Sunday, 25 May 2008

Pearls in the ancient middle east

Possibly the oldest pearl necklace still in existence, comes from ancient Persia, a Queen's tomb from about 2,400 years ago. The Susa , now Shush, 150 miles east of the Tigris in Khuzestan province of Iran, necklace has three surviving rows of 72 pearls each, although it is thought it originally had up to 500. It is held in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

In Egypt, mother of pearl seems to have been in use as far back as 4,200 BC, brought probably by the Persians who certainly had easier access and used it before then. An oyster shell amulet was a popular ornament in the Egyptian Middle Kingdom - 2040 to 1750 BC - usually, but not exclusively because Tutankhamun wore one in his coffin - they were worn by women. Gold and silver replicas of oyster shells were found enscribed with the name Senwosret 1 who reined from 1965 to 1920 BC.

Egyptian soldiers may have used oyster shells as badges, possibly as a mark of an armed guard and therefore that gold and silver replicas were a significant mark of officer status. Fewer exact examples survive in the middle east than elsewhere because the acidity in the soil has destroyed the original but we can trace their usage second hand as representations in art and jewellery.

The shell amulet was thought to promote health – the word wedja in Egyptian meant both health as in sound and healthy and… oyster. Copies were fashioned in gold and silver and electrum (an alloy of both) probably for princesses and queens but shell amulets have also been found in poor graves beside pottery at pre-dynastic sites like the Nubian temple excavations at Hierakonpolis.

Senebtisy's burial chamber revealed 25 sheet-gold oyster-shells, hanging from the lowest of three rows of tiny ball beads of cornelian, feldspar and dark-blue glazed composition, all strung between gold multiple bead spacers. Princess Sithathor wore 31 gold oyster-shells as a necklace and a larger single oyster shaped amulet. Queen Mereret owned three large gold oyster-shell pendants, two of them inlaid on the upper surface.

In the 1920s, archaeologists excavated tombs near Babylon of Sumerian royalty from ancient Mesopotamia. Part of the treasure were several wooden ornaments and musical instruments inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

The silver lyre of Ur, pictured, found in one of the graves, dates back to between 2,600 and 2,400 B.C. This predecessor to the modern harp, was found in the Great Death Pit accompanied by 70 men and women buried with their Queen. Miraculously well persevered, the lyre was entirely covered in sheet silver and inlaid with mother-of-pearl patterns. The silver cow's head front has inlaid eyes of shell and lapis lazuli, and the edges, borders and plaques of the sound box are inlaid with mother-of-pearl

Sumerian artisans cut a design from the shell, carved the same form out of the wooden setting, and filled the spaces of the engraving with bitumen, which after acting as glue hardened forming the background. Inlaying like this was used throughout Asia and Asia-Minor up to the time of the Ottoman Empire, and although refined, the same principles are still practiced by artisans in Turkey and Egypt

The early Egyptians would have traded the oysters from the Red Sea which even in much later times was known as dangerous waters. Divers were often taken by sharks, lost limbs to sword fish or were caught underwater by giant clams. Slaves were brought east from Africa to fish. These would have been Gulf Pearl Oysters, the Pinctada radiata from which mother-of-pearl could be made into ornaments. The word nacre comes from the Arabic word Naqqarah, meaning shell, so linguistically, we deduce, oysters and pearls were part of the culture long before Greece or Rome. In Europe the original word for as small pearl, a margaret, derives also from the Persian murwari being a child of light and stays with us in Italian as Margherita or Rita, in French as Marguerite, Margot and Groten; in German Margarethe, Gretchen and Grethel, in English Margaret, Marjorie, Madge, Maggie, Peggy etc.