Native gold is, in all countries, one of the earliest materials for manufactured ornaments, and it appears to have been much used in prehistoric Egypt. Though gold is not now sought in or near Egypt, we must remember that it is found in the stream deposits of most countries, and its absence from the Mediterranean lands now is only due to the ancient workers having exhausted the supply. The immediate sources of the metal were in Nubia and Asia Minor. The Asiatic gold was certainly used in the first dynasty, as it is marked by having a variable amount of silver alloy, about a sixth; but looking at the African influence on Egypt it is probable that Nubia was the first source, though whether gold (nub) was called from the country (nūb), or the reverse, is uncertain.
So general was the use of gold for necklaces, that the picture of a collar of beads became the hieroglyph for gold. Strings of minute gold beads were worn on the ankles in prehistoric times (8000-5000 B.C.). Larger beads were economically made by beating out a thin tube, and then drawing down the ends over a core of limestone. A thin gold finger ring has been found, and a flat pendant with punched dots. But most of the prehistoric gold is seen on the lips of stone vases, overlaying the handles of vases, and forming the wire loops for carrying them. Similarly it was used for covering the handles of flint knives; a sheet of gold was fitted over the flint, embossed with figures of women, animals, twisted snakes, a boat, etc. But the use of thin gold leaf which adheres to its base, is not found until the pyramid times. At the close of the prehistoric period we meet with a gold cylinder seal engraved with signs. When we remember that it is very rarely that an unplun-dered grave is discovered, the quantity of gold objects found show that the metal must have been generally used in the ages when commerce developed, before writing was known.
On reaching the historic times we obtain a good view of the production and variety of jewellery, in the four bracelets of the Queen of Zer, early in the first dynasty, 5400 B.C. These bracelets (fig. 93) show how each separate piece was made to fit its own place in a complete design, and that the later custom of merely stringing ready-made beads was not then followed.
The bracelet of hawks has the gold blocks alternating with turquoise. The hawks on the gold pieces are all equal, but the sizes of the blocks vary in the height. This is due to their being all cast in the same mould, which was filled to varying amounts. The surfaces were hammered and chiselled, but not either ground or filed. The order of the hawks was marked by numbering them with cross cuts on the base; these cuts are directly across for the blocks on one half, and diagonally across for the other half.
The bracelet with spiral beads has the gold spiral formed of a hammered gold wire, thicker at the middle, where it forms the barrel of the beads. This form is imitated in the three dark lazuli beads down the middle. The triple gold balls, on either side of those, are each beaten hollow and drawn into a thread-hole left at each end; so perfectly wrought are they that only in one instance does the slightest ruck of metal remain. To join the three balls together they were soldered, but without leaving the least excess or difference of colour.
In the lowest bracelet the hour-glass-shaped beads are of gold, with one of amethyst between each pair. The gold is doubtless cast, being solid. None of these are pierced, but they were secured by tying round a groove at the middle of each bead. There was also a fourth bracelet with a ball and loop fastening which shows the skill in soldering. The ball is beaten hollow, leaving about a quarter of it open; inside it a hook of gold wire is soldered in without leaving the smallest trace of solder visible. The band round the wrist was formed of very thick black hair plaited with gold wire, which was hammered to exactly the same thickness. We see from these bracelets that casting, chiselling, and soldering were perfectly understood at the beginning of the monarchy.
Of about the 1st dynasty there are also copies of spiral shells made by pressing gold foil, perhaps over shells. These were threaded as a necklace, imitating the shell necklaces of earlier ages.
On coming to the VIth dynasty (4000 B.C.) we see gold chains (fig. 94) made of rings, each folded into a double loop and put through the next; these may be called loop-in-loop chain. Gold seals (fig. 95) are also found, probably made by foreigners and worn as buttons, like many similar stone buttons.
The XIIth dynasty has left us some magnificent groups of jewellery, which were found at Dahshur. The general effect of this work is graceful and sincere in design and pure in colour. There is no glitter and pomp about it, but it has the highest beauty of careful harmony and perfect finish. The tints of the carnelian, turquoise, and lazuli which are used have been precisely chosen for their clear strength of colour, while the Egyptian system of putting a line of gold between two bright colours prevents any dazzling or clashing. The charm of this jewellery lies in the calm, fresh, cool colouring with the unhesitating perfection of the work, which seems to ignore all difficulty or compromise.
Three pectoral ornaments made in successive reigns are each formed of an open-work gold plate, engraved on one side and inlaid with coloured stones on the other. The engraved sides of two are here given (figs. 97, 98), as they are better suited for illustration. The earlier pectoral, bearing the names of Senusert II, is by far the better in design. The scheme of the whole is grasped at once, and rests the eye; there is repose and dignity in it. Although clear open spaces are left, the parts are sufficiently connected for strength.
The second pectoral, of Senusert III, is too complex for a single piece of jewellery for the breast. The heavy mass of the vulture at the top overweights the design; the head-dress of the royal sphinxes is too tall; and the combination of four captives between the eight legs of the sphinxes, or twenty-four limbs in action, is far too complex and distracting. But in the detail we must admire the expression of the captives; and also the skill with which the parts are united, especially where the frail length of the tails is held in by the extra lotus flowers.