Ancient Egyptian Gold

Ancient pharaonic sandals

Blockbuster exhibitions and sumptuous coffee-table books have long revealed our admiration for ancient Egyptian jewelry. The magnificent gold and gem-encrusted objects tick all the boxes: they are treasures from tombs of the pharaohs, epitomes of myth and ancient religion, and, however meticulously excavated, often redolent of the exciting but archaeologically unsound world of Indiana Jones.

For the art historian who approaches ancient gold from the academic rather than adventurer perspective, ancient jewelry is a unique survival from past years. It is a crossroads where art, trade, economics, religion, symbolism and craft all meet. And it is typically exceptionally well preserved - ‘neither moth not rust corrupts’ long-buried gold, to use a well-known phrase. So, from ancient gold we can learn much about past societies and, especially (to pander to my interests) about the ancient craft of the goldsmith.  Surprisingly however, despite their high profile, the extraordinary gold treasures from Tutankhamen’s tomb, excavated 90 years ago this year, have never been  published in an academic sense. It is displayed in many lavish exhibitions and in books with glossy photographs, but there has been little in the way of the specialist detail that the jewelry historian seeks.

It was thus both a privilege and an exciting prospect to be able to contribute to a recent study of the footwear from Tutankhamen’s tomb, providing information about, and background to, the several examples of golden and gold-decorated sandals of the boy king. This study has acted as a point of departure for a wider study of the manufacture of Ancient Egyptian jewelry, tying in other research I have carried out over the years on Egyptian and other Near Eastern gold work.

Just because the objects in question were intended for the feet - in this world or the next - does not mean that they were in any way inferior to other gold objects from the tomb in terms of either materials or technique. The most magnificent pair of gold sandals exhibits inlay work in lapis lazuli and carnelian every way as fine as that in the well-known collars and pendants. Indeed similarities might indicate an origin from the same workshop as some of the best-known of Tutankhamen’s gold. Even the humblest gold-embellished sandals provided insights - in one instance the tool marks suggesting that the final assembler was quite probably the sandal maker not the goldsmith. In another case, a particular decorative form can help us date Egyptian jewelry of less-certain  origin in other museum collections - we might still have much to learn of Tutankhamen’s family, but we do know the date of his burial  fairly accurately.

I make no apologies about using Tutankhamen’s gold-embellished sandals as the focus of my talk at the Gold: Vision, Value and Values Conference in New York. What could better sum up the ancient use of gold than Tutankhamen’s treasures? And what could better sum up the aims, interests and passion of the modern jewelry historian than presenting a select but little-known group of those famous treasures in a way that shows what we can learn from them, and what that knowledge contributes to our understanding of the past.

For more information, see Tutankhamun's Footwear: Studies of Ancient Egyptian Footwear. Ed. André J. Veldmeijer, Drukware 2010.



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