The use of copper (hmti) in Egypt dates back to the Badarian period, since jewelry (pins, beads, bracelets, and rings) and tools (harpoon tips, chisels, and knives) have been found in graves of the period. Metallic copper can be found in nature as native copper; as such, it only requires hammering to shape it into form. How much of Egypt's early copper was worked from native metal rather than smelted from ores remains unresolved. The principal copper-bearing ores found in Egypt were azurite, chrysocolla, and malachite. Malachite had been commonly used as early as the Predynastic period for a green pigment, so copper might easily have been smelted from it; the temperature required to smelt copper, 800°C, is well within the range of the early ovens and kilns that were used to bake bread and ceramics. Yet some Early Dynastic and A-Group copper objects have been analyzed and found to contain significant amounts of gold and silver, which indicate instead the use of native copper.
Deposits of copper were found in the Eastern Desert that were worked in antiquity, and an Old Kingdom smelting facility was discovered in the area of Buhen. Nonetheless, those sources were minor in comparison to the vast quantities of copper that came from the Sinai, where rock inscriptions around Wadi Maghara of kings of the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdoms attest to the antiquity of working those deposits. A large, rambling temple dedicated to Hathor “Mistress of Turquoise” is situated at Serabit el-Khadim. Inscriptions and stelae were left there by mining expeditions from the Middle Kingdom to the Ramessid period. A vast amount of copper was extracted from the Sinai—one slag heap alone at Wadi Nasb is thought to have yielded more than 100,000 tons. Additional mines were situated at Timna in the Negev. Yet these were still not enough to fill Egypt's needs, so considerable amounts were also imported from Syria and Cyprus. Copper was imported in the form of cast ingots, in an “oxhide” shape; they were depicted as such in tomb paintings and were discovered in shipwrecks.
Copper objects from the Early Dynastic period and the Old Kingdom tended to be formed from flat ingots or from sheets of metal, by cutting, folding, raising, and hammering. For joining, welding and soldering were not used on copper objects; instead, the joins were made by cold hammering or with rivets. Copper objects were also cast, with molten copper poured into stone or ceramic molds. For knives and axes, the cutting edges were hardened by hammering. Small examples of cast copper sculpture are known from the Early Dynastic period and the Old Kingdom, but the large statues of Pepy I and Merenre were made from sheet copper, hammered into shape over wooden forms. A head and torso of Amenemhet III is the earliest large-scale cast sculpture known in copper. Also from the late Middle Kingdom, a number of patinated copper objects are known, called in Egyptian texts hmty km (“black copper”); their color was achieved by adding small amounts of gold, silver, and arsenic to the copper.
By the New Kingdom, although copper was eventually replaced by bronze for most of its uses, it remained the most important standard of currency, the deben. The value of copper to silver (another standard of value) was 1:100, however that ratio seems to have fluctuated at times.
- Giumliar-Mair, A. “Black Copper is not Niello.” Egyptian Archaeology (1998), 35–36.
- Maddin, R. ed. The Beginning of the Use of Metals and Alloys. Cambridge, Mass., 1988. A discussion of copper working and early metallurgy in ancient societies.
- Rothenberg, B. Were These King Solomon's Mines? Excavations in the Timna Valley. New York, 1973. An account of mines and mining in the Negev.