Gold and the Gods : Jewels of Ancient Nubia
Our Special guest writers Yvonne J. Markowitz & Denise M. Doxey, curators of the Nubian jewellery show, which will open in July at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, take us through the history and lifestyle of ancient Nubia, now part of modern Sudan.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), has one of the most comprehensive collections of jewellery in the world. With nearly 20,000 objects, its holdings include adornments from several continents, ranging in date from ancient to modern times. Amassed over the past 140 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 20th century.
The Harvard-Boston excavations in Sudan were especially productive. There, thousands of years ago, ancient Nubian artisans created some of the most spectacular jewellery 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 scientific analyses. The jewellery, as well as statuary, temple relief, and tomb depictions illustrating how jewellery 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 neighbour 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, 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.
Early in Nubia’s history, a good deal of jewellery was imported from Egypt, especially ornaments made of faience, a man-made, quartz-based ceramic with a vitreous, coloured glaze. By the Classic Kerma period (1700 – 1550 BC), the Nubians, who had established a kingdom in what is now northern Sudan, 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.
By the mid-eighth century BC (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 the Egyptians’ written language and aspects of their architecture, religion, and funerary customs. Some of the objects created and worn during the 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 found in the burial of a queen. Hathor, a popular Egyptian goddess who personified love, fertility, motherhood, and music, was also worshipped in Nubia during this period, and her image appears on scarabs, ceramics, and orse 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 stylised upright cobra that signified royalty or divine authority. In the same queen’s tomb were other pendants in the Egyptian style. However, other adornments exhibit distinctly Nubian features, especially the Nubian aesthetic regarding the female figure, which is best expressed in some of the large faience pendants found among the burial goods of early Napatan queens. 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 distinctively Kushite.
The voluptuous curves of Hathor’s breasts, abdomen, and thighs suggest fertility, rebirth, and resurrection—all believed to be powerful attributes in this life and the next.
The centre of Nubian life moved further south towards modern Khartoum around the 3rd century BC (the Meroitic period). The jewellery created and worn in Meroe was less influenced by Egypt and often includes representations of Nubian deities. Ram-headed depictions of Amen-Re, often combined with other gods and goddesses, were especially popular. Amulets, fabricated from gold, silver, hard stone, faience, and glass were produced in large numbers. Among the many types of necklaces worn in Meroe are examples made of individual bead-like elements that skilfully combine seemingly disparate images, such as rams with double uraei and sun disks surmounted by the heads of goddesses. Enamelling was developed to a high degree and certain techniques found in jewellery, including champlevé and repoussé enamelling, appear for the first time during this period. Earrings were also commonly worn in Meroe as were solid gold signet rings. Nubia’s jewellers remain unsurpassed in antiquity for their variety, skill, and technical innovation.