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Technical Arts Related To Alchemy in Old Egypt
These pages are edited by Prof. Hamed Abdel-reheem Ead
Professor of Chemistry at Faculty of Science-University of Cairo
Giza-Egypt and director of Science Heritage Center
Web site: http://www.frcu.eun.eg/www/universities/html/shc/index.htm
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Technical Arts Related To Alchemy in Old Egypt
One of the oldest civilizations all over the world was that of ancient
Egypt, which emerges from pre-history into the period of more or less
precise chronological record at a date perhaps not far removed from 3400
B.C. This highly developed civilization endured for over 3,000 years,
during which it spread its influence far and wide; some archaeologists,
indeed, claim to see in all other civilizations the signs of an Egyptian
origin. However this may be, it is universally agreed that in technical
arts Egyptian workers pointed the way to the rest of the world, and it
is to them that we must turn for the first discovery of those facts that
make chemistry possible.
Of course, our knowledge of the very earliest developments of chemical
arts is dependent upon the discovery of products as far as some 3000
years B.C. tin bronzes were made.
Primitive arts that provide data of a chemical nature are those of the
metallurgist, the glass-maker, the dyer and the like, many of which
reached an astonishingly high level of perfection in ancient Egypt.
Metallurgy in particular was carried on with an elaborate technique and
a business organization not unworthy of the modern world, while the
systematic exploitation of mines was an important industry employing
many thousands of workers. Even as early as 3400 B.C., at the beginning
of the historical period, the Egyptians had an intimate knowledge of
copper ores and of processes of extracting the metal. During the fourth
and subsequent dynasties (i.e. from about 2900 B.C. onwards), metals
seem to have been entirely monopolies of the Court, the management of
the mines and quarries being entrusted to the highest officials and
sometimes even to the sons of the Pharaoh. Whether these exalted
personages were themselves professional metallurgists we do not know,
but we may at least surmise that the details of metallurgical practice,
being of extreme importance to the Crown, were carefully guarded from
the vulgar. And when we remember the close association between the
Egyptian royal family and the priestly class we appreciate the probable
truth of the tradition that chemistry first saw the light in the
laboratories of Egyptian priests.
Copper and Iron Extraction.
In addition to copper, which was mined in the eastern desert between the
Nile and the Red Sea, iron was known in Egypt from a very early period
and came into general use about 800 B.C. According to Lucas, iron
appears to have been an Asiatic discovery. It was certainly known in
Asia Minor about I300 B.C., for one of the Kings of the Hittites sent
Rameses II, the celebrated Pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty, an iron
sword and a promise of a shipment of the same metal . The Egyptians
called iron 'the metal of heaven' or ba-en-pet, which indicates that the
first specimens employed were of meteoric origin, the Babylonian name
has the same meaning. It was no doubt on account of its rarity that iron
was prized so highly by the early Egyptians, while its celestial source
would have its fascination. Strange to say, it was not used for
decorative, religious or symbolical purposes, which - coupled with the
fact that it rusts so readily - may explain why comparatively few iron
objects of early dynastic age have been discovered. One which
fortunately has survived presents several points of interest: it is an
iron tool from the masonry of the great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza, and
thus presumably dates from the time when the Pyramid was being built,
i.e. about 2900 B.C. This tool was subjected to chemical analysis and
was found to contain combined carbon, which suggests that it may have
been composed of steel. By 666 B.C. the process of case-hardening was in
use for the edges of iron tools, but the story that the Egyptians had
some secret means of hardening copper and bronze that has since I been
lost is probably without foundation. Desch has shown that a hammered
bronze, containing 10.34 per cent. of tin, is considerably harder than
copper and keeps a cutting edge much better.
Of the other non-precious metals, tin was used in the manufacture of
bronze, and cobalt has been detected as a coloring agent in certain
specimens of glass and glaze. Neither metal occurs naturally in Egypt,
and it seems probable that supplies of ore were imported from Persia.
Lead, though it never found extensive application, was among the
earliest metals known, specimens having been found in graves of
Galena (PbS) was mined in Egypt at Gebel Rasas ('Mountain of Lead'), a
few miles from the Red Sea coast; and the supply must have been fairly
good, for when the district was re-worked from 19I2 to 1915 it produced
more than I8,000 tons of ore.
The vast quantities of gold amassed by the Pharaohs were the envy of
contemporary and later sovereigns. Though much was imported, received by
way of tribute, or captured in warfare, the Egyptian mines themselves
were reasonably productive.
Over one hundred ancient gold workings have been discovered in Egypt and
the Sudan, though within the limits of Egypt proper there appear to have
been gold mines only in the desert valleys to the east of the Nile near
Ikoptos, Ombos and Apollinopolis Magna. Of one of these mines - possibly
near Apollinopolis - a plan has been found in a papyrus of the fourteenth
century B.C., and the remains of no fewer than 1,300 houses for
gold-miners are still to be seen in the Wadi Fawakhir, half-way between
Koptos and the Red Sea. In one of the treasure chambers of the temple of
Rameses III, at Medinet-Habu, are represented eight large bags, seven of
which contained gold.
The Egyptian word for gold is nub, which survives in the name Nubia, a
country that provided a great deal of the precious metal in ancient
days. French Scientist Champollion regarded it as a kind of crucible,
while Rossellini and Lepsius preferred to see in it a bag or cloth, with
hanging ends, in which the grains of gold were washed - the radiating
lines representing the streams of water that ran through. Crivelli has
more recently advanced the theory that the gold symbol is the
conventional sign for a portable furnace used for the fusion of gold,
and that the rays represent the flames, which, 'as can be observed in
the use of this type of furnace, are unable to ascend because the wind
inclines them horizontally'. In the later dynasties, the Egyptians
themselves forgot the original signification of the sign and drew it as
a necklace with pendent beads, though Elliot Smith says that this was
the primitive form and became the determinative of Hathor, the Egyptian
Aphro dite, who was the guardian of the Eastern valleys where gold was
The gold mines in Nubia and other parts of the Egyptian empire seem to
have been very efficiently designed and controlled, though with a
callous disregard for the human element employed.
Alluvial auriferous sand was also treated, a distinction being made
between the gold obtained in this way and that extracted from the mines.
The latter was called nub-en-set, i.e. 'gold of the mountain', while
alluvial gold was named nub-en-mu, i.e. 'gold of the river'. Auriferous
sand was placed in a bag made of a fleece with the woolly side inwards;
water was then added and the bag vigorously shaken by two men. When the
water was poured off, the earthy particles were carried away, leaving
the heavier particles of gold adhering to the fleece. There is a picture
of this operation on one of the buildings at Thebes.
Mercury (Greek-hydrargyros, liquid silver; latin-argentum vivum, live or
quick silver) is stated to have been found in Egyptian tombs of from
Metal and Mysticism.
In the early centuries of our era, however, there gradually developed a
mysticism among chemical writers due to Egyptian and Chaldean religious
magical ideas, and there developed a fanciful relation of the metals as
such to the sun and the planets, and as a consequence there arose the
believe that it was necessary to confine the number of metals to seven.
Thus Olympidorous-in the 6th century of our era gives the following
Metallurgy was by no means the only art practiced with conspicuous
success by the ancient Egyptian craftsmen. Glass was almost certainly
the invention, not of the Phoenicians, but of the Egyptians, and was
produced on a large scale from a very early date.
Art of Glass Making
This art is of very ancient origin with the Egyptians, as is evident
from the glass jars, figures and ornaments discovered in the tombs. The
paintings on the tombs have been interpreted as descriptive of the
process of glass blowing. These illustrations representing smiths
blowing their fires by means of reeds tipped with clay. So can conclude
that glass-blowing is apparently of Egyptian origin, at the beginning of
The remains of glass furnaces discovered by Flinders-Petrie at
Tel-El-Amarna (1400 B.C.) illustrate the manufacture of rods, beads, and
jars or other figures, formed apparently by covering clay cores with
glass and later removing the cores.
Egyptian glass articles were of colored glass, often beautifully
From analyses of ancient Egyptian glass articles, it show that generally
the glass was a soda-lime glass with rather soda content as compared
with modern soda-lime glass. The given analyses do not differ from those
of some soda-lime glasses of modern times. Lead was used in glasses from
very ancient times. French scientist analyzed a vase of the Fourth
dynasty in Egypt which contained about one quarter lead.
Artificial pearls, made of glass, were manufactured in such numbers that
they formed an important article of export trade, and the old legends of
enormous emeralds and other precious stones are most reasonably
explained on the assumption that the preparation of paste jewelry was
The earliest glass-works of which the remains have been found date from
the eighteenth dynasty, and the oldest dated glass object is a large
ball bead bearing the cartouche of Amen-Hotep I, now in the Ashmolean
Museum at Oxford. The invention of glass-blowing, as opposed to the
older method of glass-molding, is comparatively recent, dating back only
to about the beginning of the Christian Era. Sir Flinders Petrie has
shown that the relieves at Beni-Hassan, which were formerly supposed to
represent glass-blowers are more probably to be interpreted as
metal-workers blowing a fire.
Textile and Dyeing Materials.
The begining of the art of weaving and the art of dyeing are lost in
antiquity. Mummy cloths of varying degrees of fitness, still evidencing
the dyer's skill, are preserved in many museums.
The invention of royal purple was perhaps as early as 1600 B.C.
From the painted walls of tombs, temples and other structures which have
been protected from exposure to weather, and from the decorated surfaces
of pottery, chemical analysis often is able to give us knowledge of the
materials used for such purposes.
Thus, the pigments from the tomb of Perneb (at estimated 2650 B.C.)
which was presented to Metropolitan Museum of New York City in 1913,
were examined by Maximilian Toch. He found that the red pigment proved
to be iron oxide, haematite; a yellow consisted of clay containing iron
or yellow ochre; a blue color was a finely powdered glass; and a pale
blue was a copper carbonate, probably azurite; green were malachite;
black was charcoal or boneblack; gray, a limestone mixed with charcoal;
and a quantity of pigment remaining in a paint pot used in the
decoration, contained a mixture of haematite with limestone and clay.
So many analyses results made by known scientists all serve to
illustrate the character of the evidence furnished by chemical analysis
of surviving samples of the products of early chemical industries.