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.

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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.

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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.

Sparsely settled now, Naukratis was, in its heyday, the most important maritime trading center of Egypt. It has been described as a treaty port, an international emporium for both finished goods and raw materials. Its strategic location in the western part of the Nile Delta provided easy access to the Mediterranean Sea.

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It was founded about 570 B.C. by the pharaoh Amasis, a powerful ruler whom the historian Herodotus claimed “was partial to the Greeks.” As the first permanent Greek presence permitted in Egypt, Naukratis afforded an important means for the exchange of goods and culture between the ancient civilization of the pharaohs and the emerging Greek city-states in the eastern Mediterranean.

As important as this trading activity was to the growth of both Egypt and the Greek world, a more lasting legacy was represented by the flow of artistic and cultural ideas between these two civilizations. During the final phase of Egyptian self-determination under Amasis, the fertile and highly receptive cultures of the Mediterranean world were nourished by the newly accessible wealth of Egyptian technical, aesthetic and cultural traditions. It is far from coincidental that, shortly after the establishment of the trading colony of Naukratis, the Greeks started to build their first large temples and to carve imposing life-size statues, both from the enduring medium of stone.

Following closely upon the example of the scarab heads and other figurative works from Naukratis, novel expressions of a new awareness of blacks began to appear on Greek soil. It is only at this point that images of blacks in Greek art begin to exert a truly lasting relevance within Hellenic culture. Among the most memorable of these first impressions are the innovative Athenian pottery vases featuring sensitively rendered heads of blacks. In this new and more developed type, the reductive form of the black-head scarab ventures more fully into the world of Greek myth and culture.

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The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root's editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.