Lapis Lazuli – prized gemstone and hair of the Gods

Figure 1: A block of Lapis Lazuli named “The Owl” because of its distinctive shape from Afghanistan. (1 kg) https://www.gia.edu/lapis-lazuli-history-lore

This week’s blog topic is Lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that the ancient Egyptians prized and used in various ways, including jewellery, bowls, and funerary provisions. It really is a brilliant looking gemstone so I hope you enjoy looking at some pretty objects this week.  

Figure 2: Bone figurine of a standing woman with lapis lazuli inlays in the eyes https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA32141
Figure 3: Lapis cylinder seal from the cache at Tod. https://collections.louvre.fr/en/ark:/53355/cl010011814

Lapis Lazuli is a metamorphosed form of limestone that is rich in the blue mineral lazurite which gives the stone its characteristic dark blue appearance and often includes flecks of calcite, iron pyrites or gold[1](Figure 1). It gets its name from the Latin lapis, “stone,” and the Persian lazhuward, “blue.”  The dark blue colour and specks that are characteristic of this gemstone to the ancients Egyptians was a parallel to the night sky and the heavens above thus giving the stone superiority above others alongside gold and silver[2].  Specifically, the night sky before dawn that covered the primordial waters of Nun. Gold silver and lapis lazuli were further given status through connections to the gods; gold was seen as the flesh of Ra and other gods as a divine metal that never tarnished, silver is seen as the bones of the gods and lapis lazuli was considered the hair of the gods[3]

Lapis has been used in jewellery and inlay since the Predynastic period (c3500) (Figure 2) and continued on until the Late Period (ca. 712–332 B.C.) when it became a popular material for amulets. Unlike most other stone used in ancient Egyptian jewellery lapis lazuli doesn’t occur naturally in Egypt and so had to be imported. Adding to its priced nature. The chief ancient source of lapis is Badakshan, a province in present-day Afghanistan but also occurs in Abyssinia[4]. Alongside this Egypt’s trade with the Near East, some of the earliest examples of lapis in Egypt suggests that this trade link was established early on (Figure 3). The Egyptians intended to reuse, rework these imported beads, unworked fragments, and large blocks of the stone.     

Figure 4: The treasure from Tod. Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités égyptiennes, E 15128 à E 15318 – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl010462441https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU

A cache of lapis lazuli from Ancient Egypt comes from the Temple of Montu at Tod. Excavated in the 1950s by Ferdinand Bisson de la Raque the cache was found within the area of the Temple of Montu[5]. The Tod treasure consists of four copper chests with the contents of these chests consisting primarily of silver and lapis lazuli (beads, worked and unworked fragments and cylinder seals Figure 3/4) alongside some gold. The contents of these chests had then been split between the Louvre and Egyptian Museum and the theory for the purpose of these chests is likely to be a votive deposit for the God Montu[6]

Lapis or Khesbed in ancient Egyptian was often described as ‘true maa’ to distinguish it from imitations such as glass of faience[7].  Faience is a ceramic material of crushed quartz with small amounts of lime, plant ash and natron was introduced during the New Kingdom in all likelihood to imitate gemstones such as Lapis lazuli and turquoise which could only be afforded by the wealthy[8].  

A smorgasbord of Lapis Lazuli

With a basic introduction to Lapis Lazuli, I thought I would show off some of my favourite objects of Lapis Lazuli from Ancient Egypt which demonstrates both the qualities of the gemstone itself, the skill of the craftsmen and some facts about the objects.

Bracelets of Queen Hetepheres – Old Kingdom 4th Dynasty

These bracelets are some of the earliest examples of silver objects from Egypt. They belonged to Queen Hetepheres the wife of King Snefru first king of the 4th Dynasty (c.2575-2465). These bracelets are inlaid with semi-precious stones including, turquoise, carnelian and lapis lazuli to former a butterfly pattern[9].  (Figure 5)

Pectoral and Necklace of Princess Sithathoryunet– Middle Kingdom 12th Dynasty ca. 1887–1878 B.C.

This pectoral centres around the throne name of Senwosret II and was found among the jewellery of Princess Sithathoryunet (Figure 6). The pectoral is inlaid with 373 carefully cut pieces of semiprecious stones, including carnelian, turquoise, garnet and lapis lazuli[10]. Flanking the king’s name are two ankhs suspended from cobras whose tails are wound around the sun disk on the falcons’ heads. These snakes represent Nekhbet and Wadjet, protector goddesses of the pharaoh. Supporting the royal cartouche is the kneeling god Heh clutching two palm ribs symbolizing “millions of years.” [11]. The scarab of the king’s name, hair of the god Heh and the darkest feathers and especially the eyes of the falcons are inlaid with Lapis. 

Figure 6: Pectoral and Necklace of Princess Sithathoryunet https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544232?searchField=All&sortBy=Relevance&where=Egypt&ft=16.1.3&offset=0&rpp=80&pos=1

Menat Necklace from Malkata   – New Kingdom 18th Dynasty ca. 1390–1353 B.C.

This ‘menat’ necklace dates to the New Kingdom specifically to the reign of Amenhotep III and was found at his palace at Malakta (Figure 7). A menat necklace consists of a heavy, keyhole-shaped counterpoise (menat) and many strands of beads and was often carried by women in religious ceremonies. Functioning as a percussion instrument that was shaken to create a soothing noise that was thought to appease a god or goddess[12].

King Tutankhamun New Kingdom 18th Dynasty ca. 1336–1327 B.C.

I couldn’t write about lapis lazuli and not include an object from the tomb of King Tutankhamun. This inlaid pectoral was found in a chest alongside a collection of pectorals and is a rebus (an ornamental device associated with a person to whose name it punningly alludes) of his throne name Nebkheperue, which can be translated as Re is the lord of manifestations’[13](Figure 8).   The framework and back of this piece of jewellery is made of gold and inlaid with turquoise, carnelian and a large lapis lazuli scarab beetle in the centre representing the god Khepri identified as the sun at dawn.[14]

Figure 9: Amulet of Maat made of flecked Lapis Lazuli https://collections.mfa.org/objects/146663/amulet-of-maat

Maat Amulet – Late Period ca. 712–332 B.C.

Connecting back to lapis lazuli’s connection to the word ‘truth’ judges and other officials often wore amulets made of lapis in the shape of the Goddess Maat (Figure 9). Maat personified justice, truth and proper world order. She is shown in amulets as a seated woman with a feather (the hieroglyph for her name) on her head the back of this amulet has a ring on the back for suspension[15].

I hope you have enjoyed this week’s topic what shall I do next time?

References


[1] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 177

[2] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 177

[3] 2013, dans L. Bombardieri, A. D’Agostino, G. Guarducci, V. Orsi et St. Valentini (éds), SOMA 2012. Identity and Connectivity. Proceedings of the 16th Symposium on Mediterranean Archaeology, Florence, Italy, 1-3 March 2012, volume I, BAR International Series 2581 (I), p. 515-525. Page 519

[4] LUCAS, A. and Harris, J., 1999. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries … Fourth edition, revised and enlarged by J.R. Harris. Page 455

[5]2013, dans L. Bombardieri, A. D’Agostino, G. Guarducci, V. Orsi et St. Valentini (éds), SOMA 2012. Identity and Connectivity. Proceedings of the 16th Symposium on Mediterranean Archaeology, Florence, Italy, 1-3 March 2012, volume I, BAR International Series 2581 (I), p. 515-525. Page 515

[6] 2013, dans L. Bombardieri, A. D’Agostino, G. Guarducci, V. Orsi et St. Valentini (éds), SOMA 2012. Identity and Connectivity. Proceedings of the 16th Symposium on Mediterranean Archaeology, Florence, Italy, 1-3 March 2012, volume I, BAR International Series 2581 (I), p. 515-525. Page 518

[7] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 177

[8] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 110

[9] https://old.egypt-museum.com/post/187282585527/silver-bracelet-of-queen-hetepheres?is_related_post=1

[10] https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544232?searchField=All&sortBy=Relevance&where=Egypt&ft=16.1.3&offset=0&rpp=80&pos=1

[11] https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544232?searchField=All&sortBy=Relevance&where=Egypt&ft=16.1.3&offset=0&rpp=80&pos=1

[12] https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544509?searchField=All&sortBy=Relevance&where=Egypt&what=Lapis+lazuli&ft=Menat&offset=0&rpp=80&pos=1

[13] Garrett, K. and Hawass, Z., 2005. Tutankhamun and the golden age of the pharaohs. Washington, DC: National Geographic. Page 203

[14] Garrett, K. and Hawass, Z., 2005. Tutankhamun and the golden age of the pharaohs. Washington, DC: National Geographic. Page 203

[15] https://collections.mfa.org/objects/146663/amulet-of-maat

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