ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egypt: Personal adornment
    Ear rings and ear studs
    Finger rings
    Necklaces and collars
Body painting

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Personal adornment

    Ornamentation is much more than a matter of esthetics. By choosing a certain kind of jewellery one makes statements as to one's wealth, social status, or religious beliefs. The wealth of a pharaoh, even an insignificant one like Tutankhamen, was of a different order compared with the affluence of a regional official, who himself was infinitely more oppulent than the humble peasant whom he lorded over. Such differences were expressed by, among other means, the exquisiteness of one's adornments, be they jewellery, clothes, wigs, cosmetics, body painting or more permanent body modifications like tattoos and piercings.


Statue of Tutankhamen     People have a propensity to explain their worldly successes as the result of being morally superior, and earning divine favour by pleasing the gods. Beauty has - more wrongly than rightly - always been equated with goodness; in Egyptian nefer (transliteration: nfr) was used for both 'good' and 'beautiful'. Wearing ornaments was a way to improve one's attractiveness in the eyes of both people and the gods.

Statue of Tutankhamen, New Kingdom
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    They were symbols of wealth and power, which had to be given up when one was defeated in battle:
Tell if I have concealed from his majesty anything of my father's house: gold [bars (?)], precious stones, vessels of all kinds, armlets, bracelets of gold, necklaces, collars wrought with precious stones, amulets for every limb, headbands, earrings, all royal adornments, all vessels for the king's purification of gold and precious stones
Speech of Pediese upon surrendering to Piye
Piankhi stela.[4]
    They were a means to impress one's status, one's dominance and one's opulence upon others by distributing them as largesse:
Babay: [rings (?)] mounted in gold - 124
Various costly stones: sacred eye amulets - 5673
      "           "           "     : scarabs - 1562
      "           "           "     : seals as pendants - 1643
      "           "           "     : images of the king, l.p.h. - 557
      "           "           "     : [naophors (?)] - 62
Malachite: finger rings - 331
Ubat stone: seals - 6278
Gifts by Ramses III to a temple [5]
    They were used to show appreciation for services rendered when they were bestowed upon deserving soldiers or officials:
I fought hand to hand before the king, I brought off a hand there. He (i.e. Thutmose) gave me the gold of honor; list thereof: /// /// two silver rings.
Biography of Amenemhab, reign of Thutmose III [6]
    To the ordinary Egyptian they represented savings which did not decay, protection from disease and ill fortune, or a means to impress one's neighbour or win one's love.
    The materials used for producing ornaments were varied: shells, stones, clay, pieces of bone, wood, resin, and ivory. Later man-made materials were added to this list: metals like copper, bronze, gold, silver and more rarely lead and iron, faience and glass in many colours. Some of the materials had to be imported, others mined and worked at great expense.


From left to right:[1]
1. Bone - pre-historic (UC15495)
2. Gold - 8th dynasty (UC18955)
3. Ivory (UC15785)


    Buttons were sewn onto the clothes, were decorative only and did not perform any useful function.
From left to right: [1]

1. Bone - Middle Kingdom (UC11112)
2. Carnelian (UC17125)
3. Faience - 18th dynasty (UC1348)
4. Steatite (UC11115)

Ear rings and ear studs

    Unlike their neighbours to the south who wore nose and lip studs, the ancient Egyptians seem to have had few body piercings, mostly limited to their ear lobes. The practice seems to have been most popular during the early New Kingdom.
Ear rings and ear studs
Top row from left to right: [1]

1. Faience - 18th dynasty - Ø c. 18 mm (UC1863)
2. Glass - 18th dynasty (UC22089)
3. Gold wire - 2nd Intermediate Period (UC26018)
Second row from left to right:
1. Base metal - Ø c.11cm (UC25385)
2. Silver wire - 12th dynasty - Ø c.15mm (UC17809)
3. Gold - Roman Period - width c.11mm (UC34351)
Third row from left to right:
1. Ivory - New Kingdom - Ø c.4cm (UC38313)
2. Limestone - New Kingdom - Ø 21 mm (UC38379)
3. Pottery - 18th dynasty (UC38280)
Bottom row from left to right:
1. Glass - Ø c.9 mm(UC19525)
2. Faience - 18th dynasty (UC1281)
3. Glass - 18th dynasty - 20 to 25 mm long (UC22879)

Finger rings

    Seals were proof of authority since earliest days. Keeping them safe was of vital importance. They were therefore often worn as rings. The official Tjetji records on his stela that
He (i.e. Intef II) made me great, he advanced my seat, he set me in his confidential office, in his palace because of [/// ///]; the treasury was put in my charge, under my seal-ring...
11th dynasty [7]
    Seal rings also appear in New Kingdom belles lettres. Nakht-Sobk, a scribe of the necropolis, describes in a love poem how the lover is under the spell of his beloved:
She captures me with her eye;
She curbs me with her necklace,
She brands me with her seal ring
Papyrus Chester Beatty I, 20th dynasty [8]
Finger rings
Top, from left to right: [1]

1. Inscription: Neferkheperure (Akhenaten) and winged uraeus - bronze (UC12439)
2. Winged uraeus and sun boat - faience - 22nd dynasty (UC16079)
3. Inscription: Nebmaatre (Amenhotep III) - faience - 18th dynasty (UC12365)
Bottom, from left to right
1. Cartouche inscribed Djeserkare (Amenhotep I) - gold (UC11881)
2. slate - pre-dynastic (UC10842)
3. Wedjat eye - faience - 18th dynasty (UC1003)

Necklaces and collars

    Until the New Kingdom men were often depicted with a bare upper body, wearing only a loincloth and some jewellery, frequently a collar or necklace.
Top row from left to right: [1]

1. Carnelians - 12th dynasty (UC31472)
2. Faience - 12th dynasty (UC31478)
3. Faience - Middle Kingdom (UC51363)
Bottom row from left to right
1. Cowrie shells - 3rd Intermediate Period (UC37327)
2. Glass - 18th dynasty (UC31421)
3. Silver - Late Period (UC58151)
    The wesekh (wsx), a broad golden collar, was worn by the pharaohs at the beginning of the 18th dynasty. Later it was conferred by the king on deserving dignitaries as an honorary decoration.
    The menat, worn by priestesses of Hathor, was an ornamental collar which also served as a musical instrument:
I executed for him the offering tables, /// (sxm-) sistrums and (Ssj.t-) sistrums, necklace rattles (mnj.wt), censer ...
Words of the Chief Treasurer [3]
Abydos Stela

collars From left to right:[1]

1. Collar - faience - 9th dynasty (UC31717)
2. Menat - steatite (UC11925)
3. Menat - leather - inscribed Menkheperre (UC13011)
4. Menat dedicated to Bastet - bronze - 30th dynasty (UC30482)

Gold collar with counterpoise, MK     Collars and necklaces were at times quite heavy. To keep them in place a counterpoise, the mankhet, was at times fastened to them at the back.

Gold collar with counterpoise, Middle Kingdom
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    Among the jewellery with which the pharaoh was ritually adorned during the Festival of the Earth was a diadem, seshed, a white cloth band, the seshep, the crown of Upper Egypt, the werret, and the mankhet counterpoise. These embued the pharaoh with powers: sight, fertility and life.
Bringing the mankhet, recite: "Pharaoh, l.p.h., is alive, the youth of gold!"
Rituals performed during the confirmation of the royal power at the Festival of the Earth. [2]


    Pectorals were worn on the chest as protective amulets. They were often decorated with religious scenes such as Nefer-Hor adoring Isis, Anubis with a flail behind his back, a judgment of the dead, or inscribed with spells:
Words spoken by Thoth, lord of Hermapolis, great god, lord of heaven: May life , prosperity, breath be given to the son of the chief Prophet of Amen, Waskusa, justified son of the chief prophet
Electrum pectoral [9]
From left to right: [1]

1. Papyrus cartonnage - Ptolemaic Period (UC45857), about 24cm wide
2. Shrine shaped pectoral - faience - 20th dynasty (UC55175), about 6x6cm
3. Nefer-Hor adoring Isis - gold (UC12977), 24x23mm


    Pendants, like pectorals, were often amuletic in character. They were frequently hung around the necks of babies and toddlers, the death-rate of young children being very high and their parents doing all they could to protect them from the evil spirits which killed so many of them.
Top, from left to right: [1]

1. Depiction of the sacrifice of Isaac - glass - LP (UC22398), 22mm wide
2. Forehead pendant - resin - pre-dynastic (UC10814), 54mm high, 30mm wide
3. Cartouche inscribed Ka-mes - gold - 17yh dynasty (UC11850), 18mm long
Bottom, from left to right
1. Lily - faience - 18th dynasty (UC1473), 16mm long
2. Magic slate - bone - Naqada period (UC16273), 63mm high
3. Pomegranate - faience - 18th dynasty (UC1580), 13mm high

Body painting

Cosmetics     Some prehistoric figurines made of ivory and clay display geometrical markings which may be testimony to body painting or tattooing being known in Egypt.

Make-up [13]

    In later times there is even less evidence of body painting, but the art of facial cosmetics was well developed. The faces of upper class men and women were frequently painted: around the eyes kohl was applied, and red ochre was brushed onto cheeks and lips.


    Not all tattoos served as ornaments. Foreign prisoners of war were at times marked, as were at times slaves who had to bear the name of their owner inscribed on their hand. If these people had markings inflicted on them, others chose them for protection:
Now there was upon the shore, as still there is now, a temple of Heracles, in which if any man's slave take refuge Schematic view of the tattos of Amunet and have the sacred marks set upon him, giving himself over to the god, it is not lawful to lay hands upon him; but this custom has continued still unchanged from the beginning down to my own time.
Herodotus, Histories II: Euterpe
Gutenberg Project

Schematic view of the tattoos of Amunet, priestess of Hathor, Middle Kingdom [10]

    Tattoos, scarification and cicatrization have only been found on a small number of mummies, all of them female. They generally took the form of abstract designs: dots, lines, or more complicated geometrical forms. New Kingdom figurine with markings on the abdomen The Middle Kingdom Hathor priestess Amunet buried at Deir el-Bahari and two further female mummies found there were liberally tattooed on their arms, shoulders and abdomen. The pigment used was of blackish-blue colour, possibly inserted under the skin with needles made from fish bone or the like.

Lower parts of a pottery figurine with markings on its abdomen,[11]
18th dynasty

    The practice may have been of Nubian origin and never became widespread in Egypt. The meaning of these abstract tattoos is unknown, though it is often supposed to be connected to female fertility, as no instances of men having undergone the procedure are known.
    From the Late Period there is pictorial evidence of tattoos in the form of the god Bes having been made on the thighs of Nubian dancing girls and musicians. It appears that elective tattooing in ancient Egypt was not done for aesthetic purposes alone or even primarily, but had connotations of sexuality and fertility.

[1] Source of pictures: Petrie Museum collection [12]
[2] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => späte Ritualbücher => Tempelbibliotheken => Bibliothek eines Tempels im Delta (Heliopolis?) => pBrooklyn 47.218.50 ("Confirmation du pouvoir royal au nouvel an") => 1. Ritual(handlungen) des 'Grossen Sitzes', die während der Feste der Erde vollzogen werden
[3] J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 93
[4] Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.3, p.78
[5] J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 377
[6] J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 584
[7] J. H. Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 423D
[8] Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.187
[9] Petrie Museum website: UC13124
[10] After John A Rush, Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding, and Implants, Frog Ltd. 2005, p.19
[11] John Garstang, El Arabah, Egyptian Research Account VI, 1900, Plate XVII
[13] Source of picture: University of Illinois website

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