Finding a mummy in Egypt is not startling. Finding one with all of her jewels in place is. In December a team of Spanish archaeologists working on the Thutmosis III Temple Project, on the West Bank of the Nile, found that very thing. The roughly 4,000-year old mummy, adorned in semiprecious stones, gold and silver, had never been found by grave robbers, past or present, because she lay under the collapsed roof of her tomb. Her neighbors were not so lucky.
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True, the sarcophagus and mummy were in bad shape due to the collapse, but the woman’s jewels were intact – and tell us a lot about her and her society.
The “Lady of the Jewels” dates to the Middle Kingdom (2137-1781 BCE). She was found in the necropolis on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor, beneath the temple of Thutmosis III (1490-1436 BCE).
Her neighbors in the other chambers of Tomb XIV were found by tomb raiders and typically robbed blind – many shortly after burial.
The mummy was found wearing a necklace of semi-precious stones and gold (typical of the period), a shell-shaped gold pendant, and gold bangles on her arms and silver ankle bracelets, each with a reef knot in the middle, which was the fashion of the time.
In Egyptian symbolism the reef knot (also known as square knot) stood for the binding of the body, Isis having bound Osiris’ body together by this technique.
According to Willeke Wendrich in his book, "Entangled, Connected or protected? The power of Knots and Knotting in Ancient Egypt," this type of knot would be symbolic of a medical or protective purpose, and was a common symbol found clasped around the wrists and ankles of Middle Kingdom elites.
During the excavation of the workman’s village at Tell el-Amarna, a simple "knotted" bracelet made of flax rope was found, which demonstrates the popular belief in the knot form's amuletic (protective) power. Naturally, the elites would wear knotted bracelets made of gold and silver.
Neolithic taste for shells
“Her ornaments were standard for the contemporary local elites,”, says Leipzig University Egyptologist Andrea Sinclair. These were common ornaments for the time, and have been discovered on numerous occasions in other burials. In fact an almost identical gold shell pendant as well a necklace of 14 tear-drop shaped real and silver-mounted shells, dating from the Middle Kingdom were also discovered near by at Haraga, Egypt in 1915 by W.M. Flinders Petrie.
The Middle Kingdom was a booming time for divine imagery and symbolism in Egyptian material culture, particularly in personal adornment. The use of shells on the other hand goes back into prehistory: pendants made of them date back at least to the Neolithic period in the Levant and the Near East. Even then they evidently denoted wealth, as many were found very far from their origin.
Sinclair points out that nobody actually knows anything concrete about the symbolism of the gold shell pendants. They could, she speculates, symbolize the papyrus flower, which is associated with the afterlife and rebirth, and with the goddess Hathor.
As a hieroglyph, the papyrus flower stands for fertility and growth, while the use of gold symbolizes the sun, and through that, the goddess of fertility, Hathor.
“In fact, the area of the west bank of the Nile is sacred to Hathor,” says Sinclair. “Her priestesses were the royal women and princesses. There are shrines to her throughout that entire valley, and the mountain range is where she dwelt. As active representatives of Hathor the queen and her priestesses guarantee daily solar renewal.” It therefore makes sense to find these large, almost circular, gold shell pendants draped around the necks of the elite women of ancient Egypt.