The Silver Pharaoh Psusennes I Facing the Afterlife in Style

Gold Masks of Psusennes 1 and Tutankhamun
Gold Masks of Psusennes 1 and Tutankhamun

The tomb of Pharaoh Psusennes 1 ruler of the 21st dynasty, he who reigned from 1036 to 989 BCE, is surely one of the most underrated discoveries in the scheme of things at Egypt.

The Kings and Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt surrounded themselves with treasures, mostly fashioned from gold.

This was not so much out of motives of greed but because they believed that the proximity of gold would ensure that Pharoah would receive the gift of eternal life.

It is life in quest of life in bodies that fear the grave
There are no graves here
These mountains and plains are a cradle and a stepping-stone

Like the sun, which reappeared each morning after having sunk into the underworld the evening before, gold gave man the power to return to life.

Psusennes I was a chief priest of the Sun God Amun at Tanis and traced his family lineage back to the great Pharoah Ramesses I. Psusennes name means“The Star Appearing in the City”. His highly refined very sophisticated gold death mask was to be his face in the world to come.

My heart is the heart of the sun the heart of the sun is my heart’.

Gold became the perfect motive for tomb robbers to desecrate the sacred graves of their Pharaoh’s. One inscription found tells us ‘The noble mummy of the king was entirely laid over with gold….and…we found the queen likewise; we collected together all that we found on her also…and… divided it into eight shares.

Many outstanding works of the goldsmith’s art crafted during the Pharaonic period in Egypt are now in museums around the world. These surviving jewels bear witness, not only to a very refined and lavish art, but also the preoccupation and belief in the importance of entering the realm of the afterlife in style.

For the ancient Egyptian gold was prized for its intrinsic worth and redolent of many virtues – mythical, religious and symbolic. It resisted rust and decay and beautiful golden objects unearthed around the world for centuries have remained virtually unscathed by the passage of time.

The ancient Egyptian desired gold as a symbol of survival and eternity and their myths describe the gods as possessing ‘silver bones, golden flesh and lapis lazuli beards’.

Silver in ancient Eygpt was symbolic of the Moon. However silver was far less common and so that’s why finding that the royal burial chamber of Psusennes 1 contained a silver sarcophagus was so startling, although the timing for finding it couldn’t have been worse.

The tomb of Psusennes 1 and his wife Mutnedjmet was found by French Egyptologist Pierre Montet 1885 – 1996, who conducted major excavations of the relics of the New Kingdom (1567- 525 B.C.E.) at the ancient capital of Tanis in the Nile Delta.

Tanis was the site of numerous archaeological digs beginning in the 19th century, involving renowned Egyptologists Flinders Petrie and Auguste Mariette. Montet found that he was trapped in a race against the clock with the imminent outbreak of World War II.

So what should have been a well planned and carefully considered archaeological excavation turned into a hurried salvage operation. And yes, Montet is the archaeologist that inspired the character of Dr René Belloq in the movie Indiana Jones.

Pharaoh Psusennes I up until that point in the discovery had been just an obscure ruler, who had governed Egypt more than 3000 years before during one of its most difficult periods. Egypt during his reign was a fractured kingdom divided between the rival rulers of north and south.

The high priests seized power seeking to command the southern region from Thebes, while the deposed pharaohs were exiled north to Tanis. From Tanis, Psusennes ruled for an impressive 46 years; a later study of Psusennes’ skeleton revealed a hard-working man who suffered from a debilitating rheumatic disease, but nevertheless lived well into his eighties.

Any study of the gold work of the Pharaohs must explore beyond its use in the jewellery of the living and the brilliant frivolities of ornamental art to investigate its fundamental cultural role. It was the object of a cult which stemmed from its religious significance. Its use by the dead was a privilege reserved for the high born, serving also as an emblem of their power.

Pharaoh was, for all intents and purposes, ‘golden Horus’ incarnate, son of the God Osiris who ruled the Underworld. Ancient Egyptians had access to precious metals throughout, what modern archaeologists have recorded as the dynastic period, the dating of which began c 3100 BCE with the 1st Dynasty until the 26th dynasty of 664 – 525 BCE.  All amulets, talismans, jewellery and ornaments intended to protect the deceased during his perilous journey through Hades were mainly made from gold.

Pharaohs and artisans, princesses and peasants alike all adorned themselves both in life and in death, and the jewellery and objects that have survived testify to the prosperity, style preferences and innate craftsmanship of Egyptian kings and their people. Jewellery permeated every facet of Egyptian civilization and was revered at every level of society.

The ancient Egyptians established a civilisation that was envied and admired for 3000 years. In life jewellery was not just a colourful accessory to their simple costume; it denoted rank or honour, and also offered protection.

After death it was buried with its owner together with special pieces of jewellery made especially for the funeral.

Talismans were just as important in the afterlife as in the present, if not more so. The perils to be met in the next world, as enumerated in the many religious texts that survive. The Book of what is in the Underworld, were far more threatening than anything found in this world. This meant the deceased would therefore need all the protective devices available to assist him.

Bracelets, rings, necklaces, earrings and pectorals are amulets endowed with a magical power through their emblems of life, strength and eternity. Egyptian jewellery makers fashioned their works from gold, silver, turquoise, lapis lazuli, cornelian and many other stones that we would regard in the modern world  as only semi precious.

They also used materials such as glazed composition and glass in imitation of what we call semi precious stones.

These gave off some of the most characteristic and pleasing effects, chosen not so much for their intrinsic value, but for another characteristic that rendered them priceless in the scheme of things, that of colour.

The later dynastic period from the 27th – 30th dynasties was ruled first by Persian and then Macedonian Kings and then the Graeco-Roman period that followed both these dates from Ptolemy 1 305 BCE and ends with the Islamic conquest of Egypt in 641 ACE.

Many Kings and Pharaohs reigned in Egypt and are listed today as belonging to 30 dynasties, or family lines. Its ancient history is divided into three major epochs, referred to by modern archaeologists and historians as The Old Kingdom c. 2613-2160 BCE, the Middle Kingdom c. 2040-1750 BCE and the New Kingdom c. 1550 – 1086 BCE.

Ancient Greek scholar and historian Herodotus travelled to Egypt in 450 BCE. His written account has provided us with aspects of the life of ancient Egyptians. He recorded it in such a way that it offers the sort of detail that goes way beyond the scope and ability of just pictorial material and inscriptions to convey or explain.

He suggested connections between the Greek Gods and the Egyptian Gods. He was fascinated by the animal cults, so popular at the time of his Egypt. His descriptions bring the world of the ancient Egyptian alive and paintings and reliefs frequently confirm the accuracy of his observations.

The science of archaeology has revealed that the Egyptian jewellery maker made use of an amazing variety of stones, minerals, and metals as well as man made materials and animal products.

Most were obtained locally in the hills and deserts, within Egypt’s boundaries, and from creatures, which inhabited the Nile Valley and surrounding areas. Lapis lazuli and silver however, were the exceptions, and these were imported from far beyond Egypt’s frontiers.

Gold work from ancient Egypt demonstrates artistic elegance and a certain intimacy in the way it was worked. It was symbolic of the Sun and the attribute of truth personified, because it revealed all by its light. And, as it was also the source of light and heat, consequently it meant life to the whole world.

Throughout history gems have been prized for their rarity and allure and treasured for their matchless beauty, mystical power, symbolism and worth.

Of all the gem materials used by the Ancient Egyptian Lapis Lazuli is perhaps one of the best known.

Its importation from Turkestan was a thriving business, nearly a thousand years before the Hebrew exodus.

Lapis lazuli and emerald ornaments found in Egyptian tombs provide the earliest definite evidence of extensive commercial gem traffic. Lapis has that intense violet blue and was frequently speckled with golden bits of the mineral pyrite (scholars tell us that it was, more than likely known to the ancients as a sapphire.).

Objects designed in gold and lapis lazuli date back 24 centuries to the time of the 12thdynasty in Egypt. The varying proportions of the minerals that make up its complex nature determine the depth of colour. The ancient Egyptian prized it highly placing it immediately after gold and silver recording it in lists of valuable materials

It is also listed among tribute and gifts from Assyria, Babylon, the Hittites, Syria and Palestine. The material more than likely came from the Badakshan mines now in Afghanistan, the oldest operating lapis lazuli mines in the world.

They have been producing quality lapis lazuli continuously for seven thousand years. By archaeological evidence, the existence of the gem trade routes predates the dated dynasties, so we are talking about well before 5000BCE.

This piece belonged to the Pharaoh Psusennes 1.  He had two magnificent necklaces made from a double row of graduated lapis lazuli ball beads with four gold spheres strung at the centre. The flat underside of the gold box clasp bears his name and on one of the stone beads is a three line cuneiform text, its presence never satisfactorily explained.

While the 1922 King Tut discovery created an international sensation, the opening of the tomb in Tanis made barely a ripple in a world focused on the impending war.

After Montet made his discovery, he raced to get his family back to Europe before the outbreak of war and the treasures he found – including Psusennes I’s golden burial mask were transported to Cairo for safe-keeping.

There, the Silver Pharaoh’s treasures remained vaulted and unstudied for decades.

Psusennes 1 tomb revealed the superb solid silver mummiform container decorated with chasing and added gold embellishment.

It was six years later that an architectural drawing revealed the presence of a secret room that contained the intact burial of the king’s contemporary General Wendjebaundjed, but sadly much of the jewellery recovered was stolen in 1943.

The stunning jewellery found in Psusennes’s tomb displayed skilled workmanship of the highest order.  Psusennes1 traded gold and silver, fine linen, papyrus scrolls and manufactured goods for timber from Mount Lebanon.

He sought to emphasise the continuity between his reign and that of his predecessors and his tomb harboured many objects from earlier periods, which were being once again, put to good use and perhaps he could be considered one of the earlier examples of a connoisseur and collector.

In Egypt the great workshops attached to the temples and palaces where fine quality jewellery was produced were under the control of high officials. Egyptian gold contains a proportion of silver naturally, which is often quite high –  up to 20%. Nearly all-ancient gold contains silver to a greater or lesser degree.

They called it nub hedj, which literally means ‘white gold’. At one point in Egyptian history it was listed before gold in the lists of precious metals as it was imported.

The workers were called neshdy, the closest translation is perhaps ‘jewellery maker’, although the word itself actually means something more like ‘worker in semi precious stones’.

It is interesting to note that only some 30 men have been identified as bearing this tile over a period of 1500 years and that no tomb of a neshdy has ever been discovered.

Psusennes 1 identified himself with the sun god Ra, in order to attain divine immortality. According to one legend, ‘Ra the Sun God was born as a child every morning and died at night as an old man’

In Egyptian symbolism Ra is represented with the head of a falcon, surmounted by a solar disc, surrounded with the Uraeus, or sacred flame-spitting cobra who offered protection to Pharaoh and is featured on the crown of Egypt rearing up over the forehead. Making superb objects for the Pharaoh was an ‘act of love’ for many craftsmen, particularly if Pharaoh had gained their respect.

The motif most used in Ancient Egypt and is associated with a pectoral, or talisman worn to protect the chest, breast, or thorax. The scarab was also directly associated with the birth of the sun, by analogy a ball, which the dung beetle pushed before him and as such he became an emblem of resurrection.

Scarabs were made of different materials but mostly obsidian, amethyst and lapis lazuli set into gold.

The swivelling bezel became the most popular method for rings throughout the New Kingdom (1550 BCE – 1295). From that time on also, the decoration of the mount became more and more elaborate, the bezels often taking on the form of a plaque or cylinder or,  a fancier shape, made from semi precious stone, glass or glazed composition.

The word ring is also associated with ear ornaments, which at first were worn only by women, but later by men also. Tuthmosis IV (1400 – 1390 BCE) is known to have had pierced ears. Pharaoh, however, is never depicted wearing ear ornaments, although queens are rarely shown without them.

It has been suggested the practice may have come from the east, as they were worn in Mesopotamia a thousand years earlier.

They also may have been adapted from earrings that the Nubian people to the south are known to have worn.

The Nubians served as mercenaries to the princes at Thebes, helping them to expel their enemies, before settling into their adopted country.

A great deal of skill is needed to produce a great work of art.

First of all there is vision and inspiration.

Then the vision has to be combined with great technical ability to produce the work, as well as the spiritual uplift and inspiration, which is unseen but nevertheless, expressed in the figure that can be seen.

This was the gold and lapis lazuli collar of king Psusennes I, originally found in his tomb at Tanis. Attached to its clasp are gold chains with tassels and floral pendants.

This sensational item is now located in the Cairo Museum. 

The portrait of Psusennes 1 wearing it was reconstructed by Melissa Drink, as part of a study by a team of scientists – including Dr Salima Ikram, Dr Fawzy Gaballah and Dr Peter Lacovara.

They took a second look at the pharaoh’s 3,000-year-old remains, his treasures and Montet’s excavation notes.

The research was the topic of a one-hour documentary ‘The Silver Pharaoh’ (part of a series Secrets of the Dead) made in 2010.

The burial complex of Psusennes I at Tanis (modern San el-Hagar) contained, according to Montet,  “marvels worthy of the Thousand and One Nights”.

Pierre Montet found the intact burials of four 22nd Dynasty Pharaohs,  as well as the previously unknown Sheshong and finally, those of the 21st Dynasty Pharaohs Psusennes and Amenemope.

The tomb contained five chambers and it was the silver falcon-headed coffin a hitherto unknown king Shoshenq (II) which Montet saw first, flanked by the reburied mummies later identified as possibly kings Siamun and Psusennes II.

Concealed behind a decorated wall was the burial chamber (1) of the tomb owner, the elderly Psusennes I, lying undisturbed since his interment in a granite sarcophagus, which had once belonged to Merenptah.

Within the sarcophagus, was a granite coffin, which in turn contained a coffin of solid silver, a gold mummy-board and a solid gold mask covering the face of Psusennes.

Around the sarcophagus were piled his canopic jars, his delightful shabtis and other burial goods. It was indeed a rich find.

A chamber (2) on the other side of that of Psusennes 1 was prepared for his mother Queen Mutnodjmet, but her sarcophagus was found to contain the body of king Amenemope, encased in a coffin of gilded wood.

Chamber 3 was found to contain the empty coffin of a general Ankhefenmut, but it was not until excavations resumed after the war in 1946 (this time by Alexandre Lezine) that a chamber (5) was found which revealed the undisturbed burial of another military man, Wendjebauendjed along with quantities of jewellery and burial equipment.

Without doubt the most sensational find ever made by an archaeologist was the discovery, in 1922, of the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in Upper Egypt.

The story of how his tomb was found by Howard Carter (1874-1939) for Lord Carnarvon, after six seasons of fruitless digging, is reasonably well known, so we will not relate it again here. We will say however, that it has been estimated that some 60 per cent of the contents of the caskets in the Treasury, mostly jewellery, had already been stolen in ancient times by grave robbers.


We could be entirely cynical and consider Tutankhamun has assumed a far greater importance than he would have otherwise attained, had his true value and worth been measured by the words, deeds and actions of his brief life’s journey, rather than by the fabulous and vast collection of worldly goods found in 1932.

All the fabulous objects provided to enrich his journey to, and in the after life is certainly in direct contrast to the modern conviction… you can’t take it with you.

While his mask, inlaid with Lapis and other precious metals is sensational, the style and refinement of the features of the mask belonging to “The Silver Pharaoh” Psusennes 1 for me has a timeless quality about it, revealing a man who must have attained much wisdom during his long reign, one who looked forward to an afterlife in style.

Carolyn McDowall, Writer and Publisher, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012-2014

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