Jewelry and the figure of the artisan in Ancient Egypt

Jewelry and the figure of the artisan in Ancient Egypt

The golden death Mask of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun, 14th century B.C.

The fascinating ancient Egyptian civilization has left a mark with its culture in several fields, including jewelry. Many of the techniques which are used nowadays are attributable to the fascinating people of the Nile. A civilization which has always considered jewelry as a powerful amulet, to be worn in life as in burial, on the journey to the afterlife.

Jewels were extremely important, and they were worn by men and women of any social origin, including children. The reasons are attributable to aesthetics and especially to the value of protection: in fact, it was believed that jewels were powerful amulets capable of defending man from risks such as calamities, diseases and ferocious animals. This is why they were often worn at the height of vital organs or vulnerable points. For example, the cyprid shell, with its “toothed” lips, was perceived by the ancient Egyptians as a vigilant eye to protect man against hex. For this reason, women used to wear jewels with cyprids at the height of genitals, in order to protect themselves from infertility and miscarriage. Another powerful symbol of protection was the eye of “Oudjat”, also known as the eye of Horus, the god of the sky. Countless representations of the eye, as well as the beetle, have come down to us. Their common diffusion suggests that they were perceived as two of the most powerful symbols.

Also the head was adorned and protected by several ornaments. Headbands, for example, made of flower chaplets and put around the forehead, were very common among the sailors and worn as protection during battles on papyrus boats. The most precious were made of gold. Among the most famous there are the headband of Seneb-tisi of Lisht and that of Princess Khunumet of Dahshur, which in addition to gold had splendid embedded blue stones. Headbands with the representation of a vulture were real royal tiaras made of gold foil and executed with the fretwork technique. Heads were also embellished by decorative wigs in which some hair were enriched by tubular beads or in the shape of hieroglyphs. It was also customary to adorn children’s hair with a small fish in gold or turquoise, probably as a protection from drowning. Among children were very popular also precious clips to keep their hair in order, as shown by the findings in the tomb of Ramesse III. Earrings, bracelets for wrist and arm, rigid and openable anklets, sumptuous breastplates and necklaces were worn by kings, queens and pharaohs, but also by cats, the animals which had the greatest respect, since they were considered sacred.

L’oro, che veniva utilizzato ad alto grado di purezza, tra i 17 e i 22 carati, era senza dubbio il materiale considerato più prezioso. E anch’esso aveva un grande valore simbolico: si pensava che fosse così splendente perché le divinità stesse vi proiettavano la luce. Alla potenza dell’oro si uniscono le simbologie legate alle pietre preziose come il granato, i lapislazzuli, il turchese, la corniola, l’acquamarina e lo smeraldo. Tutte le pietre venivano infatti scelte per la simbologia del colore, a cui venivano attribuite particolari caratteristiche magiche. Tra questi, lo smeraldo, particolarmente apprezzato da Cleopatra, godeva di particolare fama per il colore verde intenso che rimandava alla rinascita, alla fertilità e alla giovinezza.

Gli studiosi riferiscono della grande stima che ricevevano i gioiellieri del tempo, come conseguenza dell’immenso valore che aveva il gioiello per gli antichi egizi. Gli artigiani orafi erano uomini colti, che ricevevano un’educazione da scrivano per poi specializzarsi in arti decorative. Essi lavoravano presso le botteghe del faraone e godevano di rispetto e protezione. Il mestiere del gioielliere era considerato prestigioso, ed era riservato a pochi eletti, in quanto legato all’arte e all’oro. Per questo veniva gelosamente tramandato di padre in figlio.

Proprio come oggi, anche al tempo sembra vi fossero varie figure professionali specializzate. Tra le più importanti il “neshdy” o intagliatore di pietre preziose, il “nuby”, ossia l’orefice, e il “baba”, lo specialista in cotti e paste di quarzo colorate. Il “baba” era una figura simile all’“iru weshnet”, impegnato nella creazione di perline. Queste ultime erano prodotte in grande quantità e venivano realizzate in cristallo di rocca, conchiglie, ossa, porcellana e poi successivamente in vetro. Un’altra figura importante era il “sestro”, che produceva collane e collari.

Oggi conosciamo la ricchissima cultura degli antichi egizi anche grazie agli artigiani orafi vissuti successivamente, che hanno analizzato i monili riportando alla luce le antichissime tecniche, i materiali e gli strumenti che venivano utilizzati al tempo. La storia è maestra: dovremmo infatti imparare da questo popolo, che ha portato massimo rispetto alle figure di coloro che diffondevano la bellezza, ovvero gli artisti e gli artigiani.

Riferimenti:
Aldred, C. (1979). I gioielli dei Faraoni: Le tecniche degli antichi gioiellieri egiziani.
Andrews, C. (1991). Ancient Egyptian jewelry. Harry N. Abrams.