard, respectively. Carnelian was one of the earliest gemstones to be used by the Egyptians. At first, in the Predynastic period, only the red and brown forms of carnelian and sard were used for beads and amulets (sometimes covered in glaze), but a yellowish form began to be used during the Middle and New Kingdoms. In pharaonic times, carnelians were used for inlay on jewelry, furniture, and numerous items of funerary equipment (such as coffins), as well as for rings, scarabs, amulets, and even small vessels. During the New Kingdom, when most inlay had begun to be made from colored glass, carnelian was one of the few gemstones still frequently used, although it was sometimes imitated by placing rock crystal or milky quartz on red-painted cement.
The Egyptians may have used the terms kʒ ḥḏ and kʒ km to refer to two other forms of chalcedony: agate (usually banded with several colors) and onyx (usually black), which were used in jewelry in the form of unworked pebbles, beads, and drop pendants. In pharaonic times, its use in jewelry was comparatively infrequent, although it was sometimes used for amulets. It was employed for small vessels in the twenty-fifth and twenty-seventh dynasties, as well as in the Roman era. Onyx was used for beads from the Predynastic period onward, but it was not until after the twenty-first dynasty that onyx and sardonyx became popular; they were most commonly used in Ptolemaic and Roman times (particularly for cameos, intaglios, and ring settings). Chrysoprase (perhaps identified by the Egyptian term prḏn) is a yellowish-green form of chalcedony, used occasionally for beads, amulets, and pendants from the Predynastic period to Roman times.
The gemstones known as jasper are a group of brightly colored forms of chert (an opaque form of quartz or chalcedony). Jasper can be opaque red, green, yellow, or brown. Red jasper was probably the color most commonly used by the Egyptians; the green and brown jaspers are easily confused, visually, with other stones. The Egyptian term ḫnmt (or mḫnmt) was applied to red and yellow jasper, while the green jasper may have been known as nemehef. Chapter 156 of the Book of Going Forth by Day recommends ḫnmt for the “girdle of Isis” amulet (the tit), while Chapter 30 suggests nehemef (perhaps “green jasper”) as the most effective material for heart scarabs. Both red and green jasper were used for beads from the Badarian period onward, with red jasper being particularly popular for New Kingdom earrings and hair-rings. During pharaonic times, red jasper was used for amulets, jewelry inlay, scarabs, small vessels, and parts of composite statues (such as a foot from a composite statue at Tell el-Amarna). A large fragment of unworked red jasper was found in a foundation deposit for Ramesses IV at Deir el-Bahri.
Yellow jasper was used in Egypt for sculpture from the eighteenth dynasty onward, but it was not used for jewelry until Roman times. Brownish jasper seems to have been used only in the Middle Kingdom, primarily for scarabs. The Minoans may have obtained their jasper from trade connections with Egypt, since it does not seem to have been otherwise used by the Greeks.
Occurring in all colors except blue, garnets are common and widespread in Egypt, including the Aswan region, the Eastern Desert, and the Sinai Peninsula. Almandine and pyrope garnets are fairly common in Egypt, but their quality is often poor. The color of garnet most frequently used by the Egyptians was the dark-red or the reddish-brown, and the term used to refer to the stone was probably hmʒgt. No ancient quarries have been found, presumably because of the stone's widespread availability. Lumps of a red substance identified as hmʒgt were shown as items of Nubian tribute in the eighteenth dynasty tomb of Rekhmire at Thebes.
From the Badarian period until the end of the New Kingdom, garnets were used for beads and—primarily during the Middle Kingdom—inlays. In general, however, the Egyptians seem to have used comparatively few garnets, presumably because the stones tend to be fairly small, with poor color, compared to other gems. Yet the importance of Egypt as a source of garnets during pharaonic and Ptolemaic times should not be underrated: the garnets in Mycenaean jewelry may well derive from commercial links with Egypt, rather than being European in origin, and only gemological analysis may settle their derivation.
The gem quality iron-rich stone called hematite was known by the same Egyptian name as iron (biʒ). It was used for beads, for amulets (particularly the plummet, carpenter's square, and headrest amulets) and for small vessels, and was especially popular for kohl sticks (and sometimes also kohl vessels) during the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period. The type of hematite favored during the pharaonic period was black in color, with a metallic luster, the precise source of which has not yet been found.
The term jade is commonly used to refer to two different minerals: jadeite and nephrite. Jadeite can be white, green, brown, orange, and even (rarely) lilac. Nephrite, more common than jadeite, usually ranges from green to creamy white. No scientifically confirmed examples of either were found in materials from ancient Egypt, apart from a single funerary amulet in a New York private collection, which has ben identified as jade by X-ray diffraction analysis. Another possible example is a double-bezel ring from the tomb of Tutankhamun, which was identified by Alfred Lucas (1962) as nephrite. The New Kingdom heart scarab described by W. M. Flinders Petrie (1917, p. 48) as “true jade,” has been revealed as a mix of quartz, magnesite, and dolomite.
The green to bluish-green amazonite is a variety of microcline (green feldspar), found mainly in the Eastern Desert, in the area of Wadi Higelig and Gebel Migif. Known to the Egyptians as nšmt (mʒʿ), it was listed as one of their six most precious stones; inscriptions during pharaonic times often associate it with turquoise and lapis lazuli. It was carved into small beads from the Pre-dynastic period onward, with a particular peak of popularity in the jewelry of the Middle Kingdom. It was also used for New Kingdom amulets, inlay, and small vessels.
From the Predynastic onward, olivine, a yellow-green stone was used for jewelry (beads, pendants, and amulets); but peridot, the transparent light green gem variety, is not known to be used until Ptolemaic times, when it became a popular material for intaglios and cabochons. It was perhaps known to the Egyptians as prçdn and was obtained only from the island of Zabargad (Saint John's Island) in the Red Sea, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) southeast of ancient Berenice.
The ancient Egyptians did not use emerald (gem-quality green beryl) until Ptolemaic times, at the earliest. The Egyptian mines, worked from at least 332 BCE, the beginning of the Ptolemaic period, are widely believed to have been the only known source of emeralds for Europe, Asia, and Africa in the Hellenistic period. Although an uncut emerald has been identified in a necklace from the Predynastic site of Kubanniya, immediately to the north of Aswan, such gem-quality beryls do not appear regularly in Egyptian jewelry until Ptolemaic times, when techniques for polishing such stones were probably introduced. Egyptian emeralds continued to be used in jewelry until at least the Middle Ages, when Arab writers documented the appearance of the larger, heavier emeralds from the Indian subcontinent.
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