Essay On The History Of Egyptian Jewelry

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Egyptologists have long noted that the surfaces of many ancient Egyptian objects made of gold bear a distinctive coloration that ranges from a pale reddish hue to a dark purple. This effect is observed on solid cast figures as well as on hammered sheet metal and gold leaf, such that its origin would seem to be independent of the technology used for fabrication. A typical example is the gilded face mask on the mummy of Ukhhotep (12.182.132). While the effect has been recognized for more than a century, its cause remained a subject of speculation until recently. Over the years, numerous hypotheses have been advanced to explain the phenomenon, including tarnishing of a debased gold alloy, remanent colloidal gold following selective corrosion and removal of alloying elements such as silver and copper, deposition of organic films, and adventitious or deliberate addition of iron-bearing minerals such as hematite or pyrite to the gold alloy. Notably, Alfred Lucas, one of the foremost early researchers in the study of ancient Egyptian technology, correctly surmised that the vast majority of such colorations resulted from fortuitous tarnishing of silver-bearing gold and also recognized correctly that a smaller group of objects bearing a distinctly different red coloration represented another phenomenon altogether.

The idea that this coloration derives from a corrosion process and not a deliberate patination is prompted partly by the fact that nearly all native gold occurs as an alloy of gold and silver known as electrum, and partly by occurrences of the coloration in what are sometimes observed to be seemingly irregular distributions on the surfaces of objects. The most notable examples of this kind are the gold-leaf decorations on the wood sarcophagus enclosures from the tomb of Tutankhamun, where areas of bright gold leaf are seen juxtaposed against areas of a dark purple coloration along irregular borders that would seem to have no relationship to an intended design.

Early attempts to analyze the red colorations often were confounded by the extremely small thicknesses of the layers, such that samples obtained by scraping–no matter how judiciously performed–were usually overwhelmed by contamination from the substrate alloy. However, analysis in situ by x-ray diffractometry and x-ray fluorescence spectrometry has provided a rapid and straightforward way of characterizing the films and has shown them typically to be composed of one or more silver-gold sulfides. The species responsible for the predominant reddish purple coloration is most often indicated to be AgAuS, a compound sometimes found in nature as the mineral petrovskaite. In addition, synthetic gold-silver alloys having a silver content between approximately 8 and 11 weight percent silver have been observed to develop red-purple tarnish films identical in appearance and composition to those found on ancient Egyptian silver-gold objects when exposed to sulfide ion for extended periods at elevated temperatures. With increasing silver content and prolonged exposure to sulfide ion, both historical gold-silver objects and modern synthetic gold-silver surfaces develop black tarnishes that include another phase, Ag3AuS2, which also occurs in nature as the mineral uytenbogaardtite. Taken together, the evidence suggests that the red colorations derive largely–as Lucas first conjectured–from fortuitous tarnishing of native electrum having silver-gold compositions appropriate for the formation of the AgAuS phase.

Red sulfide tarnishes have been identified on historical gold-silver objects from other cultural contexts, including goldwork from the Royal Cemetery at Ur (33.35.3) and nineteenth-century European jewelry. That these tarnishes occur predominantly on ancient Egyptian objects likely reflects the high sulfide ion activity associated with the typical contexts of sealed burial chambers as well as the unparted gold-silver alloys used in antiquity.

As a footnote to the discussion, it should be added that not all red-purple colorations on historical gold objects belong to the sulfide-tarnish group described here. Indeed, as Lucas also observed, a small number of gold pieces from the tomb of Tutankhamun bear a bright, translucent red coloration on their surfaces distinctly different in appearance from the darker and more opaque examples. The origin of the color on these unusual objects has not been determined, but may well reside in the deliberate or accidental addition of iron-bearing compounds to the gold, as synthetic samples of such composition have yielded similar appearing surfaces. There also occur archaeological gold objects that bear reddish accretions of hydrated iron oxides, such as lepidocrocite, presumably deposited as residues from groundwater during burial, as well as the gold masks and other objects from Precolumbian South America that exhibit deliberately applied coatings of the red mercuric sulfide mineral cinnabar (1974.271.35). Finally, we should mention that the addition of copper to gold in several types of Egyptian objects during the reign of Akhenaten appears to have been done for its rutilizing effect, and that during the Third Intermediate Period copper-rich gold inlays were used with precious-metal inlays of other compositions and hues for the embellishment of large figural bronzes.

Tony Frantz
Department of Scientific Research, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Deborah Schorsch
Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

March 2007

Beauty in Ancient Egypt: Cosmetics and Jewelry

Ancient Egypt has been regarded as being one of the most advanced cultures throughout history. The Egyptians came up with many great inventions that today are still in use. But most of all, they were very vain in their appearance. They were known mainly for mastering the art of beauty, and we still use many techniques and products that they came up with thousands of years ago. Cosmetics and jewelry in particular were very highly thought of and valued in Ancient Egypt.

There were many cosmetics available to Ancient Egyptians. First off, the Egyptians regarded cleansing rituals as being very vital. They bathed almost everyday in a river or in a tub at home. The wealthier class had separate rooms for this in their house. Their servants poured water over their master's head. This would be much like a shower to us. A cleansing cream was used instead of soap and was usually made out of oil, lime, and perfume. To prevent the skin from drying out in the harsh climate, Egyptians usually rubbed themselves with scented oil.

The most popular basic oil was called balanos, although the most popular among the lower class was castor oil. This prevented dry and cracked skin caused by the sun and sand. This oil was made by letting flowers or scented wood soak in oil until it had absorbed the scent. At parties or social gatherings, servants would put cones of this perfumed oil on the heads of the people attending the gathering. As the night went on, the oil would melt and run down the faces of the guests. This had a cooling effect on their faces. The Egyptians also had a way of freshening their breath. They would put an aromatic liquid in their mouth, and it would be removed and renewed throughout the night.

Facial hair was thought to be a sign of uncleanliness. Only a thin mustache or a goatee was acceptable. Since there was no soap, oil was most likely used to soften the area and prepare it to be shaved. Tweezers could also be used to remove individual hairs of the face, but it was a very time consuming process.

Hair styles of the Egyptians varied a great deal. Common people usually wore their hair short. Girls usually keep their hair long and in ponytails. Boys usually had their heads shaved, with the exception of a braided lock to one side. Hair could be dyed by using henna, which was reddish in color. Wigs were also worn by men and by women. These were usually made of human hair or even sheep's' wool. Wigs came in all different lengths and were usually worn at social affairs (Ruffle). When not in use, they were stored in beautifully decorated boxes.

The art of makeup was highly skilled and practiced a lot in the Egyptian Era. Makeup was worn by men, children, and women. They portrayed a sense of personal hygiene and health, among other things. The most popular and the most well known cosmetic of the Egyptians was eye makeup. Eye makeup, also called eye paint, primarily came in two colors, green and black. The base powder, which contained the color, was mixed with oil to form a paste. The green paint was made from an oxide of copper called malachite. Green eye paint was the most popular color from the Old Kingdom through the Middle Kingdom.

But by the New Kingdom, black had taken the popular vote. Black eye paint, also known as kohl, was made of galena, a sulfide of lead. The use of this black eye paint continued into the Coptic period (Stead). Eye makeup was usually applied with a small rounded stick. It was applied heavily to the eyelids and also under their eyes. Sometimes there was a line of makeup extending to the sides of the face. It could also be used to line eyebrows as well. Wearing heavy eye makeup was used to help protect the eyes against the sun, and it was also said to have healing properties. "Egyptologists and chemists came to that conclusion after analyzing the contents of the Louvre's collection of 4,000-year-old pots once used in Egyptian makeup kits. They found chemical compounds that were used thousands of years later by the Greeks and Romans to treat infectious eye diseases such as conjunctivitis and trachoma" (Bitterman). The Egyptians were also known to have made the first form of glitter. They would crush up beetle shells and mix it with their eye paints.

Women wore face paint that made them appear much lighter than men. The men used an orange tinted paint on their face. Lips and cheeks were colored with a red paint. This was made out of clay called red ochre. It was ground and mixed with water to form a paste and then it was applied to lips and cheeks. Manicuring was also practiced in Egypt. Egyptians made manicuring kits to keep their nails in a nice healthy shape. It was said that the shaped and condition of nails separated the peasants from royalty. They would also stain their fingers with henna, the same ink they would use to dye their hair, to create a reddish tint on their nails and soles of the feet. Tattooing was also very common back in the Egyptian Era. Mummies of dancers and servants have been found with many unique designs on their thighs and arms.

The tools that the Egyptian's used to help apply their makeup are a very primitive form of the ones that are in use today. Their mirrors

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