Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/December 1905/Mining and Use of Metals by the Ancient Egyptians

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By Professor R. D. GEORGE,


THE use of metals by the ancients antedates authentic history. So far as the discoveries of the archeologist have shown, the metals first used by mankind were those which occur native, such as gold, silver and copper. These three possess qualities which would appeal to the primitive workman. They are all bright and beautiful when polished, they are all malleable and easily shaped with the hammer, they respond readily to the graving tool and are highly resistant to fire. The ancient Egyptians knew, and used, gold, copper, silver, iron, lead and tin, and the alloys, bronze, brass, electron and solder. The fact that brass was used has led some Egyptologists to believe that zinc was known, but the unalloyed metal has not been found, nor do the inscriptions contain any reference to it. The majority of writers, therefore, hold that the brass was produced by mixing some ore of zinc, possibly calamine, with copper ores in the smelting furnace. The oxide of manganese is supposed to have been an article of commerce between the Bedouins of the Sinai peninsula and the ancient Egyptians.

'Nub' the Egyptian word for gold, is found in the oldest inscriptions, and at Beni-Hassan, a series of pictures dating back to the twelfth dynasty, 2130-1930 B.C., illustrate the whole process of making gold ornaments. Centuries before this, the Nubians had mined gold in the mountainous, desert regions between the Nile and the Red Sea, and it has been suggested that the name Nubia is derived from the name of the metal. The Egyptian kings of the twelfth dynasty invaded Nubia and finally annexed that part of the territory containing the gold mines, and built and garrisoned a wall which should mark the boundary between the two peoples. The mines were vigorously operated by the new owners, and the quantity of gold in the land of the Pharaohs increased rapidly. At the opening of the New Empire, about 1530 b.c., the lavish use of this metal by the kings indicates the wonderful productiveness of the mines. Much gold is believed to have been brought into Egypt from Ethiopia and the eastern shores of the Red Sea, and gold dust (?) from the Soudan.

Within the last few years the ancient workings of many gold mines have been discovered in eastern and southern Egypt and in Nubia. The mining region of Egypt proper was the mountainous belt bordering the Red Sea from the Gulf of Suez to the southern part of the country, where it connected with the mining area of the Nubian Desert farther inland, and with that of Nubia proper. Charles J. Alford[2] describes the northern part of this region as follows: "The larger mountain masses are usually formed of a hornblendic granite. Surrounding these, in lower ranges, and covering very extensive areas, is a rather fine-grained gray granite, passing in places into a gueiss, and that into mica schist, traversed by dikes and intrusions of greenstone, felsite, porphyry, and a very fine grained, white, elvan granite. It is in these rocks that most of the auriferous quartz veins were found to occur, and the more the granite was cut up by the instrusive rocks, the more frequent and more promising the quartz veins appeared to be."

In this region a number of mining sites were found which consisted of groups of round and square huts built of rough stone. Some of these villages are surrounded by walls. The old sand-filled workings follow the veins and ore-shoots, but with few exceptions the working faces and the bottoms of the shafts have not been uncovered by recent explorations. Near Um Rus on the Red Sea, there is an ancient camp of large size. A large number of quartz veins outcrop in a gray granite which is much cut by dikes of greenstone, porphyry and felsite. Nearly all the veins were worked in ancient times, and in places some of the rich ore-shoots have been completely worked out, while the leaner ore has been allowed to remain. The veins vary in thickness from one to over three feet, and all carry free-milling gold in varying amounts. The quartz is white to gray in color, and in places carries a little pyrite. The ore seems to have been reduced to a coarse powder by means of stone rolling pins on elliptical rubbing stones. It was then transferred to a circular mill consisting of an upper and a lower stone.[3]

At one of the camps in the south, there is the ruin of a building 260 feet by 190 feet, which is supposed by some to have been the mill in which the gold was separated from the ore. At the old workings near Coptos, Lat. 26° N., may be seen the ruins of over 1,300 stone huts once occupied by the miners. Very extensive workings found still farther to the south are probably the mines for which the kings of the twelfth dynasty sacrificed the lives of many thousand men, and from which the largest supply of Egyptian gold was derived. They are located in an almost inaccessible mountain group surrounded on all sides by a waterless desert. Here may be seen tunnels and shafts penetrating the mountains to unknown depths. Three hundred stone huts shelter three hundred mills used in pulverizing the ore, immense cisterns once caught the scanty water supply from the higher slopes, and near them stand the sloping stone tables on which the pulverized ore was washed. Records show that these mines were worked with but little interruption for twenty centuries by the Egyptians, and we have no means of knowing how long they were worked by the Nubians before them.

Inscriptions near the mines recount the difficulties of the journey by which the region was reached, and, judging by the loss of life on the way and the distress suffered by those who reached the goal, the 'Forty-niner' and the Klondiker could not tell of greater hardships. The miners were largely prisoners of war and criminals. The Greek writer, Diodorus (III. 11.), describes the operation of the mines in the time of the Ptolemies, and the terrible sufferings of the laborers under their brutal taskmasters.

The oldest charts or maps of any kind in existence are two papyri showing the topography of the country, and the position of the workings, mills, miners' houses and other buildings connected with some of these ancient mines. One of these maps was made in the reign of Ramses II., the second king of the nineteenth dynasty, which began about 1320 u.c. The locality mapped is in the Bechen Mountain, east of Coptos. The other, better preserved, but having lost the name, shows the position of four short ranges or rows of mountains with the valleys between them; the position of the mines, high on the slopes of one of the peaks; the workmen's houses; the water-tanks, the place where the gold washing was done, the areas of cultivated ground; a temple site and other details. Some of the mountains are colored red, and across them are written the words: 'These are the mountains where the gold is washed; they are also of this red color.' Von Meyer[4] says that in the time of Ramses II. the Nubian mines yielded $625,000,000 worth of gold annually. (The world's production of gold for 1903 was valued at approximately $327,000,000.) The kings of the eighteenth dynasty also received gold in considerable quantity from the Soudan and from the eastern shores of the Red Sea.

In all the Egyptian and Nubian mines the ore was in the form of native gold in a quartz gangue. Some of the veins are of large size and are considerably branched. The vein matter was fractured and loosened by building fires over it. The blocks were then dug out by the miners, possibly with iron tools; and old men, women and children carried the ore to the crushers. The earliest form of mill consisted of a small stone mortar with a stone pestle. But there was a development in milling methods, and the next consisted of a block of rock, with a slight depression in the top for the ore, which was pulverized by means of a heavy rubbing stone. A still later development, possibly belonging to the time of the Ptolemies, 330-322 b.c., was a mill somewhat like the arastra which may still be seen in California and Mexico. It consisted of a block of rock several feet in diameter and circular in outline, in the top of which was a shallow depression to receive the ore. The pestle consisted of a large spherical or cylindrical block of the same kind of rock. The finely broken ore was placed in the depression, and the movable block was rolled around over it until it was reduced to the desired fineness. The mill was essentially a huge shallow stone mortar in which the pestle was rolled by slaves.

The powdered ore from the mortars was sprinkled upon the tops of sloping stone tables over which water was kept, running. By this means the lighter rock powder was carried away and the gold remained behind. The supply of water was secured by the construction of large cisterns or reservoirs on the slopes of the mountain. In the upper ends of the tables there were tanks for the immediate supply, and the operator dipped the water out and poured it over the sloping surface. When a quantity of gold had accumulated on the table it was removed, dried and placed in a covered clay crucible and heated for five days in a charcoal fire blown constantly by a rude bellows, or by mouth blowpipes. No fluxes were used in the earliest times, but it was not long before these primitive metallurgists learnt the use of lead and common desert salts in refining their gold. Diodorus Siculus—second century B.C.—mentions the use of lead by the Egyptians in the refining of gold, but it is believed that it had been in use many centuries before his time.

Pictures and sculptures of very early date show the refiners of gold (and silver) sitting before the fire with blowpipes of very large size, but otherwise not unlike those in use at the present time. The main part of the pipe was probably of wood, but a metal tip concentrated and directed the current of air. Others show the workman blowing the fire with a bellows consisting of two leather bags furnished with metal nozzles. The bellows was distended by pulling a cord attached to the upper side of the bag. When at work, the operator stood with one foot on each bag and held the cords in his hands. Then by a swaying movement he threw his weight first on one foot and then on the other and at the same time pulled the cord attached to the bag from which the pressure was removed, raising its upper wall and causing it to take in air and become distended. The pressure of the foot forced the air through the nozzle of the bellows into the fire. When a large amount of metal was to be worked, an open fire of charcoal was used and a bellows was placed on each side. For smaller amounts, the fire was placed in an earthen bowl and the blowpipe was used to fan the flame.

Goldsmiths. The goldsmith was held in higher esteem than any other craftsman. This regard was probably due, in part, to the fact that he prepared the images of the gods, the finer decorations for the temples, and the jewels and vessels for the royal household. The guild was under the direct control of the king, and was thoroughly organized by his command into goldsmiths, chief goldsmiths and superintendents of goldsmiths. The trade passed from father to son in a sort of family trade union. Plato says that in Egypt every particular trade and manufacture was carried on by its own craftsmen, and none changed from one trade to another or carried on several. As early as the twelfth dynasty, 2130 b.c., the Egyptian goldsmiths had attained a high degree of skill in their work; and the wonderful jewels found on the mummy of queen A'hhotep and in the tomb of Kha-em-uas, son of Ramses II., for elegance of design, delicate engraving and beautiful inlaying are not excelled at the present time. That some of this work could have been done without the aid of a lens, is considered impossible. A type of cloisonne work, the outlining of figures and the tracing of designs in delicate gold and silver wire to be filled in with precious stones or other metal, was a remarkable feature of the goldsmith's art. (The Chinese cloisonne work differs in that the filling is largely with enamel and porcelain, and is hardened in place by burning.) Gold plating was practised in very early times, and some of this work manifests a skill not to be scorned by the best workers of the twentieth century. The gold leaf was undoubtedly made with the hammer, and its uniform thickness speaks well for the skill of the goldsmith. Inlaid work with settings of precious stones and enamels was common. Gold was extensively used to overlay models in wood and other material in sculpture and architecture.

The tools used were of the simplest kind, probably including only the blowpipe, tongs, forceps, hammer and graving tools. A very large part of the work was done by softening the gold in the fire and pressing it into shape with forceps and tongs. The casting of gold was much practised in the latter part of the Middle Empire, about 1600 B.C.

In the inscriptions of the New Empire, various kinds or grades of gold are mentioned, as: 'mountain gold,' 'good gold,' 'gold of twice' (refining?), 'gold of thrice,' 'gold of the weight,' 'good gold of Katm, that is, of the Semitic countries. The 'gold-brick' and the tenderfoot are not peculiar to the present day. In one of the Tell-el-Amarna letters, written during the eighteenth dynasty, 1600-1400 b.c., the king of Babylon accuses Amenophis III. (or IV.) of Egypt of sending him a mass of base metal for gold. He says: 'The twenty minas of gold (you sent me) contained, when melted down, only five minas of pure gold.' In a letter from Mitani to the same monarch, the writer says: 'The gold you sent was very little and alloyed' and in a later letter he says: 'A testing of a delivery of gold, undertaken before the whole royal court, has revealed the fact that what was sent was not gold at all.'

The chief uses of the metal among the ancient Egyptians were for ornament and decoration, and, to a limited extent, as a measure of value, but this use was probably not common except when very large sums had to be paid over. For use as money, it was fashioned into broad, centrally perforated discs or rings about five inches in diameter, but of one standard thickness or weight, and all payments necessitated the use of the balance. Among the commoner articles made of gold were articles of personal adornment—diadems, necklaces, armlets, bracelets, finger rings, earrings and various kinds of jewels. Domestic utensils, except those for the royal household, were seldom made of gold. Vases and other decorative vessels, images of the deities, statuettes of the kings and other royal personages, and images of the sacred animals were commonly made of hammered or cast gold. It was extensively used for temple and altar decorations, particularly during the New Empire, after the conquest of Nubia and Syria in the eighteenth dynasty. The Syrian goldsmiths were superior craftsmen, and much of their work found its way into the temples of Egypt. The decoration of the temples was an act of the most worthy piety, and it was the duty of the king's convoyers of gold from the mines to make an offering of gold in the temples.

When wrought into jewels and chains, it was used by the ruler as a means of bestowing rank and favor upon his worthy officials and court favorites. A victorious general was called into the king's presence, and 'before all the people, in the sight of the whole country,' the 'decoration of the gold' was conferred. The king commanded the royal treasurer to place about the neck and body of the honored servant a certain number of gold chains, and to present him with jewels and gifts, frequently of symbolic character. These might be in the form of bees, lions, bracelets, necklets, hatchets, vessels for ointment and ornament, all worked from the finest gold. The persons receiving this honor were afterwards known as 'the creatures of the gold.'

There is good reason to believe that the Egyptians used unalloyed copper in their arts and manufactures for centuries before they discovered that the addition of a little tin would greatly increase its hardness, make it more responsive to heat, and greatly widen its field of usefulness. But within the period covered by authentic history, copper alone seems to have had a much more limited use than bronze, and the archeologist finds that objects made of copper are not very numerous among the relics of any period of Egyptian history. It is held by some that the name used in the inscriptions for bronze sometimes refers to copper.

Possibly on account of the great abundance and long use of copper, very little definite information has been preserved regarding the process of extracting it from its ores, the making of the alloys (bronze and brass) or the methods of manufacturing copper and bronze objects. The goldsmith has received a great deal of attention from the sculptor and the painter, but the more practical and more indispensable worker in bronze has been almost wholly neglected. It is said that the only known picture illustrating the working of bronze is that of a man making knives. Even in the copper mines, the inscriptions rarely refer to copper as a product. Malachite, regarded by the Egyptians as one of the choicest of precious stones, and turquoise are spoken of as though they were the objects sought.

There was very little copper mined in Egypt, though it is said that native copper was found there (von Meyer). The great source of the metal was the Sinai peninsula. While most of these deposits were exhausted in ancient times, one at Wadi Nasb has been worked in recent years. To supplement the supply from these mines copper was imported. In one of the Tell-el-Amarna letters, written by the ruler of Cyprus to Amenophis III. (or IV.) in the fifteenth century b.c., the writer says: "I can only send this time 500 talents (?) of copper, for the plague prevails in my country, and for this reason no despatch of silver could take place." In another letter he says: "I am sending you 100 talents of copper."

When the Egyptians wanted gold they invaded Nubia and took possession of the mines. When they wanted copper they drove back the nomadic tribes of Sinai and built fortresses to defend themselves while they secured the metal which played such an important part in their national life. The most important mines were those of Wadi Maghara which had been worked by the natives, and from which they are said to have brought oxides of copper to the Nile delta. It is probable that the Egyptians made several unsuccessful attempts to get possession of the mines at a very early date. But it was not until the time of Zosiri, possibly in the third dynasty, that they succeeded temporarily in holding the region. Whether the conquerors followed up their victory and worked the mines in uncertain, but it is known that they were vigorously operated by King Snofru of the fourth dynasty, not later than 2830 b.c., and according to several authorities, much earlier. Other mines opened later, were the Wadi Nasb, the Sarbut elchadim and mount 'At'eka. Of these, the Sarbut elchadim were opened by Amen-eh-hat II., of the twelfth dynasty, about 2130-1930 b.c., All these mines, except those of 'At'eka, are in the mountains on the west side of the peninsula. The exact position of the 'At'eka mines is not known, but they were near the Gulf of Akaba on the east side of the peninsula, and so situated that the product was brought to Egypt both by sea and by land. They were opened by Ramses III., the second king of the twentieth dynasty, which, according to Erman, lasted from 1180-1050 B.C. The western Sinai copper and turquoise mining region is separated from the Suez Gulf by a narrow plain and one range of hills. Pharaoh's men called it the country of grottoes, in allusion to the many pits and tunnels made by the Bedouin miners who preceded them. It is known that in very early times copper ore of some kind was mined not far from the gold mines of the southern desert region, but the workings indicate that no great amount of metal was produced from this locality.

The country rock of the west side of the peninsula is a soft, friable, yellow sandstone, probably cut by porphyry dikes,[5] and the method of laying out the mines was not unlike that used in coal mining at the present time. Tunnels or entries were driven and rooms were worked out on each side, leaving pillars of rock to support the roof.

On a peak at the junction of the Wadi Genneh and the Wadi Maghara, the traveler finds a low wall enclosing a group of over 200 stone huts—some round and some rectangular—in which the miners of many generations lived. With the exception of the houses of the overseers, which have two rooms, the dwellings consist of a single room, on one side of which a stone bunk or bench may have served for table and bed. The walls of the houses are made of the sandstone from the mines, and are laid up without mortar. The door is a very narrow opening in one of the walls. The roofs were made of wicker work covered with clay. The village was garrisoned to protect the miners from the native tribes, and a temple was erected for the worship of 'Hathor, the lady of the malachite country.' Below the village, an artificial lake or reservoir was formed by damming the valley, and the shellfish of the lake were used as food, along with dates, oil, milk and a coarse bread, with occasionally a fowl or some other meat. Occasionally the king sent a supply train into the camp, and an inscription says that one of these consisted of: corn, 16 oxen, 30 geese, fresh vegetables, live poultry and other things.

The tools found in the village were all of flint, and included knives, scrapers, hammers, saws, arrow heads and spear points. Stone tools with wooden handles were found in the mines, but it is probable that these were used in making the inscriptions which cover the walls, and that the mining was done with bronze tools. The mine laborers were principally criminals and prisoners of war, but an inscription records the fact that one of the kings sent out an army officer and 734 soldiers to work the mines. There seems to have been but little interruption in the operation of the mines from the latter part of the third dynasty until the end of the sixth (from about 2830 to possibly 2400 B.C.). From this time until the twelfth dynasty (2130 B.C.) but little work was done, but in this dynasty Egypt was on the crest of one of those great waves of prosperity which marked the nation's history. These and other mines were worked with great energy, and the national coffers were filled. The goldsmiths and bronze workers of this time have left behind them some of the most elaborate and beautiful specimens of their art. From the twelfth until the twentieth dynasty there were periods of great mining activity separated by others in which but little was done. The eighteenth dynasty (1530 to 1320) was a period of great mineral production, but during the twentieth (1180-1050 b.c., Erman, or 1280-1100 b.c., Rawlinson) most of the mines were almost exhausted. Major Macdonald, a Scotchman, built a house just below the village and worked one of the mines for turquoise some time within the nineteenth century. Monuments still stand at the Sarbut mines, recording the names of a long list of mine managers appointed by the various Pharaohs. When large quantities of copper or turquoise were wanted, the king would send out 1,000 or 2,000 additional miners, metallurgists and laborers to expedite matters.

The inscriptions show that the strike is not a new institution. A company of Egyptian prospectors used this means of bringing the managers to terms. The method employed by the manager to get his men to continue work is one which has not been tried in America. The men were called together to discuss matters, and they agreed to work if the manager would insure them the favor and protection of Hathor, the goddess of the region. The terms were complied with, and the men went to work.

The ruins of ancient refining works are found near the west Sinai mines, but from the very meager description found it is impossible to get any idea of the method of treating the ores. The fuel used was charcoal and wood. The ores mentioned in connection with these mines include malachite, the oxides of copper, native copper and a blue precious stone, which may refer to turquoise or to azurite. As the malachite was considered a precious stone, only the inferior part of this mineral would be used as ore. Whichever one of these ores predominated, the metallurgical process would be a rather simple one, but the copper produced was of a high degree of purity. The following quotation from Brugsch-Bey makes it clear that the ore of 'At'eka was smelted at the mines: "The metal shining like gold and in the form of bricks, was brought from the smelting-houses in those parts and laden on ships."

At certain periods in Egyptian history, as, for example, early in the new Empire (2130 B.C.), copper seems to have been recognized as the standard of value, and accounts were reckoned in uten of copper. These coins, if such they may be called, were made of very exact weight (about 91 grams), and were in the form of a spiral. Some of the blue and green pigments used by the artists and painters contain copper salts.

Bronze, the alloy of copper and tin was the Egyptian's tool-steel, his cast and wrought iron—in short, all that iron and steel are to the American. Just when he discovered the effect of tin on copper there is no means of knowing, but certain it is that many centuries have passed since he came into the possession of the secret.

The presence of flint tools only, in the deserted mining camp in Wadi Maghara can not be used as an argument that bronze and iron tools were not then in use, for they are mentioned in inscriptions, pictured in paintings and sculptures and are found in tombs belonging to a period many centuries before the abandonment of the mines. In the time of Herodotus the Egyptians used both stone and metal cutting instruments. The use of bronze is mentioned in inscriptions antedating the Great Pyramids. Of the work of the first three dynasties, Rawlinson says: 'A metallurgy of no small merit must have formed and hardened the implements whereby materials such as those employed by the Egyptian builders and sculptors were worked with ease and freedom.'

Possibly the oldest piece of cast bronze whose age has been established is a knob from the scepter of Papi, a Pharaoh of the sixth dynasty (about 2500 B.C.). This and other bronzes of very great antiquity are in the British Museum. The Posno collection in the Louvre contains two statues which are believed by Perrot and Chapiez to date from the close of the Old Empire or the beginning of the Middle Empire (about 2300-2000 B.C.), but Erman says they are 'archaistic works of the twenty-sixth dynasty (about 650-525 B.C.). They are light, hollow and cast in one piece. The eyes and eyebrows were made of precious stones inlaid in the bronze. The technical skill and workmanship displayed are said to be extraordinary. A hollow cast statue of Ramses II., of excellent design and skilful workmanship, dates from about 1300 B.C.

In the inscriptions, several kinds of bronze are spoken of again and again, as, for example, 'bronze,' 'bronze in the combination of six' and 'black bronze.' These varieties contain the constituent metals in different proportions. A very common bronze, used for a variety of purposes, contains copper 85 per cent., tin 15 per cent.; another common bronze has the composition: copper 88 per cent., tin 12 per cent. A bronze used for weapons and cutting instruments is found by analysis to contain copper 94 per cent., tin 5.9 per cent, and iron.1 per cent. Without the iron, this would be the softest of the three, but the iron probably compensates for the lower percentage of tin. It is evident that the use to which the alloy was to be put determined the proportion in which the metals should be combined. This fact supports the belief that from very early times the metal workers used metallic tin in the manufacture of bronze, and, therefore, that they were familiar with the separation of tin from its ores. Bronze weapons of the composition mentioned above, were so skilfully tempered that, after the lapse of many centuries, their elasticity is almost equal to that of the best steel.

The working of bronze was one of the more honorable branches of industry, and must have furnished labor for a large number of men. Of the various subdivisions of this industry, that of the armorer was held in highest esteem. Reference has already been made to the lack of data concerning the metallurgy of copper and of bronze. But the finished products show that furnaces and smelting pots of large size must have been used in preparing the molten alloy for the molds. The bronze work of different periods shows varying degrees of skill, and it is difficult to say at what time the bronze workers attained the greatest excellence in their art. Both cast and hammered bronze work is found, which in grace of outline and perfection of finish has rarely, if ever been surpassed. The more elaborately finished work includes chasing, inlaying with precious stones, gold and silver, designs in gold and silver wire inlaid with other bronzes, enamels and precious stones. The method of inlaying with gold and silver consisted in making a groove in the bronze, laying the gold on and hammering it into place.

It would be almost impossible to enumerate the uses to which bronze was put. Some of the more important are: weapons and armor; farm implements (in part), artisans' tools, household utensils; boat and chariot building; architectural hardware, such as nails, bolts, hinges, locks; statuary, images, decorative objects and articles for personal adornment.

Iron. Iron never found wide favor in ancient Egypt, but there are abundant evidences that it was used side by side with bronze for tools of various kinds. There is no reason to believe that it was ever commonly used for decorative purposes, either in architecture or otherwise. The finding of iron bracelets proves that it was occasionally used for personal adornment. Even its use for tools seems to have been much more limited than that of bronze.

It has been suggested that the scarcity of iron objects may be accounted for, in part at least, by the readiness with which iron is destroyed by oxidation, especially in a soil so rich in niters as that of Egypt. It is also significant that the Asiatic neighbors of the Egyptians—the Hebrews, the Canaanites, the Chaldeans, the Babylonians and other contemporaneous peoples were familiar with the uses of iron.

Lepsius believes that this metal was used in Egypt as early as 3000 b.c., that it served primarily for hard instruments, and was prepared in smelting furnaces. The Great Pyramid was built by Khufu (Cheops), of the fourth dynasty, and not later than 2800 B.C. Herodotus says that iron tools were used in the construction of the great Pyramids, though others find reason to believe that the tools used were of tempered bronze. The question is of little importance in view of the fact that a band of iron was found in an inner joint of the Pyramid of Cheops, where the ancient architect placed it.

Thebes and Memphis are so ancient that history has preserved no record of their founding. Yet in the tombs of these long-decayed cities are found tools and other articles of iron, some of which may be seen among the treasures of the New York Historical Society. An ancient inscription at Harnak tells us that Thothmes I., who reigned in the eighteenth dynasty (probably 1500 B.C.), received from his chiefs and vassal kings, 'bars of wrought metal and vessels of copper and of bronze and of iron,' and from near Memphis he received lead, iron, wine and wrought metal. Iron was so highly prized that it was considered a desirable article of plunder, and the soldiers of this same monarch, on their return from fighting Chadasha, brought 'iron of the mountains, 40 cubes.' An iron sickle was found beneath one of the sphynxes at Harnak, but it may have been placed there not more than 600 years B.C. When the great obelisk that now stands in Central Park, New York, was taken from its original position on the banks of the Nile, a piece of very pure iron was found beneath it. 'Pieces of iron tools have been found at various places, bedded in masonry of very ancient date' (E). In the twenty-fifth dynasty iron was used for the door frames of the temple of Ptah. Very few of the iron relics found are well enough preserved to show the character of the workmanship, but they do show that the art of tempering iron was known at a very early date.

The known sources of Egyptian iron include the desert region of the south between the Nile and the Red Sea, and the Sinai peninsula. At Hamami in the desert there are the workings of an ancient iron mine from which hematite was taken, but no evidences of smelting have been reported from this locality. The mines of the Sinai region must have been an important source of this metal as well as of copper. In 1873 ruins of extensive iron works of great antiquity, but of undoubted Egyptian origin, were discovered near the Wells of Moses, and it is possible that ancient Arabia learned the metallurgy of iron from the Egyptians. There is also reason to believe that iron was imported from Chaldea, Phoenicia, Babylonia and Assyria.

Of the metallurgical processes used in the treatment of iron ores little is known. Oxides or ochers of iron were used for the yellow, brown and red pigments so commonly used in Egyptian art. Some of the iron articles found are tools of various kinds, weapons, bracelets, keys, wire, door-frames, fish-hooks, etc.

The inscriptions make but few, if any, references to tin, and comparatively few articles made of that metal have been found. For these reasons, it is held by some writers that the ancient peoples, the Egyptians included, did not understand the separation of the metal from its ores. But the fact that plates of pure tin have been found in considerable number in the tombs is an answer to those who hold this view. These plates were shaped and used to cover the incision made in the right side of the corpse to remove the viscera preparatory to embalming. They were engraved with the symbolic eye-emblem of the sun-god Shu. But the principal use of tin was in the manufacture of the two alloys, bronze and solder, of which the former was many times the more important. Solder, the alloy of lead and tin, was very much used in the metal-worker's craft. The sources from which the Egyptians drew their supply of tin are not known. It is believed by some that the Phoenicians brought it from Spain and later from the shores of Britain. It has also been suggested that it may have been brought from the East Indies by very indirect channels of trade. Whatever may have been the source of supply, tin was used in large quantities by the ancient Egyptians.

Silver. Silver and gold were the precious metals of Egypt. In very early times silver was the rarer and more precious. This is probably due to the fact that it was not produced in Egypt or the neighboring countries. In later times when commerce developed and the products of all the earth began to come to the ports of the Nile and the Red Sea the two metals changed places in respect to value. The greater rarity of silver in the earlier dynasties is shown by its very limited use, as well as by the fact that in the old inscriptions it always stands before gold. Gold was lavished on the mummies and on the tomb decorations of the wealthy, but silver was seldom used in this way. In the temple decorations silver played but a small part, and in the ceremonies by which rank and title were bestowed upon faithful officers and court favorites, silver is rarely mentioned. The gifts to the king rarely include it, though copper and bronze are generally mentioned.

But about the time of the eighteenth dynasty the Phoenicians and Syrians brought much silver from Cilicia, and the island of Cyprus sent this metal to Egypt, as is shown by the Tell-el-Amarna letters. From this time the use of silver is much more common for many purposes than that of gold. King Kamses III. records the fact that during his reign of thirty-one years he gave to the temples, among other gifts: 1,015 kg. of gold, 2,994 kg. of silver, 940 kg. of black bronze and 13,060 kg. of bronze. Its use, likewise, in the arts became much more common, both alone and in the alloy usm or electron.

In the nineteenth dynasty, Bamses II. and Khita-sir, king of the Hittites, made a treaty for mutual protection and support. A silver tablet has been found on which is engraved the whole text of the treaty, and it is almost as wordy as similar documents of the present day.

The work of the silversmith was similar to that of the goldsmith, and vases of the Middle Empire (2130-1530) show more than average elegance of design and delicacy of workmanship, but the very elaborate work often found on objects of gold is rarely seen on those of silver. It is a remarkable fact that gilded silver is found.

Objects made of silver include jewels and other articles of personal adornment, plates for the adornment of mummies; statuettes of the gods and figures of the sacred animals; vases, and rings used for money. The central treasury was known as 'the house of silver of the treasury,' but the reason for the name is not apparent, unless at some time silver formed the principal money of the nation.

Electron, Egyptian 'usm.' This was an alloy of silver, gold and usually copper in small amount. The proportions were about 150 silver, 100 gold and 5 copper. Though not beautiful, it ranked with the precious metals, and was used chiefly for personal adornment and for vases, but occasionally it found a place in the more costly temple decorations. In the restoration of the temple of Ptah, in the twenty-fifth dynasty, the doors were made of electron (usm). Von Meyer states that this alloy was regarded as an individual metal, and that probably no means of separating the two metals was known. Lepsius, on the other hand, thinks that it was made by combining the metals by weight in much the same way as copper and tin were used in making bronze. Erman[6] says that from the 'Great Harris Papyrus' it appears that in weighing usm 1,278 uten of gold, 1,891 uten of silver and 67 uten of copper were employed. It is probable that this alloy was not used until after the change in the relative values of silver and gold mentioned above.

Lead. Of the metals known to the Egyptians, lead seems to have been the least used. Very few, if any, leaden objects have been found, and the only ways in which the metal is known to have been used are in the making of solder and in glazing pottery. The white pigment used on the mummy wrappings has been spoken of as white lead, but other writers state positively that no white lead has been found on the mummies or about the tombs. In very early times lead was mined in the desert region not far from the gold mines, and inscriptions state that it was received as tribute from foreign peoples.

  1. The materials for this article have been drawn from many sources, and it would be impossible to give specific references, as a single sentence may contain facts taken from several writers. The principal works consulted are: Birch (ed.), 'Records of the Past'; Brugsch-Bey, 'Egypt under the Pharaohs'; Mahaffy, 'Empire of the Ptolemies'; Maspero-Sayce, 'Dawn of Civilization'; Rawlinson, 'Ancient Egypt'; Perrot and Chipiez, 'History of Ancient Egyptian Art'; Winckler, 'The Tell-el-Amarna Letters'; Adams, 'Egypt Past and Present'; Von Meyer, 'History of Chemistry'; Erman, 'Life in Ancient Egypt'; Chas. J. Alford, Eng. and Min. Jour., Vol. 73; Professor Petrie in Harper's for July, 1888.
  2. Eng. and Mm. Jour., Vol. 73, p. 103.
  3. See illustration, Eng. and Min. Jour., Vol. 73, p. 104.
  4. 'History of Chemistry.'
  5. See Dana, under 'Turquoise.'
  6. Foot-note, p. 461.