Some 5,000 years ago, ancient Egypt civilization began to take shape in the Nile River’s floodplain. These natural geologists and artisans not only made massive structures. They also fashioned intricate jewelry to wear both here and in the afterworld.
They especially loved gold. It was plentiful in the eastern desert, and archaeologists have discovered many entombed treasures.
Cleopatra’s emerald mines are also famous, but diggers have unearthed relatively little ancient Egyptian emerald jewelry.
Emeralds are abundant in Egypt, again, in the eastern desert, but it was mostly the Romans and Byzantines who mined them, not the pharaohs.
So why are there gold and emeralds in the desert east of the Nile? It’s a very violent, action-packed tale, believe it or not.
The geology of Egyptian gold and emeralds
The bedrock underlying Egypt is so old, it makes the pharaohs seem like youngsters.
This rock started to form a billion years or so ago, when the first of a total of four major episodes (PDF) of mountain building and seafloor spreading began.
Few of these episodes were your basic continent-continent collision. It was more like the Earth played bumper cars for 400 million years with such things as island arcs, submarine plateaus, and microcontinents.
One result of all this mayhem was a lot of very hot ground water circulating through faults in the rock. It was a steamy soup of dissolved gold, silicon, chromium, aluminum, beryllium, and other elements. As temperature and other factors changed, gold and minerals crystallized out into, among other things, gold- and emerald-bearing veins of quartz.
Eventually things settled down. Starting about 520 million years ago, all that Precambrian rock and its treasures were slowly buried under alternating layers of sedimentary rocks and other debris, and then topped with the deep sands of the Sahara.
Then people moved in, starting some 500,000 to 700,000 years ago.
The ancient Egyptian dynasties began to take shape some 5,000 years ago, that is, five centuries before the 4500-year-old Great Pyramid was built.
Let’s stop the text for a few minutes and take a boat ride down the First Cataract of the Nile, near Aswan, to see how it all looks today.
You’ll see rounded blocks of gray-pink stone in the river that are rather boring compared to the dramatic cliffs in the background, but don’t be fooled. These boulders, smoothed by the flowing Nile, formed in primeval violence. The layered rocks behind and above them are the quiet ones – sedimentary rocks that settled into position slowly, grain by grain, over 520 million years.
As cataracts go, that’s a pretty quiet one, perhaps because of the nearby High Aswan Dam. Okay…the text will now resume.
Ancient Egyptian quarries
The earliest gold discoveries in the eastern Sahara probably happened when nomads and early Egyptians found gold nuggets in stream beds. With plenty of labor and a very organized social structure, people soon had the region divided up into three gold fields:
- Koptos, in the center of the modern city of Qift
- Wawat – the part of Nubia up to the First Cataract
- Kush – lower Nubia between the First and Second Cataracts
Using stone hammers and awls, ancient Egyptians dug down as much as 300 feet for gold, but they left behind no detailed mining records. A Greek writer in 2 BC, described them breaking up rock with hammers and with fire. They then crushed it in mortars and ground it into a powder that could be washed for gold dust.
Some of these mines were over a hundred miles from the Nile – the only water source. At some point, therefore, they had to carry the quarried rock to the river. Of course, this wasn’t a problem for a society that was also chiseling massive chunks of limestone and sandstone out of cliffs and rafting them down the Nile to use in construction.
However the old Egyptians got it, the gold dust was then melted down into nuggets. Artisans might build something big, like a pharaoh’s coffin, out of solid gold, but they were more likely to hammer the soft metal into fine sheets, some only 6 microns (0.006 mm) thick, that could be used to gild objects.
The goldsmiths also made fine wires out of gold for cloisonne jewelry.
Egypt’s emeralds, whether mined by the pharaohs or by their Roman and Byzantine conquerors, were found in a roughly 400-square-mile area of the southeastern Sahara. It was Europe’s only source of emerald until the Middle Ages, when better stones could be imported from India.
The earliest known true emerald mine in Egypt goes back possibly to around the 4th century BC. It’s at Wadi Sikait, and together with six nearby mines, it forms the 70-square-mile Wadi Gimal emerald mine complex.
The Romans called Wadi Gimal the Emerald Mountains. We know it today as Cleopatra’s Mines, although there are no Egyptian records that definitely connect her with the area.
No one knows how the Egyptian emerald miners worked, but the Romans used flat chisels and pointed sticks to dig shallow, open trenches. Deeper tunnels and shafts in these trenches would then follow emerald-rich quartz veins down hundreds of feet. Gem crystals were probably cut out of the quarts with a sharp metal blade.
It certainly also was a challenge to remove these rather fragile emeralds – full of inclusions and cloudy zones of weakness – without breaking them, let alone prepare them for jewelry. The ancient Egyptians apparently didn’t know how to polish and shape the hexagonal green beryl crystals they took out of the Earth. The Romans and Byzantines figured that out.
The treasures of old Egypt include other gems, as well as ceramics and glass, but we will always remember the Land of the Pharaohs for its gold and for the legendary mines that supplied emeralds to the rich and powerful for many, many centuries.
- Wadi Sikait ‘Cleopatra’ Emerald Mines. All About Gemstones
- Ancient Egyptian quarries – an illustrated overview (PDF). James Harrell and Per Storemyr
- Archaeological Geology of the World’s First Emerald Mine. James Harrell
- Gold Technology in Ancient Egypt (PDF). T. G. H. James
- Gold of the Pharaohs – 6000 years of gold mining in Egypt and Nubia (PDF). Dietrich Klemm et al.
- Emerald Mining in Roman and Byzantine Egypt. Ian Shaw et al.
- Neoproterozoic Ophiolites of the Arabian-Nubian Shield (PDF) Robert J. Stern et al.
- Ancient Egypt. Wikipedia