Shelf 2: Coins, Gods, & Grave Goods
By far the most important amulet in ancient Egypt was the scarab, symbolically as sacred to the Egyptians as the cross is to Christians. They appear and were used during most of Egyptian history. The scarab is a presentation of the commonplace Near Eastern dung-beetle, which rolled a ball of dung in which to hatch its eggs in the heat of the sun. Egyptians saw this ‘spontaneous’ creation of life and connected it with the sun god, so the scarab became the symbol of generation and resurrection. The underside of the abdomen, or flat side, of the scarabs was usually inscribed with the names of pharaohs and officials, private names, magical mottos, formulae, designs or patterns, images of deities, sacred animals, and religious symbols. It was frequently used as a stamp signature by important Egyptians. One of these scarabs was made into a ring in modern times, but it shows how it could have been used as a stamp signature by ancient Egyptians. The scarabs exhibited here were found in the lands occupied by the Egyptian Empire (New Kingdom): Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai peninsula. Ushabti figures first appeared in Egyptian tombs during the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2000 BC) and continued to appear through the end of the Ptolemaic period (30 BC). The ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife was similar to earthly life, in that there were agricultural and other labors to be performed. On the back of an ushabti is usually written a spell from the Book of the Dead, which instructs the ushabti figure to offer itself as a proxy for any manual labor that the deceased might need in the afterlife. Ushabti figures come in various sizes, as can be seen in these examples. The largest was found in Memphis, while the other two came from the Sinai Peninsula. All are made of faience, but of poor quality, indicating that they were in the tombs of average people and are probably late, from the 1st millennium BC. Money has taken different forms over the ages. In early civilizations, goods were exchanged by barter, but soon a standard commodity, like a measure of wheat (the Biblical shekel), became a method of valuing items. With improved metallurgy, these measures were transferred to small amounts of silver, each being carefully weighed during commercial transactions, a practice that still survives in North Africa and South Asia. When great quantities of silver and gold were discovered in western Asia Minor, the kings there began to issue fixed amounts of bullion, verified as accurate by their stamp of approval. These were soon in high demand throughout the ancient Near East, and other countries and cities began to issue coinage from the 700s onward. Governments quickly realized that coins provided a medium by which ideas could be transmitted symbolically. Depictions of values, rulers, and religions have ever since been part of coinage. Look in your pocket, and see what symbols today’s government uses to express its ideas.