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Diodorus Siculus on mining in Egypt

    Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BCE, was born in Argyrion, Sicily. His 40 volume history was a compilation of texts taken from various, sometimes suspect sources.
    In his description of Egyptian mining he relied on the accounts of Agatharcides, who had lived in the 2nd century BCE.

    The gold-bearing earth which is hardest they first burn with a hot fire, and when they have crumbled it...they continue the working of it by hand; and the soft rock which can yield to moderate effort is crushed with a sledge by myriads of unfortunate wretches. And the entire operations are in charge of a skilled worker who distinguishes the stone and points it out to the labourers;...the physically strongest break the quartz-rock with iron hammers, applying no skill to the task, but only force.

    The boys there who have not yet come to maturity, entering through the tunnels into the galleries formed by the removal of the rock, laboriously gather up the rock...piece by piece and carry it out into the open to the place outside the entrance. Then those who are above thirty years of age take this quarried stone from them and with iron pestles pound a specified amount of it in stone mortars, until they have worked it down to the size of a vetch.

    Thereupon the women and older men receive from them the rock of this size and cast it into mills of which a number stand there in a row, and taking their places in groups of two or three at the spoke or handle of each mill they grind it until they have worked [it] down...to the consistency of the finest flour.


    In the last steps the skilled workmen receive the stone which has been ground to powder;...they rub [it] upon a broad board which is slightly inclined, pouring water over it all the while; whereupon the earthy matter in it, melted away by the action of the water, runs down the board, while that which contains the gold remains on the wood because of its weight. And repeating this a number of times, they first of all rub it gently with their hands, and then lightly pressing it with sponges of loose texture they remove...whatever is porous and earthy, until there remains only the pure gold-dust.

Translation by C.H. Oldfather
C.H. Oldfather, Diodorus of Sicily, Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 1967.

 


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Go toThe Bir Umm Fawakhir survey - 1995-96 annual report by Carol Meyer
Go toBir Umm Fawakhir: Insights into Ancient Egyptian Mining by Carol Meyer
 

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