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Ancient Egyptian foundry workers: The raw materials, the furnace, the melting, the casting, working conditions
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Foundry workers

    Rekhmire's tomb is a treasure trove for the student of ancient crafts. In a wall painting which depicts the sequence of actions performed by foundry workers who are in the process of casting two bronze temple doors.

The raw materials

Carrying bronze ingots     The caption above this picture reads
Carrying asiatic copper which his Majesty has brought after his victory over Retenu in order to cast the two doors of the temple of Amen at Luxor, to cover their surface with gold after the fashion of the horizon. It is the mayor of Thebes and vizier Rekhmire who ordered thus.
Inscription in the tomb of Rekhmire
After a German translation taken from 'Pharaos Volk' by T.G.H.James
    Some of the copper found in the Middle East occurred as natural bronze and contained up to ten percent tin or arsenic [6], which made it excellent for casting. If the tin content is below five percent, the alloy's colour remains copper-red, changes into a golden yellow with more tin added, but begins to lose its brightness above 15% of tin. This change in colour is accompanied by an increase in hardness and a decrease in malleability [1].

 

Charcoal     Copper and bronze, unlike iron, could be melted in the primitive furnaces the ancient Egyptians used. Charcoal, often made of acacia wood [2] was used to heat the metal. Higher temperatures can be attained by burning charcoal rather than wood.

The furnace

Stoking the fire     In order to reach the necessary temperature, ventilation was needed. During the Old Kingdom blowpipes were used for this purpose, tipped with ceramic heads to prevent their burning up. The New Kingdom saw the introduction of bellows made of bowls covered with skins. They were expanded by pulling their top upwards with a string. The air was then expelled by stepping on them.
    Goldsmiths who worked with smaller amounts of metal and thus smaller fires, continued to use blowpipes to heat their raw material in order to increase its malleability.
    Behind the furnace there is a pile of charcoal. A worker is stoking the fire and two others are operating the bellows.

 

Carring air tubes     Despite their ceramic tips, the air pipes degraded quickly in the intense heat and had to be replaced.
    In this picture three workers equipped with tongs are bringing spare parts.
    In order to cast a door requiring large amounts of metal, a number of furnaces had to be kept going. A continuous supply of molten bronze was crucial for the proper execution of the task.

 

Fanning the fire     Two workers are getting the heat up by working the bellows. One doesn't quite know how these worked, but it is supposed that they did not have any air-valves, lessening their efficiency.

 

The melting

Placing the crucible on the fire     A ceramic melting-pot containing bronze ingots is placed on the fire and heated until the metal reaches a temperature higher than 1030°C, the melting point of bronze. [5]

The casting

Lifting the crucible with the molten metal, Source of the photograph:www.ancientegypt.co.uk     The crucible with the molten metal is lifted off the fire with two poles
Casting

 

    and the liquid bronze poured through funnels into the clay mould.

 

Bronze doors     Some think that these scenes depict the casting of bronze sheets used to plate wooden doors with and not solid metal doors. But sheet metal would probably not have any pivots [3]; and why would one cover their surface with gold, as one could gild the wooden doors directly (unless of course the purpose of the bronze was solely to reinforce the wood)? No solid bronze doors have ever been found, but neither have full sized bronze-plated wooden doors.
    More complicated shapes like those of vases, statues and the like were cast using the cire perdue technique: wax was given the desired shape around a core of clay and then everything was covered in clay. By heating the wax was extracted and molten bronze could be poured into the space left.

Working conditions

    Working in a foundry was hard physical labour involving the carrying of heavy loads, often dangerously hot with little safety precautions, and the fanning of furnaces with inefficient bellows near hot open fires. Foundries were perilous, dirty and smelly places, and bestowed only a low social standing on their workers.
I have seen the metal-worker working at the mouth of his furnace; with fingers like the stuff of a crocodile. He stinks more than fish eggs.

 


[3] Egyptian doors did not turn on hinges but rather on pivots for which there were holes in the lintel and threshold stones.
[5] The melting point of bronze depends on the amount and kind of the metals added to the copper. It can be as low as 950°C.
[6] The use of the poisonous arsenic was abandoned by 2000 BCE. People probably noticed that the working of certain alloys over extended periods caused infirmities in foundry workers and smiths.

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-Group of bronze tools for woodworking, New Kingdom (British Museum)
-[1] Copper
-[2] The Emergence of Iron Smelting and Blacksmithing: 900 B. C. to the Early Roman Empire
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