Tracking down an ancient Egyptian artefact

By Faye Kalloniatis, Research Associate

This rectangular coloured-glass plaque was ‘re-discovered’ recently while I was working on cataloguing the museum’s Egyptian collection. In a booklet, ‘Curios from Egypt’, which belonged to the donors of this item (the Colman family, of Colman’s Mustard fame), it was listed as a ‘glass plaque with head of gorgon’. I had ransacked the stores over many months trying in vain to locate it. I’d finally given up when, walking through the Roman gallery one day, my attention was drawn to a colourful glass plaque with a rather distinctive face. It had large staring eyes, a bulbous nose, an impossibly small mouth and red dreadlocks. This surely was what I’d been looking for – and a quick check of the accession number proved that I was right.

[384] 1921-37-161 glass inlay

NWHCM : 1921.37.161 – Mosaic-glass plaque of a Greek theatre mask.

colman catalogue

‘Curios from Egypt’, the Colman booklet which mentions the glass plaque.

It was an intriguing, if alarming, face – its disconcerting expression clearly due to the way in which it had been made. Imagine a rectangular mosaic glass rod decorated with only one half of a face. Then, cut this rod into two thin slices, flip one of them and place them alongside each other, and there you have it – an unnaturally symmetrical face cut in two by a vertical line running along its centre. But who or what did this face represent? After some delving, I came across other, similar, images. They belonged to courtesans, one of the most-represented characters in the popular plays of the Athenian playwright, Menander. These glass plaques were made to imitate the tragi-comic theatre masks of the ancient Greeks.

Yet the Colman family had bought this item during their visit to Egypt and so what were these ancient Greek mosaic-glass ‘courtesans’ doing there? Egypt’s ancient past readily solves this mystery. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and so began the Ptolemaic Period with its influx of Macedonian Greeks. Living in Egypt and accepting Egyptian customs, the Greeks nevertheless added something of their own into the mix. Ever fond of their playwrights (whose plays captured the flavour of ancient Greek life and culture), the Greeks exported some of that to their new homeland. Greek theatre became popular in Egypt and a ‘spin-off’ of this was the production of small mosaic glass plaques. These colourful items illustrated many of the characters which populated the ancient Greek comedies and tragedies – the brothel keepers, the maeneds (female followers of Dionysos) and many more. Of all of these, the courtesans were amongst the most popular.

But how might these small plaques have been used? Some had thought they were intended as jewellery and worn for adornment. Yet, with no visible means of attaching them to clothing or threading them onto a chain, this theory became problematic. Then, by good fortune, some were found with wooden backing and so these items are now thought to be inlays for luxury wooden boxes. Look closely at the Norwich ‘courtesan’ and you will see what appear to be wooden fibres on the bottom edge of the plaque.

Whichever way they were used, they must have provided a ready reminder of home for Greeks living in Egypt and an entertaining view of another culture for the Egyptians.

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