Gold mining in ancient Egypt

8th June 2012

The historical narrative of South Africa’s mining industry has been and, to a certain degree, continues to be dominated by the story of gold mining – and quite rightly so, considering the fact that it was the discovery and exploitation of gold, particularly on the Witwatersrand in the late 1880s, that largely fuelled the economic development of the country for the better part of a century.

Further, it was the mighty gold mining industry that had a significant influence in the shaping of South Africa’s socioeconomic and political structures in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Thus, it is appropriate that the historical narrative of the South African gold mining industry be dealt with in this column.

However, before turning attention to that subject, it is necessary to reflect on the broader history of gold mining. This, it is hoped, will go some way to explaining humanity’s obsession with the yellow metal and to revealing the central role that gold has played in every major society since the dawn of civilisation.

The history of gold is as old as that of man. There is no doubt that it was one of the first metals known to primitive man, as it exists in nature in an elemental state. Its association with primitive cultures is evidenced by the fact that crude ornaments of gold have been found among the remains of all prehistoric peoples.

However, the first people to use gold on a considerable scale were the ancient Egyptians. Archaeological evidence reveals that the yellow metal came into fairly extensive use during the predynastic period, that is, before 3100 BCE.

Although the origins of gold mining in predynastic Egypt are shrouded in mystery, it is likely that, during that period, the metal was extracted from alluvial deposits.

It was only with the advent of the early dynastic period, from 3100 BCE onwards, that gold began to be extracted by systematic mining. Some of the earliest mining operations were conducted in the granite mountains east of Coptos and further south, in Nubia, between the Nile and the Red Sea, during the early dynastic age.

Gold was a highly prized commodity by the ancient Egyptians, as it was believed to be the flesh of the sun god, Ra, and was, thus, considered a symbol of eternal life. It was this association with Ra and eternal life that compelled pharaohs and queens to exploit the gold in their kingdom and to accumulate it and be buried with vast stores of the metal. During the earliest periods of Egyptian history, only kings were allowed to wear golden ornaments but the privilege was later extended to priests and other members of the royal court. Never tarnishing, gold was also used extensively in the manufacture of statues of gods and was even used to adorn temples.

It is not known when the crushing of auriferous ore began but, according to Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who lived between 60 BCE and 30 BCE, it was an activity that was undertaken by the subjects, slaves and prisoners of the first kings of Egypts.

His account of gold mining in Nubia, in eastern Egypt, is one of the earliest texts on the topic and describes in vivid detail the use of slave labour in terrible working conditions.

Siculus states: “The miners follow, in their labours, the direction of the metallic threads and are assisted by the light of lamps in the subterranean darkness. The stones are carried outside, and are there crushed and reduced to small fragments. The workmen never cease from their toil; they are forced incessantly to the work by bad treatment and by blows of the whip. Even children are not spared; some are sent to carry the blocks of stone, others to break them into fragments. The fragments are taken by older workmen, of over 30 years of age, and crushed in iron mortars. The fragments thus crushed are then found in mills, which are turned by women and aged men.

“Two or three people work at each mill. It is impossible to describe the sufferings of those unhappy ones. Exposed naked to cold and rain, they are allowed no repose; there is no feeling of pity, either for a weakly woman or for an old man on the verge of the tomb; or regard to the sick who may be prey to the shivering of fever; they are all struck indiscriminately with repeated blows until they die of their sufferings on the very spot where they have worked.”

The actual processing of ore was primitive, but nonetheless ingenious. After the ore had been reduced to powder, it was spread on wide, slightly inclined tables and a stream of water flowing over the tables carried off the earth materials and left the gold separated by its weight. This operation was repeated by the workers several times. They then rubbed the powdered ore with their hands for some time, then wiped it with little sponges in order to remove the impurities which water alone could not carry off. It was by this means that the gold dust became clean and shining.

By the beginning of the New Kingdom (1589 BCE to 1150 BCE), the goldsmiths had become important people in Egyptian society, one of the most flourishing aspects of their trade being the manufacture of jewellery to be buried with the dead or to be placed on the statues of the gods in the temples.

Thus, it was in ancient Egypt, more than 5 500 years ago, that humanity’s obsession with gold as a symbol of wealth and power was firmly established.

Interestingly, it has been estimated that some 6.7-million ounces of gold have been mined from the auriferous deposits of the Eastern Desert.