|Picture Credit: “jubilation figurines – Pharaoh exhibit – Cleveland Museum of Art” by Tim Evanson is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0|
The source of ancient Egypt’s Copper during a time of turmoil has been uncovered by researchers using lead isotope analysis. A new study published by a team led by Shirly Ben-Dor Evian in the Journal of Archaeological Science reveals that the material found inside four 3,000-year-old bronze funerary figurines called ushabtis, was sourced from the Arabah Region. The inclusion of copper offers potential proof that the civilisation continued to prosper during an understudied era known as the Third Intermediate Period, which ran from 1070 BC to 664 BC. This latest research indicates there was a copper exchange network between the Egyptians and the Arabah Region that continued to operate, even as other nearby empires were collapsing around Egypt.
Because the sampling involved museum artefacts, X-ray imaging was performed to avoid sampling of any later metallic modifications and ensure the correct sampling process.
In the view of Erez Ben-Yosef, professor at the J. M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, Tel Aviv University, the ‘studies constitute an important step forward in current knowledge on copper provenance and the subsequent economic, social and cultural insights into ancient Egypt.’ 
The discovery that early Egyptian copper came from local sources is not a surprise to the researchers, “It is a very important step in the scientific process to validate this analytically, as it allows us to deepen our understanding of how metallurgical technology evolved in Egypt,” said archaeological scientist Frederik Rademakers from Belgium’s Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.
The studies found that mining practices changed over time. Copper from items in the tomb of King Khasekhemwy, who ruled during the Early Dynastic Period and was buried in Abydos, about 170 kilometres north of Luxor, came from many sources in the Eastern Desert and the Sinai, for example. Copper artefacts from the later Old Kingdom tombs at Giza in northern Egypt were made only from Eastern Desert ores.
What is Copper?
Copper is a reddish-gold coloured metal that’s ductile, malleable and an effective conductor of heat and electricity. It combines well with other metals to form widely used alloys such as brass and bronze.
- Copper is considered a base metal, as it oxidises relatively easily. It has the symbol Cu.
- The name is derived from the Latin aes Cyprium, meaning ore from Cyprus.
- The discovery that copper could be alloyed with tin to form bronze gave rise to the Bronze Age.
- Copper was the first metal to be worked by man, along with gold and meteoritic iron, because these metals were among the few that exist in their native state, meaning the relatively pure metal could be found in nature.
- Brasses and Bronzes are probably the best-known families of copper-base alloys. Brasses are mainly copper and zinc. Bronzes are mainly copper along with alloying elements such as tin, aluminium, silicon or beryllium.
The use of copper dates back more than 10,000 years. Ötzi the Iceman (3300 BC) was found with an axe head consisting of nearly pure copper. His hair contained high levels of the toxin arsenic, which may indicate he had been exposed to the element during copper smelting. If you’d like to know about Ötzi, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll send a paper to you that I have written about him and his murder.
The oldest artefacts made with copper date back to the Neolithic period, being used for jewellery, tools, sculpture, bells, vessels, lamps and death masks, amongst other things.
In terms of human development, so important was it that it gave its name to the Copper Age, today better known as the Chalcolithic. From Phoenicia to Mesoamerica, Copper was a badge of elite status before becoming more widely available. It was a handy form of exchange in the trade between cultures. Eventually, copper symbolic goods were replaced by more manageable ingots, which evolved into even more convenient coins.
Gold and silver may have been common enough for the rich and powerful, but if there was one pure metal that ordinary people in the ancient world could get their hands on, it was copper. The legendary copper mines of King Solomon helped build the fortunes of Israel.
From at least the Old Kingdom, the Egyptians exploited mines in the eastern deserts. From the Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BC), the gold deposits of Lower Nubia were exploited. The New Kingdom followed the Middle Kingdom.
Ben-Dor Evian, is a curator of Egyptian archaeology at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. She collaborated on the project with researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Geological Survey of Israel. She noted that the research would aid in identifying materials from the Timna and Feynan copper mines that date back to the Third Intermediate Period.
Ushabtis were common grave goods in ancient Egypt. They were believed to perform any labour required in the afterlife on behalf of the deceased. The four royal ushabtis, examined by Ben-Dor Evian and her team, and currently housed at the Israel Museum, were recovered from Tanis, the Pharaoh’s capital, and date to the reign of Psusennes I, who ruled from 1056 to 1010 BC.
The Third Intermediate Period was a time of uncertainty and divided rule for Egypt, which faced multiple invasions and political upheaval, with a split kingdom ruled by the Pharaoh in Lower Egypt and a high priest in Upper Egypt. Despite this, Psusennes imported copper from the thriving industry in Arabah, and these ties may have even allowed metal art to flourish in Egypt during this time.
The Early Egyptians
Owing to its seclusion in the Nile Valley, coupled with its unbroken history ranging over more than five millennia, Egypt has provided more relics of its early civilisation than any other country; and despite the difficulties in deciphering the hieroglyphics and the later hieratic writing, an enormous amount is known both about the country’s political history and how the various classes of the people lived. The outstanding fact concerning metallurgical development is that copper was the basic material from the beginning to the end of their first three thousand years and occupied a position similar to iron in modern technology.
From the earliest Dynasties onwards, Egypt developed a very high degree of civilisation, and the exploitation of metals-copper, bronze and precious metals such as gold and silver, was an essential part of their culture. The Egyptians first made considerable improvements over the Mesopotamian technique, and then, apparently being satisfied that they had reached the summit of human excellence, they continued the same practices, century after century, so that only by reference to the king concerned can distinction be made between articles which may differ in age by a thousand years or more. This stolid conservatism is unique in the world’s history.
The first metal used by ancient Egyptians
Copper was the first metal used by ancient Egyptians. They mined the metal up to 5,000 years ago and the oldest Egyptian artefacts made of copper date to the early 4th century and consist of beads and small tools. Copper was rarely found in a pure state, often containing small amounts of zinc, iron, or arsenic. Eventually, the Egyptian people began deliberately mixing tin with copper to make bronze, a much stronger metal.
Copper objects of the era were often cast, which was a difficult process due to bubble formation during the pouring of the metal. The Egyptian people learned that hammering copper increased its hardness but could lead to the metal becoming more brittle. They combatted the brittleness by annealing or tempering, which involved heating the metal to soften it slightly. These techniques were used to make weapons, tools, vessels, statues, and ornaments out of copper.
How did ancient Egyptians discover that Malachite and Azurite contained copper?
It is unknown exactly how the Egyptians discovered that malachite and azurite contain copper, but there are a couple of possibilities. Egyptians used malachite as a pigment and cosmetic, including as a distinctive eyeliner. While a normal open fire would not reach the temperatures required to melt bulk malachite, in powder form it is possible that accidentally putting Malachite powder on the coals of the fire could produce small balls of copper.
A second, and more likely, possibility centres around the Egyptians using malachite as a pottery glaze. Small balls of copper could have been formed in the pottery kiln during firing, and then noticed by kiln workers after cooling.
Egyptian Copper Smelting Process
The Egyptian copper smelting process used a ’bowl furnace’ which was supplied additional air, to raise the temperature of the fire through the usage of foot bellows. Malachite and azurite were used as a source ore for the copper, charcoal was used as the reducing agent to separate oxygen from the copper, and iron ore was used as the ‘flux’ to bind and float away impurities.
Copper’s advantage over bone, wood, or flint, as a tool or weapon, is that it can be repaired when damaged. However, like most pure metals (metals with a low level of impurities), copper is soft. It turns out that intentionally or unintentionally, adding another soft metal in small amounts can make the host material stronger and harder. This process is called alloying.
According to the Hebrew Bible, Shishak (aka Shishaq, Shoshek or Susac) was an Egyptian pharaoh who sacked Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE. He is usually identified as being the Pharaoh Shoshenq I. Shishak’s campaign against the Kingdom of Judah and his sack of Jerusalem are recounted in the Hebrew Bible, in 1 Kings 14:25 and 2 Chronicles 12:1-12.
According to these accounts, Shishak had provided refuge to Jeroboam during the later years of Solomon’s reign, and upon Solomon’s death, Jeroboam became king of the tribes in the north, which separated from Judah to become the Kingdom of Israel. In the fifth year of Rehoboam’s reign, commonly dated ca. 926 BC, Shishak swept through Judah with a powerful army of 60,000 horsemen and 1,200 chariots, supporting Jeroboam. According to 2 Chronicles 12:3, he was supported by the Lubim (Libyans), the Sukkiim, and the Kushites (“Ethiopians” in the Septuagint – the earliest surviving Greek translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew bible).
Shishak took away treasures of the Temple of Yahweh and the king’s house and shields of gold which Solomon had made – Rehoboam replaced them with brass ones. According to the Second Chronicles, when ‘Shishak king of Egypt attacked Jerusalem, he carried off the treasures of the Temple of the Lord and the treasures of the royal palace. He took everything, including the gold shields Solomon had made.’
Flavius Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews adds to this a contingent of 400,000 foot soldiers. According to Josephus, his army met with no resistance throughout the campaign, taking Rehoboam’s most fortified cities “without fighting”. Finally, he conquered Jerusalem without resistance, because “Rehoboam was afraid.” Shishak did not destroy Jerusalem but forced King Rehoboam of Judah to strip the Temple and his treasury of their gold and movable treasures.
You may remember that Shishak is mentioned in Steven Spielberg’s film Raiders of the Lost Ark as the Pharaoh who seized the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple of Solomon during his raids on Jerusalem and hid it in the Well of Souls in Tanis.
Sources and Further Reading
- Thesis: The Relative Value and Role of Copper within an Egyptian New Kingdom Economic Context, was submitted to the American University in Cairo by Daniel Shay Matthew Johnsen, under the supervision of Dr Salima Ikram, at: https://fount.aucegypt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1705&context=etds
Egyptian Artefacts. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece.
The Araba Region is the wide desert valley that forms the modern border between Israel and Jordan. ↑
Phoenicia was an ancient thalassocratic civilization originating in the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean, primarily located in modern Lebanon. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenicia ↑
Mesoamerica is a historical region and cultural area in southern North America and most of Central America. It extends from approximately central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesoamerica ↑
In ancient Egyptian history, the Old Kingdom is the period spanning c. 2700–2200 BC. It is also known as the “Age of the Pyramids” or the “Age of the Pyramid Builders”, as it encompasses the reigns of the great pyramid-builders of the Fourth Dynasty, such as King Sneferu, who perfected the art of pyramid-building, and the kings Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, who constructed the pyramids at Giza. Egypt attained its first sustained peak of civiliation during the Old Kingdom, the first of three so-called “Kingdom” periods (followed by the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom), which mark the high points of civilization in the lower Nile Valley. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Kingdom_of_Egypt ↑
The Middle Kingdom of Egypt (also known as The Period of Reunification) is the period in the history of ancient Egypt following a period of political division known as the First Intermediate Period. The Middle Kingdom lasted from approximately 2040 to 1782 BC, stretching from the reunification of Egypt under the reign of Mentuhotep II in the Eleventh Dynasty to the end of the Twelfth Dynasty. The kings of the Eleventh Dynasty ruled from Thebes and the kings of the Twelfth Dynasty ruled from el-Lisht. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_Kingdom_of_Egypt ↑
The New Kingdom, also referred to as the Egyptian Empire, is the period in ancient Egyptian history between the 16th century BC and the 11th century BC, covering the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth dynasties of Egypt. Radiocarbon dating places the exact beginning of the New Kingdom between 1570 BC and 1544 BC. The New Kingdom followed the Second Intermediate Period and was succeeded by the Third Intermediate Period. It was Egypt‘s most prosperous time and marked the peak of its power. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Kingdom_of_Egypt ↑
In the very early years after the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs, on chronological, historical, and linguistic grounds, nearly all Egyptologists identified Shishak with Shoshenq I of the 22nd Dynasty, who invaded Canaan following the Battle of Bitter Lakes. ↑
It has been claimed that the numbers of Egyptian soldiers given in Chronicles can be “safely ignored as impossible” on Egyptological grounds; similarly, the numbers of chariots reported in 2 Chronicles is likely exaggerated by a factor of ten—leading 60,000 horses through the Sinai and Negev would have been logistically impossible and no evidence of Egyptian cavalry exists from before the 27th Dynasty. The treasures taken by Shishak are also highly unlikely. ↑
Antiquities of the Jews is a 20-volume historiographical work, written in Greek, by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in the 13th year of the reign of Roman emperor Flavius Domitian which was around AD 93 or 94. Antiquities of the Jews contains an account of history of the Jewish people for Josephus’ gentile patrons. In the first ten volumes, Josephus follows the events of the historical books of the Hebrew Bible beginning with the creation of Adam and Eve. ↑