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Ancient beadwork in the Neues Museum in Berlin

Okay, since our website is no longer a blog and we do wish to write something every once in a while, we think that these notes of some of our daily work might fill the gap. This is a first try-out; see if any wearable heritage lovers will be able to find it, and ‘like it’ of course.

Last year’s trip to Berlin for instance. I went in spring with my dear friends Andre Veldmeijer en Erno Endenburg to the Neues Museum to study the ancient Egyptian beadwork they have in storage there. And... I specifically went so I could meet with “The Queen”. But apart from my audience with her, there was a lot of ancient beadwork in storage worth looking at. André and Erno are working on the ancient Egyptian beads there, that is: their material, typology and manufacturing technology. All very interesting, so I certainly wanted to have a look at their work, but from a professional point of view, I am interested in what happens after beads are produced and made into beadwork. I am looking for the presence of ancient thread, string or any binding material still holding the beads together in a specific order or pattern after thousands of years. That's what makes my heart beat faster….

Now Berlin is a magnificent city! I have been there over the years on several occasions, and this time, again, it was great. Busy, modern, cultural, impressive history, lots of places to eat and drink. Fantastic Japanese restaurant at walking distance from the place we worked, so we had just the perfect lunch spot. The Neues Museum is one of the most beautiful museums of its kind I know. The history of the place is spectacular and so are the new architectural choices made by the architects who renovated the museum. On our first morning in the museum we met with the collection manager and other members of the museum staff. The museum is well equipped with very sophisticated mobile shelving in the storage areas. Enormous white shelves with large rotating handles that will move the entire shelves when you turn them, this way allowing a high density object storage when the shelves are pushed closely together. And, when they are closed, the inside is climate controlled and allows safe storage for the ancient materials. Thus began my search. And getting the ancient artifacts out of storage is fun; much like excavating them a second time.

With all my research equipment on the table, Munsell color charts, pencils, microscope, tweezers, I moved the ancient objects one by one safely to my desk. I am using gloves most of the time when touching ancient beadwork. Some of the artefacts are over 3.000 years old and the grease from human skin doesn’t mix well with the ancient linnen thread or glass. Some preliminary results on the beadwork research show that the collection still holds some objects left preserved on the original threads. Others, that I first thought original, were rethreaded at some point in history. There are broad collars from the pyramid age and more complex strung beadwork made of tiny glass beads from the Egyptian New Kingdom. I described the objects for future publication or further analysis.

And, one of the mornings we were up early for a meet and greet with the queen. Now in this case the Queen is queen Tiye, the wife of pharaoh Amenhotep III who ruled Egypt in the 14th Century. She is the mother of Pharaoh Akhenaten and in the museum she is represented by a very small yew wood statue showing her head and neck. This statue was probably cherished and loved in antiquity because it was reworked, remodeled to fit the changing political and religious ideas of that day and age several times. One of the last times it was remodeled, the head of the queen was covered with a beaded cap, constructed of tiny blue glass beads, luckily for me still preserved on the original string. That's the main season why I want to meet her. However, looking her in the eye, up-close and personal, is an impressive experience to me personally.

The showcase was going to be opened for me a few hours before the daily opening of the museum and in that time I was able to study the beadwork. The collection manager went with us to shut off the security system when we are in the room because this work of art is one of the museums main attractions and another famous queen's buste resides right next door… The small statue of queen Tiye is gorgeous. Her features in the wood, the beads... just perfect. It is a delight to look at it and the possibility to study the object closely with a microscope is just fantastic. At least this beadwork still has the original thread and the beading technique could even be discerned. There are two beading techniques that might have produced such a pattern of beadwork and I was going there mainly to determine which technique was used in antiquity. I found that the start and finish of the beadwork was unfortunately no longer present, but what is very interesting to find that the side of the beads have left an impression in the fabric of the head cover so the pattern of the beadwork is still visible on the entire surface of the object. This makes it possible to reconstruct the beaded structure and pattern of the beadwork quite detailed. I spent a few hours there that morning, looking through a small handheld microscope, making notes and taking pictures. The description now lies waiting to be published in my future book on ancient Egyptian beadwork.

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