The Egyptian Knowledge of Metallurgy and Metalworking

At an early period, the Egyptians learned how to work metals, and all agree that 5,000 years ago the Ancient Egyptians had already developed the techniques of mining, refining, and metalworking.

Ancient Egypt did not have several kinds of mineral ores, such as silver, copper, tin, lead, etc, even though they produced large quantities of electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), copper, and bronze alloys. The Ancient Egyptians used their expertise to explore for mineral ores in Egypt and in other countries. Ancient Egypt had the means and knowledge to explore for the needed mineral ores, establish mining processes, and transport heavy loads for long distances, by land and sea.

Because of it being the largest and richest population in the ancient world, Egypt imported huge quantities of raw materials, and in return exported large quantities of finished goods. The Ancient Egyptians’ finished metallic and non-metallic products are found in tombs throughout the Mediterranean Basin, European, Asiatic and African countries.

The Egyptians possessed considerable knowledge of chemistry and the use of metallic oxides, as manifested in their ability to produce glass and porcelain in a variety of natural colors. The Ancient Egyptians also produced beautiful colors from copper, which reflects their knowledge of the composition of various metals, and the knowledge of the effects produced on different substances by the earth’s salts. This concurs with our “modern” definition of the subjects of chemistry and metallurgy.

  • Chemistry is the science dealing with the composition and properties of substances, and with the reactions by which substances are produced from or converted into other substances; the application of this to a specified subject or field of activity; the chemical properties, composition, reactions, and uses of a substance.
  • Metallurgy is the science of metal, especially the science of separating metals from their ores and preparing them for use, by smelting, refining, etc. The methods of metalworking: melting, forging, soldering, and chasing of metal, were not only much practiced, but also most highly developed. The frequent references in Ancient Egyptian records of metalworking gives us a truer conception of the importance of this industry in Ancient Egypt.The skill of the Egyptians in compounding metals is abundantly proven by the vases, mirrors, and implements of bronze, discovered at Ta-Apet (Thebes), and other parts of Egypt. They adopted numerous methods for varying the composition of bronze, by a judicious mixture of alloys. They also had the secret of giving a certain degree of elasticity to bronze, or brass blades, as evident in the dagger now housed in the Berlin Museum. This dagger is remarkable for the elasticity of its blade, its neatness and perfection of finish. Many Ancient Egyptian products, now scattered in European museums, contain 10 to 20 parts tin, to 80 and 90 parts copper. Their knowledge of metal ductibility is evident in their ability to manufacture metallic wires and threads. Wire-drawing was achieved with the most ductile metals such as gold and silver, as well as brass and iron. Gold thread and wire were the result of wire-drawing, and there is no instance of them being flattened. Silver wires were found in the tomb of Twt Homosis (Tuthomosis) III, and gold wires were found attached to rings bearing the name of Osirtasen I, who lived 600 years before Twt Homosis III [1490–1436 BCE]. The Egyptians perfected the art of making the thread from metals. It was fine enough for weaving into cloth, and for ornamentation. There exists some Amasis delicate linen, with numerous figures of animals worked in with gold threads, which required a great degree of detail and finesse.The science and technology to manufacture metallic products and goods were known and perfected in Ancient Egypt, which was able to produce numerous metallic alloys in large quantities. Examples of the manifestation of their knowledge are shown next.

Moustafa Gadalla

For more information about the Ancient Egyptian knowledge and practices of various metal compounds, mining activities, etc., refer to:

  • The Ancient Egyptian Culture Revealed, 2nd ed.
  • Egyptian Romany: The Essence of Hispania, 2nd ed.