Plan Ahead

The Met Fifth Avenue and The Met Cloisters will close at 5 pm today due to the weather.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Turquoise in Ancient Egypt

Turquoise is a blue-green copper-aluminum phosphate mineral much associated with ancient Egypt (15.3.205). Its English name, which has cognates in most European languages, probably derives from its association with Turkestan, a source of this semiprecious gemstone, or with the Turkish empire, an agent in its historic importation to the West. It is a relatively rare stone, mined today primarily in the American Southwest, Iran, and China; the sources of turquoise most easily available to the ancient Egyptians were in the southwest Sinai, from deposits that apparently were long ago substantially depleted. The most important ancient turquoise mines in the Sinai are found in two locations: Wadi Maghara and Serabit el-Khadim (05.4.259).

Evidence of the exploitation of these mines includes mining tools and industrial installations for producing them, as well as habitation sites and numerous inscriptions relating to royal expeditions to the Sinai region during the third and second millennia B.C. At the latter, better-known site, a Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1650 B.C.) temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor, who sometimes appears in texts with epithets naming her the lady or the mistress of turquoise. In Egypt, the raw turquoise was fashioned into small objects, such as amulets and beads (31.6.25), and inlays that were mostly used on gold jewelry (13.184). It was also occasionally inlaid in stone, as on a charming figurine of a soft-shelled turtle (26.7.1359). The Sinai was likewise exploited for its more abundant copper ores, which is equally well attested in inscriptions and archaeological remains. Other major Old World sources of turquoise known to have been exploited in antiquity are located in central and northeastern Iran.

Perhaps the earliest evidence of turquoise mining by local inhabitants of the Sinai comes from fragments of high-quality turquoise found in tombs in the el-Qaa region dated to around 5000 B.C. Somewhat later, during the Predynastic Period (4400–3100 B.C.), miners from the Nile valley arrived, although little turquoise from that time has been recovered in Egypt. During the Early Dynastic Period (ca. 3100–2649 B.C.) and Old Kingdom (ca. 2649–2130 B.C.), the exploitation of the mines at Serabit el-Khadim seems to have diminished, although evidence of mining at Wadi Maghara suggests that it continued there. Among the rare examples of turquoise dating to these periods are beads on several bracelets (Egyptian Museum, Cairo), found on the arm of an unidentified woman buried in the tomb of the Dynasty 1 king Djer at Abydos and on the broad collar of an important Dynasty 6 official named Impy (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), from his burial at Giza.

The latter find is especially interesting because the collar is perhaps the largest assemblage of turquoise from any ancient Egyptian context, just as Impy’s wealth of copper vessels is extraordinary for an Old Kingdom burial. Although his numerous titles and epithets, which include “chief lector-priest,” “sealer of the king of Lower Egypt,” “overseer of all royal works,” “sole companion,” and “royal architect in the two houses,” give no specific indication, it can be presumed that Impy’s professional responsibilities or personal relationships connected him to mining activities in the Sinai.

The occurrence of turquoise increased greatly during the Middle Kingdom, presumably in tandem with renewed exploitation of the mines at Serabit el-Khadim. Turquoise is among the stones in a necklace found in the rich burial of a young girl named Myt dating to the second half of Dynasty 11 (22.3.324). She was buried in Deir el-Bahri within the funerary temple of Mentuhotep II, who reunited Upper and Lower Egypt at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom.

A favorite Egyptian color scheme was red, light blue-green, and dark blue; in lapidary work, these hues generally were represented by carnelian, turquoise, and lapis lazuli, respectively. This combination was particularly popular for cloisonné inlay jewelry of the Middle Kingdom. The pectoral of Sithathoryunet, a noblewoman buried in the pyramid of Senwosret II at Lahun, is a masterpiece of the genre (16.1.3a, b). The finest jewels and most lavish and highly valued semiprecious stones belonged to women with royal associations (16.1.24), but turquoise was also interred with less prominent, though presumably well-connected members of society: a gold and turquoise “upside down” catfish amulet, for instance, was found in a modest burial at Lisht during the 1908–9 season of the Museum’s Egyptian Expedition (09.180.1182). Turquoises often vary in color from geological specimen to specimen, and frequently an individual object includes unmatched stones. A Middle Kingdom cylinder amulet, for example, employs turquoise that ranges from blue to green to nearly yellow (26.7.1308), and the carved turquoise scarab head on a ring of Sithathoryunet is an unusual pale gray-green, while the inlays on the wings are a more conventional turquoise blue (16.1.24).

Although turquoise is closely linked with Egyptian culture in scholarly and popular perceptions, it was, in fact, a rare commodity in ancient Egypt. Its light blue-green color, associated with fertility and vegetation, was greatly valued. Other blue-green semiprecious stones, principally green feldspar (sometimes known in earlier literature as amazonite), and vitreous materials such as faience (23.3.244), glazed steatite, and glass (26.8.127) were also used to complete the popular palette of dark blue, light blue, and red, and to imbue objects with symbolic content. Turquoise and other turquoise-colored materials were sometimes used in tandem; Sithathoryunet’s pectoral, with its relatively large inlays of high-quality turquoise, was suspended from a necklace that included turquoise ball beads and green feldspar teardrops (16.1.3a, b).

Light blue-green stones from Egypt in museum collections have been consistently misidentified, particularly in earlier times when such determinations were based solely on visual examination and not confirmed by chemical or structural analyses. An analytical program of light blue-green stones undertaken by the Departments of Objects Conservation and Scientific Research at the Met has found that a substantial number of objects dated to the Middle Kingdom were mistakenly identified at the time they were acquired or catalogued by the Museum. These include an amulet in the shape of a hippo head (10.130.2310), now known to be feldspar, and a turquoise fish pendant from Lisht (09.180.1182), both of which were previously identified as beryl. Sources of green beryl and its close cousin, emerald, are found in the Eastern Desert in proximity to ruined structures of Ptolemaic and/or Roman date; the earliest known mine is at Wadi Sikait, where exploitation began in the late Ptolemaic Period (305–30 B.C.), more than 1,300 years after the end of the Middle Kingdom.

The Museum has virtually no New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 B.C.) or Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1070–664 B.C.) turquoise, but examples of turquoise inlays on jewelry dated to these times are known from royal burials in the Valley of the Kings and at Tanis in the Eastern Delta. However, a large number of turquoise-colored inlays from these periods are actually opaque glass or faience. Subsequently, during the Late Period (664–332 B.C.), turquoise was a popular choice for inlaying gold cloisonné ba-bird amulets (13.184).

The study of light blue-green stones in the Museum’s Egyptian collection has led to the development of a new nondestructive method for characterizing and sourcing turquoise using X-ray spectroscopy (XRF). Programs for proveniencing turquoise using isotopic analysis have proven successful, but for museum collections, the sample size required for this technique is prohibitive. Furthermore, the type of XRF system used for the Met’s investigation is standard for museum conservation research laboratories; the instrumentation for isotopic analysis is available only in specialized laboratories.

Clear differences in the ratios between major and trace element contents in geological specimens originating from the Sinai and several sites in Iran have allowed Met researchers to source most of the ancient Egyptian turquoise beads, inlays, and objects analyzed, as well as many from ancient and medieval Near Eastern contexts. Nearly all of the ancient Egyptian turquoises do come from the Sinai, but there are several tantalizing exceptions, all dating to the first millennium B.C. These include an early Ptolemaic cloisonné inlay broad collar (49.121.1). The origin of the turquoise has not yet been confirmed, but it is certainly not from the Sinai.

The stones probably came from a still-unknown source that also supplied Iran and Mesopotamia with turquoise as early as the turn of the third millennium B.C. Analytic evidence suggests an eastern source, perhaps Iran or Central Asia, transported via Iran. The latter possibility is also supported by archaeological evidence of early exploitation of turquoise in Uzbekistan, and if this were the case, the miniature broad collar could well reflect pathways of trade in the ancient Near East, and the influence of Persia in Egypt after it was conquered by Cambyses II in 525 B.C. and ruled intermittently by his descendants until 332 B.C. In the annals of Darius the Great, the Achaemenid king who ruled from 522 to 486 B.C., the superiority of the turquoise from the ancient Central Asian kingdom of Khwarezm is noted, and other texts attest to the presence of Egyptian goldsmiths (and other artisans) in his capital city, Persepolis, and at Susa.

Although the Sinai mines are thought to have been largely depleted in ancient times, and royal inscriptions dating to after the New Kingdom are unknown, there was subsequent, if intermittent, exploitation in the Roman Period and later: an eleventh-century turquoise cabochon from a Sinai source mounted on a gold crescent pendant neatly strengthens the stylistic attribution of this jewel to the workshops of Fatimid Cairo (30.95.37). To this day, Bedouins in the Sinai extract turquoise from sources known only to themselves, but these stones are generally of poor quality and have no commercial value unless they have been treated using proprietary industrial processes to improve their hardness and enhance their color.