Magical amulets: jewelry from Ancient Egypt at the Met

Much of what we know about Ancient Egyptians comes from the jewels they left behind. Women played an important role there, from the glory days of the Old Kingdom to the reign of Cleopatra.

An exhibit opening at the Met takes a look at the four centuries between the New and Old Kingdom, 2030-1650 BC, known as the Middle Kingdom. Some 230 objects, from statues to jewels, tell the story of Egypt after it rose from the ruin left by civil wars and drought.

Much of the jewelry on display in NYC belonged to Princess Sithathoryunet, a king’s daughter during the pinnacle of the Middle Kingdom. Her tomb was looted in antiquity but thieves missed one niche that British archaeologists stumbled on in 1914. Imagine their glee when they unearthed several boxes filled with jewels, now considered among the highest quality ever found in Ancient Egyptian tombs.

Among the treasures were two pectorals, a crown and several bracelets inscribed with the name of Amenemhet III, the pharaoh believed to be her brother. He ruled during a period of great power and prosperity in Egypt. The Met ended up with all these jewels, except the crown. The best are on display in Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom (October 12 to January 24), including this iconic piece.

Pectoral of Princess Sithathoryunet of gold, inlaid with turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian, garnet from Twelfth Dynasty, reign of Senwosret II (c. 1887–1878 B.C.)

Pectoral of Princess Sithathoryunet of gold, inlaid with turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian, garnet from Egypt, Twelfth Dynasty, reign of Senwosret II (c. 1887–1878 B.C.)

Statue of an Offering Bearer of wood, gesso, paint from Egypt, c. 1981–1975 BC (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Statue of an Offering Bearer of wood, gesso, paint from Egypt, c. 1981–1975 BC (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Jewelry, Sithathoryunet

Cowrie shell girdle and bracelets of Princess Sithathoryunet, c. 1887–1813 BC, of gold, carnelian, feldspar, and copper-silver alloy (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Another spectacular jewel on display is a pendant on loan from Scotland, a beautiful sculpted gold fish, probably also from the Twelfth Dynasty. Found in a tomb in El-Haraga, this would likely have been worn as a hair ornament.

Egyptian gold fish pendant, Middle Kingdom, Late Dynasty, 1878-1640 BC (courtesy National Museums Scotland)

Egyptian gold fish pendant, Middle Kingdom, Late Dynasty, 1878-1640 BC (courtesy National Museums Scotland)

Fish pendants were a popular motif in Ancient Egypt, and not just among women who could afford gold. Amulets like the one below, designed around carved beryl (from the Met’s permanent collection) were probably more common – crude but constructed to serve a specific, very important function. Beryl fish pendantFish amulets, like this nekhau, were given to young girls to wear as a charm against drowning. Some scholars suggest they functioned as “reminders of a watery environment,” to give the owner security, according to the catalog notes, “but it is much more likely that the amulet allowed the wearer to acquire the abilities of a fish, and therefore survival, if she happened to fall into the water.”

Artistic expression greatly expanded in Egypt during the Middle Kingdom. The exhibition shows how styles evolved and culture and religion transformed. Many of the motifs in protective amulets and magical objects we associate with Ancient Egypt were introduced during the Middle Kingdom. Some, like the fish, were believed to shield young girls, others were designed to protect children and pregnant women.

Egyptian men were just as likely to be bejeweled – at least royal ones, like this pharaoh.

Lintel, Senwosret I Running Toward Min (detail)

Relief with Senwosret I Running toward Min (detail), 12th Dynasty, reign of Senwosret I, c. 1961-1917 BC (Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London)

Second pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt, Senwosret I ruled from 1971 to 1926 BC, another powerful king during this dynasty.

But most of the actual jewels on display belonged to women. Royal women were always closely connected to the pharaohs in Ancient Egypt. Less is known about Middle Kingdom queens and princesses, but much of the finest ancient Egyptian jewelry was produced for elite women.

Inscriptions and symbolic motifs endowed the jewelry with spiritual power and related to the role these women played in supporting the kings as guarantors of divine order on earth, as well as her role in the family, a major theme in Egyptian art.

Cleopatra, of course, was yet to come. There were actually several Cleopatras, but the one we know would adapt all these themes in her reign and in her persona.

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3 comments for “Magical amulets: jewelry from Ancient Egypt at the Met

  1. Linda
    September 29, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks for this post. So beautiful! A trip to the Met is in order.

  2. Victoria
    September 29, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    NYC here I come. It looks like this exhibit is one not to be missed. Thanks for the post and a great excuse to visit the MET!

  3. September 29, 2015 at 5:19 pm

    I’m looking forward to it too! Love the jewelry from Ancient Egypt.

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