British Museum blog

Colourful glass adornments from Egypt: an 18th-dynasty enigma

Anna Hodgkinson, Research Fellow, British Museum

The author inspecting the glass objects

The Egyptian 18th Dynasty (around 1545-1290 BC) is renowned for the quality of glass production, particularly vessels such as the famous bottle in the form of a fish from Amarna. I have spent the last three months in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan studying a less well-known group of glass objects from the same period.

These have been widely interpreted as ‘ear-plugs’ or ‘ear-studs’. I was intrigued: how did this interpretation come into existence? The overall form of the – very colourful – glass objects resembles that of mushroom- or papyrus-shaped ear-studs, frequently found in New Kingdom contexts, with a large number coming from Amarna and depicted on tomb scenes and mummy cartonnages. However, what struck me as unusual was that all the examples in the British Museum have a small hole running through the centre of the object. Although scholars refer to these items as ‘ear-studs’ or ‘ear-plugs’, publications from over a century ago, including some by Sir Flinders Petrie and bead specialist Horace C. Beck, call them beads or amulets, because of this piercing.

The glass objects laid out during the documentation process

The objects were produced by wrapping molten glass rods around a metal rod; however, this procedure would not have necessitated a complete piercing. Scholars have suggested that the frontal hole, which would be visible if these items were worn through a pierced ear-lobe, may have accommodated a fresh flower. While this is conceivable, I would rather interpret these items as beads, since most of them have a spiral-decorated shaft. This shaft would be invisible when worn through the ear-lobe. The beads could have been threaded horizontally or vertically, worn in collars or on the ends of wigs.

Unfortunately, there is no pictorial nor three-dimensional evidence for how these objects were worn, nor do the archaeological contexts tell us much about their use. Most have been found individually, rather than in pairs, and those that appear on the art market and in private collections are usually without provenance (i.e. information about the context in which they were originally excavated or found). This shows that we must be cautious with how objects are designated, because they may be based on conjecture rather than evidence.

My time in the British Museum has allowed the updating of nearly 240 records of items of glass jewellery of the New Kingdom with full descriptions and measurements, and full photographic documentation, accessible to all through the Museum’s Collection online.

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26 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. You will have me wondering all day now. Can’t imagine that they are earplugs. Obviously decorative, but for what use. I shall ponder.

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    • I’m always a bit surprised when these “experts” are so dumb they can’t figure out these are board game pieces, the wooden parts have rotted away (stripped and plain as in Chess, black and white)…not ear-plugs…weren’t they ever kids, these people…? Deeerrrr…!

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      • Errr…hello…! Just looked at the board-game markers from the tomb of Titankhamun, they are almost identical with what looks like wooden pieces on the ends that would have rotted in the glass pieces from the ground. Besides the reference in the Book of the Dead to the game of senet, another religious text mentions what appears to be the same, or at least a very similar, game played by the deceased against a divine opponent to decide his fate in the underworld. The extant versions of this text all date from later than the time of Tutankhamun, but they may preserve an ancient belief.

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  2. moxeyns says:

    How lovely! Are the holes large enough to put a fresh flower in? (I quite like that idea, as earring concepts go!) Although I take your point about the pretty shafts being hidden if used as earrings. The shafts also look quite thick?

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  3. Wendy Brydge says:

    Excellent article! I completely agree, it doesn’t seem likely that these are ear plugs at all. Wonderful bit of deduction!

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  4. Ian Waters says:

    Could they be builders plumb bobs with the string long gone? Its just that they have been found singularly and if you are a stone mason they would be a handy way of checking a vertical.

    It would of course depend on the location they were found.

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  5. G. Gorgo says:

    I wonder if the commenters who feel these are too thick to be ear plugs are aware that stretching one’s lobes is hardly a modern innovation! 🙂 As someone with stretched lobes, I think the shape seems like a potentially comfortable one for lobe jewelry, but agree with the author that hasty assumptions should never be made about ancient objects. That said, there are modern glass pieces for stretched lobes that have decorated shafts, which are more or less invisible when in the ear–although these are usually hollow (tunnels, rather than plugs) so that you can see a hint of the design while the pieces are being worn.

    Liked by 1 person

    • G. Gorgo says:

      Coincidentally, I stumbled across some Cambodian ear plugs, in glass, many of which are exactly the same shape as these Egyptian ones. They’re about halfway down this page: http://www.organicjewelry.com/ethnicSold.html. While it doesn’t prove that the Egyptian pieces are jewelry, it does eliminate the argument that there’s just no way they could be used for stretched lobes. 🙂

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  6. david says:

    This ushabti from tut’s tomb appears to have earrings similar to these.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/tutankhamun_gallery_06.shtml

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  7. davidcostner says:

    This ushabti from tut’s tomb appears to be wearing earrings similar to these.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/tutankhamun_gallery_06.shtml

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  8. electrical insulators

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  9. El Vee says:

    not that I am personally familiar but did it not occur to anyone that these objects look like butt plugs?

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  10. robertm2000 says:

    The answer is obvious – check the spirals on the items to see if there are screw-ridges that wore off, and then check tomb-findings if there are things that look like screwdrivers!

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  11. Rhonda Pitts says:

    Any possibility they were used in hair fashion?
    Strung over the hair and woven into a style.

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  12. Jen Chaney says:

    I have most often seen these referred to as ear adornments, as mentioned in the article. I still think that is the most accurate interpretation; while true that it was not necessary for the hole to go all the way through, it is much easier to clean out. Not all of the spirals would be visible when worn, but most would as these are longer than the average earlobe, and the slight hourglass shape of nearly all of these objects suggests ear jewelry. Some sources I have read also suggest that they are seen in Egyptian artwork in ears, I have not seen the artwork cited. They also often seem to come in pairs.

    Same tech as the “pipette” bottle stoppers in some Egyptian and Phoenician core-formed bottles, but the stoppers have to be ground to shape.

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  13. Shelda says:

    Why not actual earplugs the hole would allow sound through and could have protected the ear . Stone chi held are loud also when sleeping bugs could get in your ears .

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  14. Reblogged this on Cat Among the Pigeons Press and commented:
    Interesting interpretation of the use of these beautiful glass beads; I love multiples of objects!

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  15. K. in Cleveland says:

    These look almost like shoe or wrist-guard buttons. A bare thread or thong would quickly cut through leather, but if one of these objects had a thread put through the middle, it could be pushed through slits in the item and tied shut without doing any damage. That might account for the objects occurring in pairs.

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  16. Jason Pfohl says:

    These are clearly ear plugs. They were commonly mis-identified as gaming pieces, but there is actual evidence of mummies wearing this style of glass plugs. The Theban mummies of Sen-nufer and his wife Meryt were found WEARING these plugs. You can also see clear images of Tutankhamen with stretched earlobes as evidence of the trend of expanded ears in Egypt at this historical time period. The shape of the plug is ideal for piercing jewelry with the shape of the front of the plug and the gentle flare on the back. You would actually be able to see the design on the back of the plug as they are long and would extend out the back side of the ear. The hole in the plug is simply part of the production process, as these were wound around a mandrel, very much the way glass beads are still commonly manufactured.

    https://www.safepiercing.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/thepoint_issue39_web.pdf

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  17. Mike Whalley says:

    Spinning tops.

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  18. Beau says:

    for joss sticks or equivalent

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  19. From the author, Anna Hodgkinson:

    Many thanks for all your comments! While I am unable to reply to all of them, I would like to address a number of aspects:

    1) I would not interpret these objects as gaming pieces, since the shape of ancient Egyptian gaming pieces is different: more squat, without a central piercing. There exist other items of glass jewellery, which have been interpreted as either ear-jewellery or gaming pieces and could indeed have fulfilled either function. These belong to a different category of objects, however.

    2) The idea of flowers being worn through the hole: this is possible, since the hole – in most cases – would have been wide enough, but there is no archaeological evidence of this practice. In my opinion, fresh flowers would wilt very quickly in the Egyptian climate, especially when threaded through the hole as individual blossoms (the authors offering this opinion did so because they saw a parallel to the ear-studs from faience, which are decorated with a polychrome rosette, such as EA59306 (http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=117486&partId=1&place=42209&object=22836&material=18615&page=1)).

    3) The decorated shaft: I concede that this would have been visible when worn through the lobe, although only if not hidden beneath a wig. 18Th dynasty wigs were very voluminous and would have covered the decorated shaft. This does not, however, guarantee that the objects were not worn through the pierced ear-lobes.

    4) There is no archaeological evidence that these objects were found in pairs. They sometimes appear in pairs of two on the antiquities market or in exhibition catalogues, however, I believe that they were intentionally grouped by antiquities dealers or museum staff eager to please the public or to sell the objects. There is a particular style (dark blue body with white spiral decoration and yellow threads), which occurs most frequently, and examples of which could be easily paired. I have studied the distribution of the relevant objects from the early excavations at Amarna, and they were always found individually.

    5) Of course, ear-plugs or -studs or a similar shape existed in ancient Egypt and I do not deny that mummies were found to have pierced and stretched ear-lobes. Mushroom-shaped ear-studs have been found on sculpture and in funerary contexts (see the cartonnage of Katebet (www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/m/mummy_of_katebet.aspx), for instance. However, these examples are usually plain and from stone, wood or bone, or have floral decoration on the front, such as the faience examples (see above) – the glass objects in question are undecorated at the front with an unattractive hole (which could have been filled with a fresh flower, for which we have no evidence)

    6) Other interpretations offered in the comments:

    a) plumb-bob: I do not think that these would have been made from glass. The ends or these objects are rounded and they are overall rather too decorative.

    b) hair decoration: something I have been looking into and will be discussing in my article on these objects

    c) parts of sandals or clothing: this is also a possibility.

    Many thanks for all the suggestions and comments, I am grateful for the discussion. As I state in the post, I am not yet 100% certain as to how these objects were used or worn, but do think that the longitudinal piercing and the decoration makes an interpretation as beads most likely. I do not, however, state that they were not ear-studs, but since there exists no archaeological or ancient pictorial evidence of how these objects were worn, the interpretation must remain open.

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  20. Caroline says:

    I think they are catheter plugs, for drainage… medical equipment. That’s why they’re glass, (easily sterilized) all the same size and hollow… I would ask some doctors what they could be used for. Catheter plugs dont look much different today…

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  21. Megaera says:

    Anna, thanks for the fascinating post — I never gave these objects much thought. This may be a long shot, but is it possible that these are the ends of kohl applicator wands that would match up with fancy glass kohl tubes like this one: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/g/glass_kohl_tube_in_the_form_of.aspx ?

    I can’t recall ever seeing one of these tubes with a lid or stopper, although I’ve seen a lot of examples like the one I just linked with an unadorned applicator rod sitting in the tube. Are these objects the right size/shape to serve such a purpose? Are the holes big enough to accommodate a rod like that?

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  22. Anna Hodgkinson:

    Megaera, Many thanks for your interesting comment and your suggestion. In fact, there is one object, which might just indicate this function: It is a single “ear-plug” in the collection of the Getty Museum, which has been threaded onto the end of a metal rod, possibly to function as a kohl applicator: http://search.getty.edu/museum/records/musobject?objectid=248662. The problem with this piece is that it may well be a later addition, and the archaeological context is unknown. There is a second object of relevance at the Getty, which also has a metal rod going straight through the hole, but this may be from manufacture. In any case, this is a possibility, and it would also explain these objects’ individual occurrence in the archaeological record (rather than being found in pairs) and their decorative nature.

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    • davidcostner says:

      That would explain the flat, unadorned bottom and the flaring. The flare would keep the kohl from getting on hands and the flat bottom would allow it to sit flush with the top of the jar. This would also put the decorative portion in the best view, which makes the most sense.
      I’d love to see someone try one of these onto a glass kohl jar for fit.

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