String Theory

Worcester Art Museum conservator Paula Artal-Isbrand reconstructing a necklace

When I left the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in 1998 to go to the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University in Atlanta as Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art, one of his priorities was to upgrade their display collections. One of the things I was able to do was to obtain a grant from the Museum Loan Network, then based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The innovative grant program underwrote conservation and research on collections in storage for loan to other institutions. Having been in New England for some time, I focused on the wealth of Egyptian material stored in museums there. Christine Kondoleon, then Curator of Ancient Art at the Worcester Art Museum, invited me to look over the ancient Egyptian material in storage there.

When I saw what was in Worcester’s basement storage, I was amazed at the scope and quantity of the objects there. In particular, the collection of ancient Egyptian jewelry and cosmetic objects was one of the largest and finest of any museum in the United States I had ever seen. In researching the collection in the Worcester Museum archives, I discovered that it had been largely assembled by a wealthy Boston couple, Kingsmill and Laura Marrs. The pair had gone to Egypt a number of times beginning in 1905. While in Luxor they met none other than Howard Carter, later to be world famous as the discoverer of the Tomb of Tutankhamun. Carter was that son of a famed landscape painter in England and had gone to Egypt to illustrate archaeological publications. To supplement his income, he painted watercolors of monuments and scenes to sell to tourists. Laura Marrs, who was a print and watercolor collector acquired a number of them and struck up a friendship with Carter. He advised her and Kingsmill on their antiquities purchases, directing them to acquire objects of importance, rarity and great beauty.

Much of the jewelry in the Marrs collection had been restrung in the fashion of the day. As part of the loan to the Carlos, it was decided to dissemble a number of the necklaces that were a pastiche of pieces that belonged to different periods and compositions and to restring them correctly on the basis of excavated examples. After the Marrs pieces were fully documented in notes and photographs, they were carefully taken apart by the Worcester Art Museums conservation staff and re-strung with the advice of Shelia Shear, an expert on ancient Egyptian beadwork.

One such example was Worcester Art Museum 1925.411, this was a multi-strand necklace made up of elements that had come from a number of items of Middle Kingdom (ca. 1980-1760 BCE) and New Kingdom (ca. 1539-1077 BCE) ornaments. After the modern findings added to secure the necklace were removed, the beads and elements were separated and the constituent pieces assembled into seven separate necklaces, the cotton thread they had been stung on was replaced with linen which better approximated the original stringing. The reorganized necklaces were re-numbered as 2001.120 for a Middle Kingdom necklace made up of gold falcons and 2001.201 for one made up on the goddess Bat. While these could have originally come from beaded compositions, they were sometime strung as is and because they were such lovely and important examples, we decided a simpler stringing on knotted linen cord as was sometimes used was best. Another Middle Kingdom carnelian bead necklace was 2001.116 which had a gold biconical bead placed in the center. Several New Kingdom elements had been used in the original necklace and they were restrung to make 2001.117, a string of gold fish and gold beads in the shape of cowrie shells along with carnelian beads. These elements are often found on decorative girdles worn by young women about the waist. 2001.119 also incorporated fish pendants but here they were of carnelian, porphyry and blue glass strung with carnelian beads. 2001.117 and 2001.118 were composed of gold and carnelian poppy pod pendants respectively. There has always been some debate as to whether these very popular beads represented the pods of the opium poppy or a flat based bottle, but they are among the most common New Kingdom jewelry elements.

The restringing of one necklace

It was decided to keep some of the Marrs necklaces as they had originally been purchased as examples of the original manner in which they were sold. Another unique aspect of the collection is that it retained information on the original sellers, Mohamed Mohassib and Sons, a famous Luxor antiquities dealer that included the price along with the provenance of some of the items.

After the initial loan to the Michael C. Carlos Museum the jewelry returned to storage in Worcester. I then proposed a special exhibition of the collection with the collaboration of Yvonne Markowitz Curator emeritus of jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. The exhibition entitled ‘Jewels of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Treasures from the Worcester Art Museum will open there in June of 2022.

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