Ancient Egyptian jewellery never ceases to fascinate. Be it original ancient pieces or Egyptian revival-style of the last century, the allure of Egypt continues to capture the imagination and serve as inspiration. The splendid collection of the Worcester Art Museum encompasses pieces from pharaonic Egypt up to the early 20th century. These have now been published in the book Jewels of the Nile: a book that not only presents the jewellery itself, but offers a wide range of contextual information on ancient Egypt, the history of collecting and the opportunities that jewellery research has to offer, to name but a few. This scope makes Jewels of the Nile into an exceptional book.
The jewellery collection presented in the book has been assembled by Laura Marrs (1845-1926). She and her husband met with Howard Carter in the early 20th century, and the latter advised the couple for many years on which pieces to buy. Howard Carter of course would later be remembered as the discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamun –the centennial of the discovery approaching is one of the reasons for this book to be published.
To provide a historic background for the jewellery, the book starts out with a brief overview of Egyptian history. Next is an important chapter on the collector of the jewels, Laura Marrs, which is as much about Howard Carter as it is about Mrs. Marrs. Snippets of letters exchanged show the great talent of Carter as an artist – the Marrs couple also commissioned several water colour drawings which are included in the book. The letters and other documentation preserved in the personal archive of Mrs. Marrs shed light on how their collection was built: not only on the advice of Carter, but of Mohamed Mohassib as well, an antiquities dealer in Luxor. This chapter provides a glimpse of the world of antiquities trade a century ago, a thread that is picked up and returned to in the chapters that follow.
The chapter on jewellery itself covers a wide variety of jewellery-related aspects. In the introduction, emphasis is placed on the value jewellery holds as source of information about the past and the circumstances in which this value speaks the loudest, in carefully documented archaeological research. This goes not only for burials, like the chapter mentions, but also for production places, discard heaps and stray jewellery like beads found in settlements, although the richest jewellery assemblies of course have been found in burial contexts and as such have much to offer in terms of research. An absolutely stunning testimony to the skill of the ancient Egyptian craftsmen is the silver scarab of a person named Wah: a small but perfectly shaped scarab with even smaller inlaid hieroglyphs. (I also love the way the photographer is reflected in its shining surface, a problem I run into myself often when photographing silver jewellery….it’s simply inevitable!) Colour symbolism along with three sections on various materials and techniques deepen our understanding of Egyptian jewellery. A section on Egyptian revival jewellery illustrates how both original pieces and Egyptian inspired jewellery came to be all the rage from the 1870’s onwards.
It is difficult to pick a favourite chapter in this book, but if I had to, it would be the chapter on conservation, technique and research. Here, the value of jewellery research is shown in several exciting discoveries. The restringing of beaded jewellery for example: in the timeframe these beads were collected, stringing them into interesting-looking compositions was standard and carried out by either the seller, or later, the buyer. This was not exceptional: in many parts of the world, restringing beads uncovered during archaeological excavation was executed with little or no regard for their original composition or stringing technique. This chapter discusses and illustrates the choices made in researching and reassembling beads, with results that might surprise you – a jumble of strings becoming an elegant and well-balanced piece. That is just one example of this fascinating chapter: cleaning, restoration and amulet production are combined with bits and pieces about the organization of ancient Egyptian craftmanship. Jewellery research is not limited to this chapter, as hidden away at the end of the book is another detailed analysis of an ancient Egyptian plaquette mounted in a modern brooch, which illuminates what research can and cannot (yet) determine: possibilities for future research angles!
The catalogue of jewellery items finally is simply a treasure. This is not only due to the high quality of the jewellery items in the collection, but certainly also because of the fabulous photography and design of the book: large images, in vibrant colours, with plenty of space for detailed shots. Every single piece is allowed to shine and the combinations are equally vivid. A bibliography along with additional information for each catalogue entry completes the volume. An absolutely stunning, highly informative book that you will want to both read and admire!
Jewels of the Nile. Ancient Egyptian Treasures from the Worcester Art Museum, by Peter Lacovara and Yvonne J. Markowitz. 216 pp, full colour, in English
Available through the publisher D Giles Limited
The book was gifted as advance reading copy by the publisher.