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Adapted with permission from "Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations" and "Egyptian Scarabs"
by Alex G. Malloy and Peter Sharrer, expanded and updated by Joseph Sermarini
Illustrations by Irene Fraley.
Along with the pyramids, sphinxes, and mummies, the scarabs are one of the most familiar objects representing Egypt. Scarabs have been collected for centuries and were particularly popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Popularity decreased during the Great Depression and they have never regained their status as a hobby collectible of the elite. The benefit of diminished popularity for collectors today is that very rare and interesting scarabs are far more affordable than might be expected for such important historical pieces.
Scarabaeus sacer is the Latin name for the dung beetle. Today most people do not have great appreciation for this insect, but this variety and several other members of the family Scarabaeidae, were sacred to the ancient Egyptians. They connected the beetles' habits of rolling balls of dung around their eggs with the concept of eternal life in the after-world. The meaning of Kheper or Scarab was "becoming, being, metamorphosing, generation, new life, virility, and resurrection." Representations of the beetle were an essential symbol in Egyptian art and a whole class of seals and amulets were made in its image.
These little amulets of beetle form often bear hieroglyphic designs on their base, including good luck wishes, the names gods, and the names of individuals both noble and common. The most obviously interesting scarabs are those with names of kings, of the royal family, and of officials. Pharaohs were worshiped as gods, and the names of the current pharaoh or a popular deceased pharaohs, such as Thothemes III, were used to bring good luck to the bearer.
Scarabs were manufactured in a wide variety of materials including steatite, faience, stone, glass, and bone, from the Old Kingdom through the Roman period. The most common material used was Steatite. Scarabs are always to be understood to be steatite or schist unless otherwise described. Steatite is also known as soapstone, a medium for carving for thousands of years. Steatite also denotes a glassy ceramic material made from soapstone, used by ancient civilizations to make beads, amulets, seals and scarabs. To make the ceramic-like material, steatite was sometimes mixed with additives, it was either carved or molded into the desired shape, and was then heated to a temperature between 1000 and 1200 °C. At that temperature the surface of steatite will vitrify, fusing into the glassy substances enstatite and cristobalite. On the Mohs scale, the change increases hardness from 1 to between 5.5 and 6.5.
To the novice, all styles of scarabs probably look much alike; but to an accustomed eye the specialties of each dynasty, and even of separate reigns, are very clear The distinction of the styles of scarabs is as much a special subject as the discrimination of the manner of painters, and as invisible to those who are unfamiliar with the study.
All the brown scarabs (which are a majority) were originally green glazed; while most of the white ones (excepting possibly some of Amenhotep III) were originally blue. There are also the white and grey ones without any glaze remaining, which were either blue or green. The evidences for these transformations are innumerable in the half-way stages, not only scarabs, but also ushabtis. Where the color has changed and the original can be still see, it is usually noted; as green gone brown or blue gone white, for example.
Heart scarabs functioned as a replacement of the heart organ of a mummy, and represented the person or spirit of the deceased individual. The earliest heart scarabs appeared during the second intermediate period (c. 1700 B.C.) and became relatively more common during the New Kingdom. If inscribed, heart scarabs, usually include text from chapter XXXb of the Book of the Dead...
My heart, my mother; my heart, my mother.
My heart whereby I come into being.
May there be nothing to withstand me at my judgement;
may there be no resistance against me by the Tchatcha;
may there be not parting of thee from me
in the presence of him who keepeth the Scales!
Thou are my ka within my body, which knitteth and
strengtheneth my limbs. Mayest thou come forth in
the place of happiness to which I advance.
May the Shenit, who make men to stand fast,
not cause my name to stink.
(Budge, E. A Wallis, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, page 309.)
Scarabs serve an extremely important role in the discovery of Egyptian history, much as coins serve in the discovery of Western history. The names of most known pharaohs have been found on scarabs. Although the most popular pharaohs' names were revived and used on commemorative scarabs hundreds of years after their death, most scarabs were made during the lifetime of the individuals named. Some pharaohs and officials are known to us only from scarabs and the dates of their reigns were determined only by the archaeological context of scarab find sand by the art and fabric of the scarabs that name them.Scarabs not only have identified the names and dated the reigns of the pharaohs, changes in the style and manufacture of scarabs serves as an index to changes in the civilization. Without the study of scarabs, a large part of our knowledge of ancient Egypt would have been lost.
The designs of each scarab is usually unique. Even for the most common pharaoh, exact duplicate hieroglyphics of his name and title are rare. The backs are equally varied, and seldom will a drawing of one scarab accurately represent a second specimen. This makes identification of scarabs challenging and requires comparisons with sets of type drawings.
The major criteria for pricing scarabs are: quality, condition, rarity, historical interest and size. Quality, perhaps even better called eye-appeal, is an overall appraisal of the beauty of the scarab and is often the most important price factor. Fine naturalistic style increases value. Beautiful glaze colors, vivid glass, and intense semi-precious stone hues increase value. Larger size increases value. Rarity increases value. Attractive, historically important (royal) or interesting hieroglyphics increase value.
Of the literature available on scarabs, the majority was published between the last quarter of the 19th century through the period just before the Second World War. As a general introduction, one could select from any of a number of works from this period, but W.M.F. Petrie's classic work Scarabs and Cylinders with Names, published in 1917, serves this purpose admirably and is included here, online in its entirety.
Scarabs and Cylinders
Religious Aspects of the Scarab
Varieties of Scarabs
Making of Scarabs
Old Kingdom Scarabs
Earliest Age of Scarabs
Middle Kingdom Scarabs
New Kingdom Scarabs
Late Period to Roman Period Scarabs
Scarab Head Types
Varieties of Scarabs
Scarabs Private Names
Scarabs of Amenhotep II
Scarabs of Amenhotep III
Ben-Tor, D. The Scarab: A Reflection of Ancient Egypt (Tel Aviv, 1989).
Blankenburg-Van Delden, C. The Large Commemorative Scarabs of Amenhotep III. (Leiden, 1969).
Budge, E. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, (The Papyrus of Ani), Egyptian Text, Transliteration, and Translation (1895).
Fraser, G. A Catalog of the Scarabs belonging George Fraser. (London, 1900).
Gorton, A. Egyptian and Egyptianizing Scarabs, A typology of steatite, faience and paste scarabs from Punic and other Mediterranean sites. (Oxford, 1996).
Hall, H. Catalogue of Egyptian Scarabs, etc., in the British Museum. (1913).
Hall, H. Scarabs. (London, 1929).
Martin, G. Egyptian Administrative and Private-Name seals, Principally of the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period. (Oxford, 1971).*
Matouk, F. Corpus du scarabee egyptien, Tome premier. (Beyrouth, 1971).*
Mayer, I. Scarabs. (1894).
Newberry, P. Scarabs: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian Seals and Signet Rings. (London, 1906).
Newberry, P. The Timins Collection of Ancient Egyptian Scarabs and Cylinder Seals. (London, 1907).
Petrie, W. Amulets, illustrated by the Egyptian Collection in University College. (London, 1914).
Petrie, W. Historical Scarabs Chronologically Arranged: A series of drawings from the principal collections. (London, 1889, reprint 1976).
Petrie, W. Scarabs and cylinders with names: illustrated by the Egyptian collection in University College, London. (London, 1917).
Petrie, W. Buttons and Design Scarabs Illustrated by the Egyptian Collection in University College. (London, 1925).*
Sharrer, P. Egyptian Scarabs, Alex G. Malloy Fixed Price Catalog, Spring 1974.
Robard, S. "The Heart Scarab of the Ancient Egyptians," in American Heart Journal. (1953).*
Rowe, A. A Catalogue of Egyptian Scarabs, Scaraboids, Seals and Amulets in the Palestine Archaeological Museum. (1936).*
Ward, J. The Sacred Beetle, A Popular Treatise on Egyptian Scarabs in Art and History. (New York, 1902).*
*Reference not held by Forum