The culture and symbolism of the ancient Egyptians has always been intriguing to many other cultures, and the Romans were among the first to become obsessed with their southern neighbours. Shortly after Octavian’s defeat of Antony & Cleopatra at Alexandrea in 30 BC the removal of Egyptian antiquities to Rome began. Among the more commonly recognized icons of the ancient world were Egyptian Obelisks and Ushabti.
Obelisks represented the sun god Ra and were often placed in pairs at the entrance to temples. The Romans took such a liking to these massive monoliths that there are now more obelisks to be found in Rome than in all of Egypt.
The Ushabti were funerary figurines, placed in tombs to serve the needs of the deceased in the afterlife. They are at the other end of the scale in terms of size relative to obelisks. They were generally quite small and are one of the most commonly found objects of the ancient Egyptians.
In the 19th century there was a renewed fascination with ancient Egypt and its symbols and imagery. Victorian England fully embraced this obsession and in the latter part of the century one could find scarabs, sphinxes, hieroglyphics, obelisks, and ushabti incorporated into all manner of commercial items such as jewellery, ceramics, furniture, and yes… pencils.
I currently have about a dozen different Egyptian themed figural pencils in my collection. Those shown below reflect a bit of the variety, and creativity, that went into their design and manufacture.
Ushabti enamelled magic pencil with gold wash – By pulling on the “base” of the pencil, the internal mechanism extends the tip of the pencil. The gold wash is a very thin layer and it is rare to find one with most of the gold wash still intact.
It is 2.25″ when closed and 4.75″ when extended.
Ushabti enamelled magic pencil – This one is silver with decorative enamelling. It is slightly smaller than the one above; 2.0″ when closed, and 3.75″ when extended.
Obelisk enamelled hieroglyphics magic pencil – Made of silver, this pencil is in obelisk form and covered in a variety of hieroglyphics. The mechanism on this one operates differently than those above as the pencil tip is extended by pulling on the ring at the top of the pencil. It is 2.25″ closed, and 4.0″ when extended.
Ushabti enamelled magic pencil – This is the tiniest pencil in my entire collection. It is just slightly over 1.0″ long when closed, and when fully extended it is only 2.25″. The design and enamelling are quite detailed for such a small pencil. The mechanism works in the same fashion as the obelisk. By pulling on the ring, both ends extend.
While it was generally believed that these Egyptian themed figural pencils were made in the late 1920’s following discovery of King Tut’s tomb, Deborah Crosby states in her book “Victorian Pencils, Tools to Jewels” that they were made much earlier, starting in the 1880’s.