Archive for the 'Ancient Egypt' Category

Object: Faience Necklace

Figure 1    Egyptian Faience blue beaded necklace from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Figure 1 Egyptian Faience blue beaded necklace from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Blue faience necklace
Africa: Egypt
Date: Modern
Materials: Faience (glass) beads on leather

This small blue beaded necklace is 12 inches long and comes from modern-day Egypt. The leather thong (or string) that holds the beads is tied together in one spot and can be adjusted to fit the person wearing it. The irregular shaped beads are made out of faience, a type of colored glass.

Faience (pronounced “fay-ahns”) has a long-standing history in many countries, especially Egypt. The ancient Egyptians used faience (known as tjehnet) beginning in 3500 BC to make beads, statues, amulets, bowls, and a variety of other objects. One theory is that faience was invented in Mesopotamia in 4000 BC and then brought to Egypt through trade.

Faience was originally developed by ancient Egyptians out of a desire to find a substitute for lapis lazuli, a highly valued dark blue stone. The royalty and nobles of ancient Egypt wanted to show how much power and wealth they had through the beautiful and expensive objects they put in their palaces, temples, and tombs. Lapis lazuli, however, was hard to come by. So, they developed faience, a much cheaper and easily manufactured material, as a substitute.

Faience, known as the “first high-tech ceramic” is made from finely ground quartz (or sand) mixed with lime, copper oxide, water, and a binder agent (such as gum arabic). When mixed together, these ingredients form a kind of paste that can then be put into a ceramic mold, dried, and fired in a kiln (or oven). Early on, it was discovered that adding different minerals (such as manganese) instead of copper oxide would result in different colors of faience including                                                           cobalt blue, purple, and yellow.

Today, the production of faience all around the world has expanded. Artists and scientists continue to experiment with and learn from this fascinating blue glass that experienced its beginnings in ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia. This beautiful beaded necklace is only one example of how faience continues to be used today.

Take a look at this cool video that shows step-by-step out to make faience objects using ancient Egyptian molds from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology:

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Mummified fish

Mummified fish
Ancient Egyptian
unknown date
Materials: Fish, cloth, resin, salt or natron

Ancient Egyptian culture is best known today for its mummies but, humans weren’t the only ones being mummified in Ancient Egypt. Animals were also commonly mummified. Animals were mummified for a variety of reasons, all connected to the Egyptian belief in an afterlife. The Ancient Egyptians viewed death as the beginning of a new life in the underworld, and much like an extended vacation, in order to enjoy this new life one would need to pack accordingly. Only those items properly persevered and stored within the tomb would be available to the deceased in the afterlife, this would include one’s own body and internal organs. Some animals were mummified because they were pets, and their owners wanted them to enjoy the afterlife with them. Any item or animal that one wanted to have in the afterlife had to be included in the tomb, so some animals were mummified to become food for deceased humans in the afterlife. Other animals were mummified because they were considered sacred to a particular deity. These animals were often associated with specific religious cults throughout Egypt, like the Apis Bulls at Memphis and the crocodiles at the Kom Ombo Temple.

The mummification of fish went on throughout much of Ancient Egyptian history but is thought to have reached its peak in the Ptolemaic period. The fish were mummified by removing their internal organs through a slit in the belly of the fish and then either soaked in brine or packed with salt or natron to dry out and preserve the fish. The fish would then be either packed in mud or covered in papyrus stalks and then wrapped in linen and covered in resin. This group of fish were unwrapped after they were discovered and only part of their original wrappings can be seen, on fish C/1957/4/1.

The following video shows a modern attempt at recreating fish mummification.

[Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Amulet

Slate Turtle Amulet
Possibly Pre-Dynastic
Materials:  Slate

This object is a small (1 15/16” long) slate amulet from Egypt.  The thin slate disc is crudely carved in the outline of a turtle.  A hole is pierced near the tail for suspension.

The earliest representations of the Nile turtle date back to pre-dynastic times and were associated with magical significance that was meant to ward off evil.  Amulets such as this example were designed to defend the wearer’s health and life.  As time passed, the turtle became synonymous with drought, the enemy of the Sun god Ra.   Many times, a pair of tortoises would be depicted with a scale, representing the ebb and flow of the Nile‘s floodwaters.  Eventually, the turtle was associated with Set (the god of wind, desert storms, conflict and evil), and so with the enemies of Ra who tried to stop the solar barge as it traveled through the underworld to re-emerge with the new dawn.  Since the turtle was associated with night, it came to symbolize darkness and evil.  By the New Kingdom, the Sun god’s hostility toward the lowly turtle was even more strongly formulated in the phrase, “May Ra live and may the turtle die.”

Turtle shtyw

Belonging to the reptile order of Testudines, turtles are one of the oldest reptile groups known.  They are characterized by a special bony or cartilaginous shell developed from their ribs.  This shell acts as a shield into which the turtle withdraws at danger.  Turtles

are cold-blooded, which means they can varying their internal temperature according to the ambient environment. Turtles live in both aquatic and terrestrial environments; however, they lay their eggs on land only.

The turtle amulet is made from slate.  Slate is a metamorphic rock derived from a shale-type sedimentary rock composed of clay or volcanic ash.  Usually grey in color, slate can be found in various shades of grey from pale to dark and may also be purple or green.  Care must be taken to not confuse slate with shale, from which it may be formed, or schist (granite).   [Debra Taylor]

Object: Figurine

Egyptian: Bronze Cat
Egypt (possibly Saitic)
ca 664 to 525 BCE
Materials:  Bronze, wood

This object is an Egyptian bronze cat seated on a modern wooden base.  The wooden base is rectangular with the sides angling toward the interior.  The top platform is smaller than the base.  The wood has been painted black.  The top surface has been excised in order for the bronze cat to be set in.  The seated cat faces forward.  Its long tail wraps around the bottom right side and around the front legs.  The entire cat figure is very slender.  Two eyes, a nose, and a horizontal line for the mouth are visible.  Ears are on top of the head and pointed.  This figure  is believed to be of possible Saitic origination. The term “Saitic” comes from the city name “Sais,” which served as the center of power in the Delta region during the 26th Dynasty. The rule of the 26th dynasty is often referred to as the Saite period in Egyptian history. Psammetikhos I was the first ruler of the dynasty, and is traditionally thought to have ruled from about 664 to 610 BCE.

Cat figures such as this one are representations of deity Bastet, the“Devouring Lady,” the protector of women, especially pregnant women. Bastet (also known as Bast, Bastis, Bubastis, or Ubast) was believed to be responsible for joy, music, dancing, as well as health and healing.  Her cult can be traced back to 3200 BCE.  Around 950 BCE, she became a national deity when Bubastis became the capital of Egypt. Bubastis, a city in the eastern Nile Delta, is believed to have been the birthplace of Bastet.  The city itself has origins dating back to the 4th Dynasty and was populated into the Roman Period.

Sometimes, Bastet is associated with the lion-goddess Sekhmet. She is sometimes depicted as a cat holding a mask of a lioness in her hand.  Symbolically, she was represented as a woman with a cat’s head, or simply as a seated cat, like in the object pictured above. Cats were viewed by the ancient Egyptians as manifestations of diety, and as such were considered sacred.  The cat protected the grain from mice and rats and thus indirectly protected the people.  Killing a cat was punishable by death.  Many mummified Bastet cats have been found from various time periods throughout Egypt.  Amulets and figurines depicting the goddess were common among all Egyptian social classes. 

[Debra Taylor]

Object: Cartonnage Fragment


Fragment of a mummy cartonnage
18th dynasty (1570-1314 BCE)
Materials: linen or papyrus

This object is a multi-colored fragment of a mummy cartonnage possibly from the 18th Dynasty. Cartonnage was used for personal funerary ornaments such as mummy masks. The masks would cover the head, shoulders, and upper chest of the mummy to protect the face of the deceased. This particular piece was likely from the chest portion of a cartonnage mummy mask.

Cartonnage was made from thin, layered pieces of linen or papyrus. Once a shape had begun to form one side was coated with gesso (a mixture of glue and whiting plaster) to harden the shape. This coating allowed the maker to use detailed paint or gold leafing on the front side.

Each individual had their own design for their mask. Usually, the design would indicate something about the deceased. For instance, the mask may have been a representation of what the person looked like or enjoyed doing. An example of a gilded mummy mask can be seen at the British Museum.

[Brittany Teel]

Object: Amulet

Date unknown
Materials: faience

The museum’s catalog identifies this amulet as depicting the Egyptian god Anubis. In Egyptian mythology Anubis plays a crucial role as guide and protector of the deceased.

However, after examining the piece I feel that this amulet does not depict Anubis. Anubis, when shown in his half human form, has the head of a jackal while this amulet shows the head of a lion. Additionally, this figure is shown wearing a special type of crown called the atef crown. This type of crown is typically associated with the god Osiris and symbolized the priesthood and divine power. The atef crown resembles the white crown of Upper Egypt which has been decorated with two vertical rows of ostrich feathers. It seems more likely that this amulet depicts the god Maahes, rather than Anubis.

Maahes (also known as Mahes, Mihos, Miysis, or Mysis) was a male deity most commonly associated with fighting, war, and violence. Some myths describe him as a protector or guardian of Ra, the god of the sun disk. In this role he would protect Ra from Apep, the god of darkness while he traveled through the underworld during the night. In times of war, Maahes was also thought to be the protector of the pharaoh. Other myths describe him as an executioner, a protector of the innocent, a guardian of sacred places, or as one who could find “truth.” He also shared many characteristics with other lion headed deities such as Nefertem and Shesmu. It is likely that an amulet of Maahes was thought to protect the wearer from evil and ensure their safe passage in the underworld.

An example of a faience amulet depicting the god Anubis can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

maahes amulet

Object: Amulet

Date unknown
Materials: faience

Amulets were used by ancient Egyptians as good luck charms and offered protection from evil forces. Amulets could be worn as jewelry or carried by the living. Amulets were also often inserted in the wrappings of mummies to protect the deceased. During the 19th century this practice of inserting amulets within the wrappings helped to encourage the seemingly bizarre practice of “mummy unwrapping parties.” Mummies were collected by travelers and shipped back to Europe and the Americas where the new “owner” would host an event featuring the unwrapping and destruction of the mummy. During the course of the event many of these amulets could be discovered and kept as souvenirs. Many mummies were destroyed in this way.

This amulet is made of green Egyptian faience. While faience can be produced in different colors, many pieces of Egyptian faience are blue, a very powerful color to ancient Egyptians. The color blue symbolized the Nile, which was a source life and rebirth. Blue faience also provided a more reasonably priced alternative to the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli.

The museum’s catalog identifies this amulet as depicting a lotus blossom, however, upon examination of the piece I believe this to be incorrect. Instead, I believe this is a “heart amulet.” Ancient Egyptians believed that the heart, rather than the brain, was the source of human intelligence, emotion, and the conscience. When mummifying a body all of the other internal organs were removed from the body and stored in special jars in the tomb. Even the brain, which today is seen as the source of human thought, was removed from the body through the nose. However, the heart was kept in the body so that the deceased would have it at judgment in the afterlife. Heart amulets were placed within the mummy’s wrappings near the chest of the deceased so that if his/her real heart was damaged or destroyed the amulet could take its place.

Other examples of heart amulets can be found in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, and the Governorate of Alexandria. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]


Object: Inscribed Papyrus Fragment

Fragment of inscribed papyrus
Ca. 100 BCE
Material: papyrus and ink

Papyrus is an early form of paper, highly valued in the ancient world and most commonly produced in Egypt’s Nile Delta. The paper is made from the inner material of the stem of the papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus). This inner material, called pith, is removed from the stem and layered on top of itself with the grain of each layer running at right angles to the layer underneath. Once the layers of papyrus reach the desired thickness they are very tightly compressed and allowed to dry.

The inscription on this piece was recently examined by Dr. Janet H. Johnson, a professor of Egyptology at the Oriental Institute, who concluded that it is written in Demotic. Demotic is a type of ancient Egyptian writing that was derived from northern forms of Hieratic, which is often considered the “cursive” or “short-hand” form of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. This type of writing was used during the later part of the Dynastic period in ancient Egypt and continued to be used into the Roman Period. The most famous use of Demotic can be found on the Rosetta Stone.

Dr. Janet H. Johnson was able to provide some information as to the content of this inscription. She reports that: “It seems to be a letter dated year 11, first month of summer (no king’s name was included). The name of the sender is lost in the break at the upper right; the name of the recipient seems to be a foreign name. It mentions the town/location of Meidum, in the Fayum…It also seems to mention ‘matters of Pharaoh,’ which probably would be a reference to state business.”

For more information on ancient paper making see:
Johnson, Malcom. The Nature and Making of Papyrus. Barkston Ash: Elemete Press, 1973. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]


Object: Ushabti

Faience ushabti
XXVI Dynasty (ca. 664-525 BCE)
Materials: faience

Ushabtis, also known as shabtis or shwabtis, are small figurines usually modeled out of Egyptian faience. These figurines are associated with burials and always show a human figure wrapped as a mummy with the traditional false beard and headdress of the pharaoh and the god Osirus. The arms of the figure are crossed and when the burial in question was royal, they would carry the crook and flail signifying kingship or divinity. Ushabtis were intended to function like servants for the deceased in the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians believed that after death the soul of the individual continued to live a similar existence to that on the physical earth. In order to assure that one could have a pleasant and relaxed afterlife, free from labor and discomfort, it was necessary to bring along servants in the form of ushabtis. The ushabtis were all inscribed with a verse from Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead which asks the ushabti to take the place of the deceased whenever he is called upon to perform any task in the afterlife.

The ushabti in the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History is made of green Egyptian faience. Faience is a type of fired ceramic with a tin glaze, that was common in the Middle East and Europe. Unlike traditional faience, Egyptian faience is made by heating a mixture of sand and minerals. This mixture, when heated would essentially melt together into a solid stone-like material with a glassy finish. By combining different types and quantities of minerals different colors could be created.

A preliminary examination of the inscription on this ushabti indicates that this figurine belonged to a person named Ptah-ir-dy-es, and the museum’s records indicate that the figure dates from the XXVI Dynasty. The XXVI Dynasty, often called the Saite Dynasty, once again united both Upper and Lower Egypt under one king following the Third Intermediate Period. It begins just after the Assyrian invasion of Egypt and is brought to an end by the Persian invasion. This dynasty represents the end of native rule in ancient Egypt, as the power of kingship passed to their southern Kushite neighbors.

For more information on Egyptian funerary customs and grave materials see:

El-Shahawy, Abeer. The Funerary Art of Ancient Egypt: A Bridge to the Realm of the Hereafter. Cairo: Farid Atiya Press, 2005.

Smith, William S., and William K. Simpson. The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

For more information on the XXVI Dynasty see:

Welsby, D.A. The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. London: British Museum Press, 1996. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]


Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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