Jewels of Ancient Nubia
Ancient Nubian artisans created some of the most spectacular jewelry made in antiquity.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has one of the most comprehensive collections of jewelry in the world. With nearly twenty thousand objects, its holdings include adornments from six continents and range in date from ancient to modern times. Amassed over the past one hundred forty years, the ornaments were acquired through gifts, bequests and purchases, as well as excavations conducted by the Harvard University–Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition in the early decades of the twentieth century. Beginning July 19, the Museum opened a stunning exhibition of excavated Nubian adornments in the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation Gallery, a space dedicated to the display of jewelry.
The Harvard–Boston Expedition team was active in Sudan during the years 1907 to 1932. There, thousands of years ago, ancient Nubian artisans created some of the most spectacular jewelry made in antiquity. As was customary at the time, half of the ornaments discovered were assigned to the museum (the other half to Khartoum) where over the years they have been researched, conserved and displayed. This work has been greatly aided by a rich archive that includes thousands of photographs, drawings, maps, excavation notes, and diaries. The jewelry, as well as statuary, temple relief and tomb depictions illustrating how jewelry was worn, offers insights into the daily life of the Nubians, including their aesthetic preferences, religious beliefs, technological inventiveness, and relations with foreign lands.
The peoples of ancient Nubia were an indigenous African population who occupied the land between Aswan in the north and Khartoum in the south. Their neighbor to the north was Egypt, a formidable state with a rich material culture that looked to Nubia for exotic goods such as ivory, ebony, animal skins, ostrich eggs, and gold. Gold was an important commodity in the ancient Near East and was used to make a variety of luxury goods. It was also a sacred substance, associated in both Egypt and Nubia with the powerful sun god, Amen-Re. Some scholars have even suggested that the name Nubia derives from the Egyptian word nbw, meaning gold.
Early in Nubia’s history, a good deal of jewelry was imported from Egypt, especially ornaments made of faience, a synthetic, quartz-based ceramic with a vitreous, colored glaze. By the Classic Kerma period (1700-1550 B.C.), the Nubians, who had established a kingdom in what is now northern Sudan near the third cataract, mastered faience technology and turned their energies to glazing clear quartz a dazzling blue. The most common objects made of this material were spherical, translucent beads that were used in necklaces, bracelets and occasionally on textiles. One necklace with faience star-shaped beads and a cylindrical, silver amulet case from Egypt includes several of these beads as well as carnelian beads produced locally. More unusual and unique to Nubia are glazed, six-sided natural quartz pendants worn around the neck or waist. It has been suggested that the quartz was believed to possess magical properties because of its association with gold in metal-rich quartz veins.
Kerma’s formidable warriors were also buried with distinctive items of adornment. Functional swords and daggers were accompanied by miniature examples made with precious materials, which must have served a ceremonial function. Large, stylized fly pendants made of ivory and bronze were also recovered from the tombs of warriors and were typically found in pairs. These curious ornaments may be based on the fact that Nubian soldiers were reputed to be tough, tenacious fighters likened to the determined aggressiveness of the Nilotic fly. Later, the Egyptians adopted the fly as their own military decoration, indirectly paying homage to the skill and valor of Nubian warriors. Egyptian flies, however, were smaller and often made of gold.
By the mid-eighth century B.C. (the Napatan period), the Nubians established a powerful dynasty that conquered Egypt and ruled the entire Nile valley. They were heavily influenced by Egyptian culture, adopting its written language and aspects of their architecture, decorative arts, religion, and funerary customs. Some of the objects created and worn during this period appear to be of Egyptian origin while others are uniquely Nubian. An outstanding example of an Egyptian-made jewel is the Hathor-headed crystal pendant (see Cover) found in the burial of a queen of Piankhy (743-712 B.C.), the ruler credited with establishing Nubian dominion over Egypt. Hathor, a popular Egyptian goddess who personified love, fertility, motherhood, and music, was also worshipped in Nubia at this time, and her image appears on scarabs, ceramics and horse trappings. In this pendant she is depicted as a woman wearing a headdress composed of two cow horns, a sun disk and a uraeus, the stylized upright cobra that signified royalty or divine authority. The head surmounts a rock crystal orb with a hollow gold tube in the center believed to contain a thin gold sheet or papyrus inscribed with magical figures and text.
In the same queen’s tomb were additional pendants in the Egyptian style. However, other adornments exhibit distinctly Nubian features. This is especially the case with some of the large faience pendants with representations of the female figure. One example features a nude, winged goddess crowned with a sun disk, a pair of horns and a double plume. The goddess’s pose, body type, hairstyle, and nudity are uniquely Nubian. The voluptuous curves of her breasts, abdomen and thighs suggest fertility, rebirth and resurrection—all believed to be powerful attributes in Nubian culture in this life and the next.
While Egyptian jewelry is typically composed of materials that reflect the tri-color palette (orange-red, blue and green) established early in Egyptian history, the Napatans preferred exotic stones and materials, including shimmering blue chalcedony from Turkey, amethystine-quartz from the Eastern desert and malachite from the Sinai peninsula. Queen Khensa, the sister-wife of Piankhy, appears to have had an interest in mineralogy, as her tomb contained a collection of polished rock specimens such as agate, travertine, green-glazed limestone, and carnelian. There was also an assemblage of round flint pebbles resembling marbles and a group of natural stones with multiple lobes; one was deemed so special it was wrapped with gold wire. It is likely the stones in Khensa’s tomb were imbued with a particular importance or meaning, like those in a similar group, described as a “ritual deposit,” discovered at the site of a Napatan temple at Gebel Barkal. The addition of text could also enhance the amuletic potential of certain stones and natural substances. A small steatite orb that belonged to Queen Khensa, decorated with six vertical bands of incised hieroglyphs, would have been intended to place the queen under the protection of the powerful Amen, while the cartouches carved on the sphere with her names and titles would have ensured her well-being and immortality. Similarly, an imitation snail shell of steatite belonging to Queen Khensa is inscribed with a wraparound dedication meant to bring its owner health, stability and good luck in perpetuity.
Napatan royal sculpture and iconography draw from both Egyptian and local features. Kings are represented in a deliberately archaizing style, with their poses, kilts and slim, muscular physiques copying Egyptian prototypes from the Old Kingdom (circa 2550 B.C.). Their jewelry and other royal accoutrements, on the other hand, are typically Kushite. The preferred style of crown for Nubian royals was a close-fitting cap with streamers in the back, two tall feathers on top, and a double uraeus on the forehead. Royal jewelry included wide armbands, bracelets and anklets, along with neck ornaments and earrings featuring rams’ heads, the symbol of Amen. The standard ram necklace was composed of three rams’ heads suspended on a heavy cord or chain—one close to the neckline and two draped down the shoulders, as seen in a bronze statuette of King Taharqa (690-664 B.C.). Although no neck ornament of this type has survived, a ram’s-head earring featuring a sun disk and two uraei, from the Western Cemetery at Meroe, indicates that these ornaments were probably made of heavy cast gold.
Probably the most important Napatan find was that of King Aspelta’s (643-623 B.C.) pyramid at Nuri. It was the best preserved of the royal burials, yielding some extraordinary grave goods, including several objects hidden from plunderers by the collapse of the tomb’s roof. One exquisite object is a travertine vessel with a bejeweled collar, believed to have contained a fragrant perfume or ointment. The collar or neck is made of gilded silver with five rows of cloisonné work and a curtain of double loop-in-loop gold chains with stone pendants. Unfortunately, the colorful cut-stone or glass inlays that once filled the cloison cells are missing. The oval pendants are made of carnelian, amazonite and magnetite, all minerals imbued with magical powers. Other precious objects recovered from Aspelta’s tomb include a gold ewer; six tweezers; a silver milk vessel inscribed for King Senkamanisken, Aspelta’s father; and a gold vessel lid with a loop-in-loop chain. There were also several hundred gold beads and more than a hundred amethyst beads. Most puzzling are fifteen gold and gilded-silver cylinder sheaths—vertical tubes closed at the bottom by a circular disk and open at the top. These objects are unique to Napatan culture and are decorated with imagery associated with the Amen cult of Gebel Barkal, including winged goddesses (Isis, Hathor and Mut) and friezes of rams’ heads, uraei, lotus blossoms, and papyrus buds. The verticality of the decorations indicates that the cylinders were made to be used or held upright. Some scholars have suggested that they served as handles for ostrich plumes or staves of grain carried in ritual processions.
The center of Nubian life moved further south towards modern Khartoum around the third century B.C. (the Meroitic period). Meroitic rulers adopted a new style of dress and some new royal accoutrements. They are shown wearing long, fringed robes beneath shawls adorned with tassels. The caplike crown of the Napatan period still appears, sometimes with the addition of rams’ horns and diadems. Kings, queens and deities are portrayed laden with elaborate jewelry, including broad collars, necklaces of heavy ball beads, large pendants, anklets, stacked bracelets, armbands, earrings, finger rings, and occasionally archers’ thumb rings (Chapman drawing 1986.173).
The jewelry created and worn in Meroe was less influenced by Egypt and often includes representations of Nubian deities such as the leonine warrior god, Apedemak. Ram-headed depictions of Amen-Re, often combined with other gods and goddesses, were also popular. Amulets and beads, fabricated from gold, silver, hardstone, faience, and glass were produced in large numbers and worn strung around the neck and wrist. Among the many types of necklaces worn in Meroe are examples made of individual bead-like elements that skillfully combine seemingly disparate images, such as rams with double uraei and sun disks surmounted by the heads of goddesses. Enameling was developed to a high degree and certain techniques found in jewelry, including champlevé, repoussé, en plein sur fond reserve, and plique à jour appear for the first time during this period. An outstanding example of the use of multiple techniques in a single jewel is a bracelet from a queen’s burial at Gebel Barkal. It has a broad area of fused glass framing a raised gold appliqué of a seated Hathor. The image of Hathor was once covered with a reddish brown enamel while green, blue and brown (once red) enamels fill the spaces between the raised gold strips and diamond shapes.
A number of earring styles prevailed in Meroe—disk-shaped ear studs; ram-head studs; wire hoops with pendants; and cast penannular (with a small gap) earrings. Some depict protective household deities, such as Hathor and Bes. Others resemble ear ornaments from the ancient Greek world. Once believed to be imports, scientific analyses indicate these were actually made locally. Nubian earrings typically bear images of deities and religious symbols that were intended to protect the wearer. An example is a Double Hathor-head earring depicting a papyrus blossom (symbol of fertility) surmounting two Hathor heads and four pendants terminating in lotus flowers (symbols of regeneration). Other earrings are purely decorative as exemplified by a circular stud with gold filigree and colored enamel decoration.
Also popular in Meroe were finger rings that were sometimes worn in multiples and occasionally stacked on one finger, a fashion fad in the Roman world. The most common rings were precious metal signets cast in three-part molds. These rings often have high bezels with engraved images of deities on the flat plane. Other rings were three-dimensional, such as a rearing cobra whose hood was once embellished with champlevé blue enamel. Another, recovered from an un-plundered burial that also included several silver signets, features a silver ram’s-head with a double-feather crown. One finger ornament, possibly an import, is a simple gold band bearing a Greek inscription wishing good fortune to the wearer.
The glass industry was advanced in Meroe. In addition to enameled glass vessels, jewelry in the form of glass beads and cast intaglios for rings, were prized possessions. Probably the most extraordinary glass adornments were stratified eye beads. These remarkable beads have spots or circular rings representing eyes, and they were believed to magically protect the wearer from malevolent forces. The most complex eye beads have multiple rings, often in contrasting colors. The rings are formed by applying a drop of molten glass to the body of a heat-softened glass bead and then pressing the drop into the matrix. In the case of twenty-two beads recovered from a royal burial in the Northern Cemetery at Meroe, three drops of decreasing size—one on top of the other—were rolled into the glass as it cooled. These beads also have a unique feature: crisscrossing gold bands covered or overlaid by a clear enamel. In creating these ornaments, the craftsman would have first carved into the blue glass matrix, then set thin strips of gold sheet in the channels, and finally cover the gold with a thin, protective coat of clear glass. Imported stratified eye beads, probably made by the Phoenicians, were known to the Nubians since the Napatan period, but none of the earlier beads have such dazzling, translucent blue glass or gold-band decoration. These stunning beads have no known parallel in the ancient world.*
Archaeologists from the Museum of Fine Arts were among the first to carry out scientific excavations in Sudan. As a result of their work the museum houses the largest and finest collection of Nubian art outside Sudan. The Nubians left extraordinary remains such as palaces, temples, towns, and cities. Yet, largely because only a small number of their inscriptions can be understood by modern scholars, they remain mysterious and poorly understood. We hope that this exhibition, in addition to displaying the skill and inventiveness of Nubia’s superb jewelers, will provide our visitors with a glimpse of the ancient Nubians’ artistic achievements, as well as insights into their important and fascinating civilization.
In addition to her college training, Lee took a workshop with renowned jewelry artist Bob Ebendorf. “At the university, I had all these sketches, and my professor said, ‘Well, why aren’t you making that?’ And I said, ‘I don’t have the skills. I don’t know how to make it.’ I went to Bob Ebendorf’s workshop to learn cold joining, where everything is put together with rivets or screws.” “Gold and the Gods: Jewels of Ancient Nubia” is on view through May 14, 2017, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Jewels of Ancient Nubia, an accompanying book by Yvonne J. Markowitz and Denise M. Doxey, the exhibition’s co-curators, is published by MFA Publications.