Use of coral in ancient Egypt was very limited. This is reflected by the fact that in the Manchester Museum’s collection of over 16,000 artefacts from ancient Egypt and Sudan only two items have elements that are made from coral.
This string of beads (Acc. no. 7169) comes from a grave excavated by the British School of Archaeology in Egypt at the site of Qau el-Kebir. The string may have formed a bracelet, an anklet or part of a larger necklace. It consists of 41 green glass beads, two of carnelian, one of gilt glass, and three long coral beads. Glass beads imitating gold and pearl provide a useful dating criterion as they seem to be an innovation of the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BC) and continue to be used into Christian times (Fourth Century AD). Our string is most likely to date to between 30 BC and 394 AD, when Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire.
For the Egyptians, the nearest source of coral lay in the reefs of the Red Sea to the east of the Nile Valley. Red Sea coral (Tubipora musica) is attested in small numbers of grave goods from the Predynastic period (c. 5000-3100 BC) onwards, chiefly in the form of beads. Trade between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea coast is well-attested, and several areas of Egyptian occupation are known throughout the Pharaonic Period and later. Items arriving in Egypt through this route included a range of shells, sea urchins, coral and other materials. Due to its comparative rarity, coral is likely to have been prized by the ancient Egyptians as exotica, a material particularly suitable for use in small amounts in jewellery. The ownership of such items also implied wealth and status for the wearer.
It is unclear what, if any, special properties or associations coral had for the ancient Egyptians but colour symbolism was important in Pharaonic art. While blues and greens represented fresh growth, new life and rebirth after death, red stones such as carnelian and jasper were often used to represent solar elements in jewellery. Red also represented blood, and in Chapter 156 from the Book of the Dead, known as the ‘Chapter for a Knot-amulet of Red Jasper’, protection is sought through the blood of the goddess Isis:
You have your blood, O Isis; you have your power, O Isis; you have your magic, O Isis. The amulet is a protection for this Great One which will drive away whoever would commit a crime against him.
It may be assumed that these associations also applied to coral. As so often in Egyptian jewellery, colour was primarily symbolic rather than simply decorative.
This object can be seen in our new exhibition, Coral: Something Rich and Strange, from 29th November 2013. This blogpost is taken from an entry in the exhibition catalogue, edited by M. Endt-Jones and published by Liverpool University Press.