“The famous Tutankhamun tomb - Egypt Today
In many ancient cultures gold is a symbol of power and immortal- ity, the ancient Egyptians, and later the Romans were eager gold miners. Not only is it used in making the most spectacular and precious jewelry, the word gold had strong connotations of sta- tus, politics, religion and spirituality, and played a significant role in the development of ancient Egypt.
Authors of the book Gold and Gold Mining in Ancient Egypt and Nubia Rosemarie Klemm and Dietrich Klemm explain that gold was not only worn by men and women as jewelry, but it was also linked to the Sun God Ra, with its yellowish and reddish shades.
Alfred Lucas, one of the early researchers in the study of ancient Egyptian technology, believed the red color found in ancient Egyptian jewelry resulted from the tarnishing of silver-bearing gold. Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology, explains that ancient Egyptians named gold “the flesh of the gods” because it did not get discolored and was believed to be sacred. They also believed it had spiritual pow- ers.
Hamdy El Sayed, an Egyptologist and researcher at Cairo Uni- versity explains that ancient Egyptians were buried in gold. “The famous Tutankhamun tomb, that of a young boy, contained three golden coffins made of 110 kilograms of pure gold, his gold throne and his mummy, which was also covered with a gold funerary mask,” he explains.
“So you can imagine what the tombs of kings and queens have hoarded.” Most of ancient Egyptian treasures were stolen before they were discovered. “The valley of the kings, for instance, contains 62 tombs that were already stolen and left open before being discovered, which only leaves us wondering about the number of treasures these tombs contained,” he adds.
El Sayed explains that it is without doubt that ancient Egyptians loved gold and were very much aware of its value. “They designed accessories out of it, buried their kings and queens with it, used it as decoration, made pieces of furniture out of it and used it as ex- change in international trade.”
They also saw gold as a precious tool in maintaining their relations with allies and keeping their strong empire. “Treasures and gifts of gold were given to military leaders and were exchanged as part of diplomatic relations between neigh- bors to maintain good terms and ensure Egypt’s borders were kept safe,” El Sayed adds.
Gold and its uses were clearly engraved in hieroglyphs since 2,600 BC and its importance and abundance evident in some of the Amarna letters. In the late 18th dynasty, King Tushratta of Mitan- ni wrote to Queen Tiye, “I have asked Mimmuriya, your husband, for massive gold statues. But your son has gold-plated statues of wood.
As the gold is like dust in the country of your son, why have they been the reason for such pain, that your son should not have given them to me?” one Amarna letter read.
According to the map on the Turin Papyrus, there were at least 1,300 such mines in ancient times. Considered one of the first civi- lizations of the world to discover gold, ancient Egypt’s discovery of gold remains enveloped by mystery.
But we know that it was largely found in Nubia and the Eastern Desert, which means that gold miners and expeditions were sent to the area to explore and extract gold found in the desert and in riverbeds. The process of gold mining was mostly carried out by prisoners and slaves, who were ordered to carefully store gold chunks and gold particles in linen bags and transport it to the Nile Valley. According to the writ- ings of the historian Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca historica written around 60 BCE, “these unfortunate souls were treated very badly; being made to work in appalling conditions, with little food or water and being beaten if they weren’t thought to be working hard enough.”
After being transported to the Nile Valley, gold was mainly collected by the pharaohs and priests and reserved only for use of royalty and nobles. Although several of the ancient mines still exist but that ancient Egyptians were very thorough in their gold extrac- tion process, leaving little behind. She adds, however, that with modern technologies, we might be able to extract more gold from these ancient mines.
In their book, Rosemarie and Dietrich Klemm explain that “concerns over the authenticity of gold led the Egyptians to devise a method to determine the purity of gold around 1500 BCE (or earlier).
This method is called fire assaying and involves taking a small sam- ple of the material under test and firing it in a small crucible with a quantity of lead. The crucible was made of bone ash and absorbed the lead and any other base metals during the firing process leaving only gold and silver. The silver was removed using nitric acid and the remaining pure gold was weighed and compared to the weight before firing.”
Gold jewelry in ancient Egypt were often custom made for kings and queens and varied from rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, pendants, pins and brooches to pieces of furniture like chairs and beds. British archeologists have also found that electrum, a mix of copper, silver and gold, was extensively used in making obelisks and pyrimidines used to cover the top of pyramids.
A commodity for the kings, goldsmiths perfected their crafts- manship. Different manufacturing and designing techniques in- cluded a technique called filigree, which is based on pulling gold into wires and twisting it into different designs.
Other techniques included beating gold into thing shapes and granulation, which is decorating surfaces with small, soldered granules of gold.
Several of these techniques are still followed by jewelers today, such as beating gold into different shapes such as leaves and the lost- wax technique to make statues and sculptures, in addition to mix- ing gold with other metals to produce alloys.
In fact, in their book, Rosemarie and Dietrich Klemm argue that some jewelry sold in modern Egyptian bazaars may actually contain traces of ancient Egyptian gold. Ikram agrees, saying that “A fragment probably exists in much of the Egyptian gold today.”
Soon, the goldsmiths of ancient Egypt gained prestige and wealth, they were, after all, the craftsmen who created and de- signed such well-made, elegant jewelry, furniture and funerary masks for the pharaohs.