Ancient Egyptians believed that the color blue, which they associated with water, the heavens and rebirth, offered protective powers both in life and the afterlife. For thousands of years, elite classes wore or carried amulets carved from highly prized imported blue stones such as turquoise or lapis lazuli. They also tucked gemstone amulets, scarabs and figurines within the tombs of the prestigious.
Members of the Egyptian lower classes came up with a clever substitution for the unaffordable stones. They favored small handmade or molded pieces fashioned from a combination of crushed quartz, alkaline salts, lime and mineral-based pigments – the recipe for what we now know as Egyptian faience.
Items made from faience typically featured translucent, gleaming turquoise blue or blue-green glazes magically linked with life, fertility and immortality. Other examples featured alluring black, brown, yellow, white or marbled lusters, depending on their mineral content. These were applied by brush, through dips in faience slurries, or by submerging the piece in glazing powder before firing. By the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 B.C.), efflorescence, the technique of adding glaze to faience forms before firing, emerged.
Faience’s ease of manufacture triggered mass production of amulets, rings, tiles and figurines of common creatures such as fish, frogs, hedgehogs and crocodiles. Hippopotami faience, ranging from seal-amulets to statuettes, were also wildly popular. Yet their inspiration – unpredictable, aggressive territorial behemoths – were not only feared but revered. Because they wallowed in the plentiful, rich mud of the Nile River, the ancient Egyptians associated hippopotami with fertility. Andrew Williamson, manager of the research and writing department at Artemis Gallery, explained that because many believed these immense creatures “roared” at dusk and dawn, they also reflected the daily cycles of life and the afterlife.
Hippopotamus-form faience that reach the auction market today usually portray standing compound deities such as Taweret, a fertility goddess who, in addition to a hippo head, bears lionine and crocodilian features. Yet recumbent models such as the plump, realistic blue-glazed beast that earned $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Ancient Resource Auctions in December 2016, are far more collectible.
Numerous high-quality faience pieces, including jewelry, amulets, shabti funeral servant statues and scarabs, were produced during the New Kingdom (1570-1070 B.C.). Artemis Gallery auctioned a mold-formed, green-tinged faience scarab pendant featuring insectile features, hieroglyphics and a cartouche of Pharaoh Amenhotep II for $1,750 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021.
Shiny faience mummy necklaces, which substituted for strands of costly lapis lazuli, carnelian or malachite beads, were long thought to accompany ancient Egyptians into the afterlife. A magnificent restrung turquoise and gold-bead strand, traced to the New Kingdom’s Amarna workshops, earned $1,957 plus the buyer’s premium at auction in July 2022.
Ancient Egyptians revered cats for their formidable vermin-catching abilities. Yet only toward the end of the New Kingdom did Bastet, their fierce lioness goddess, evolve into kindlier cat deities such as those gracing the faience figural ring Alex Cooper auctioned for $4,250 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2015.
Scores of ushabtis – small mummiform male and female faience figurines found scattered among grave goods – date from the Late Dynasty Period (664-525 B.C.). Because these figures were meant to serve as laborers in the afterlife, many bore agricultural accouterments including picks, hoes and baskets. Most were mass-produced from standardized molds; others, such as the miniature example Artemis Gallery auctioned for $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022, were highly personalized. In addition to an inscribed ushabti–spell from the Book of the Dead, it bears a hieroglyphic text identifying its master as Psamtek, overseer of the Egyptian treasury.
“Like ushabtis, eyes were also incredibly symbolic to the ancient Egyptians, since they represented a window to a mummy’s soul for eternity,” said Artemis Gallery’s Andrew Williamson. Faience eye and brow sets, typically made by funerary priests or sarcophagus artists, reflected the social status of the deceased as well as their family’s wealth. In August 2018, Artemis Gallery auctioned a pair of life-like, wide-eyed orbs for $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium.
Although ancient Egyptian faience works may be tiny objects of shimmering beauty, they embody important human concerns that transcend the ages.