Making scarab amulet impressions – part 1

Our Conservation Department is fortunate to have several interns and technicians, and two of them have spent some time in the Artifact Lab lately, working on a project to make impressions of scarab amulets for the Egyptian Section.

Conservation intern Naomi Shohami working on making the amulet impressions

We have hundreds of these amulets in our collection-here is an image of one, and a link to it’s record in our online Collections Database.

Bottom (left) and top (right) views of one of the scarab amulets in our collection. This one is inscribed with a cartouche of Men-kheper-re (Tuthmosis III).

Amulets have been used throughout Egyptian history and were made in a variety of shapes, materials, and colors. The amulets that we’re working on in the Artifact Lab right now (as pictured above) are scarab amulets, and many are made of glazed steatite, a relatively soft stone. Although the first scarab amulets appeared as early as the Sixth Dynasty, they became more popular during the Middle Kingdom-this is also the period that the heart scarab, the “classic mummy amulet” was introduced. (For more information on amulets and other topics related to mummies and ancient Egyptian funerary practices, check out Salima Ikram and Aidan Dodson’s book, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity).

Many scarab amulets are made to represent the scarab beetle (Scarabaeus sacer), a species of dung beetle which collect dung into balls and then roll them to a desired location, often to lay their eggs in them. The ancient Egyptians associated scarabs and the dung ball rolling with the new-born sun-god Khepri, who rolled the sun across the sky each morning.

Amulets were often used for funerary purposes – they were placed among the wrappings of the deceased person during the mummification process, with the belief that the amulets would provide protection for the person in the Afterlife. Amulets were also given as gifts and were used administratively.

Of particular interest to archaeologists and Egyptologists is that many of these amulets bear inscriptions – sometimes a spell, a decorative symbol, and sometimes the names and titles of officials. And it’s not just the amulets that they’re interested in-when used administratively, the amulets were used to seal boxes, letters, etc. in clay or mud. Archaeologists often find these seals – which look like little lumps of mud – in the field, with traces of their impressions. In fact, two of our Curators are currently in Egypt, excavating in South Abydos, and they have recovered thousands of mud seals. In the field, they are doing “micro-epigraphy” on these mud lumps to record any of the designs or glyphs found.

Here is an example of what one looks like:

One of the mud seals found during excavations in South Abydos. In this case, all that is visible is a spiral border decoration. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Wegner

In the Artifact Lab, we are making impressions of the amulets from our collection so that our curators can use the impressions to teach students how to “read” the mud seals before they encounter the real thing in the field. My next post will describe how we make these impressions, and how we do this without causing any damage to the amulets themselves.