Scarabs were popular amulets in ancient Egypt. They survive in large numbers and, through their inscriptions and typology, they are an important source of information for archeologists and historians of the Ancient world. They also represent a significant body of ancient art.
For reasons that are not clear (although no doubt connected to the religious significance of the Egyptian god Khepri), amulets in the form of scarab beetles had become enormously popular in Ancient Egypt by the early Middle Kingdom (approx 2000BCE) and remained popular for the rest of the pharaonic period and beyond. During that long period the function of scarabs repeatedly changed. Primarily amulets, they were also inscribed for use as personal or administrative seals or were incorporated into jewelry. Some scarabs were apparently created for political or diplomatic purposes to commemorate or advertise royal achievements. By the early New Kingdom heart scarabs had become part of the battery of amulets protecting mummies.
From the middle Bronze Age, other ancient peoples of the Mediterranean and the Middle East imported scarabs from Egypt and also produced scarabs in Egyptian or local styles, especially in the Levant.
Scarabs were produced in vast numbers for many centuries and many thousands have survived. They were generally intended to be worn or carried by the living. They were typically carved or moulded in the form of a scarab beetle (usually identified as Scarabaeus sacer) with varying degrees of naturalism but usually at least indicating the head, wing case and legs but with a flat base. The base was usually inscribed with designs and/or hieroglyphs to form an impression seal. Scarabs were usually drilled from end to end to allow them to be strung on a thread or incorporated into a swivel ring. The most common range of sizes for scarabs is from 6mm to 4 cm (length) and most are probably between 1 cm and 2 cm long. Larger scarabs were made from time to time for particular purposes (such as the commemorative scarabs of Amenhotep III). Heart scarabs (typically 5 cm to 9 cm long, made of dark hardstone and not pierced for suspension) were made for a specific funerary purpose and should be considered separately.
Scarabs were generally either carved from stone or moulded from Egyptian faience. Once carved, they would typically be glazed blue or green and then fired. The most common stone used for scarabs was a form of steatite, a soft stone which becomes hard when fired (forming enstatite). Hardstone scarabs were also made and the stones most commonly used were green jasper, amethyst and carnelian.
While the majority of scarabs would originally have been green or blue the coloured glazes used have often either become discoloured or have been lost, leaving most steatite scarabs appearing white or brown.
Religious significance of the scarab beetle
In ancient Egyptian religion, the sun god Ra is seen to roll across the sky each day, transforming bodies and souls. Beetles of the Scarabaeidae family (dung beetle) roll dung into a ball as food and as a brood chamber in which to lay eggs that are later transformed into larvae. For these reasons the scarab was seen as a symbol of this heavenly cycle and of the idea of rebirth or regeneration. The Egyptian god Khepri, Ra as the rising sun, was often depicted as a scarab beetle or as a scarab beetle-headed man. The ancient Egyptians believed that Khepri renewed the sun every day before rolling it above the horizon, then carried it through the other world after sunset, only to renew it, again, the next day. A golden scarab, of the monotheistic Nefertiti was discovered in the Uluburun wreck.
By the end of the First Intermediate Period (about 2055 BCE) scarabs had become extremely common. They largely replaced cylinder seals and circular "button seals" with simple geometric designs. Throughout the period in which they were made, Scarabs were often engraved with the names of pharaohs and other royal persons. In the Middle Kingdom scarabs were also engraved with the names and titles of officials and used as official seals. From the New Kingdom scarabs bearing the names and titles of officials became rarer, while scarabs bearing the names of gods, often combined with short prayers or mottos ("With Ra behind there is nothing to fear") became more popular. These "wish" scarabs are often difficult to translate.
Amenhotep III (immediate predecessor of Akhnaten) is famous for having commemorative scarabs made. These were large (mostly between 3.5 cm and 10 cm long) and made of steatite. They are beautifully crafted scarabs, apparently created under royal supervision or control and carry lengthy inscriptions describing one of five important events in his reign (and all of which mention his queen, Tiye). More than 200 examples have survived and they have been found in locations that suggest they were sent out as royal gifts/propaganda in support of Egyptian diplomatic activities. These large scarabs continued and developed an earlier Eighteenth Dynasty tradition of making scarabs celebrating specific royal achievements, such as the erection of obelisks at major temples during the reign of Thuthmosis III. The tradition was revived centuries later during the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, when the Kushite pharaoh Shabaka (721-707 BCE) had large scarabs made commemorating his victories in imitation of those produced for Amenhotep III.
Although scarab amulets were sometimes placed in tombs as part of the deceased's personal effects or as jewellery, generally they have no particular association with ancient Egyptian funerary rites. There are, however, three types of specifically funerary scarabs, heart scarabs, pectoral scarabs and naturalistic scarabs.
Heart scarabs became popular in the early New Kingdom and remained in use until the Third Intermediate Period. They are large scarabs (typically 4 cm-12 cm long) often made from dark green or black stone and are not pierced for suspension. The base of a heart scarab was usually carved, either directly or on a gold plate fixed to the base, with hieroglyphs which name the deceased and repeat some or all of spell 30B from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The spell commands the deceased's heart (typically left in the mummy's chest cavity, unlike the other viscera) not to give evidence against the deceased, when the deceased is being judged by the gods of the underworld. It is often suggested that the heart is being commanded not to give false evidence but the opposite may be true. The Book of the Dead requires the heart scarab to be made of green nemehef stone but a variety of green or dark coloured stones were used. Heart scarabs were often hung around the mummy's neck with a gold wire and the scarab itself was held in a gold frame.
From the Twenty-fifth Dynasty onwards large (typically 3 cm-8 cm long) relatively flat uninscribed pectoral scarabs were sewn, via holes formed at the edge of the scarab, onto the chests of mummies, together with a pair of separately made outstretched wings. These were mainly made from faience and glazed blue. The association of pectoral scarabs appears to be with the god Khepri, who is often depicted in the same form.
A third kind of funerary scarab is the naturalistic scarab. These were relatively small scarabs (typically 2 cm to 3 cm long) made from a wide variety of hardstones and faience and are distinguished from other scarabs by having naturalistic carved "3D" bases, which often also include an integral suspension loop running widthways. Groups of these funerary scarabs, often made from different materials, formed part of the battery of amulets which protected mummies in the Late Period.
Scarabs with Royal Names
Scarabs are often found inscribed with the names of pharaohs and more rarely with the names of their queens and other members of the royal family. Generally, the better established and longer reigning a king was, the more scarabs are found bearing one or more of his names.
Most scarabs bearing a royal name can reasonably be dated to the period in which the person named lived. However, there are a number of important exceptions.
Scarabs are found bearing the names of pharaohs of the Old Kingdom (particularly of well-known kings such as Khufu, Khafra and Unas). It is now believed these were produced in later periods, most probably during the Twenty-fifth Dynasty or Twenty-sixth Dynasty, when there was considerable interest in and imitation of the works of great kings of the past.
Scarabs are also found in vast numbers which appear to bear the throne name of the New Kingdom king Thuthmosis III (1504-1450 BCE) Men Kheper Re ("the appearance of Ra is established"). Many of these scarabs do date from the long and successful reign of this great warrior pharaoh, or shortly thereafter but many, perhaps the majority, probably do not. Like all pharaohs, Thuthmosis was regarded as a god after his death. Unlike most pharaohs his cult, centered on his mortuary temple, seems to have continued for years, if not centuries. As a result, many scarabs bearing the inscription Men Kheper Re are likely to commemorate Thuthmosis III but may have been produced hundreds of years later. Later pharaohs adopted the same throne name (including Piye of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, 747-716 BCE) and this can lead to confusion. The hieroglyphs making Men Kheper Re seem to have become regarded as a protective charm in themselves and were inscribed on scarabs without any specific reference to Thuthmosis III. It can be doubted that in many cases the carver understood the meaning of the inscription but reproduced it blindly. On a lesser scale the same may be true of the throne name of Rameses II (1279-1212 BCE) User Maat Re ("the justice of Ra is powerful"), which is commonly found on scarabs which otherwise do not appear to date from his reign.
The birth names of pharaohs were also popular names among private individuals and so, for example, a scarab simply bearing the name "Amenhotep" need not be associated with any particular king who also bore that name.
The significance of a scarab bearing a royal name is unclear and probably changed over time and from scarab to scarab. Many may simply have been made privately in honour of a ruler during or after his lifetime. Some may also have been royal gifts. In some cases scarabs with royal names may have been official seals or badges of office, perhaps connected with the royal estates or household, others, although relatively few, may have been personal seals owned by the royal individual named on them. As the king fulfilled many different roles in ancient Egyptian society, so scarabs naming a pharaoh may have had a direct or indirect connection with a wide range of private and public activities.