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