The finds help to explain why hieroglyphics and historical texts record that Egyptian children wore green eye makeup. It also adds to the growing body of evidence that ancient Egyptians thought color itself held sacred energy that could help or hurt individuals.
Lead author Raffaella Bianucci explained that the first Egyptian colored amulets occurred as early as the predynastic Badarian period, from 4500 to 3800 B.C. The recently analyzed child mummy, containing the remains of a 15- to 18-month-old toddler, dates to 4,700 years ago.
"Even in limited forms and materials, these earliest amulets give a good indication of the dangerous forces that the early Egyptians felt were present in their world and needed to be harnessed by magical means," said Bianucci, a scientist in the Department of Animal and Human Biology at Via Accademia Albertina in Turin, Italy.
She and her colleagues first examined the child's remains, which were wrapped in linen bandages. Immunological evidence determined that the youngster died from an acute malarial infection.
The researchers then turned their attention to a fossilized leather bag tied with linen twine, which was wrapped in the bandages with the mummy. Two stones were found within the bag. The researchers focused on a bright green one, found poking through the fossilized leather.
Powerful X-rays, as well as scanning electron microscope analysis, revealed that the stone was chrysocolla, or hydrated copper silica, according to the paper that will be published in the March issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science. To this day, chrysocolla is valued as an ornamental stone that, in its bluer forms, is sometimes confused with turquoise.
Bianucci said malachite was a more common green mineral in early Egypt, since chrysocolla ores were limited to very few in the Sinai and the Eastern Egyptian Desert. Chrysocolla may have been special for children, as archaeologists previously unearthed a small figure of a child made of the green material in another grave.
"In ancient Egypt, color was an integral part of the substance and being of everything in life," she said, explaining that green — the color of new vegetation and growing crops, including the treasured papyrus plant — was linked to health and "flourishing." Chapter 30 of the Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian funerary text, instructs that a scarab beetle amulet be made of green minerals and placed at the heart of mummies.
Bianucci continued that, based on such records, red was the color of life and victory, white suggested omnipotence and purity, black was a symbol of death and the night, blue symbolized life and rebirth and yellow was thought to be eternal and indestructible, like the sun and gold.
In terms of the child mummy's green amulet, she said, "We can hypothesize that (the parents) wished their child to be protected from unwanted influence and to be healthy in its afterlife."
Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, told Discovery News that "the study was very well executed" and "is just what we need to shed light on the cultural practices and beliefs of the ancient Egyptians."
"The fact that the child was buried with a chrysocolla bead is very interesting as it is rare to have such an identification," Ikram added. "Clearly this was an amulet that was interred with the child in an effort to ensure its safety in the afterworld — a pity it did not protect the infant in this one."