The Tutankhamun Exhibit
Jewelry and Ornamentation
Serpent Head Amulet
Although it is generally known as the serpent head, this type of amulet always includes the front part of the serpent's body as well as the head. It is first found in painted representations on the wooden coffins of the Middle Kingdom, where its name is given in two slightly different spellings, Menqebyt and, less commonly, Menqeryt. It is accompanied by the direction that it is to be worn on the neck. Many of the amulets in the wrappings of mummies were placed in positions prescribed in the Book of the Dead and in the earlier texts from which it was compiled. For example, Chapter 162, which is a spell for restoring warmth to the head of a dead person, is followed by the directions: "To be recited over a figure of a cow made of fine gold and put on the neck of the deceased."
The serpent head is, however, not among the amulets for which particulars of material and location are given in the Book of the Dead, which may explain why the known examples are made of several different stones and even of gold and ivory. But the great majority are made of carnelian. It is the material used for this fine specimen found on Tutankhamun's mummy, suspended on gold wire and lying on the left side of the throat, in accordance with the instruction given on the Middle Kingdom coffins. The suspension wire was threaded through a tubular eyelet at the top of a gold cap that was fitted over the base of the amulet. Gold is also used for the outline of the eye sockets; the eyes themselves are an overlay of quartz with the pupil painted underneath.
Three chapters in the Book of the Dead (Chapters 33-35) are devoted to preserving the deceased owner from suffering injury from snakes and the serpent head has been connected with them, but the name Menqebyt conveys the notion of something cool. The position of the amulet on the throat would have no obvious significance if its purpose were to ward off snakes, whereas ensuring cool refreshment for the throat seems a much more probable function.