In ancient Egypt, iron ores were plentiful and were used for pigments, particularly in the form of ochers and hematite; they were also used as amulets, beads, and weights, chiefly the hematite or occasionally the magnetite forms. For much of dynastic times, however, the high temperatures required to smelt iron from ores and the difficulties in working it kept it from being used as a metal. Finds of iron in Egypt before the mid-first millennium BCE are rare. Most are artifacts made of meteoric iron, as is the famous iron dagger from the tomb of Tutankhamun; the ancient Egyptians knew of the nonterrestrial origin of this metal and called it biʒ m pt (“copper from heaven”). Iron obtained from meteorites is readily distinguishable from other iron because of its high nickel content.
The technology for iron manufacture may have originally been developed in the Near East as an outgrowth of bronze working. Iron could be produced incidentally in furnaces, since for bronze, copper ores were smelted with iron-containing fluxes. Iron usage was only slowly adopted throughout the Near East during the second millennium BCE, even though iron deposits were plentiful in the region. In Egypt, significant deposits were known in the Eastern Desert and in the Sinai, but they do not appear to have been mined until after pharaonic times. Instead, the metal was imported from Greece, Cyprus, Anataolia, and possibly Nubia.
Ancient smiths needed to overcome a number of difficulties to begin large-scale iron manufacturing. The metal requires very high temperatures (1200°C) to separate it from the rest of the ore, necessitating a change from open-bowl furnaces to shaft furnaces. Ancient furnaces then produced the metal by mixing the ore with charcoal and firing it to produce a “bloom”—a lump of iron, slag, and charcoal. The cooled iron would be broken up and hammered into shape or remelted. Tools, weapons, and other iron objects were made by alternate heating and hammering, producing what is known as wrought iron. By quenching, a process in which hot iron is plunged into cold water, the iron could be made hard. Two ax heads are known from Egypt that had the characteristic restructuring of the metal edge that indicates quenching, a technique unusual in pre-Roman times.
Wrought iron was not significantly stronger than hardened bronze (a copper alloy), but it was far less brittle—a quality that made it ideal for sword blades—which seems to have been the impetus for its widespread adoption. The earliest iron blades, set in bronze hafts, have been discovered in Luristan, to the northeast of Syria-Palestine. The Hittite Empire, in iron-rich Anatolia, seems to be the earliest home of large-scale iron working. Iron objects are known from Egypt with increasing frequency throughout the later New Kingdom; however, iron does not appear to have been produced in Egypt on a large scale until the end of the Third Intermediate Period. This lack of iron has been suggested for the weakening of the New Kingdom and Egypt's economic downturn during the Intermediate Period.
Iron objects are associated with Egypt's twenty-fifth dynasty and its reoccupation of Lower Nubia—and it may be that the impetus for iron working in Egypt spread there from Nubia. Nonetheless, since an iron-producing center that was dated to the first millennium BCE was discovered in Gerar in Palestine, that may yet point to a Near Eastern origin for Egypt's iron working. The technology might even have been introduced into both Egypt and Nubia by Greek mercenaries. In the Nile Delta, iron smelting sites have been discovered at Naucratis and Defenneh. The great quantities of imported wood required for the furnaces, as well as access to foreign trade, would have made the Delta an ideal center for iron working. Foreign craftsmen, particularly Greeks resident there, probably facilitated the growth and development of the iron industry.
Iron was, in fact, produced in large quantities in Nubia. Vast iron slag heaps are found at Meroë, and an iron foundry was excavated by P. L. Shinne and F. J. Kense (1982) in the ancient town. Iron artifacts have been found in Nubian tombs and foundation deposits of the Napatan period, and other iron-producing centers are thought to have existed at Napata, Kawa, and Tabo. Iron working at Meroë appears to have been localized in one or more industrial quarters, where a series of small, shaft furnaces were enclosed in a large baked-brick structure. Iron has been claimed as the source of the wealth and power of the Meroitic kingdom; access to iron ores, rich vegetation, and positioning at major trade routes did offer Meroë strategic advantages.
- Shinnie, P. L., and F. J. Kense. “Meroitic Iron Working.” Meroitica 6 (1982), 17–28.
- Tylecote, R. F. A History of Metallurgy. London, 1992.
Peter Lacovara and Yvonne J. Markowitz