Red threads & amulets

As we have seen in previous posts, organic materials like textiles and wood survive much better archaeologically in the hot and sandy Egyptian environment, compared to elsewhere in the Roman Empire. In fact, a brief look through the online catalogue for the museum shows that many of the beads from the Roman period still feature the original thread on which they were strung! Thus we have sections of beads that appear in their original order when originally worn as necklaces and other jewellery pieces.

Section of a Roman necklace (UC74089) from Qau, still on its original stringing. Photo: Jo stoner.

What is also apparent is that coloured string or cord was commonly used as decorative bands on which beads and other pendants were suspended, to form necklaces and bracelets. The decorative nature of such threads can be seen in UC27846i (below). In this example from Roman period Lahun, black fibres have been knotted with those coloured a yellowish ochre to form a striking pattern which complements the striped shells used as beads.

Section of two-tone decorative string with shell beads, from Roman Lahun (UC27846i). Photo: Jo Stoner.

Another significant use of colour is the presence of red string in bracelets and necklaces. UC64872 is a thick piece of very loosely spun wool, dyed a vibrant shade of red and strung with a cu alloy disc shaped pendant. The wool has been knotted to form a large loop, big enough for a child or small adult’s necklace.

Thick, red-dyed wool (possibly a necklace) suspended with a cu alloy pendant (UC64872). Photo: Jo Stoner.

The vivid colour is striking; red dyes in Roman Egypt included the mineral ochre, as well as plant dyes from madder (rubia tinctorum), safflower (carthamus tinctorious), henna (Lawsonia inermis), and alkanet (Alkanna tinctoria). An insect-based dye, similar to modern cochineal and using beetles of the kermes genus, was also used to produce a vivid crimson red. By looking at the numbers of red stringed artefacts in the Petrie’s Roman collection, it becomes clear that there is a meaningful preference for this colour. Out of 101 artefacts featuring string, red was the second most popular colour after natural or undyed string. There is also a clear correlation between the use of red dyed string, and artefacts relating to personal adornment. Such colour choices can begin to be explained by evidence from the textual record.

Red materials, both man-made and natural (like dung) appear in spells from the Greek Magical Papyri; descriptions from Pliny the Elder also describes the use of red cloth and flies in magical spells (Natural History, 30.27; 30.30). The late antique Gaulish writer Marcellus Empiricus’ prescribed red wool stuffed into the ear for earache (De Medicamentiis 9.14.37). Other Roman writers reveal that red threads had a specific protective or ‘apotropaic’ role in the early Christian period. A 2nd c. AD description by Clement of Alexandria decried those who worshipped, “dread tufts of tawny wool” (Stromata 7.4), whilst the fourth-century Bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, provides a description of artefacts similar to those in the Petrie Museum:

“[…] what shall we say about the amulets and the bells which are hung upon the hand, and the scarlet woof [spun wool], and the other things full of extreme folly; when they ought to invest the child with nothing else save the protection of the Cross […] while the thread, and the woof, and the other amulets of that kind are entrusted with the child’s safety […]”

(Homily 12 on 1 Corinthians 4.6: PG 61.05)

Fragment of red string, adorned with a moulded lead cross pendant (UC71826). Photo: Jo Stoner.

Therefore it appears that in the early Christian period, red wool was used as an amulet to protect the wearer, especially in the cases of children who were naturally more at risk to death and disease. They were often worn around the wrist, a size which correlates to the examples in the collection.

This use is also reinforced by the presence of amuletic pendants in the form of protective symbols – the use of the cross as such is described by John Chrysostom himself and features above on UC71826. Other examples in the Petrie also use similar symbols, such as the “evil eye” – used to attract the envious looks of others which would otherwise injure the wearer. This is seen as a decorative device on the single bead strung into the red thread of UC51608, below.

Section of spun red thread, with a single “crumb” bead featuring eye-motifs (UC51608). Photo: Jo Stoner.

Thus, the presence of red threads in the Petrie, preserved by the exceptional conditions in Egypt, reveals a social practice known of throughout Egypt and the Greek East from textual sources. Notably many of these artefacts were excavated from Roman cemeteries; it seems particularly appropriate that such protective devices were worn by the dead as they made their final journey to the afterlife.

Looking at beads

Ellen Swift has been investigating the beads within the Petrie’s Roman collection, to see what we can learn about the lives of these artefacts through analysis of their style and manufacturing techniques.
Evidence of bead-making has been found in Egypt at Alexandria, with scholars believing that many bead types found in Egypt were made there. In order to decide where a bead may have been made, we need to identify the technique of manufacture – this is because different techniques were used in various geographical areas. For example, in Alexandria it is thought that there was a production centre for beads with complex patterns made from mosaic canes, such as the example below.
Beads (UC6772) made from glass mosaic canes. [Photo: Petrie Museum]
Occasionally however, manufacturing evidence suggests a more exotic location, and we were excited to discover some Indo-Pacific beads, not previously identified as such, in the Petrie Museum collection. These beads are made from drawn tubes of glass. Instead of pressing these into moulds and then cutting them into individual beads or segmented sections of bead – as would be the norm for Roman production – the tubes have been cut into individual beads. Furthermore, the ends have been heat-rounded to remove any sharp edges, which results in the surface of the bead around the hole looking a bit melted. This specific technique links them to production in Asia.
The Petrie Indo-Pacific beads are mainly small green drawn cylinders with the distinctive heat-rounded ends, and probably originated in Sri Lanka. They occur in assemblages UC74124/UC74125 and UC74134 from Qau, a site in Egypt.
Bead assemblage UC74134, showing the heat-rounded edges of the Sri Lankan beads. [Photo: Ellen Swift].
In assemblage UC74124/UC74125 they appear to have been strung separately to the Roman turquoise blue cylinder beads that are the other main bead type present. The turquoise Roman beads have many string fragments preserved, however there are no string fragments in the Indo-Pacific beads. In assemblage UC74134 green glass and white shell disc beads may have been combined in one necklace.
Bead assemblage UC74125, showing the green Indo-Pacific beads alongside strung blue Roman beads. [Photo: Ellen Swift].

It is difficult to know whether the owners of these beads regarded them as exotic and special items, as they are quite similar in shape and colour to other beads available at Qau. It is only the detailed observation of the manufacturing method, which was not used in the production of Roman beads, that allows them to be identified as an imported foreign product.

The beads will have arrived via the Red Sea port of Berenike where similar Indo-Pacific beads have also been found (see Then-Obłuska 2015), and their presence at Qau illustrates something of how such trade goods became distributed more widely in Egypt. Excavations at Berenike have also revealed the presence of other exotic consumables such as black pepper and precious gems (Sidebotham 2011), demonstrating the extent of trade between Roman Egypt, India, and Sri Lanka.

Map showing the location of the port of Berenike, on the Red Sea. [Photo source]
Our initial identifications were kindly confirmed by Marilee Wood and Joanne Then-Obłuska. 


Sidebotham, S. (2011) Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route (Berkeley & Los Angeles, California: University of California Press).

Then-Obłuska, J. (2015) “Cross-cultural encounters at the Red Sea Port of Berenike, Egypt. Preliminary assessment”, Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean 24, 735-777.

Camels vs dinosaurs

We made an unusual discovery on one of our visits to the Petrie just before Christmas. It seems as though we have found the first evidence for the presence of dinosaurs in Roman Egypt!

The Roman brontosaurus. Photo: Ellen Swift.

Okay, so it’s impossible that this animal is supposed to be a dinosaur, despite its remarkable similarity to the dinosaur shaped breaded turkey pieces from childhood. This small copper alloy pendant is more likely to represent a camel, a creature that that is much easier to imagine in Roman Egypt. It is probably also a camel that adorns a string of later Roman beads, also in the Petrie Museum.

Late Roman string of beads and pendants, including a camel bottom right of picture. Photo: Ellen Swift.

It’s interesting that both these camels adorn pieces of personal jewellery – the pendant would likely have been attached to a necklace or bracelet and worn on the body. Camels in particular became a motif associated with one of the early Christian saints in the later Roman period. Saint Menas was a Roman soldier who was martyred in the third century AD. A popular figure in Egypt, a huge pilgrimage centre grew around his burial site, with Menas flasks taken as souvenirs by Christian pilgrims visiting Menas’s shrine. These flasks feature standardised decoration of the saint flanked by two camels.

Flask showing Saint Menas flanked by two camels. Photo: Met Museum, NY.

The story goes that after his death, the body of Menas was carried back to Egypt from Phrygia (now Anatolia, in Turkey) for burial by these animals. When the camels reached Lake Mareotis outside Alexandria, they laid down and refused to move, thus marking Menas’ chosen place for burial, and the site of the subsequent shrine that was built over his tomb. These flasks have been found in archeological contexts across Egypt and the Roman Empire as a whole and would originally have contained water or oil blessed through contact with the shrine. They would then be worn by Christian followers of Menas around the neck, or displayed within the home. Perhaps the dinosaur-like pendants in the Petrie were also worn by admirers of this saint as a sign of devotion?


Spot the bonus find

As the project looks at (amongst other things) domestic artefacts and dress accessories from Roman Egypt, Ellen and I often find ourselves rummaging through boxes of miscellaneous beads and jewellery fragments on our research days at the Petrie. As well as beads, some boxes also contain pendants and amulets, bits of original and modern stringing, spinning whorls, fragments of carved bone, scraps of textile, moulded glass, finger rings, and earrings. These often come all together in one container, sometimes from one tomb, and have not been touched since they were packed up after excavation. These kinds of boxes can be intimidating in terms of their quantity of artefacts…but also very exciting. It’s like an archaeological lucky dip.

A box of miscellaneous beads and other items. Photo: Jo Stoner.

However, sometimes you can find some bonus extras hiding within these collections. These might be in the form of “organic” beads – what appear to be balled up leaves threaded on to string, perhaps as part of the funerary ritual. Or the surprise might be in another form….can you spot the bonus find in the image below?

Here’s a closer look.

A beetle! Long dead it seems, but well preserved – it’s gold appearance makes it perfectly suited for its surroundings. We think it probably came from Egypt with the other finds. Perhaps this beetle became part of this specific assemblage during the Roman period, or perhaps it was a contemporary of Petrie himself during the dig. When we get a spare moment, we plan to try to identify the species. If you know what kind of beetle this is, let us know! (John, Paul, George, or Ringo are not acceptable answers).

Our new project mascot