For nearly 3,000 years, ancient Egypt prospered as one the most progressive civilizations, characterized by advanced architecture, art and philosophy. Although ancient Egypt's innovations set it apart from other bygone cultures, it shares at least one thing in common: Ancient Egyptians were fascinated by gold. In fact, Egypt's association with gold reaches back more than 5,500 years, which makes the culture largely responsible for humans' obsession with this precious metal.
In contrast to the monetary value many cultures place on gold, its significance and usage in ancient Egypt revolved around spirituality. Ancient Egyptians considered gold “the skin of the gods” -- specifically the sun god Ra -- and often used it to craft objects of spiritual significance. Obelisks, statues of gods and death masks are some of the objects the ancient Egyptians crafted from solid gold. Due to gold's durability -- it held up to the Egyptian heat far better than silver -- ancient Egyptians associated the metal with eternity, which made it popular for use in funerary objects, such as gilded coffins or vessels and jewelry entombed with the dead. These ornaments also served to indicate the social status of the departed.
Despite the perception of gold as a spiritual object, ancient Egyptians were not immune to the metal's charm as an ornament. Personal ornaments and riches, such as jewelry, figurines and masks, featured solid gold, gold leaves or golden accents such as gilding. Necklaces with small gold beads date back to 3100 B.C. or before, a period known as Predynastic Egypt. Jewelry recovered from this era featured gold, non-precious metal beads and even -- in some cases -- fragments crafted from meteorites. In very early Egyptian history, only kings were allowed to wear gold, but the privilege was soon extended to priests and members of the royal court.
From the start of the Old Kingdom era in ancient Egyptian history, which began around 2686 B.C., kingdoms began to store caches of gold in temples. This state property not only affected the kingdom's perceived illustriousness, but it was also used in trade. Gold imported or won in battle, including bags of gold dust and gilded carriages, were also stored in these caches. Similarly, Egyptian monarchs regularly accepted gifts of gold as tribute payments. Gold appeared in opulent temple architecture as part of fittings, doors, flooring and columns or pillars.
Acquisition and Reuse
Early golden objects in ancient Egypt were typically hammered from gold nuggets, likely recovered from alluvial deposits. From the beginning of the Old Kingdom period onward, expeditions were sent out in search of gold and it was excavated from mines, including those in the mountains of Coptos and Nubia. Slaves, including children, were used to extract and process the ore. Objects made of gold were often melted down and reused. In their 2013 book, "Gold and Gold Mining in Ancient Egypt and Nubia," authors Rosemarie and Dietrich Klemm speculate that some jewelry sold in modern Egyptian bazaars may actually contain trace elements of ancient Egyptian gold.
- The History Channel: History Lists: 11 Things You May Not Know About Ancient Egypt
- Gold and Gold Mining in Ancient Egypt and Nubia; R. Klemm, D. Klemm
- Mining Weekly: Gold Mining in Ancient Egypt
- The Daily Mail: New Pictures Reveal Necklace Created by the Ancient Egyptians Made from Gold, Gems and 5,000 Year-Old Meteorites
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images