W587 wax wadjet eye
This is on display in the Egypt Centre a Wadjet Eye or Eye of Horus and is used in the display was used to demonstrate ancient Egyptian fractions. However, the artefact is also important for other reasons.
This is a plaque of coloured beeswax in the shape of a wadjet eye measuring 135x85mm. It probably dates to the New Kingdom or later. The beeswax is coloured. Traces of linen bandage can be seen adhering to the surface of the piece. This had been part of the R.G. Gayer-Anderson loan collection before becoming part of the Wellcome collection.
Beeswax was used in mummification to plug the orifices and to cover the eyelids. The embalming incision, which was usually left gaping was also covered with a plaque of wax or sometimes of copper alloy. In the Third Intermediate Period and Late Period wax images of the Four Sons of Horus were included in the mummy wrappings. Occasionally to, more of the body was covered with beeswax rather than resin or bitumen. Ikram and Dodson (1998, 117) cite an instance of a Middle Kingdom mummy having the surface of its body and thighs covered with a beeswax layer.
Beeswax is a natural preservative and thus would be a suitable substance to use in mummification. Additionally the modelling qualities of softened beeswax would have made it a suitable material. It is also clear that the ancient Egyptians believed beeswax to have special magical qualities (Raven 1993). It was not only used in mummification but also execration rites, love charms and other magical rites. This might have been partly because of the preservative qualities of beeswax but perhaps also because of its inflammable nature. It may also have been considered magical as it came from bees, in themselves magical animals, who were thought to spontaneously generate from dead bodies or dung.
The Wadjet Eye was at times associated with the wandering Eye and the daughter of Re who left Egypt and had to be brought back by the god Thoth. In some versions the Eye is stolen and brought back by Thoth. From later times there was also a story of how the Eye was damaged and was then healed by Isis.
Other embalming plaques in the Egypt Centre
Ikram, S. and Dodson, A. 1998. The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity. London: Thames and Hudson.
Raven, M.J. 1983. Wax in Egyptian magic and symbolism. Oudheidkundige Mededeelingen uit het Rijksmuseum van Oudheden te. Leiden, 64: 7-47.
Serpico, M. and White, R. 2000, Oil, fat and wax. In Nicholson, P.T. and Shaw, I. eds. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 390-429.