Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Importance of Gold to the Ancient Egyptians

In The Aten Sequence Books, our hapless main character Aten is desperately trying to get his hands on enough gold to make more fuel for his ship, so that he can blast off back into space and join his evil Uncle Lucie in conquering the Universe.  After trying out a few options, such as the Bank of England in Victorian London, he decides the Temple of Karnak during the reign of the fabulously wealthy Pharaoh Amenophis III is his best bet.  Now this is pure fiction, but the Ancient Egyptians were famous for the amount of gold they possessed, so why was it so important to them?

“And gold – everywhere the glint of gold” - Howard Carter on what he saw as he opened the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings.

Cobra Details on Tutankhamun's Gold Throne
Cobra Details on Tutankhamun's Gold Throne

Most people when they think of Ancient Egypt think of gold.  Ever since the glittering tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun was excavated in 1922, we have associated the mysterious land of Egypt with untold wealth and glittering treasure. It seemed as though every exquisite piece of funerary equipment removed from the tomb was gilded in the precious yellow metal or even made entirely of solid gold, like the famous funerary mask and inner coffin.  And if this was the treasure placed in the tomb of a relatively insignificant pharaoh who only ruled for a few years and died young, what wealth could the tombs of the mighty kings such as Ramesses the Great and Thutmosis III have contained before they were robbed?

But why was gold so important to the Egyptian pharaohs?  It was not a precious metal used by the ordinary people; it was reserved for the exclusive use of royalty and important nobility.  Domestically it had no economic value, as barter was used for trade and all servants of the crown were paid with food, fuel and gifts.  

Money was not used in Egypt until the Ptolemaic period, so gold was not used in coins. One of the reasons it was so highly prized was that it was associated with the dazzling light of the sun and the solar deity Ra.  It was believed that the very skin of the gods was golden and that their bones were composed of silver.  Because it is a precious metal that does not tarnish and is fairly indestructible it was also associated with eternal life.  The pharaoh was viewed as divine, the human link between the earth and the numinous, so gold was used for royal coffins and funerary equipment to help preserve the king’s mortal remains for eternity.

It was in international trade that gold became important, and Egypt became famous for the amount of the prized precious metal that it sent to all corners of its far flung empire.  It was not only used for trade, it was also an important diplomatic tool as pharaohs would send quantities of gold and gilded treasures to their allies and vassal monarchs in order to keep them happy and fighting to maintain Egypt’s borders. 

So used were these vassal kings to having a continuous flow of gold being sent out to them that they would write and complain if there was any disruption in supply.  In the late eighteenth dynasty King Tushratta of Mitanni wrote to Queen Tiye to moan that her husband Amenophis III was only sending gilded statues not the solid gold ones he had apparently promised:
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?

Gold was also given as rewards to courtiers and military leaders.  Reliefs at Amarna show the royal couple Akhenaten and Nefertiti handing out golden collars and arm rings to their faithful followers and large flies fashioned from gold were handed out for valour on the battlefield, much as we give out medals today. Interestingly these military awards were sometimes even presented to women, as Queen Aahhotep I, the mother of Pharaoh Ahmose I, was buried with three such flies in her tomb.

As the wealth and might of the Egyptian empire grew in the New Kingdom, so did the prestige of goldsmiths.  The men who created the exquisite jewelry, statues and funerary masks became feted and wealthy in their own right.  They developed several techniques that are still used by jewellers today such as utilising the lost-wax technique to make intricate statues, beating gold into fine leaves, and mixing it with other metals to create alloys.  

Electrum, a blend of gold, silver, copper and other metals, was one such alloy that was very widely used to plate the exterior of monuments such as obelisks and the pyramidions that topped the pyramids.Gold had been mined and worked in Egypt since predynastic times. How it was first discovered is shrouded in mystery, but this very early gold was more than likely extracted from alluvial deposits. 

It was one of the first metals to be worked and used by prehistoric man, probably because it could be found in the natural world that surrounded them, is very malleable and soft so can easily be worked with rudimentary tools, and its shine and glitter would have made it attractive for use in jewelry and ornaments.  Most of the gold extracted in antiquity in Egypt was mined in the Eastern Desert and Nubia. In fact Nubia even incorporates the ancient word for gold ‘nub’ in its name.

  Ay receiving rewards of gold from Akhenaten & Nefertiti
Ay receiving rewards of gold from Akhenaten & Nefertiti

All of the mines in Ancient Egypt were state monopolies and were worked predominantly by prisoners and slaves.  According to the writings 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.

The methods of extracting the metal were simple but effective. The earliest method used was probably extracting gold from auriferous sand, which was known in antiquity as nub-en-mu or  ’gold of the river’.    Quantities of auriferous sand would be placed into a sack made from an animal fleece, with the woolly side facing inward.  Water would then be poured into the bag and vigorously shaken around by two men.  This would separate the heavier metal from the dirt and grit and when the water was drained out, it would take the dirt with it leaving the gold dust adhering to the fleece.

Funerary Mask of Psusennes I
Funerary Mask of Psusennes I
Shallow underground mining probably didn’t start until the New Kingdom and this technique of extraction was known as nub-en-set or ‘gold of the mountain’.  The metal bearing rock was first crushed into powder and then spread over a stone table that was slightly tilted.  Water was then poured over the powder, which separated all the dirt and dust from the metal, leaving only the particles of gold on the table.  

This was repeated a few times until only gleaming, yellow metal particles remained.  They then rubbed these precious particles between their hands for a length of time, before they finally ran small sponges over it to clear out any remaining dirt.

So far there have been over a hundred gold workings and settlements that have been found, most of them in the arid wadis of the Eastern Desert.  However, according to the map on the Turin Papyrus, there were at least 1300 such mines in ancient times.  Hopefully, more evidence and remains of the ancient gold mining industry will be excavated from beneath the sands of Egypt, as well as further beautiful examples of the ancient goldsmith’s art.

Psusennes I image Lazaroni Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Ay gold rewards image ddehisen Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Gold Cobra image External Radiance Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported