WORCESTER — “Jewels of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Treasures from Worcester Art Museum,” a new exhibit that opened Friday at WAM, features everything you’d expect from this storied era, including scarabs, bead necklaces, gold rings, a mummy case, obelisks and—a pocket watch?
Of course, an ancient Egyptian wouldn’t have had a pocket watch, but including one with an Egyptian design created by Tiffany & Co. in 1899 reflects the tastes and times of wealthy Massachusetts couple Laura Norcross Marrs and their husband, Kingsmill Marrs, who assembled the collection nearly a century ago. Laura Marrs donated the collection of over 300 pieces to the museum in 1926.
The exhibit coincides with the 100th anniversary of Howard Carter’s famous discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb and follows the story of the Marrs’ friendship with Carter, which included several visits to his dig sites in Egypt. This friendly collaboration has enabled the Marrs to collect hundreds of objects over several years. These objects are presented to the public for the first time in the exhibition, along with additional works from the museum’s collection and selected loans from private collectors.
The show is divided into sections that explore topics ranging from the social significance of the pieces to the techniques used to make them. There are exquisite works in each section, including ‘The Sacred Scarab’, a section that examines the important role the revered insect played in Egyptian society and the scarabs that were carved to represent it. On display are scarabs of different sizes made from a variety of colored stones such as amethyst, turquoise and lapis lazuli.
The mummy, perhaps the most iconic artifact from ancient Egypt, is represented in the show by a child’s mummy case from the early Roman period, or 30 BCE – 200 CE. A broad, elaborate necklace painted to frame the face reflects the show’s jewelry theme, while protective cobras on a frieze are meant to watch over the Unknown Child on his long journey into the afterlife.
‘Egyptomania’ fueled over a century ago
A section titled “Reimagining the Past: Egypt and Its Revivals” examines the periodic revival of interest in ancient Egypt, including the late 19th and early 20th centuries when, fueled by Carter’s momentous discoveries and other excavations in the Middle East, “Egyptomania” reached a feverish climax.
“Ms. Marrs lived at a time when there was a craze for all things Egyptian,” said Yvonne Markowitz, curator emeritus of jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts and co-curator of the WAM exhibition. was because of all the publicity received from the digs. These archaeologists would see their work featured in publications like the Illustrated Sunday Times, and designers would see them and be inspired to make jewelry reminiscent of ancient Egypt, but often in the taste of a more modern person.
The pocket watch and other beautiful places lent to the exhibition by Tiffany & Co. illustrate this fascination with Egyptian antiquity. There is a Louis Comfort Tiffany necklace in gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian.
The Tiffany pocket watch features a diamond-set sphinx amidst the pyramids of Giza beneath a brooch of precious metals, diamonds and pearls arranged to resemble a flower blossom. Both pieces reflect the more literal interpretations of ancient Egyptian motifs that some designers have relied on, as opposed to more subtle references.
“When you first see this brooch, you might ask, ‘Well, how is this Egyptian?’ “, Markowitz said. “These diamond flowers are lotuses, a very common motif used by revivalists that subtly suggests Egypt. But then you have the lady’s pocket watch and there’s a sphinx lying on top of it and behind the sphinx, the Giza plateau, so the minute you see it you’re like, “Ah, ancient Egypt. “