The main surprise of the study was that a metal vessel deposited in a tomb at the Egyptian site Abusir 5,000 years ago was made of a material that was used concurrently in distant Anatolia (present-day Turkey). The article shows how far metals travelled in the third millennium BC.
The paper contains an in-depth analysis of 22 ancient Egyptian artefacts currently stored in the Egyptian Museum of Leipzig University (Fig. 1). The analytical work deepens our understanding of the use of copper in the Early Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom. Egyptian copper metallurgy of the third millennium BC has been known only superficially until now.
The artefacts were found at the Egyptian sites of Abusir, Abydos and Giza. They were excavated in the royal tomb of King Khasekhemwy at Abydos (c. 2700 BCE) and non-royal tombs of officials from the Early Dynastic Period (Abusir; c. 3100–2900 BCE) and the Old Kingdom (Giza; c. 2350–2275 BCE).
The paper is innovative in the range of analyses used and their combination with Egyptological and archaeological information. The production methods were similar for all artefacts, which were hammered and annealed to their final shapes. They were made either from copper with minor impurities of other elements or from arsenical copper, the most frequently used alloy in the ancient Near East in the third millennium BC. As lead was present in minute traces in all the artefacts, lead isotope analysis has been used to indicate the origin of the ores.
As the title suggests, the analyses have revealed “invisible connections” between the regions where the ore was mined and those where the artefacts were deposited. The ore coming from the Sinai Peninsula has been expected and confirmed, as it was the most frequent target of ancient Egyptian expeditions with many ancient Egyptian mining expedition inscriptions. A not at all negligible amount of ore originated from the Eastern Desert of Egypt. There are not many inscriptions in that area, but the archaeological research of the past two decades has identified many mining sites, and analyses have now confirmed that the ore was indeed used by ancient Egyptians.
The greatest surprise was a large bowl from a Dynasty-1 tomb at Abusir (Fig. 2, 3). It is peculiar by its contents of arsenic (1.4%) and nickel (4.8%), very unusual for that period in Egypt. The lead isotope ratios match Anatolian ores and are similar to contemporary Early Bronze Age Anatolian artefacts, in a distance more than 1,500 kilometres (Fig. 4).
The vessel was most probably made in Egypt, but the ore or metal ingot must have travelled from far away. Although this is most probably not an evidence of direct contact between the two regions, special metals had circulated around the ancient Near East earlier than previously thought.
The project will continue with the evaluation and publication of data from another important corpus stored in Leipzig: bronze artefacts from the Second Intermediate Period and the New Kingdom site Aniba in Nubia.
The authors of the article are archaeometallurgist Jiří Kmošek from the Department of Chemical Technology, Faculty of Restoration, University of Pardubice; Egyptologist Martin Odler from the Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University, Prague; and two physicists, Marek Fikrle from the Nuclear Physics Institute, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and Yulia V. Kochergina from the Czech Geological Survey. In the same issue of the journal is also included an article of the Belgian team about the research of Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom metalwork in Brussels and a third piece, commenting both articles.
Martin Odler introduces his recent publication and points towards his current and future research
The Old Kingdom of Egypt (Dynasties 4–6, c. 2600–2180 BC) is famous as the period that saw the building of the largest Egyptian pyramids. Generally, it has been accepted that only humble remains of copper alloy tools are preserved from this era. What might be more surprising, is that there has been little analytical work of archaeometallurgy on the preserved metal objects from the Old Kingdom. My name is Martin Odler; I am working at the Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. Last November, Archaeopress published my book Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools, aiming to update the research on the metal tools of the pyramid builders and other craftsmen during the Old Kingdom.
My research was initiated by one of the largest Old Kingdom finds of copper alloy model tools in the tombs of the sons of Vizier Qar at Abusir South by a team from the Czech Institute of Egyptology, led by Miroslav Bárta, in early 2000s. The tools were from the Sixth Dynasty, reign of Pepy II, and altogether there were about 3 kilograms of copper found in the burial chambers. Copper tools became the topic of my M.A. thesis in 2009. After its defence, I received a grant from the Grant Agency of Charles University to study unpublished collections of copper alloy objects in the European museums and in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The monograph is a result of these research visits and also of the processing of the finds of copper alloy objects from Czech excavations at Abusir.
I have collected the textual, iconographic and palaeographic evidence. The evidence available to modern archaeologists is largely determined by preselection by the past culture, by conscious and unconscious rules that were applied to the creation and production of the sources. Everyone is aware of that, but in the case of the Old Kingdom, we have data that shows how much is missing from the evidence. Old Kingdom evidence shows in great detail the extent to which the range of artefacts available for study by archaeology today is influenced or even biased by a selection made by the past culture. Had it not been for the custom of depositing copper model tools in the burial equipment (and in the richest assemblages, there are altogether more than a thousand tools preserved), we would have almost nothing preserved from metal tools used in the era. Iconographic sources indicate the use of other metal artefacts that were not even fragmentarily preserved from the Old Kingdom (such as metal blades of weapons). Scattered finds from Old Kingdom settlements provide artefacts which were included neither in the burial equipment (or very rarely) nor in the iconography (e.g. needles). Harpoons and fish-hooks have their firm place in Old Kingdom iconography, yet their specimens in the Old Kingdom material culture are rather rare.
Furthermore, I have provided in the book updated definitions of tool classes and tool kits, together with the context of their use. They can be divided into artisan tool kit (comprising chisels, adzes, axes, saws and drills), cosmetic tool kit (razors, mirrors, tweezers, hair curlers, kohl-sticks and cosmetic spatulas), weaving tool kit (needles, awls and pins), leather-working tool kit (leather-cutting knife), hunting weapons and tools for food procurement (fish-hooks, harpoons, knives), and weapons as a separate category of metal blades (battle axes, arrowheads, spearheads, and daggers).
Besides rare specimens of full-size tools, scattered in the museum collections world-wide, the largest corpora of the material have been preserved in the form of model tools in the burial equipment of the Old Kingdom elite and were most probably symbols of their power to commission and fund craftwork. Metal tools occurred already in the Pre-dynastic Period, in the graves belonging probably to craftsmen and also in the rich graves of the supposed elite. It is hard to believe that kings and high officials spent their time in craftwork; already then, the tools were most likely to have been symbolical representation of the elite households, with craftsmen present in the households (and in the subsidiary graves) to wield those tools.
I should dispel one of the most common misunderstandings. You may have read in many popular and semi-popular works that Old Kingdom Egyptians knew and used only tools made of pure copper. This is simply not true; they were using arsenical copper as the main practical alloy, typical for the whole Ancient Near East in the Early Bronze Age. For Egypt, this fact was proven already in 1976, in an article “Near eastern alloying and some textual evidence for the early use of arsenical copper” by E. R. Eaton and Hugh McKerrell. Already, in the Early Dynastic Period, Egyptians certainly knew bronze as the oldest securely-dated bronze objects, spouted jar and wash basin, have been found in the tomb of King Khasekhemwy, built and furnished at the end of Second Dynasty. To know more, we need to analyse more objects from secure archaeological contexts.
The long-standing division in the Egyptological literature between full-size tools and model tools is questioned. One of the most important arguments is that the traces of tools on objects are actually very close to the size of some bigger so-called “model tools”. The typology alone and use of the preserved textual and iconographic sources are not sufficient for the correct understanding of Old Kingdom material culture. Typological studies can be enriched by the use of morphometry, further vital knowledge can be provided by the archaeometallurgical study of the objects. Statistical studies of Old Kingdom material culture are only just beginning, with an exception of Old Kingdom pottery. Ceramic studies have thrived in recent decades and more Egyptologists than ever realize the importance of pottery for the reconstruction of the site histories.
The second case study is the first application ever of a method of geometric morphometry on a corpus of ancient Egyptian copper tools, in this case Old Kingdom adze blades. We have analysed the assemblage with a mathematician Ján Dupej. Morphometry proved my suspicion, already expressed elsewhere, that the size of the model tools is somehow connected to the specific parts of the sites and social status of the buried persons. The bigger the models are, the higher the status of the person. However, this rule is sometimes broken by less affluent officials and I think that those bigger models were probably “royal” gifts. Although uninscribed, they might have been perceived as status objects by the Old Kingdom Egyptians.
My book is only one of the steps leading to better knowledge of ancient Egyptian material culture. Already when submitting the final manuscript, I knew that the contents could not be called complete. In spring 2016, we excavated anonymous tomb AC 31 at Central/Royal Abusir, a tomb with rich remains of original Fifth Dynasty burial equipment, including copper model tools. The tomb provided us with incredibly detailed information on the late Fifth Dynasty burials of the elite, and we now know that it is one of the most important Czech discoveries at Abusir.
There are also some open questions, regarding which my book could be helpful for future research. If you would like to produce for yourself your own Old Kingdom artisan tool kit and do experimental work with it, the drawings of the tools are published. But, please, document it. Also the tool traces on the Old Kingdom objects need to be gathered in a more systematic way. My current research is focussed on the archaeological evaluation of the archaeometallurgical analyses of objects from the Egyptian Museum of Leipzig University (not only from the Old Kingdom). The first phase of the research was presented last year at 41st International Symposium on Archaeometry in Kalamata (Greece) and our poster received honourable mention from the Society for Archaeological Sciences in the R.E. Taylor Student Poster Award. Another project focused on the ancient Egyptian objects from the documented archaeological contexts in the collection of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, datable from the First Dynasty to the Second Intermediate Period. The results of both projects will be published this year and hopefully I will write about them more in a future post on the Archaeopress Blog.
Praise for Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools:
“In short: the authors have succeeded in presenting a reference and standard work, in which no one who is concerned with this period and this material should pass by; a work that will always be consulted with pleasure and joy.”– Robert Kuhn, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (KunstbuchAnzeiger.de) (Translated from the German)
Sincerest thanks to Martin Odler for submitting this article for the Archaeopress Blog. If you would like to submit something for consideration to be published on the blog please contact Patrick Harris (firstname.lastname@example.org). Articles on all aspects of archaeology will be considered. They should be approximately 2,000 words accompanied by up to five images.