Life, Death and Immortality All for under Pounds 100; Richard Edmonds Explains the Charm Behind the First High-Tech Ceramics from the Middle East

Article excerpt

Travellers in Arabia used to say to me, "beware of buying antiquities in the Middle East".

But I never listened, of course, and so I parted with good American dollars (the desired currency for these transactions) for duff coins in Beirut and junk ushabti picked up for 20 dollars from behind the step pyramid at Saqqara. I also picked up tick-fe ver through ignoring the warning to wear desert boots. But that's another story.

The coins turned out to be worthless. An expert at Spink, the coin dealers, said they were probably worth around 50 pence and that I should use them as postage stamp weights. I still have the dear little ushabti, however. It was cunningly damaged bythe Egyptian trader in order to give it some age and it has no monetary value. Yet somehow, I shall never trade it in for a fiver at a boot fair although really it is worth less than the 'Hellenic' coins I was sold in Beirut.

Ushabti do turn up occasionally at NEC fairs and they are usually priced around pounds 80 - pounds 100 depending on size and quality. I have not seen a specialist dealer in these things and you usually find them with dealers who sell early Chinese potter y. They are, however, unmistakable - especially if they are made of faience in that brilliant turquoise blue which you can spot miles away. They were once buried proudly with the Egyptian dead and as such have a certain haunting sadness, to my mind like those wonderful tomb portraits which have already been described in these columns.

Made from the desert sands, yet possessing all the fascination for the Ancient World of gold and precious stones, faience was a versatile, magical material. For the early Egyptians and their later Roman conquerors, faience was much revered, since itcoul d be shaped into a thousand objects such as ushabti, of course, necklaces, beads, inkwells, chalices, dolls, gaming boards and tiles. It was used in Egyptian court circles and when the Romans took over after Cleopatra's demise, faience remained as ahigh ly prized artifact in the new Hellenic villas along the banks of the Nile.

Colourless when it entered the kiln, faience was transformed after firing and colouring into the brilliant blue of the Egyptian sky. But as with other things Egyptian, there was a symbolic significance to faience objects, which makes them the perfect met aphor for life, death, rebirth and finally immortality. (And you get all this for under pounds 100, I hear you saying, and I can only reply yes, you do.)

But for detailed descriptions of the arts of ancient Egypt and faience in particular, 'the first high-tech ceramic' you need look no further than the marvellously evocative Gift of the Nile - Ancient Egyptian Faience by various authors, (Thames and Hudso n: pounds 42). This is a remarkable book which stirs the imagination and revitalises the collecting instinct by way of its fine illustrations. And I should say it is worth every penny of the price if only for the colour plates.

We can learn that the manufacture of faience might be compared to iron-smelting in Africa during the dark continents early history. Both activities were bound up in ritual, and ancient texts show that glass making also had a significant connection to tri bal ritual.

I welcomed this clarification since I shall always remember the stunningly beautiful per-Neb Collection of ancient Egyptian glass I was once shown privately in Christie's vaults. Here was evidence of a highly - developed technology imbued with mystery an d strangeness; faience-manufacture seems to be in a similar vein.

Paul T Nicholson tells us that quartz pebbles were crushed (and you wonder how) to provide the silica used for making faience. …