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Friday, May 13, 2011

Gold Mining Practices in Ancient Egypt.

The Ancient Egyptians were highly skilled in the mining of gold, made possible by the “alluvial spoil heaps and quarries which still bear witness to their activities”. Egyptian gold took two forms, dust or powder from alluvial workings and ring-shaped ingots cast from the smelted gold produced in the mines.

The Turin Papyrus Map is dated to 1100 BC is now at the Turin Museum. This map is rumored to be the oldest map in the world and it demonstrates the many gold bearing regions in the eastern desert of EgyptThe area shown is in the Wadi Hammamat between the towns of Quina and Qoseir. A network of roads intersects the mountainous regions and the inscriptions illustrate where gold was being mined in Egypt.

This is the right half of the above map.

In 60 B.C. Diodorus Siculus traveled in Egypt to inspect the gold mines of the Egyptians. His impressions and descriptions found in his Bibliotheca Historica drew largely upon the account given by Agatharchides of the working of gold. Agatharchides was a Greek philosopher and historian who wrote about the Red Sea in several books and the successors in Alexandria, where he worked at the court of PtolemyVI. Unfortunately, his work has been lost, yet Diodorus Siculus has keenly described laborers washing out gold from crushed quartz.

"At the extremity of Egypt and in the contiguous territory of both Arabia and Ethiopia
there lies a region which contains many large gold mines, where the gold is secured in great quantities with much suffering and at great expense. For the earth is naturally black and contains seams and veins of a marble which is unusually white and in brilliancy surpasses everything else which shines brightly by its nature, and here the overseers of the laborers in the mines recover the gold with the aid of a multitude of workers” [1].

Workers worked day and night and were confined to their particular work area in an event they tried to escape. The ground which was rich with gold was first burned and the remnants of the burn were crumbled by hand. The overseer or guard would point towards the ground or a rock. The workers with the greatest strength were assigned the quartz and they would pound it with massive force. No skills were necessary, just brute strength and agility. The workers would tunnel through the quartz, following the cleavage points and seams, never in a straight line.

Young men would wind their way through the hollowed tunnels and collect the rocks which would have been cast down piece by piece. They then transfer their load to the middle aged men who pound out the stones with iron pestles, making coarsely chopped pieces. Those pieces are then transferred to the women and older male workers whom cast them into mills and grind them into a fine powder.

The final stage includes pouring the powder on to a marble slap which has been worked into a board. The board is set at a gradual incline, so while a worker pours a continuous stream of waterover the board, the heaviest of the elements settles. Using a delicate sponging method, they pickup any small earthy particles, imperfect to be exact, and what’s left is gold dust. The gold dust is placed in earthen jars and mixed with “a lump of lead proportionate to the mass, lumps of salt and a little tin, and adding thereto, barley bran; thereupon they put on it a closefitting lid, and smearing it over carefully with mud they bake it in a kiln for five successive days and as many nights”. Once cooled, all that’s left in gold in pure form.

Notton noted that this working of the gold, as it is carried on at the farthermost borders of Egypt, is effected through all the extensive labors here described; for Nature herself, in my opinion, makes it clear that whereas the production of gold is laborious, the guarding of it is difficult, the zest for it is very great, and that its use is halfway between pleasure and pain [2].

1. Diodorus Siculus, Book III, Chapters 12 to 14; C. H. Oldfather translation, Loeb
Classical Library, 1935, 115-123
2. Notton,J. H. F.Ancient Egyptian Gold Refining: A REPRODUCTION OF EARLY
TECHNIQUES. Johnson Matthey & Co Limited, London.
3. Pictures are in the Public Domain

By Lauren Axelrod publisher of the Ancient Digger at: http:// 


  1. John, I found it fascinating to note that the Egyptian method of smelting down the impure gold dust with a bit of flux including lead and other materials like salt, tin and organic material such as barley bran remains the same today, --it still works. This is a very informative article, thanks!

  2. really i like you blog so much exactly not your blog only i like any blog speaks about egypt and i have blog too about Ancient Egypt and any thing related about that for exanple ancient egypt clothing,ancient egypt facts,ancient egypt for kids,ancient egypt history,ancient egypt map,ancient egypt mummies,Ancient Egypt Pyramids ,ancient egypt religion,ancient egypt timeline,ancient egyptian art,ancient egyptian culture,ancient egyptian gods,ancient egyptian hieroglyphics,ancient egyptian jewelry , ancient egyptian namesthanks a lot so much ,,,

  3. It amazing to see how far gold mining has come, the history of it is so interesting. You should check out Mineco and see what they have done recently

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