Historical story

Gold of the Pharaohs

Tutankhamun's death mask. Everyone knows the gold glittering mask. Gold played an important role in ancient Egypt. For the goldsmiths, for the economy, for grave robbers, but especially for pharaohs.

Burial equipment systematically examined by modern archaeologists yields many fragments of stone, texts, and pottery. Often, the mere fact that one or the other piece of gold is accidentally made is reason to make it public. For example, Tutankhamun's treasure was never intended as a financial reserve or as a kind of treasury for the Egyptians. Gold was of course something precious to them, but its greater value lay in the fact that the Egyptians thought that the sun god and other gods consisted largely of gold. Gold was a divine metal and therefore had the power to give divine life, i.e. immortality. In addition to statues of the gods, the tips of obelisks, parts of temple walls and the tools used in religious activities were also made of gold or covered with gold.

Origin of Egyptian gold

Due to the gold mines located close to ancient Noebt (Greek Ombos), the name of this place probably derives from the Ancient Egyptian word 'noeb', which means 'gold'. The quartz veins in the mountains of the Arabian desert contain gold, and wherever these veins appear on the surface we see that they have been worked since ancient times. The search for gold was particularly successful in two places. The first and possibly the oldest source of Egyptian gold was near Koptos. In the Wadi Foachir old abandoned residences for gold workers have been found with the remains of at least 1320 workers' huts from the Ptolemaic period (332 – 30 BC). But the greatest amount of gold came from another area, namely the mountains much further south and geographically belonging to Nubia.

Golden fly

Jewelery specially given to the grave is usually very brittle and often consists of a thin layer of gold or silver over a plaster filling and inlaid with imitation gemstones. This jewelry is not subject to wear and tear, like the jewelry that was worn during life. A lot of very old jewelry looks gray, reddish-brown or purple-red. This is due to the corrosion of the copper, iron and silver particles present in the gold. Gold objects from the Amarna period (1350 – 1325 BC) to the end of the Ramesside period (1070 BC) often have a shiny rose-purple patina (oxidation) layer. This appearance is not the result of chemical changes over the centuries, but deliberately caused, probably by the addition of iron salts.

The king sometimes gave to deserving persons a 'Golden fly', gold necklaces, or other gold of honor. General Ahmose was even decorated with gold seven times; first in his youth for his fight against the Hyksos and the last time in the Syrian campaigns of Thuthmose I. King Amenhotep I bestowed him with gold of honor in the form of four bracelets, a vase of ointment, a lion and two axes. Thutmose I was even more generous, giving him four gold bracelets, six gold necklaces, three lapis-lazuli ointment vases, and two silver bracelets.

Gold as an economic factor

Certainly from the 2nd millennium BC this divine metal was used as a commodity and as a means of payment. The production of gold and also that of copper provided ancient Egypt with many economic benefits. Copper was the basis for the bronze of the ancient world. Egypt was thus able to dominate the eastern Mediterranean until the rise of iron. For a given year of Ramesses III, the revenues (in kilograms) of gold, silver, and copper from the principal temples in Egypt were:

Location Gold Silver Buyer
Temple of Amun 51.85 997.78 2,395.41
Temple of Re .. 53.34 114.51
Temple of Ptah .. 8.95 ..
Total for that year 51.85 1,060.07 2,509.92

The gold of grave robbers

A new source of gold and silver was the plundering of tombs. The gold and silver from the tombs were put back into circulation by the grave robbers themselves, by their healers and with the knowledge of officials who received large bribes. The introduction of this new gold and silver brought the state's economy back into equilibrium. It is therefore not so surprising that the grave robbers could last so long, despite official investigations and punishments. That much gold could be extracted from the tombs is clear from the story of the stonemason Amonpnoefer (20th dynasty). On the 22nd day of the 3rd month of the winter season in the 16th year of Ramesses IX (c. 1124 BC), Amonpnoefer was brought before a tribunal chaired by the vizier. Amonpnoefer relates how he and seven others gained access to the tomb of Sobekemsaf (17th dynasty; c. 1663 BC). “We found the noble mummy of the king. On his chest were numerous golden amulets and jewelry, and over his face was a golden mask. The noble mummy of this king was completely covered with gold, and his coffins were decorated with gold and silver, both outside and inside, and inlaid with precious stones. We collected the gold, amulets, jewels and metal from the coffins. We found the queen in the same condition and stole everything we found on her. Then we set fire to their coffins. We stole the grave goods we found with them, including gold, silver and bronze objects, and divided the spoils, totaling 160 debens of gold (about 14 ½ kilos), among themselves.”