Glittering Treasures from Ancient Nubia at MFA
Exhibition of royal adornments from museum’s collection
Prepare to be dazzled. A wonderful new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, titled Gold and the Gods: Jewels of Ancient Nubia, offers tantalizing insight into the meticulous craftsmanship of Ancient Nubia (located mostly in what’s now Sudan).
Running through January 8, 2017, the show, which includes more than 100 treasures from the MFA’s collection of jewelry from Ancient Nubia, focuses on pieces excavated during an early 20th-century expedition by the museum in conjunction with Harvard University. The MFA’s collection dates from 1700 BC to AD 300 and is considered the most comprehensive of any outside of Khartoum. Gold and the Gods showcases elaborate necklaces, amulets, stacked bracelets, and earrings discovered inside the tombs of Nubian kings and queens.
Ancient Nubia, strategically placed at the intersection of trade routes from sub-Saharan Africa, the Near East, and the classical world, ruled the entire Nile Valley during the apex of its power in the eighth century BC. It held so much gold that its rival, Egypt, referred to it as “the gold lands.” Nubian artisans turned out some of the most sophisticated, finely crafted jewelry of the ancient world.
Among the standouts is a gilt-silver mummy mask of Queen Malakaye (664–653 BC). Funerary masks of precious metals, like this one, adorned royal mummies in their tombs.
The famous Hathor-headed crystal pendant (743–712 BC) is another standout. Discovered in the tomb of a queen at el-Kurru, the burial place of the early rulers of the Napatan Period (between the eighth and fourth centuries BC) it is the only known work featuring Hathor, the goddess of love and motherhood.
In addition to an array of gold objects, the exhibition shows jewelry made with lapis lazuli (imported from Afghanistan), blue chalcedony (imported from Turkey), amethystine quartz, and carnelian. Several pieces incorporate enamel and glass, rare and valuable materials made with what at the time were new technologies.
The show reveals the various techniques Nubian goldsmiths and jewelers employed—methods that, as the curators note, wouldn’t be reinvented in Europe for another thousand years. Gold and the Gods also illustrates the ways owners of these adornments valued them not only for their intrinsic beauty and as signs of wealth and status, but for magical powers that protected the wearers both during their lifetimes and on their journey to the afterlife.
Gold and the Gods: Jewels of Ancient Nubia is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston (phone 617-267-9300), through January 8, 2017. Find hours and admission prices here (free to BU students with ID). Find directions here.