Jewels from the Nile

The Ethnographical Collection of Winifred Blackman

By Paolo del Vesco

One of the first anthropologists to research Egypt's culture and its traditional jewellery, Winifred Blackman's personal notes and diaries are now providing new insights into her life and work.

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Born in Westmorland, England, in 1872, Winifred Susan Blackman was the eldest of five children born to the Reverend James Henry Blackman (1844–1913). Although we know little about her early life and studies, it must have been during these formative years that she developed a deep curiosity of foreign cultures, a curiosity that would lead her to become one of the first anthropologists to devote her life to the study of Egyptian rural communities.

From one of Winifred’s notebooks and a few loose pages now kept in the archives of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Liverpool, we know that early on, Winifred attended lectures at Oxford given by the Professor of Anthropology, Robert Ranulph Marett (1866–1943). Other notes, dating from May 1914 and April 1915, were probably taken during her less theoretical training at the Pitt-Rivers Museum, a training that today would be part of a course in material culture studies; ‘comparative technology’, ‘iron working industry’, ‘objects as currency’, ‘lip, ear, cheek ornaments’ and ‘skull deformation’ are just some of the topics covered by the lectures that she attended.

The formative years

For many years, during her studies and after having received her diploma in anthropology from the University of Oxford, Winifred worked as an assistant to Henry Balfour (1863–1939), curator of the Pitt-Rivers collection. Her work was mainly centred on cataloguing the collection’s thousands of objects, among them, amulets and charms, collected from all around the world by various explorers. From these formative years, Winifred probably also derived her deep fascination with the magical beliefs and practices of other cultures, an interest that would characterize all her later ethnographic research, which she approached with meticulous attention. Her first articles, published in the journal Folklore between 1916 and 1918, already show her preference for this subject, bearing such titles as ‘The Magical and Ceremonial Uses of Fire’ and ‘The Rosary in Magic and Religion’.


Winifred’s interest in modern Egyptian culture, and in fact in anthropology itself, was most likely sparked by the studies and research of her younger brother Aylward Manley Blackman (1883–1956). Already an experienced Egyptologist by the 1920s, Aylward had always demonstrated an inclination for ethnographic studies, as well as a strong interest in the people and culture of modern Egypt; as is evident from a few objects in the Pitt-Rivers museum, he had even started collecting amulets and other objects associated with Egyptian peasants. A few articles published in the journal Man also show his ethnographic approach to Egyptology (see for instance ‘The Fox as a Birth-Amulet’ in vol. 9, 1909).

Even Aylward’s archaeological reports on the exploration of the rock-cut tombs at Meir in Middle Egypt bear strong evidence of his interest in the modern Egyptians. According to Aylward and other Egyptologists, the scattered fragments of ancient Egyptian civilization, retrieved during excavations, were more easily interpreted and understood by studying what had been preserved and passed on to Egypt’s modern culture; they regarded the customs, crafts and beliefs of traditional rural communities as survivals from a distant past. Various passages in Aylward’s archaeological memoirs repeatedly stress this sense of changeless continuity, introducing modern Arabic terms in the translation of ancient Egyptian texts, as well as analogies with the daily life, problems, and clever solutions of the modern fellah – the peasant.

Probably strongly influenced by her brother, Winifred always showed an interest in the connection between past and modern customs; indeed, in The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, the only book that she managed to complete, she included a chapter on ‘Ancient Egyptian Analogies’. This book, published in 1927 and presenting Winifred’s account of the “religious, social and industrial life” of the fellahin, proved to be very successful, especially among the general public. At the same time, it was also well received by scholars as a ‘store for tracing beliefs, and getting insight of the native mind which explains the past’ (from Flinders Petrie’s review of the book in Ancient Egypt). Winifred first visited Egypt in 1921, when she accompanied her brother Aylward, joining his archaeological mission and helping considerably with both the documentation of the tombs of Meir and the management of the camp. It is clear from her letters that she also dedicated part of her time to ethnographic research; during her stay, she became more and more enthusiastic about this new field of study, and in a letter written to her mother at the end of the season, she expressed all her hopes for the possibility of making a career out of it.

A fascination with ornaments and amulets

Winifred’s interest and passion for fellahin body ornaments developed early on, and probably even predates her first trip to Egypt; during her work in the Pitt-Rivers Museum, some items of jewellery and ornaments brought from Egypt and Sudan by other anthropologists were already at hand. Besides that, her brother Aylward, during his early visits to Egypt, had already started collecting necklaces, wristlets and other ornament-amulets, which he brought back to England as gifts for his sister. Even before starting to collect traditional Egyptian jewellery, and before she could begin studying the beliefs and rituals connected with them, Winifred had amassed a small private collection.

In the letters that Winifred sent to her mother and sister from Egypt during her first years of fieldwork, we can trace her growing interest in these little objects and witness her process for collecting items of jewellery and for recording all relevant information about them. In 1921, having just arrived in Egypt, she received her first two necklaces as gifts from friends of her brother – an Egyptian official and the well-known Egyptologist Percy Newberry. Soon afterwards, one of Aylward’s best workmen, Abd el-Shafy, from el-Lahun in the Faiyum region, became her main assistant and informant. One of Winifred’s first requests was for him to buy for her ‘examples of the nose and earrings and other ornaments worn by the women’, because, as she says, he could get them for a cheaper price. While collecting these pieces of jewellery, Winifred usually took notes, and sometimes also photographs, in order to document their provenance and all possible meanings or uses associated with them. All the information was then arranged, together with a brief description and an item number, in a sort of catalogue, which accompanied the collection.

 Between 1921 and the late 1930s, Winifred formed a number of different collections that were subsequently shipped to the UK; some of these were private, while others were specifically made for the institution that was sponsoring her research at the time. The body ornaments from her collections are today split mainly between the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, the British Museum (formerly the Wellcome Collection) in London, and the Archaeology Department of the University of Liverpool.

The objects and notes collected by Winifred between 1921 and 1927 were used to write a chapter in her popular book, The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, dedicated specifically to ‘Personal Decoration and Ornaments’, a sign of this subject’s importance within her ethnographic research. This chapter contains a description of different types of body ornaments, including tattoos, and among them of some of the most typical forms of jewellery: the necklaces made of gold coins worn before marriage; the earrings and nose-ring worn by almost every girl from an early age; and the anklets and bracelets made of different metals or glass beads. In this chapter, Winifred suggested that many body ornaments were often charged with meanings and values different from their simple decorative ones – meanings and values connected to the magical beliefs of the Egyptian peasantry. ‘A red heart-shaped ornament’, she wrote, ‘attached either to a silver chain or to a necklace of red beads, is worn by women suffering from sheikh-possession. A necklace of light blue beads, or even a single bead of this colour, is often worn as a charm against the evil eye’. In fact, many items of jewellery that Winifred had collected during her fieldwork seasons in Egypt derived their importance more from the powers they possessed than for their aesthetic quality or intrinsic value; as a result, in her book, their description was included in chapters like ‘Magicians and Magic’ or ‘The Evil Eye and other Superstitions’.

Protective, curative ornaments

In the winter of 1926, Winifred started seeking funds to continue her ethnographic fieldwork in Egypt from the pharmaceutical magnate Henry Wellcome. From the letters she wrote to him and to the curator of his Historical Medical Museum, which are now kept in the Wellcome archive, we can follow her repeated attempts to capture their interest and to convince them to sponsor her fieldwork. In one of these letters, Winifred also enclosed a list of the objects that she wanted to collect in Egypt for the Wellcome Museum. Among them, we find a series of personal ornaments, presented by her as extremely interesting for their magical and pseudo medical properties: iron anklets worn as protective charms by children and women; rings worn through the upper edge of the ear as a cure for a pain in the stomach, side or back; anklets with bells worn only by infants; necklaces worn in mourning; earrings worn only by sons; and so on. Winifred’s collaboration with the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum ended in 1933 and the numerous notebooks she filled before and after this date (she probably stayed in Cairo until 1939 continuing her ethnography) are now kept in the archive of the Department of Archaeology of the University of Liverpool and are currently being studied by the writer. Among the thousands of pages, notepads, notebooks, folders and photos, many are filled with notes devoted to ‘jewellery’ or ‘tattoos’. One large folder in particular bears the title, ‘Magico-Medical Personal Ornaments’ and appears to be a catalogue of the kind of charms collected by Winifred between 1928 and 1933, while its numbered entries refer to objects, in many cases still retaining their original packaging, which are today kept in 34 cardboard boxes in the storerooms of the Garstang Museum in Liverpool. On one of these ornaments – a small necklace of blue beads – the catalogue entry reads:

“202. Ten large blue glass beads. Threaded and worn as a necklace by a child who is an only son to ensure his living. The idea probably is that if the child wears this necklace people will think that he is a girl. In this way he will be protected from the evil eye, or eye of envy, boys being more highly valued than girls. Obtained from the Sheikh Abu Su’ud, Old Cairo. Purchased from an Arab wise-woman from Fashn, 1930.”

And on the same page, concerning two metal rings:

“203. Two rings – one of brass, for men only, one of white metal for women only – cure for pain in the arm. Worn on the little finger; on the right for pain in right arm, on the left for pain in left arm. Purchased at the market at Embaba, 1930.”

For another ornament, no. 556, Winifred noted in the catalogue description:

“Pendant of five white beads with metal coin-shaped ornament hanging from them. Inscribed on one side with the following ‘je ferai tomber une pluie de roses’, with roses falling from rain, or perhaps from rays of the sun. On the other side a picture of the Sainte Therese, with the inscription ‘Sainte Therese de l’enfant Jesus’. Protection against the evil eye. If a woman’s children die owing to someone having cast the evil eye over them, when she again gives birth, the baby, if it is a girl, must wear this charm directly after birth to make it live. For girls only. Obtained from a Sudanese woman from the Sudan. Purchased from a young Arab wise-woman from Fashn. Cairo, 1939. The figure on this coin was said by the woman to be that of the Virgin Mary who is believed to be a protector from the evil eye, even by Muslimin.”

The objects and notes were usually collected by Winifred herself from different sources and in various markets, but on some occasions her Egyptian friends directly contributed important information and even procured objects for her. One of her most active assistants was Ibrahim Nairooz, a school teacher from Meir, who taught Winifred the basics of the Arabic language and, for many years, continued to write letters in English to her with lengthy descriptions of rural customs and beliefs, or magical charms and traditional remedies. From a letter dated May 1923, we understand that he also procured a few body ornaments for Winifred’s collection, as he wrote:

“The small anklet which I sent to you is for the children, but I send to you two big anklets of iron inside a box by post and these anklets are for the women only so that their children will not die but live long.”

These metal anklets might well be those shown in a photo published in her popular book The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, in the chapter dedicated to ‘Birth and Childhood’, which are identical to two iron anklets in the British Museum collection (Af1981,14.39.a-b).

It is thus evident from both published studies and unpublished notes that body ornaments were extremely important to Winifred Blackman and her ethnographical research. She also included a brief reference to them in the final chapter of her book, which she specifically dedicated to analogies with ancient Egyptian civilization. Here, she states:

“The modern Egyptian women closely resemble their ancestors in their love of personal adornment, though, to be sure, the jewellery of today, particularly the earrings and bracelets, are less massive than they were, at least in the 18th and 19th Dynasties. The bead collars worn by many of the modern peasant women are very much like those that the women are depicted as wearing in paintings and reliefs of all periods.”

The most interesting and innovative contribution of her ethnography though remains the study of the “utilitarian” side of these pieces of jewellery and their multiple and multilayered connections with the religious and magical beliefs of the Egyptian peasants.

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 7, 2015



Hideyb Abd el-Shafy, his wife Saida and their child Mohamed outside their house in el-Lahun, Faiyum region. Saida is here wearing jewels similar to those later collected by Winifred. Hideyb and Saida were the most important of the anthropologist’s informants and also provided her with comfortable accommodation during her long fieldwork seasons. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

Winifred Blackman with four participants at a zikr, a religious dance accompanied by percussions. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

This type of gilt earring was worn, according to Winifred Blackman, only by ‘Arab’ women. The shape of this jewel, with the five drop-like pendants, was said to originate from the ‘Hand of Fatma’ or ‘Hand of Mohamed’ and it was believed to be a powerful charm against the evil eye. TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

White metal bracelet with a twisted wires design. In Asyut province, only married women could wear this particular type of bracelet. TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

These anklets were bought by Winifred Blackman at the market of Shantur, in the Beni Suef province. On her catalogue, she noted, ‘These specimens are cheap and are worn by all fellahen women. Smaller ones are made for young girls’. Similar iron anklets were also believed to protect the newborn of a woman who had previously lost one or more children. TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

This wonderful multi-coloured glass bead and cowrie necklace was actually used as a protective charm against the evil eye. UNIVERSITY OF LIVERPOOL

Paolo del Vesco

Paolo del Vesco

Paolo del Vesco is an Honorary Research Associate at the Institute of Archaeology of University College London. He has twenty years of archaeological fieldwork experience in Italy, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan and he has a PhD in Egyptian archaeology from the University of Pisa. His research interests encompass the history of Egyptology and anthropology, Third Intermediate Period household religion, museums and community archaeology.