The Tutankhamun Exhibit
Jewelry and Ornamentation
Gold Cloisonne Earrings
Like a number of other articles that had been placed in a cartouche-shaped box, these gold earrings were most probably used by Tutankhamun in his lifetime. They show signs of friction, which is only likely to have occurred through use. In order to attach them to the pierced lobes of the ears, a stud-like clasp was made in two pieces, so that it could be taken apart. Each piece is composed of a short cylindrical tube closed at one end by a gold disk with raised rim, on which is mounted a hemispherical button of transparent glass. When the clasp is closed, one tube fits inside the other. A portrait of the king, painted behind one button on each earring, is visible through the glass covering. Microscopic examination has suggested that it is not, however, a true painting; it seems to consist of particles of colored glass fused on the underside of the clear glass button. Two pendent uraei attached to the disks flank the portraits. Suspended on ring eyelets from the clasps are figures of hybrid birds with gold cloisonne bodies and wings of falcons and heads of ducks. The wings curve inwards, meeting at the top to form a complete circle. In their claws the birds hold the shen sign for infinity. The heads are made of translucent blue glass and the bodies and wings are inlaid with quartz, calcite, colored faience, and blue, red, white, and green glass. Pendent extensions from the tails of the birds consist of open-work gold frames encrusted with alternate rows of gold and blue inlay, arranged in a feather pattern, and cylindrical blue and gold beads that terminate in five heads and hoods of uraei.
Earrings, at least for royalty, were a relatively recent innovation at the time of Tutankhamun. Their popularity in the New Kingdom was probably a legacy of the Hyksos invaders who brought them from Western Asia, where they had been in vogue for many centuries. Apart from a very small number that have been ascribed to the Middle Kingdom, the earliest recorded examples in Egypt were found by Sir Flinders Petrie in a tomb at Thebes that he dated to the end of the Seventeenth Dynasty (c. 1570 B.C.). At first they seem to have been worn chiefly by women, not merely by members of the nobility but also by some of those who served the nobility, such as musicians and dancers. According to one of the Amarna letters, earrings were among the principal items of jewelry brought by a Mitannian princess to Egypt at the time of her marriage to Amenhotpe III (c. 1386-1349 B.C.). How soon, and to what extent, the custom was adopted by men is uncertain, but the first king whose mummy shows pierced lobes of the ears is Thutmose IV (c. 1419-1386 B.C.). Perhaps it is no more than a coincidence that he was the first Egyptian king to marry a Mitannian princess, because instances of men wearing earrings occur in the wall paintings of at least two Theban tombs that antedate his reign. Compared, however, with the countless representations of female wearers of earrings, the number of representations of male wearers is very small and, in the main, confined to young princes. The lobes of the ears of the mummies of several kings, including Sethy I and Ramesses II, were pierced and it must be supposed that at some stage in their lives they wore earrings. Moreover, sculptures of kings from Amenhotpe III and Ramesses II often show pierced lobes.
A possible explanation is that earrings were normally - though not invariably, and particularly not in Amarna times - discarded by boys when they reached manhood. Such an explanation would accord with the fact that, in spite of the profusion of other kinds of jewelry, no earrings were placed on the mummy of Tutankhamun. It would also account for perforations in the ears of the gold mask being covered with gold foil.