Ancient Egypt: Precious Metals and Gemstones
Ancient Egypt is renowned for its iconic art and architecture. The motifs and symbols found in the carvings and sculptures of the ancient Egyptians are widely recognized around the world. The Egyptians mastered the skills of metallurgy, mining, and the crafting of jewelry using gemstones.
The Precious Metals of Ancient Egypt
The first metal that the ancient Egyptians used was copper, which they mined in the valleys east of the Nile river up to 5,000 years ago. By 2,000 B.C.E. the Egyptians were adding tin to copper in order to make bronze, which was a much harder and stronger metal.
They used the same smelting process for silver, which was referred to as the “white metal.” Silver was valued even more highly than gold. Gold, however, was believed to be a divine metal, and was said to resemble the sun, perhaps because of its shininess and radiance. Egyptians believed that gold was the flesh of the sun god Ra and that the bones of the gods were made of silver. Death masks and funeral art for the pharaohs were made from gold, and up until 1350 B.C.E. gold was described as being more plentiful than dirt.
The Egyptians were also fond of using an alloy consisting of gold, silver, and a trace amount of copper. This alloy was known as electrum and is mentioned in several ancient texts describing trade expeditions with the region of Western Anatolia.
Color Symbology of Ancient Egypt
The colors and symbolic motifs of jewelry were extremely important. The color green was thought to promote fertility and good crop yields, and according to the ancient Book of the Dead, the color of the necklaces worn by the recently deceased was red in order to satisfy the goddess Isiss craving for blood. Symbolic motifs were equally as important as color.
The Jewelry of Ancient Egypt
Jewelry in ancient Egypt was often adorned with depictions of symbolically significant items. The scarab, or dung beetle, was the most important of these symbols. Because scarabs used a piece of dung to roll into a ball from which the newborn scarabs would emerge, they were symbolic of rebirth.
Amulets, or charm necklaces, were worn at every phase of the life-cycle from birth to death. In fact, amulets were often collected all throughout the lifetime, as it was believed that the more gemstones that surrounded the deceased, the more protection they would have in the afterlife.
Thus, amulets were placed on mummies in order to ensure a safe journey to the next realm of existence. For instance, the knot of Isis amulet was made from red jasper and was placed around the neck of the dead in order to confer upon them the protection of the goddess Isis. Amulets were also made as good luck charms to ward the wearer against illness, evil, and danger. Some amulets were in the shapes of symbols, others in the shapes of plants or animals, and yet others in the form of sacred objects or even body parts.
The Gemstones of Ancient Egypt
The Egyptians mined a wide variety of gemstones, including:
By the period of the Roman Empire, the ancient Egyptians were also using Emeralds.
Lapis Lazuli was a particularly popular gemstone, as the Egyptians believed that its blue color was reminiscent of the heavens and symbolized creation and rebirth. Lapis Lazuli was crushed and rubbed into the crown of the head in order to draw out spiritual impurities. It was also used in the depiction of lotus flowers, which were symbolic of the daily rebirth of the sun.
Malachite was another popular gemstone in ancient Egypt. It was used to promote inner visions and the headdresses of pharaohs were lined with malachite in the belief that it would guide them and encourage them to rule wisely. Malachite was also used for healing purposes, as the ancient Egyptians believed that it contained immense therapeutic value. The Eye of Horus amulet was typically made from green malachite. It was also used in jewelry bands worn around the head and the arms to ward off infection.
Carnelian was symbolic of the warm blood of life and was thought to purify the blood of the wearer, and also to help relieve back pain. Carnelian was one of the oldest gemstones mined in ancient Egypt and was used to make the Djed pillar amulet, which was symbolic of the tree trunk in which the body of the god Osiris was assembled. Ancient Egyptians believed that this amulet preserved and promoted the stability of its wearer. Carnelian was also carved into heart amulets, which represented immortality and eternal life.
Red Jasper was symbolic of fire and was also thought to symbolize the blood of the goddess Isis. It was used to treat infertility and enhance reproductive vigor.
Topaz was used to ward off the evil spirits that were thought to cause night terrors. Some soft green stones were even pulverized for use in makeup, particularly the kohl that rimmed the eyes of the ancient Egyptians, giving them the iconic look that is still widely recognized today.
Amazonite, which was mined in the Eastern Desert, symbolized good luck and fertility. It was carved into small amulets in order to strengthen the reproductive capabilities of its wearers.
Egyptians also mined turquoise in the Eastern Desert. Turquoise was one of the most popular gemstones in ancient Egypt, and its greenish tint was symbolic of joy and life. The goddess Hathor was dubbed The Mistress of Turquoise.
Jewelers were also fond of using emerald and purple amethyst in their pieces not because of their mythological significance, but merely because these gemstones were so rare that they were highly prized and thus revealed the impressive social status of their wearers.