Scarabs are large dung beetle from the eastern Mediterranean area. They were regarded as sacred in ancient Egypt. Scarab beetles roll up balls of dung which they use as a source of food. They became associated with the Egyptian cycle of rebirth and regeneration, as the god, Khepri, was believed to roll the sun across the sky each day, leading to a new day. The regeneration belief was because young beetles hatched from the dung balls, and it was thought that they were all males.

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Ceramic scarabs

Carved scarabs were used for a variety of purposes. Sixth dynasty scarabs, approx. 2300-2100 BC, were buried with the dead. Later on, the carvings were used as  seals or as part of a necklace. Scarabs are usually between 1/ inch to 1 inch in size but larger ones measuring between 2 to 5 inches long  were known as heart scarabs and were laid across the heart of the dead. Commemorative scarabs, describing great events during a Pharaoh’s reign, were also produced.

Representations of scarab beetles, carved from stone and glazed, usually blue of green, or moulded out of ceramic faience, were used as seals, rings, or amulets. The glazes often wore away, resulting in brown or beige colours. There were also some scarabs carved out of hardstones like amethyst, lapis lazuli and jasper. The carvings of the scarabs were fairly simplistic, usually showing a head, wing case and maybe legs. The bases were flat and inscribed with hieroglyphics.

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Back of ceramic scarabs, showing hieroglyphics

You have to be an expert to recognise a genuine scarab as there are so many modern copies of them. If you want to understand more about scarabs, there are websites that identify fake scarabs and explain what makes them fake.

Scarabs appeared again the 19th and 20th centuries, following Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt in 1798 and the excavation of graves in Egypt. There was a jewellery revival, reproducing Egyptian jewellery, including scarab jewellery. Jewellers Robert Phillips, Castellini, Lalique and Cartier produced a range of archaeological revival pieces.

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Victorian scarab brooch

The scarabs in these pieces of jewellery were also made of faience, carved stone or hardstones. Some were created out of micro mosaic. However, the Victorians also began to wear jewellery containing actual  beetles. Dried iridescent green beetles were imported from South America around the time of the opening of the Suez canal in 1869 and were incorporated into imitations of ancient Egyptian amulets and pendants containing scarabs. Using these beetles also satisfied the Victorians’ interest in natural history.