How a Dung Beetle Became Revered by Ancient Egyptians & Adored by Jewelry Lovers Alike

In this time of COVID-19 as well as the increasing number of social injustices, it feels like we've had to cope with one pile of poo after another.  And yet, one member of the animal kingdom's entire life depends on it but he's been revered by ancient Egyptians and adored by jewelry lovers alike!

Scarabs have been a staple in visual arts and jewelry since time began.  The sacred scarab was actually the infamous Dung Beetle.  A lifestyle so lowly that it spends its days digging through poo, molding it into balls, rolling them around and having its larvae in it. The Dung Beetle relies on poo to develop its young.  There are more than 30,000 scarab species that inhabit every continent on Earth except for Antarctica.  The most well known of the species is, in fact, the Dung Beetle.  Well-known for its unusual diet, Dung Beetles subsist entirely on the undigested nutrients in the waste of herbivores.  Some Dung Beetle species simply live in the dung, while others form perfectly spherical balls with it, which they roll with their hind legs, often over large distances to bury it.  Females will plant a single egg in a dung ball where it will mature from larva to fully-formed beetle, feeding off the waste.

The Dung Beetle 

It’s this behavior of rolling the poo that captured the imaginations of the ancient Egyptians.  According to entomologist Yves Cambefort in his essay “Beetles as Religious Symbols,” the scarab rolls the poo ball along and it disappears, just like the sun emerges and vanishes every day. Thus, the ancient Egyptians sun god, Khepri, is a humanoid figure with the face of a Dung Beetle who rolls the sun across the sky, buries it at sunset only to dig it back up in the Eastern horizon at dawn.

These Carnelian & yellow gold studs from my personal collection glow like the Sun God himself.

Due to its strange life cycle, the scarab was not only a symbol of the sun for the Egyptians, but also of life itself.  An old beetle would disappear underground and emerges anew as a youngster.  Accordingly, Egyptians would obsessively adorn themselves with scarab amulets in both life and death.  Hundreds of thousands of these artifacts have been excavated in Egypt over the years.

Unfortunately, interest in Egyptian motifs wasn’t widespread until the late 1700s when Napoleon’s military campaign in Northern Africa helped to popularize fine jewelry featuring the exotic aesthetic. Soon wealthy women all across Europe were wearing Egyptian-inspired jeweled brooches, headbands and pins.

A stunning carved Aquamarine Scarab Ring by Elizabeth Locke is a modern interpretation of the life-long love affair that humans have had with the scarab.

The demand for Egyptian designs boomed again during the 1920s when there was a renewed interest in Egyptian revival motifs in architecture as well as jewelry.  This period was greatly influenced by the finding of the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922.  Newsreel footage of archaeological digs and Hollywood depictions of the gilded Egyptian empire made Egyptian style hot.  The discovery of the scarab amulets during period reignited mankind's fascination with these small but mighty beetles.  It also inspired the incredible designers at Tiffany, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, among others, to develop Egyptian-style designs.

This incredible Egyptian Revival Bracelet from Lang Antiques is a prime example of the attention to detail seen in period pieces.  Wearable artwork!

Not only was Egyptian jewelry linked to ancient opulence but it also held the allure of a legendary culture and its surrounding mystic.  Often Egyptian revival designs were pulled directly from Egyptian amulets that were worn for good luck.  Scarabs represented rebirth and resurrection just as the sun is "reborn" every dawn.

Also from my personal collection, this high karat gold scarab stickpin is made from a scarab faience most likely during the Victorian era.

Today, jewelry designers and collectors still go wild for the little Dung Beetle that could!  Designers are creating modern, stylized interpretations of scarab jewelry.  Antique jewelry collectors scour flea markets, estates sales and online sources trying to locate the perfect little scarab thereby giving Dung Beetle a new lease for its (after)life.

Designer Rachel Atherley's Scarab Pendant in 18k YG & Garnet is a stunningly modern take on scarab jewelry!  A classic piece perfect to wear alone or layered.

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