WORCESTER, Mass. — The Worcester Art Museum (WAM) presents Jewels of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Treasures from the Worcester Art Museum now until January 29, 2023. It brings to light the exceptional collection of Egyptian jewelry assembled by Kingsmill Marrs and Laura Norcross Marrs and given to WAM by Mrs. Marrs in 1926.
Coinciding with the centennial celebration of Howard Carter’s momentous discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, the exhibition follows the story of the Marrses’ close and collaborative friendship with Carter. The couple’s aesthetic acumen, combined with Carter’s expertise in archeology, enabled them to assemble one of the most comprehensive collections of Egyptian jewelry in the United States.
Nearly a century later, their beneficence is showcased in this expansive exhibition of jewels given by the Marrses, along with additional works from the museum’s collection and select loans from private collectors. Jewels of the Nile will display the entirety of the Marrses’ collection, numbering more than 300 pieces, for the very first time. The exhibition is co-curated by Peter Lacovara, director of the Ancient Egyptian Archaeology and Heritage Fund, and Yvonne Markowitz, the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan curator emerita of Jewelry, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
“Jewelry has been part of the human experience for thousands of years, worn by people at all levels of society. By examining the personal adornments in the Marrs collection we encounter a vibrant and colorful expression of ancient Egyptian culture, as well as the identities and beliefs of those who wore them and the skills of those who crafted them,” said the Jean and Myles McDonough Director of the Worcester Art Museum, Matthias Waschek. “We are grateful for this opportunity to celebrate both Laura Norcross Marrses’ generosity and ancient Egypt’s extraordinary creative legacy.”
The Marrses had a close friendship with Howard Carter, writing letters and visiting one another in their residence in Florence, Italy and in Luxor, Egypt. Laura Norcross Marrs was the daughter of a prominent Boston family whose roots in Massachusetts extended back to 1636, and Kingsmill Marrs was a photographer in Boston. Their similar upbringings and education fostered a deep interest in travel and antiquities. They first met Carter during a trip to Egypt in 1908, when he was supplementing his income as an amateur archeologist by selling his watercolors of scenes from Egyptian tombs and temples.
The Marrses purchased six watercolors by Carter, more than any other single collector. These paintings will be displayed in rotations throughout the duration of the exhibition. Carter also took an active role in advising the Marrses on collecting antiquities, and his letters often included selections of objects to purchase when the couple returned to Luxor. The friendship continued through Carter’s career and his most famous discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.
The Worcester Art Museum was particularly fortunate in receiving a vast number of gifts from the Marrses, including more than 1400 prints and drawings in addition to the Marrses’ Egyptian collection. The bulk of the Marrs Egyptian collection consists of necklaces, finger rings, bracelets, anklets and a wide array of amulets. They also acquired, undoubtedly with Carter’s guidance, unique pieces of sculpture such as a head of Amenhotep III (1390–1352 B.C.) and an obsidian fist from a composite statue of the same king. The collection covers a span of nearly two thousand years, from the Old Kingdom (ca. 2543-2118 B.C.) to the Roman Period (circa 30 B.C.–A.D. 395), and showcases the legendary craftsmanship of Egyptian jewelers, who were master metalsmiths and stone carvers.
Through the story of the Marrses and Howard Carter, the exhibition explores the materials and techniques used in the creation of personal adornments in ancient Egypt, the evolution of style during centuries and millennia, and how the early 20th-century phenomenon of Egyptomania sparked a revival of interest in this style of jewelry, coinciding with archaeological exploration in the region. Each section of the show examines jewelry’s presence in society and its ability to reflect the values of the people who wore it, the technologies available to produce it and the trade that it fostered.
Amulets were believed to have the ability to protect, heal or ensure the well-being of the wearer. These were some of the earliest ornaments worn on the body and at all levels of society; they were the essential building blocks of ancient Egyptian adornment. For example, wedjat, or sacred eyes, often made out of faience, represented the healed eye of the god Horus and was believed to provide protective powers. Several wedjat are included in the exhibition.
The next section, The Sacred Beetle, examines the role of the scarab in Egyptian culture. Believed to be imbued with magical, talismanic properties, three-dimensional representations of scarab beetles were made in vast numbers in ancient Egypt, offering renewed life and protection to both the living and the dead. Their power lay not only in their beetle form but in the magical inscriptions, emblems and pictorial images that were often added to their bases. The Marrs collection has 75 scarabs, of which 57 are included in the exhibition.
Crafting Ancient Egyptian Jewelry: The Materials examines the unique stones and metals ancient Egyptian jewelers used from both local and imported sources. Egypt’s jewelers also excelled in creating ornaments composed of man-made substances such as glazed faience (a quartz-based ceramic). Today, manufactured substances are often regarded as inexpensive substitutes for more precious options — whereas in antiquity, they were seen as having other-worldly, magical properties. The exhibition includes hundreds of examples of both natural and man-made materials across an array of styles.
Crafting Ancient Egyptian Jewelry: The Technologies covers how Egypt’s jewelry industry also relied heavily on the skills of lapidary artists who were trained to work with a wide range of stones, from soft minerals such as talc to relatively hard, semi-precious gems such as amethyst, carnelian, turquoise and lapis lazuli. This section includes an array of examples demonstrating how these different techniques were applied. For example, the lapis lazuli djed, a pillar-shaped amulet with horizontal bars at the top symbolizing stability and endurance, was fabricated from a mineral mined in ancient Afghanistan.
Re-Imagining the Past: Egypt and its Revivals is comprised of several significant loans from Tiffany and Co., as well as items acquired by the Marrses. For centuries, the West has been attracted to the lands of the East and the cultures of the ancient world. Interest in Egypt’s material culture was at its height in Europe and the United States during the 19th century and early decades of the 20th centuries. However, it reached a feverish pitch following Howard Carter’s (1874-1939) discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922. The marvelous goods found in the boy-king’s burial created a craze for all things Egyptian that was dubbed “Egyptomania” in the popular press. Western jewelers also created adornments designed around small Egyptian artifacts, especially scarabs and amulets. The Marrses acquired a number of these ornaments.
The History of Egyptian Jewelry examines how the fashions in Egyptian jewelry changed through many centuries and comprises the final section of the exhibition, tracing changes in styles of personal adornment during three thousand years, from before the construction of the first pyramids to the rule of the Roman emperors. In addition, masterworks from the Worcester Art Museum’s permanent collection will contribute to a chronological framework to guide the viewer through the collection.
The exhibition concludes with a Discovery Area, an exploratory section that will allow visitors of all ages to virtually try on the jewels in the exhibition as well as smell the luxurious scents the ancient Egyptians used in creating their perfumes and lotions, which were prized throughout the ancient world. Family guides, tactile pieces and reading materials will further encourage guests to tap into the creative heritage of ancient Egypt.
Visit the website of the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) and see its dedicated page for Jewels of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Treasures from the Worcester Art Museum.