Nebu: Gold in Ancient Egypt

Ancient egyptian gold statue of the protecting goddess Serket at the Tutankhamun exhibition. / Photo by mountainpix, depositphotos, Creative Commons

Ancient texts report the vast quantities of statuary of gold, silver, bronze, and other metals.

By Deborah Schorsch
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Egypt is a land rich in gold, and ancient miners employing traditional methods were thorough in their exploitation of economically feasible sources. In addition to the resources of the Eastern Desert, Egypt had access to the riches of Nubia, which is reflected in its ancient name, nbw (the Egyptian word for gold). The hieroglyph for gold—a broad collar—appears with the beginning of writing in Dynasty 1, but the earliest surviving gold artifacts date to the preliterate days of the fourth millennium B.C.; these are mostly beads and other modest items used for personal adornment. Gold jewelry intended for daily life or use in temple or funerary ritual continued to be produced throughout Egypt’s long history.

This cone, found among the items in the Tell Basta treasure, would have been attached at the inner center of an elaborately decorated bowl. (c.1279–1213 BCE) / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain

The gold used by the Egyptians generally contains silver, often in substantial amounts, and it appears that for most of Egypt’s history gold was not refined to increase its purity. The color of a metal is affected by its composition: gradations in hue that range between the bright yellow of a central boss that once embellished a vessel dating to the Third Intermediate Period and the paler grayish yellow of a Middle Kingdom uraeus pendant are due to the natural presence of lesser or greater amounts of silver.

Pendant in the Shape of an Uraeus (2030-1650 BCE). The uraeus was a royal symbol of protection, as the representation of a rearing cobra could magically spit fire at the enemies of Egypt from its perch on the king’s forehead. / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain

In fact, the pendant contains gold and silver in nearly equal amounts and is therefore electrum, a natural alloy of gold containing more than 20 percent silver, as defined by the ancient Roman author, naturalist, philosopher, and historian Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis historia.

Finger Ring depicting King Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti as Shu and Tefnut (1353-1336 BCE). This ring was found at Amarna. The hieroglyphs may be read as an ideogram. The two seated figures are probably Akhenaten (left) and Nefertiti (right) as the deities Shu (air as indicated by the feather he holds) and Tefnut (moisture). They were father and mother of the earth and sky. / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain

A ring dated to the Amarna Period depicting Shu and Tefnut illustrates a rare occasion when an Egyptian goldsmith added a significant amount of copper to a natural gold-silver alloy to attain a reddish hue.

Child’s bracelet (c.2650 BCE). / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain

The survival of gold artifacts is skewed by accidents of history and excavation; Egyptian sites have been looted since ancient times, and much precious metal was melted down long ago. Overall, relatively few gold pieces survive from the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods, which are represented in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection by a small bangle bracelet from the tomb of Khasekhemwy, the last ruler of Dynasty 2. It was made from a broad band of hammered gold sheet. Small stone vessels that had been sealed with hammered sheets of gold textured to resemble animal hide and tied down with gold wire “string” were also found in the royal tomb.

Ram’s-head Amulet (c.712-664 BCE). This amulet was probably made for a necklace worn by one of the Kushite kings. Representations show these pharaohs wearing a ram’s-head amulet tied around the neck on a thick cord, the ends of which fall forward over the shoulders. / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain

Malleability, a physical property shared by many metals and most pronounced for gold, is the ability to be hammered into thin sheets, and it is in this form that most gold artifacts from ancient Egypt survive: solid, cast gold objects, such as a ram’s-head amulet dated to the Kushite Period, are generally small and relatively rare.

Model collar of Hapiankhtifi (c.1981-1802 BCE). Elaborate broad collars were worn by the Egyptian elite for a variety of festival and religious occasions. / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain
Heart Scarab with a Human Head (c.1550-1070 BCE). Heart scarabs were very popular amulets. Positioned on the chest of the mummy, they usually take the shape of a large scarab beetle (which was a symbol of regeneration). / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain

Gold leaf as thin as one micron was produced even in ancient times, and thicker foils or sheets were applied mechanically or with an adhesive to impart a golden surface to a broad range of other materials, including the wood of Hapiankhtifi’s model broad collar dating to Dynasty 12, and the bronze mount of a basalt heart scarab dating to the New Kingdom.

Bes-image of the god Hor-Asha-Khet (4th-2nd Century BCE). This statue has the visual form known for the god Bes, but the form was actually adopted for depictions of numerous other gods, usually ones related to Horus. This association might be related to the protector role of Bes-type demons in relation to the newborn sun. / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain

On the broad collar, the leaf was applied onto a layer of gesso (plaster with an adhesive gum) over linen; on the scarab, a somewhat thicker foil was crimped between the bronze mount and the stone scarab. Gold inlays were also used to enhance works in other media, especially bronze statuary.

Gilded glass earring (1st Century BCE – 1st Century CE). Gilded or silvered glass was especially popular from the mid first century BC to the mid first century AD. Here a gilded bead hangs as a pendant from a hoop with ring beads of granules above and below the bead. / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain

During Ptolemaic and Roman times, gilded glass jewelry was popular in Egypt. A fusion process for gilding silver was developed in the Near East, most likely in Iran. Its probable use in Egypt during the late first millennium B.C. has not yet been well studied; during the Roman Period, mercury gilding, an import from East Asia, became the most common process for gilding silver or cupreous substrates used in the Mediterranean world, and it remained so into early modern times.

Pectoral and Necklace of Sithathoryunet with the Name of Senwosret II (c.1887-1878 BCE).This pectoral is composed around the throne name of King Senwosret II. It was found among the jewelry of Princess Sithathoryunet in a special niche of her underground tomb beside the pyramid of Senwosret II at Lahun. Hieroglyphic signs make up the design, and the whole may be read: “The god of the rising sun grants life and dominion over all that the sun encircles for one million one hundred thousand years [i.e., eternity] to King Khakheperre [Senwosret II].” / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain

Excavations at Dahshur, Lahun, and Hawara in the early twentieth century unearthed much jewelry that belonged to elite women associated with the royal courts of the Dynasty 12 kings Senwosret II and Amenemhat III. Sithathoryunet’s pectoral was made using the cloisonné inlay technique: scores of hammered gold strips known as cloisons, a French word for partitions, form cells on the gold back plate assembled from multiple hammered sheets and several cast elements. The reverse of the back plate was elegantly scored with the same patterns and additional details. The pectoral certainly was valued for its exquisite form and execution, but its function was primarily ritual: inscribed with the name of Senwosret II, it reflects Sithathoryunet’s role in assuring his well-being throughout eternity.

Cylindrical pendant (1887-1425 BCE) / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain

Although gold as a commodity appears to have been largely controlled by the king, Egyptians of less than royal status also owned gold jewelry: Middle Kingdom cylinder amulets often feature granulation, a technique for adding details and creating relief using small metal spheres (granules), here arranged in zigzags. The granules were generally attached using a method known as colloidal hard soldering, which relies on the chemical reduction of a finely ground copper-mineral powder that locally lowers the melting point of adjacent gold surfaces. The ensuing diffusion of gold and copper atoms between the surfaces of the granules and the hammered sheet support creates a physical bond.

Necklace of Gold Ball Beads (c.1981-1975 BCE). Five of Wah’s necklaces were probably worn during his lifetime, although some may have been restrung for his burial. After Wah’s mummy had been partially wrapped, this necklace of gold beads was tied around the neck. / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain

Another important method used to join precious metals in antiquity and in modern times is soldering. In order to carry out this process, an alloy—e.g., the solder—is formulated so as to have a lower melting point than the metals it is intended to join. The solder is hammered into a sheet and cut into minute squares or strips known as paillons. Once placed in strategic locations, the paillons are heated, so that they melt and locally reduce the melting point of adjacent gold surfaces, thereby facilitating diffusion of the molecules between the solder and the components to be joined. A primitive form of soldering has been observed on an early Dynasty 12 gold ball-bead necklace found on the mummy of Wah, and more accomplished work can be observed on the electrum uraeus pendant.

The staggering amount of gold found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, the only ancient Egyptian royal burial to have been found in a relatively intact state, illustrates almost unfathomable wealth, but Egyptologists suspect that the kings who ruled into middle or old age were accompanied into the next life with even more numerous luxury goods. Far less important members of New Kingdom royal families were also interred with lavish gold treasures.

Sandals (c.1479-1425 BCE). These gold sandals belonged to the funerary accoutrements of an Egyptian queen of Thutmose III in the middle of Dynasty 18. Similar gold sandals were found on the mummy of Tutankhamun, one of Thutmose’s descendents who ruled at the end of the same dynasty. / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain
Wide-necked jar and lid naming Thutmose III (c.1479-1425 BCE). In Theban tomb paintings dating to Dynasty 18, servants are sometimes shown anointing guests with perfumed oils and ointments stored in small stone jars. / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain

Three foreign women known to have been minor wives of Thutmose III were interred together with similar assemblages of gold jewelry and various funerary articles. For example, each queen had a pair of gold sandals made of hammered gold sheet with scored decoration on the insole, and cosmetic vessels made from an assortment of stones and other materials fitted with gold sheet.

Statuette of Amun (c.945-712 BCE). The god Amun (“the hidden one”) first came into prominence at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. From the New Kingdom onward, Amun was arguably the most important god in the Egyptian pantheon. As a creator god, Amun is most often identified as Amun-Re (in the typical Egyptian blending of deities, Amun is combined with the main solar deity, Re). / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain

Ancient texts report the vast quantities of statuary of gold, silver, bronze, and other metals that were used in Egyptian temple ritual, but of these only a single gold statue is known to survive. The body of this figure of Amun, minus the arms, was solid cast in a single piece, and the separately cast arms were soldered in place. His regalia was also produced separately: in his right hand he holds a scimitar, in the left an ankh sign, the latter made of numerous components joined using solder. It has been suggested, on technical grounds, that the absence of Amun’s crown, a triple attachment loop, and the statue’s support, each also made separately and originally soldered in place, do not represent ancient damages or the effects of burial, but were removed before the statue was acquired for the Carnarvon Collection in 1917.

Strap chain with one decorated terminal preserved (332-30 BCE). ‘Straps’ consist of two or more loop-in-loop chains fastened side-by-side. This one consists of fourteen chains held together by linking wires at regular intervals. / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain

Wire technology is an essential part of goldworking, especially for jewelry. For example, wires were used to produce surface decoration, often in conjunction with granulation work, and they were applied using the same colloidal hard soldering method. The wires could be twisted, braided, or woven to make chains, and then used structurally to join individual components. The wires themselves were made from tightly twisted metal strips or rods or from square section rods that were hammered to attain roundness. The yards of wire that make up the strap chain fragment were produced using the former method; the wires on the electrum uraeus pendant were hammered.

Collar with medallions containing coins of emperors (c.225 CE). This collar displays medallions containing coins of Emperors Lucius Verus (r. AD 161-169) and Alexander Severus (r. AD 222-235) and of Julia Domna, Wife of Emperor Septimius Severus (r. AD 193-211) and mother of Geta (r. AD 211-212) and Caracalla (r. AD 211-217). / Photo courtesy MMA, Public Domain

In Macedonian, Ptolemaic, and Roman times, jewelry made elsewhere circulated in Egypt, and local production reflects these and other foreign influences. One foreign practice in jewelry design introduced into Egypt during the Roman Period was the incorporation of gold coins—the Egyptian economy was commodity-based until about the time of Alexander the Great—along with the pierced settings framing the coins, which were produced by a typically Roman technique known as opus interassile.

Further Reading

Originally published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, January 2017, under the terms of a Creative Commons 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication license.



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