Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience

The Middle East, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience


Ancient Egyptian Faience

Made from the sand of the desert but possessing the allure of gold and semi-precious gems, the ceramic today known as Egyptian faience was both a versatile and magical material. From late Predynastic to Roman times it was shaped into myriad objects, such as amulets, chalices, beads, jewellery, animal and human figurines, inkwells, dolls, game boards, inlays and tiles, and used by many Egyptians, especially royalty and the court circle.

Colourless when it entered the kiln, faience was transformed by firing into the sparkling blue of the Egyptian sky and a wide range of other scintillating colours.

More than just a practical and useful material, however, faience was imbued by the ancient Egyptians with great symbolic significance.

The earliest faience objects are beads and occasionally amulets found as jewellery in Predynastic burials. The manufacture of faience at several sites suggests that it was widely accepted in Upper Egypt for certain functions. Its suitability for sacred objects can be traced at least to the start of the Pharaonic Period and for the next three millennia faience remained the preferred material for most small devotional objects.

In the Old Kingdom faience was used for the same type of objects as before, although with the exception of beads - examples are relatively rare. Finds from graves in Middle Egypt of the First Intermediate Period demonstrate that beads and amulets continued to be made in faience. By the 12th Dynasty the variety of faience objects increased once again and included statuettes of all shapes and sizes, including many animals, especially hippos, apes, lions and crocodiles.

New object types, often on a significantly larger scale than before, are added to the faience repertoire in the New Kingdom.

Why was faience chosen to make a particular item in preference to another material? It has generally been accepted among Egyptologists that faience was used primarily as an inexpensive alternative to more costly substances. …

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