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Ancient Egyptian mining: copper, gold, silver, iron, precious stones, salt, natron, galena, alum
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map of quarries and mines

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Mining

    With the Nile cutting through various rock formations, Egyptian quarries are often close to the river. Metal and precious stones on the other hand were found mostly in the desert, where living conditions were difficult and the security situation often precarious [6].
    Work in the mines was therefore often seasonal. Harurre, treasurer of the god and master of the double cabinet arrived at Maghara in the summer, in his words not the season for going to this Mine-land
This treasurer of the god saith to the officials who shall come to this Mine-land at this season: "Let not our faces flinch on that account; behold, Hathor will turn it to profit. I looked to myself, and I dealt (i.e. struggled) with myself; when I came from Egypt, my face flinched, and it was hard for me [........]. The highlands are hot in summer, and the mountains brand the skin [...]. When morning dawns, a man is [... ...]. I addressed the workmen concerning it: 'How favored is he who is in this Mine-land!' They said: 'There is malachite in this eternal mountain; it is [...] to seek (it) at this season. It is [...] to [...] for it in this evil summer-season.' "
From the Inscription of Harurre (Middle Kingdom)
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 736
    After abandoning Maghara they began to exploit the mines at Serabit el Khadim some fifteen kilometres away. Harurre, at least, thought his expedition a success and prided himself on his treatment of his workforce
.... I led my army very kindly, and I was not loud-voiced toward the workmen. I acted before all the army and the recruits, and they rejoiced in me, ... official ........
From the Inscription of Harurre (Middle Kingdom)
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 738
Even early on, but less frequently than in later times, the miners were according to Ptahhotep seemingly slaves -
Good words are more difficult to find than the emerald, for it is by slaves that that is discovered among the rocks of pegmatite.
From the Precepts of Ptah-hotep, 5th dynasty
- convicted criminals and prisoners of war according to Diodorus Siculus, as few people chose to work under the often appalling conditions which were prevalent in the mining regions of Sinai and the deserts of Egypt.
 
Serabit el Khadim as seen from the west, source: Rafael Giveon: The stones of Sinai speak     Output quota were set by officials, who, like the treasurer of the god Amenemhet, were sent by the government to Serabit el Khadim

Serabit el Khadim as seen from the west
Source: Rafael Giveon, The Stones of Sinai Speak

I came to the mine of Ka (seemingly the supervisor of the mine); I exacted the impost, I attended to the levying of the impost of malachite, being [...] for [every] 5 men every day correctly [... ... ...].
From the Inscription of Amenemhet (Middle Kingdom)
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 731
    Whenever possible, overland routes to the mining areas were avoided. Donkey caravans were slow, difficult to supply with provisions, and had to be accompanied by sizable military forces for protection against marauding bedouins. Harnakht, a treasury official of Amenemhet III, used ships on his way to Wadi Maghara in the south-west of the Sinai peninsula.
Year 2 under the majesty of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Nematre (Amenemhet III), living forever. The chosen before his subjects, who treads the path of his benefactor, (says): "I crossed over the sea, bearing luxuries, by commission of Horus, lord of the palace (Pharaoh)."
Official of the treasury, chief fowler, Harnakht; his beautiful name, Harnetamehu.
The Inscription of Harnakht (ca. 1843 BCE)
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 718
Plan of the temple at Serabit el Khadim, source: Rafael Giveon: The stones of Sinai speak

Plan of the temple at Serabit el Khadim
Source: Rafael Giveon, The Stones of Sinai Speak

    The good-will of the gods was of importance to the Egyptians, who often built shrines near the mines. Sanctuaries of Hathor, the major protectress of miners, have been found at Timna in the Negev, in the Sinai desert at Serabit el Khadim, and other places. Ameni, who led a small expedition of about thirty men to Wadi Maghara in the 42nd year of Amenemhet III's reign, left an inscription
....
The treasurer, assistant of the chief treasurer, Sesostris--seneb-Sebekkhi, favorite of Hathor, mistress of the malachite country, of Soped, lord of the east, of Snefru, lord of the highlands, and of the gods and goddesses who are in this land. There were made for Hathor, all beautiful (mine-)chambers.
....
From the Inscription of Ameni (ca. 1803 BCE)
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 722f
and Sebek-hir-hab brought for her (i.e. Hathor's) offering-tables of mesnet stone, linen ...... and presented to her divine offerings, bulls, [fowl] ....... despite the obvious difficulties encountered when transporting live animals to such remote and waterless places.
 
    But such provisions were seemingly not extraordinary. An inscription of monthly supplies to some mine included 23 large and small cattle, 2 wAD-fowl, 30 mnj.t-geese [11]
    Water was difficult to come by. Pharaoh Seti had a well dug at the foot of the Bekhen Mountains to solve the water problem in the Wadi Hammamat
The god fulfilled my wish. For me water broke out of the mountain. The path which had been cruel to all since the days of the gods is now soft and easy in the days of my reign.
Some settlements don't seem to have had any local water supply whatsoever, and water had to be transported from often brackish wells several kilometres away [1].

Copper

    Copper is probably the first metal to be worked in Egypt during the Neolithic (6th millennium BCE). It was found in ores containing 10 to 12% copper, which had to be smelted. Crucibles found at the mines indicate that the art of extracting the metal included some refining. At first it had to be worked cold as the necessary heat could not be achieved to melt and cast the copper droplets produced.
    The Wadi Maghara region was conquered by Djoser and exploitation of the ore seems to have begun during the third dynasty, though some experts claim there was never enough copper there to be exploited. There are traces of copper working at Buhen dating from the 4th and 5th dynasties. The ore in the Eastern Desert became available to the Egyptians during the Middle Kingdom.
    The copper mines in the Sinai desert were the aim of the first major Egyptian forays abroad and an important reason for imperial expansion into southern Canaan later. Since the 18th dynasty Egypt controlled this deserted region, thus breaking the monopoly the town of Arad had exercised over the locally extracted copper.
    Copper was generally mined under dreadful conditions. The miners were the least fortunate captives from Egypt's wars of expansion, enslaved and worked to death in the mines in western Sinai, Timna and other locations in the Arabah Valley, which stretches from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Dead Sea.
    A slag-heap in the Sinai desert has been estimated to contain 100,000 tons of dross, which would have meant a yield of about 5,500 t of copper. The amount of copper the Egyptians produced annually was about four tons during the Bronze Age. This quantity is quite small compared to the 17 tons extracted yearly in the eastern Alps during the same period. Therefore, considerable quantities of copper had to be imported from Syria, Cyprus and other countries of the region.

    Tin, a necessary ingredient for bronze, was not mined in Egypt and had to be imported from Syria.

Iron

    Existing iron ore deposits were not exploited in ancient Egypt until the Late Period, but the metal was occasionally found in its meteoric form and put to use as early as the 4th millennium BCE. The Egyptians called it biat or bia-n-pet (bjA-n-p.t), meaning ore of the heavens (which seems to suggest knowledge about the composition of the heavenly bodies the ancient Egyptians were not likely to have had) or the name may be derived from the bia mining region in the Eastern Desert.

Gold

    In the Treasury at Medinet Habu there is a depiction of eight sacks, each bearing an inscription:
  1. Gold of Kush
  2. Gold, 1000 deben
  3. Gold of the mountains
  4. Gold of the water, 1000 deben
  5. Gold of Edfu
  6. Gold of Ombos, 1000 deben
  7. Gold of Coptos
  8. Lapis lazuli of Tefrer [10]
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 30
    Gold was one of the first metals to be exploited. The gold of the mountains, as the scribes of Ramses III called it, was found mainly in the Eastern Desert and Nubia. The Koptos gold for instance was mined in the Bekhen mountains. Seti gave these mines to a small temple he had built and dedicated to Amen, Re, Osiris and a number of other gods. The workers mining the gold, the "flesh of the gods", for the temple were exempt from any other work.
    In the Wadi Hammamat where gold-containing quartz was found, the underground quartz veins were mined by crushing the rock before the gold could be extracted. This required a great deal of manpower, provisioned only with difficulty in these deserted regions. Other pharaohs tried to follow Seti's example by excavating wells in various location, with little success. Another attempt of Seti I resulted in a dry well 120 cubits deep which was abandoned. Only the perseverance of his son Ramses II brought success.
    Agatharchides' description dates from the second century BCE and is reported by Diodorus Siculus
The galleries which they dig ... are not straight, but run in the direction of the metal containing vein, and as the workers are in the dark in these winding tunnels, they carry torches which are affixed to their foreheads ... non nubile children enter these underground galleries ... and lift with great pains the loosened chunks of ore and carry them outside.
    Before smashing the stone it was heated making it brittle and then broken up with stone hammers and in later times with iron chisels. The oval stone hammers were about twenty centimetres long, made of basalt or diorite and weighed from one to three kilogrammes. A wooden handle was inserted in a deep groove and fastened to it. The chunks of ore were smashed with small hammers and ground in mills similar to corn mills. The resulting dust was then washed and the metal extracted.
    In Nubia two such installations for extracting gold were discovered. The ore was spread on declining surfaces, and the gold washed out which was then caught in some sort of sieve. Greek sources speak of sheep fleeces being used for this purpose. Wall reliefs dating from 2300 BCE show stages of refining and working of gold.
Part of a map of a gold mining region; Source: Petrie _A History of Egypt_ Part 3     The oldest map of a mine in existence - possibly dating to the Ramesside period - is that of a gold mine. It shows mountain ranges separated by parallel valleys, joined by a winding valley. A water cistern is marked, as is a stela of Seti I. Opposite these two landmarks are the openings of four galleries, further mine shafts are marked in the adjacent hill.
 
    Gold also occurred in alluvial placers - the gold of the water - and naturally formed deposits underground. The alluvial elemental gold was gained by washing away the lighter sand particles with water and then melting the remaining gold particles.[2]
I speak as follows in assigning my troop of gold-washers to my temple. They are appointed to transport to my House [in Abydos to furnish gold to] my sanctuary.
Dedication inscription of Seti I in the rock temple of Wadi Mia
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature Volume II, p.54
    Egyptian gold was pure to a degree of between 17 and 23½ carats. The annual production of gold during pharaonic times is thought not to have exceeded one ton. In comparison, Spain, a major producing centre in Roman times shipped 1400 tons of gold to Rome. This amount is based on the quantity of slag left over in Spanish production centres and the assumption that 3 grammes of gold were extracted from one ton of ore.

Silver

    In Egypt generally an adjunct of gold, silver was in the very early days of metal working rarer and dearer than the gold itself, later, during the New Kingdom, its value was about half of that of gold. If the silver content of the gold-silver alloy was higher than 20% it affected the golden sheen of the metal which was called electrum. By 200 BCE the Egyptians had learned to purify the gold-silver alloy, which generally contained between 10 and 20% silver, with salt to remove the silver.

Precious stones

    The Sinai malachite (sehmet) and turquoise (mafaket) deposits have attracted miners since the sixth millennium BCE. Near Serabit el-Khadim, a few kilometres inland from the western cost of the Sinai peninsula, turquoise deposits were discovered by the middle of the fourth millennium BCE and taken over by the Egyptians a few centuries later. Following the turquoise veins they excavated large galleries in the sandstone, supported the roof with pillars and carved at the entrance reliefs of the Pharaoh into the rock. In winter, the rainy season, water was conducted into the mine in order to extract the stones. The mining at the site ended in about 1000 BCE.

    According to Pliny's Natural History, 37.17, emeralds were extracted from the hills in the vicinity of Coptos, a city of Thebais as was charchedonia, possibly Egyptian jasper (ibidem 37.30); amethyst, beryl, possibly lapis lazuli [9] and other precious or semi-precious stones were also mined and worked.

Salts and other minerals

    Cooking salt (Sodium chloride) was procured by the evaporation of seawater in shallow lagoons on the Mediterranean coast. There were also salt deposits in the Western and Eastern Deserts [4].
    Natron [5], a naturally occurring sodium carbonate (generally netjeriMdC transliteration nTrj– in ancient Egyptian or in granulated form bed–MdC transliteration bd), was found in a deposit 20 metres below sea level in the Wadi al-Natrun[7] halfway between Cairo and Alexandria and as 'southern natron' at el Kab. It was used mainly for cleaning, in mummification and as offering.[8]
    Sal ammoniac was said to have been made from camels' dung in the oasis of Siwah, where there was a temple of Amen.
    Alum (MdC transliteration jbn.w), a mordant for dying cloth, was found in the oases of Dakla and Kharga in the Western Desert.
    Galena (Lead sulfide) used in cosmetics, was mined at Gebel Rasas. -

 


[  ] Source of the partial map of a gold mine: Petrie A History of Egypt Part 3
[2] Ancient peoples also seem to have used fleeces for capturing gold particles, as appears to be implied in the Myth of Jason and the Argonauts[3]
[4] Pliny the Elder reports:
King Ptolemaes discovered salt also in the vicinity of Pelusium, when he encamped there; a circumstance which induced other persons to seek and discover it in the scorched tracts that lie between Egypt and Arabia, beneath the sand.
.....
On the shores of Egypt, salt is formed by the overflow of the sea upon the land, already prepared for its reception, in my opinion, by the emanations of the river Nilus. It is made here, also, from the water of certain wells, discharged into salt-pans.
Pliny, Natural History, Book XXXI, chapter 39 - (eds. John Bostock, H.T. Riley)
[5] Pliny refers to Egyptian nitrum, which is possibly potash or soda, its production and uses, at some length in his Natural History.
[7] referred to in the Pyramid Texts (Pyramid of Unas, PT 35, line 18a): Northern Natron, 5 pellets (from) S.t-p.t, S.t-p.t (Shetpet) standing for either the Wadi Natrun itself or its main town.
[8] A list of offerings on the coffin of Henti or Henet, CG 28006, found at Ahmmim, contains such items as incense, water, metal, a psesh-kef and natron
Upper Egyptian Natron, pellets (from El Kab): 5
Lower Egyptian Natron, pellets (from) Shet-pet: 5
After a transliteration and German translation by A. Burkhardt ed. on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Achmim => Felsgra"bernekropole von El-Hawawisch => einzelne Objekte => Särge im Kairo-Museum => Sarg der Henti/Henet, CG 28006 => Opferformeln und Opferliste => Opferliste (auf Seite 4) => 1. Register
[9] According to Lucas Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries p.398f., lapis lazuli does not appear to occur in Egypt, but its early and extensive use has led some to believe that it may be native to the country after all.
[10] Unknown locality, tentatively identified by P. Montet as Sippar.
[11] James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, §729

 Diodorus Siculus on mining in EgyptDiodorus Siculus on mining in Egypt
Hammamat inscriptionsHammamat inscriptions
Letter by Ramses-nakht concerning supplies for the troops protecting  gold miners in Nubia[6] Letter by Ramses-nakht concerning supplies for the troops protecting gold miners in Nubia
-Inscriptions of the gold mines at Rhedesieh and Kuban
 
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These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites.

 

Sites in the Eastern Desert during the Ptolemaic Period[1] Sites in the Eastern Desert during the Ptolemaic Period
Jason and the Argonauts[3] Jason and the Argonauts
El-Markha Plain ProjectArchaeological Excavations in Egypt - SEPE: Survey and Excavation Projects in Egypt: El-Markha Plain Project
Bir Umm Fawakhir: Insights into Ancient Egyptian MiningBir Umm Fawakhir: Insights into Ancient Egyptian Mining
Serabit El KhadimSerabit El Khadim
Timna: Valley of the Ancient Copper MinesTimna: Valley of the Ancient Copper Mines
Mines in ancient EgyptMines in ancient Egypt

 

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