Why Sacred Egyptian Scarabs Bear the Faces of Black Men

Image of the Week: These ancient amulets form an important link in the depiction of blacks in classical Greece.

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Scarabs with heads of blacks (modern casts). From Naukratis, Egypt. VI century BC.

Oxford, Ashmolean Museum

(The Root) -- This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Among the extraordinarily varied types of imagery produced throughout the long history of ancient Egypt, perhaps none enjoyed as much popularity among all classes of its people as the scarab amulet. The related examples seen here are modern casts made from original terra-cotta molds excavated from the ancient Egyptian trading port of Naukratis. Though they depict the heads of black men, the objects are usually described simply as scarabs, in reference to their curving, beetle-shaped form.

The monumental effect of these black heads belies their intimate scale. In size they range from just 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. The terra-cotta molds from Naukratis afforded the mass production of these heads from faience, an easily formed material made from quartz or sand, lime and coloring elements, which often impart an attractive greenish-blue tone to the pieces when fired. Once taken from the mold, the flat base of each head could be inscribed with various texts and images.

Black-head scarabs were made in a wide variety of materials. Contemporary examples found at Naukratis and elsewhere around the Mediterranean were carved from stones such as steatite or cast in blue glass. Some black-head scarabs found at various Mediterranean sites have holes for suspension around the neck or have been fitted to a gold hoop as an earring.

Black-head scarabs are directly derived from the literal form of the sacred scarab, or kheper. Representations of this highly venerated insect go back to the earliest period of Egyptian history. The scarab beetle was both a symbol of the spontaneous generation of life and of the sustaining energy of the sun as it coursed through the sky. These mystical associations invested the image of the scarab with a great range of spiritual powers. As objects of personal adornment for the living, scarabs functioned as amulets to be worn on one’s person or as stamps for the sealing of documents and important goods. Scarabs, including the black-head type, often bear inscriptions recording the hope of the bearer for good fortune.

Black-head scarabs originated during the late Egyptian Middle Kingdom (circa 1600 B.C.). The convex, oval form of the scarab provided a shape comparable to that of a human head. Even on such a small scale, the heads reveal an impressive, keenly observed variety of black facial types. Although the features of some heads may be exaggerated, they are never caricatural and reveal no trace of racial animosity.

A full millennium later, production of these black-head scarabs continued at Naukratis and other locations around the Mediterranean, sure proof of their popularity and continual relevance within Egyptian culture. Many of the heads made at Naukratis bear the raised marks of ritual scarification on their foreheads. These distinctive features resemble the actual practice of ancient Nubians living in present-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan.

The Egyptians firmly believed in the auspicious power bestowed by the imagery of their gods. It follows that the head of a black also held some mystical significance, since it evolved directly from the scarab type and was used for the same purpose. Although the derivation of this belief remains obscure, the same apotropaic qualities continue to have been attributed to the image of the black in later periods of antiquity.

The type of black-head scarab produced at Naukratis enjoyed only a brief period of popularity. Within 50 years of the founding of the trading colony, native rule of ancient Egypt would be eclipsed by the mighty Persian empire. One of the casualties was the manufacture of these distinctive, minute works, though black-head scarabs made elsewhere are found in smaller numbers well into the classical period.

Far from mere curiosities, the black-head scarabs in fact form an important link in the transmission of the image of black people between Egypt and the nascent world of classical Greece. In the late archaic period of Greek history, when the Naukratis heads were made, fuller historical and artistic evidence offers useful insight into the process of transmission of the image of black people to other lands and cultures.