Invisible Connections of the Copper from Ancient Egypt and Nubia

Martin Odler (Charles University, Prague) and Jiří Kmošek (Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna) present ‘invisible connections’ between copper artefacts from Ancient Egypt and Nubia through archaeometallurgical analysis of the Bronze Age metalwork from the Egyptian Museum of the University of Leipzig.

Our latest book Invisible Connections, published with Archaeopress, gives voice to the ancient Egyptian metal artefacts as historical sources of their own nature. Egyptology is heavily focused on the texts and images of this ancient civilization, to the detriment of other valuable information from the past. Our aim was to demonstrate what can be found out from the artefacts in a museum, with a little sampling and wide application of archaeometallurgical methods, as alluded to in the book’s subtitle: An Archaeometallurgical Analysis of the Bronze Age Metalwork from the Egyptian Museum of the University of Leipzig. It does not mean that science can fully replace the traditionally used evidence, but that the texts and iconography can be enriched by these “invisible connections” preserved in the ancient objects.

How did the book come about?

Figure 1: Exhibited copper alloy finds in the Egyptian Museum of the University of Leipzig before the World War II, ÄMUL Fotothek 2130, Karton 13, photo by Friedrich Koch © Ägyptisches Museum – Georg Steindorff – der Universität Leipzig

The Egyptian Museum of the University of Leipzig has the largest university collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts in continental Europe (Fig. 1). It includes important objects from the excavations of the most prolific excavator among the museum’s curators, Georg Steindorff (1861–1951), at the famous Egyptian and Nubian sites of Abusir, Aniba, and Giza, complemented by several objects from Abydos, Thebes, Kerma, and other sites (Fig. 2).

Figure 2: Provenance of the analysed artefacts, mapped on the background from Natural Earth by Martin Odler in qGIS.

Readers of the Archaeopress blog will remember a post about the book Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools, authored by Martin Odler, in 2016. Our research in Leipzig started already then, kindly supported by the curator of the collection, Dr Dietrich Raue. In 2018, results of the Third Millennium BC material of Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, and discussed here on the Archaeopress blog as well. The most surprising finding was a 5,000-year-old bowl from the Egyptian site of Abusir, made of arsenical copper mixed with nickel, peculiar material occurring concurrently in Anatolia. Lead isotope ratios from the sampled artefacts corroborated this exceptionally early connection between Egypt and Anatolia. Our book contains also new material and more about it is revealed in the following lines.

What is inside?

The book presents the results of an interdisciplinary project by Egyptologist Martin Odler, archaeometalurgist Jiří Kmošek and other specialists. A selection of 86 artefacts was analysed using a range of archaeometallurgical methods (X-ray fluorescence; metallography; neutron activation analysis; lead isotope analysis), providing a diachronic sample of Bronze Age Egyptian copper alloy metalwork from Dynasty 1 to Dynasty 19 (thus covering largely Third and Second Millennium BC). Genuine interdisciplinarity arises from the dialogue of the various specialization of researchers, respecting diverse expressions of divergent strands of evidence. Besides the currently popular focus on the provenance of ores, the selection of the applied methods is also aimed at the description of practical physical properties of the objects. The question of differences between full-size functional artefacts and models is addressed, as is the problem of ‘imports’ and their ‘ethnic’ interpretation.

Figure 3: Aniba, Cemetery N, stone tumuli of the C-Group, photo Friedrich Koch © Ägyptisches Museum – Georg Steindorff – der Universität Leipzig.

The crucial new contents of the book represent 40 analysed objects from the ancient Lower Nubian site of Aniba, in antiquity called Miam. It was one of the most important centres of the indigenous Nubian C-Group culture (Fig. 3). Then, it became a local centre of Egyptian “empire” in the New Kingdom, selected as the “colonial” capital of Lower Nubia. The corpus represents the largest analysed assemblage of copper alloy metalwork from ancient Nubia. Nubian copper alloy metalwork is not well researched. Neither of the latest handbooks of ancient Nubia (de Gruyter and Oxford) contain a specific chapter on it. However, our book builds on the latest research of the ceramics from Aniba, which radically changes the understanding of the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom local chronology. Especially New Kingdom contexts from Aniba were heavily disturbed and mixed, long discussions of archaeological contexts and artefact parallels were needed in order to date the artefacts more precisely, establishing early New Kingdom dating for most of them. This is a reason why the book’s presentation of these results precedes any publication in a journal focused on archaeometry. Archaeology could not be omitted from the comprehension of the data. In the tough word-limits of the journals these facets could have been lost, buried in the online supplementary material, where nobody would read it or could properly react. The devil, and the proper contextual interpretation, was in the detail.

What is new in the book?

Old truths of Nubian and Egyptian archaeology are being shaken, and we hope that our research will contribute to this re-evaluation (however, out of necessity, the traditional terms are being used before the new ones will arise.) Just briefly summing up the most important results, copper alloy metalwork from the tumuli of Nubian C-Group can be dated earlier than previously thought, to the Twelfth (and Thirteenth) Dynasty of Egypt (c. 1939 – 1630 BC). Among the 10 analysed objects from the C-Group (and one Pan Grave tumulus) are three tin bronzes, which is unexpectedly high number for such early Middle Bronze Age sites. Especially battle axe ÄMUL 4697 becomes one of the earliest known tin bronzes of the Middle Kingdom (or even First Intermediate Period) Egypt (Fig. 4).

Figure 4: Full-size functional battle axe with haft ÄMUL 4697, drawn by Martin Černý based on drawing by Martin Odler © Faculty of Arts, Charles University, Czech Institute of Egyptology.
Figure 5: Dagger ÄMUL 3791 before the World War II, photo Friedrich Koch © Ägyptisches Museum – Georg Steindorff – der Universität Leipzig.

These objects were most probably imports as they have “Egyptian” forms, but it is hard to tell whether they were made in Egypt or in Nubia. The copper used was already mixed from various sources, e.g. Sinai and perhaps already Cyprus. The mixing of various sources of scrap metal was demonstrated for New Kingdom Egypt, our findings push similar use but of a different mixed copper one kingdom earlier – to the Middle Kingdom. Nevertheless, there are some unequivocal pieces of evidence that local copper ore from Nubia was used as well, and that metalwork from Nubia is slightly different from “regular” Egyptian products. Making these objects in Nubia, by Egyptians or Nubians trained in Egyptian metallurgy, cannot be ruled out. In our corpus one dagger from Upper Nubian Kerma was present, from very late Second Intermediate Period (c. 1539 BC; Fig. 5, 6). The only similar published lead isotope ratios of this dagger can be identified in the unmixed copper ore from the island of Cyprus (Fig. 7). Being a sole specimen, we cannot infer much more from it and we need to wait for more results of the studies of Kerman metalwork.

Figure 6: Left: full-size functional dagger blade ÄMUL 3791, photo by Jiří Kmošek Metallic microstructure of ÄMUL 3791 a: on back scattered electron image, author Jiří Kmošek; b: on optical microscope image, photo by Jiří Kmošek © Faculty of Arts, Charles University, Czech Institute of Egyptology.
Figure 7: Comparison of lead isotopic data of the studied artefacts from the Kerma culture and New Kingdom with ores, artefacts and slags from Cyprus, Lavrion, Anatolia, Timna and Feinan, Saudi Arabian Shield, Eastern Desert and Sinai Peninsula; references to the source data can be found in the text; visualization by Jiří Kmošek.

Another intriguing finding from our corpus is the ubiquity of tin bronzes used for the production of all forms of analysed objects in early New Kingdom, early Eighteenth Dynasty (c. 1539–1292 BC). The use of tin bronze was demonstrated for the metalwork of Amarna, but earlier well-dated substantial New Kingdom evidence was lacking. Interestingly, many artefacts from Aniba have their northernmost parallels in the Theban area. In addition to ceramics, which was similar to Thebes already in the Second Intermediate Period, this is another strand of evidence, connecting Aniba with Thebes, capital of all New Kingdom Egypt. The only analysed artefact from the Theban area in our corpus, model saw blade of Queen Hatshepsut, was made of New Kingdom mixed copper metal (Fig. 8). This mixed metal was also found in the bulk of the New Kingdom objects from Aniba. But we cannot yet definitely tell if the objects themselves were made in Thebes or in Aniba from this imported material (the latter being more probable option).

Figure 8: Model saw blade from the foundation deposit of Queen Hatshepsut ÄMUL 5075, drawn by Martin Černý based on drawing by Martin Odler © Faculty of Arts, Charles University, Czech Institute of Egyptology.
Figure 9: Full-size mirror disc with caryatid handle ÄMUL 2178, photo by Jiří Kmošek © Faculty of Arts, Charles University, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

Some remarkable objects were made of imported copper from Cyprus, without mixing with other sources, and these were also identified at Aniba. Surprisingly, not only there, at the cemetery of the capital of Lower Nubia. Intriguing is a rather humble pit burial from Egyptian Abusir, in the vicinity of Lake Abusir, which contained a ring with a cartouche of Thutmosis III, and now we know that also a mirror made of Cypriot copper (Fig. 9). What was the “biography” of the individual or the copper mirror buried there, we can only guess, but imports of copper from Cyprus are known from the reign of Thutmosis III. Thus, texts can be complemented by the archaeometallurgical information and the material can be tracked down even to the graves, which are otherwise not remarkable from the point of view of “big” history/archaeology. You could once read in an article on New Kingdom Nubia: “It is almost impossible to distinguish the imported objects from those locally made, and to use criteria of ‘quality’ is totally inadequate”. We have tried to demonstrate that both issues can be clarified if we listened to scientists.

Who is this book for?

Metal artefacts are often perceived in Egyptological research as mere illustrations of information gathered from the texts, reliefs and paintings, with a few notable exceptions in the literature, such as the catalogue of Egyptian axes in the British Museum. Our new book is for anyone who is interested in ancient Egypt and thinks that there is more to it than solely texts and reliefs. Our knowledge of the ancient Egyptian technology, especially in the case of copper, is still very disparate. It is honest to admit the circumstances and try to do as much as we can to change the situation. Otherwise, we will only repeat misunderstandings from the earlier literature.

What we have tried to show is that the interpretation of scientific results also depends on the background data of previous analyses, especially on the bodies of ore available in antiquity. They might have been depleted or the right batch was not yet analysed. Especially the use of lead isotopes in archaeology has its own complicated history and present, in which our research is also taking a part. Our interpretations are not set in stone and can change as new data will become available. ‘Discoveries’ of singular unique pieces are welcome, but more important is the understanding of all the material in our hands, in their contexts. Unique finds can be identified only on the background of the artefacts that are common, one cannot be understood without the other.

Research of our team continues, you can look forward to the publication of the article Arsenical copper tools of Old Kingdom Giza craftsmen: first data (authors Martin Odler, Jiří Kmošek, Marek Fikrle, Yulia V. Erban Kochergina), which was accepted by the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.


Martin Odler (Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University, Prague) defended his PhD thesis The social context of copper in ancient Egypt down to the end of Middle Kingdom in 2020. In 2016, he published the monograph Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools, the first of its kind in Egyptology, with Archaeopress. In Abusir (Egypt), he led, together with Marie Peterková Hlouchová, an excavation of a new type of Egyptian tomb (AS 103) and of the latest known tomb of a transitional type from early Dynasty 4 (AS 104).

Jiří Kmošek (Institute of Natural Sciences and Technology in Arts, Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna) is an archaeometallurgist, a PhD candidate at the Institute for Natural Sciences and Technology in the Arts, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He has analysed not only ancient Egyptian material but also Bronze Age metalwork from the Czech Republic.

Sincerest thanks to Martin and Jiří for taking the time to discuss their research on the Archaeopress Blog. Links to their book, Invisible Connections, can be found below. If you would like to submit an article for the blog, please contact Patrick Harris at patrick@archaeopress.com


Available Now:

Invisible Connections: An Archaeometallurgical Analysis of the Bronze Age Metalwork from the Egyptian Museum of the University of Leipzig (2020)
by Martin Odler and Jiří Kmošek
205x290mm; 200 pages; 176 figures, 15 tables

Paperback: £44.00 | PDF eBook: from £16.00

Also Available:

Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools (2016)
by Martin Odler
205x290mm, xvi+292 pages; illustrated throughout

Paperback: £45.00 | PDF eBook: from £16.00

History of Siberian Archaeology: The Life and Works of Aleksei P. Okladnikov in 1961–1981

Yaroslav V. Kuzmin, from the Sobolev Institute of Geology and Mineralogy, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Novosibirsk, Russia), introduces A. K. Konopatskii’s book on the investigations of prehistoric archaeology of Siberia, Mongolia, and the Aleutian Islands (Alaska, USA), conducted by prominent Soviet scholar Aleksei P. Okladnikov (1908–1981) and his colleagues in the 1960s – 1970s.

Archaeopress is very pleased to have published Volume II of A. K. Konopatskii’s biography of Soviet archaeologist Aleksei P. Okladnikov as part of its ongoing Archaeological Lives series.

It is about the life and works of Aleksei P. Okladnikov in 1961–1981, when he was organiser (1961–1966) and since 1966 the Director of the Institute of History, Philology, and Philosophy, Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences, in Novosibirsk. This institute was a part of large-scale project of Akademgorodok (Academic Town) built in 1957–1964, the unique phenomenon of Soviet science (see Josephson 1997).

Okladnikov went to the Akademgorodok for the first time in 1960, and was invited to move to Novosibirsk permanently, in order to organise the institute devoted to the study of the humanities in Siberia. Okladnikov felt the necessity to have free hands in order to continue his archaeological and historical pursuits in Siberia, the Russian Far East and Central Asia; also, the possibility to become a member of the Academy of Sciences in the near future was another important factor in favour of a move to Novosibirsk. In 1961, Okladnikov arrived in Akademgorodok to settle down. The Sector (i.e. Department) of History of the Industry was created within the existing Institute of Economics and Industrial Production Engineering (IEIPE). Okladnikov brought with him several archaeologists, historians, and philologists. In 1962, the Sector became the Department of Study of the Humanities, still attached to the IEIPE. In December 1966, the new Institute of History, Philology and Philosophy (IHPP) was officially opened, and Okladnikov was appointed as its Director. It had 120 employees, and consisted of three departments – History (including archaeology and ethnology), Philology, and Philosophy. The main task of the new institute was not only to conduct research but also to coordinate efforts in the field of humanities for all Siberia and the Russian Far East.

In Novosibirsk, Okladnikov continued extensive fieldworks in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Of particular importance were surveys and excavations in the Lake Baikal region (both Pribaikal’e and Zabaikal’e), headwaters of the Lena River, Altai Mountains, Kuznetsk Basin, and Primor’e and Priamur’e regions. Active fieldwork were also conducted in Mongolia in collaboration with Mongolian archaeologists. The ability of Okladnikov to find new archaeological sites was legendary; some people truly believed that he could become ‘prehistoric human’ to understand where to set up camp or permanent settlement. Of course, this talent was the result of his vast expertise in the study of ancient sites, and his intuition. In the 1960s and 1970s, Okladnikov also widely traveled abroad for conferences and business meetings – to Japan, Cuba, Hungary, USA, North Korea, Poland, India, and Czechoslovakia.

Figure 1. Meeting with Oriental scholar O. Lattimore in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 1971; from left to right: A. P. Derevyanko, O. Lattimore, D. Dorj, V. E. Larichev, A.P. Okladnikov and N. Ser-Odjav.

In 1964, Okladnikov was elected the Member-Correspondents of the Academy of Sciences, filling the quota of the Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences. In 1968, he was elevated to the title of a Full Member (Academician). As a matter of fact, Okladnikov was given carte blanche to conduct archaeological, historical and other related research in all of Siberia, the Russian Far East, and Central Asia. The IHPP scholars were also the main workforce of the newly created Faculty of Humanities, Novosibirsk State University.

From the beginning of research in humanities at the Akademgorodok, the compilation of multi-volume History of Siberia was put forward as one of the major tasks, and Okladnikov was the main motor of this enterprise. In 1964, the 700 pages prospectus of Volume 1 (Ancient History) was compiled, printed and distributed among scholars. In 1968–1969, five volumes of the History of Siberia were published, and this was the first comprehensive (for the time being) compendium on archaeology and history of a large region. Okladnikov contributed the lion share of editorial work for the whole collection, and wrote several chapters for Volume 1. In 1973, this fundamental research was awarded the State Prize, with Okladnikov as a co-recipient.

Figure 2. Joint US–Soviet team at the Unalaska Island (Aleutian Islands), 1974; from left to right: A. K. Konopatskii, W. S. Laughlin, A. P. Derevyanko, R. S. Vasil’evskii, A. P. Okladnikov and V. E. Larichev.

In 1974, Okladnikov and four of his colleagues from IHPP participated in trips and joint excavations on the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, USA, along with Prof. William S. Laughlin (University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA). This was a rare example of the real collaboration, that is joint expeditions and excavations. Campbell (1976: 3) noted:

The Aleutian project of 1974 constituted, both in intent and practice, quite a radical departure from the general pattern of exchange visits between North American and Soviet anthropologists, biologists and earth scientists, which, while they have resulted in very useful comparison of data and ideas, have rarely involved actual field research under the conditions which the visiting scientists enjoyed at home. Purely and simply, therefore, the Aleutian project amounted to honest joint field work, and was not a guided tour.

Figure 3. W. S. Laughlin and A. P. Okladnikov examine the skull of one of the D. Medvedev’s party of Cossacks massacred in 1764 at Chaluka (Unalaska Island), University of Connecticut, Storrs (CT), 1974.

Another of Okladnikov’s initiative in the 1960s – 1970s was to create an Open-Air (Outdoor) Museum, and bring to Akademgorodok the ancient stelae with inscriptions and pieces of rock art that are endangered by construction of large reservoirs or industrial development. A wooden church with bell tower from the abandoned town of Zashiversk in the Indigirka River basin, built in 1700 and the miraculous survivor of several fires, was rescued from the Arctic and brought in pieces to Akademgorodok in 1971. Today, this is one of the major attractions of the Open-Air Museum that was officially opened in 1981.

Figure 4. The wooden church and bell tower from the abandoned Arctic town of Zashiversk, Open-Air Museum, Akademgorodok, Novosibirsk.

Several foreign learning societies – British Academy (1973), Academy of Sciences of Mongolia (1974) and Hungarian Academy of Science (1976) – granted Okladnikov honorary membership. In 1978, Okladnikov was given the title of Hero of Socialist Labour (civil equivalent to the Hero of Soviet Union, the highest honour in USSR).

Most of Okladnikov’s biographies are panegyric, and only his achievements are described. It seems that L. S. Klejn’s opinions (see Klejn 2012: 334–338; Klejn 2014: 306–325) are more balanced. Okladnikov’s legacy is tremendous because of his many years of work in northern Asia where large tracts of land were previously unknown to archaeologists. Klejn (2012: 338) noticed about Okladnikov: ‘Not even his enemies deny his achievements, charm, and talent.’ Besides the rich artefact collections acquired throughout more than 50 years of research, Okladnikov also built a Novosibirsk school of archaeologists – including Z. A. Abramova, S. N. Astakhov, V. V. Bobrov, A. P. Derevianko, E. I. Derevianko, B. A. Frolov, Yu. P. Kholushkin, Y. F. Kiryushin, V. E. Larichev, A. I. Martynov, A. I. Mazin, V. E. Medvedev, V. I. Molodin, V. T. Petrin, R. S. Vasil’evskii, and others.

Figure 5. A. P. Okladnikov in his Director’s office with A. K. Konopatskii (right), Akademgorodok, Novosibirsk, 1978.

However, some scholars did not come along well with Okladnikov. He was quite suspicious about some Siberian archaeologists who were revising his chronology and periodisation of ancient cultural complexes – Yu. A. Mochanov from Yakutsk; G. I. Medvedev, M. P. Aksenov, G. M. Georgievskaya and other people from Irkutsk; A. A. Formozov and G. I. Andreev from Moscow; and Z. V. Andreeva from Vladivostok. Sometimes Okladnikov used his position to postpone publications of these researchers or push them from sites that he wanted to excavate by himself. It is obvious that Okladnikov had many ‘summits and bottoms’ in science; however, his achievements are probably more important today than his flaws and mistakes.

The book (including Volume I, published by Archaeopress in 2019) is for archaeologists, historians, and everyone who is interested in the history of scholarship (particularly the humanities) in the twentieth century, especially in the USSR.

Header image: A. P. Okladnikov examines the rock art at the Sakachi-Alyan site, Khabarovsk Province, 1971.

References

Campbell, J.M. (1976). The Soviet–American Siberian expedition. Arctic 29: 2–6.

Josephson, P. (1997). New Atlantis Revisited: Akademgorodok, the Siberian City of Science. Princeton, NJ & Chichester: Princeton University Press.

Klejn, L.S. (2012). Soviet Archaeology: Trends, Schools, and History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Klejn, L.S. (2014). Istoriya Rossiiskoi Arkheologii: Ucheniya, Shkoly i Lichnosti. Tom 2. Arkheologi Sovetskoi Epokhi (The History of Russian Archaeology: Doctrines,Schools and Personalities. Volume 2. Archaeologists of the Soviet Epoch). St.Petersburg: Eurasia Press (in Russian).

About the Author

Yaroslav V. Kuzmin has been studying geoarchaeology of the Russian Far East, Siberia and neighbouring Northeast Asia since 1979 (PhD 1991; DSc. 2007). He has also assisted in translating and editing books on the archaeology of eastern Russia along with Richard L. Bland.


How to order

Aleksei P. Okladnikov: The Great Explorer of the Past
by A. K. Konopatskii, translated by Richard L. Bland and Yaroslav V. Kuzmin

Volume I: A biography of a Soviet archaeologist (1900s – 1950s):
PB: £24.99 | PDF: from £16.00

Volume II: A biography of a Soviet archaeologist (1960s – 1980s):
PB: £34.99 | PDF: from £16.00