Rock Crystal Ring with a Resting Sphinx
Simple examples of jewelry in the form of bands used as finger rings are attested in Egypt as early as the pre-dynastic period. By the time of Egypt's New Kingdom, the stirrupshaped design of some rings, as here, became established and was successfully repeated thereafter. The stirrup shape relies upon a circular shank, from which a shoulder rises to create a bezel in the form of a flat plate. The plate could be decorated with any number of designs. It was not until the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom during the reign of Tutankhamun, however, that ancient Egyptian jewelers introduced a revolutionary design for the stirrup-shaped ring. That innovation incorporated any number of threedimensional motifs which were set on the bezel as miniature sculptures. The sphinx resting on the bezel of this ring is indebted to those anonymous jewelers in the service of the "boy king".
The design and the execution of the sphinx are masterful. It rests with its tail characteristically following the contour of its right hind leg, around which it curls. Like most Egyptian sphinxes, the head of this example is covered by a nemes(headdress), here plain, to the front of which has been affixed a uraeus(sacred cobra), its tail undulating over the top. Attention has been paid to the detailed rendering of the toes on the extended front paws. The round face of the sphinx is dominated by large, almond-shaped eyes, set into fairly deep sockets, with the eyebrows rendered by incisions. The nose exhibits flared wings, its nostrils drilled and precise. A faint philtrum, or groove, under the center of the nose separates it from the wide, horizontally aligned mouth with its fleshy lips. The resulting physiognomy gives one the impression of strength and power, devoid as it is of the bland, idealized features which often characterize the faces
of such composite beasts. That impression contributes significantly to the monumentality inherent in this miniature, jewel-like masterpiece.
Most of the published discussions of finger rings with sculptural, three-dimensional representations on their bezels are limited to examples in gold and most of these feature scarabs as their principal design element. To date, there are virtually no examples of rings with three-dimensional representations of sphinxes on their bezels. The majority of these types of rings feature cats, frogs and an occasional lion, but these examples have not been published. The best corpus for such rings is provided by examples excavated at Bubastis and now housed in the local site museum at Zagazig in Egypt. Although not stirrup-shaped, these rings nevertheless suggest that threedimensional sculpted images on bezels were extremely popular during the New Kingdom. All are doubtless based on royal models and may be considered to be evocations of more baroque examples of rings created for the court, such as the ring featuring a pair of horses, from Saqqara, which is assigned to Ramesses II of the 19th Dynasty.
Whereas it is difficult to compare the face on this sphinx, despite its inherent monumentality, to much larger examples in stone in order to suggest the identity of the pharaoh represented, its round face and non-idealized features with their pronounced cheekbones resonate with the physiognomic features encountered in some representations of Ramesses II, as the example housed in the Nubian Museum in Aswan suggests. One can, therefore, suggest a date during the Ramesside period of Egypt's New Kingdom for this ring. Rock crystal, perhaps termed menu hedejin hieroglyphs, was a stone much coveted for amulets and miniature, deluxe vases. But, its use, because of its rarity, was very restricted. The ancient Egyptians were extremely fond of wearing finger rings, as is attested by a mummy mask of an elite woman found at Thebes, roughly contemporary with our ring. She is depicted wearing no fewer than fourteen rings on her preserved fingers. Nevertheless, these rings were not simply worn for personal adornment. On the contrary, finger rings in ancient Egypt
were characterized by magical powers. So, for example, today's Old World practice of wearing a wedding band on the appropriate ring finger resonates with the ancient Egyptian practice of wearing a ring on the equivalent finger as a defense against heart disease which might be brought on by the ravages of malevolent deities and nefarious forces of evil. It is likely that this ring with its sphinx was also possessed of protective qualities, given that the ancient Egyptian sphinx was quintessentially one of the most powerful, protective creatures in the ancient Egyptian pantheon.
Culture : Egyptian
Period : New Kingdom, Ramesside period, 19th – 20th Dynasty, 1295 – 1069 B.C
Material : Rock crystal
Dimensions : H : 4.1 cm – W : 3.2 cm
On the innovations in finger rings under the reign of Tutankhamun, see:
ANDREWS C., Ancient Egyptian Jewellery, London, 1990, p. 166; p. 165 (ring of Ramesses II with the pair of horses); p. 50 (Egyptian term menu hedej).
On the examples in Zagazig, see:
BAKR M.I., BRANDL H. and KALLONIATIS F. (eds.), Egyptian Antiquities from Kufur Nigm and Bubastis, Cairo-Berlin, 2010, pp. 215-216.
On the sources and restricted use of rock crystal, see:
ANDREWS C., Amulets of Ancient Egypt, London-Austin, 1994, pp. 103-104. On rings worn on the ring finger to protect from heart disease, see:
AUFRERE S., Le cœur, l'annulaire gauche, Sekhmet et les maladies cardiaques, in Revue d'égyptologie, 36, 1985, pp. 21-34.
On the guardian and protective character of Egyptian sphinxes in general, see:
WARMENBOL E., Sphinx: les gardiens de l'Egypte, Brussels, 2006, pp. 13-25.