Technical Arts Related To Alchemy in Old Egypt

These pages are edited by Prof. Hamed Abdel-reheem Ead
Professor of Chemistry at Faculty of Science-University of Cairo Giza-Egypt and director of Science Heritage Center
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Part 1:

Technical Arts Related To Alchemy in Old Egypt

One of the oldest civilizations all over the world was that of ancient Egypt, which emerges from pre-history into the period of more or less precise chronological record at a date perhaps not far removed from 3400 B.C. This highly developed civilization endured for over 3,000 years, during which it spread its influence far and wide; some archaeologists, indeed, claim to see in all other civilizations the signs of an Egyptian origin. However this may be, it is universally agreed that in technical arts Egyptian workers pointed the way to the rest of the world, and it is to them that we must turn for the first discovery of those facts that make chemistry possible.
Of course, our knowledge of the very earliest developments of chemical arts is dependent upon the discovery of products as far as some 3000 years B.C. tin bronzes were made.
Primitive arts that provide data of a chemical nature are those of the metallurgist, the glass-maker, the dyer and the like, many of which reached an astonishingly high level of perfection in ancient Egypt.


Metallurgy in particular was carried on with an elaborate technique and a business organization not unworthy of the modern world, while the systematic exploitation of mines was an important industry employing many thousands of workers. Even as early as 3400 B.C., at the beginning of the historical period, the Egyptians had an intimate knowledge of copper ores and of processes of extracting the metal. During the fourth and subsequent dynasties (i.e. from about 2900 B.C. onwards), metals seem to have been entirely monopolies of the Court, the management of the mines and quarries being entrusted to the highest officials and sometimes even to the sons of the Pharaoh. Whether these exalted personages were themselves professional metallurgists we do not know, but we may at least surmise that the details of metallurgical practice, being of extreme importance to the Crown, were carefully guarded from the vulgar. And when we remember the close association between the Egyptian royal family and the priestly class we appreciate the probable truth of the tradition that chemistry first saw the light in the laboratories of Egyptian priests.

Copper and Iron Extraction.

In addition to copper, which was mined in the eastern desert between the Nile and the Red Sea, iron was known in Egypt from a very early period and came into general use about 800 B.C. According to Lucas, iron appears to have been an Asiatic discovery. It was certainly known in Asia Minor about I300 B.C., for one of the Kings of the Hittites sent Rameses II, the celebrated Pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty, an iron sword and a promise of a shipment of the same metal . The Egyptians called iron 'the metal of heaven' or ba-en-pet, which indicates that the first specimens employed were of meteoric origin, the Babylonian name has the same meaning. It was no doubt on account of its rarity that iron was prized so highly by the early Egyptians, while its celestial source would have its fascination. Strange to say, it was not used for decorative, religious or symbolical purposes, which - coupled with the fact that it rusts so readily - may explain why comparatively few iron objects of early dynastic age have been discovered. One which fortunately has survived presents several points of interest: it is an iron tool from the masonry of the great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza, and thus presumably dates from the time when the Pyramid was being built, i.e. about 2900 B.C. This tool was subjected to chemical analysis and was found to contain combined carbon, which suggests that it may have been composed of steel. By 666 B.C. the process of case-hardening was in use for the edges of iron tools, but the story that the Egyptians had some secret means of hardening copper and bronze that has since I been lost is probably without foundation. Desch has shown that a hammered bronze, containing 10.34 per cent. of tin, is considerably harder than copper and keeps a cutting edge much better.
Of the other non-precious metals, tin was used in the manufacture of bronze, and cobalt has been detected as a coloring agent in certain specimens of glass and glaze. Neither metal occurs naturally in Egypt, and it seems probable that supplies of ore were imported from Persia. Lead, though it never found extensive application, was among the earliest metals known, specimens having been found in graves of pre-dynastic times.
Galena (PbS) was mined in Egypt at Gebel Rasas ('Mountain of Lead'), a few miles from the Red Sea coast; and the supply must have been fairly good, for when the district was re-worked from 19I2 to 1915 it produced more than I8,000 tons of ore.
The vast quantities of gold amassed by the Pharaohs were the envy of contemporary and later sovereigns. Though much was imported, received by way of tribute, or captured in warfare, the Egyptian mines themselves were reasonably productive.
Over one hundred ancient gold workings have been discovered in Egypt and the Sudan, though within the limits of Egypt proper there appear to have been gold mines only in the desert valleys to the east of the Nile near Ikoptos, Ombos and Apollinopolis Magna. Of one of these mines - possibly near Apollinopolis - a plan has been found in a papyrus of the fourteenth century B.C., and the remains of no fewer than 1,300 houses for gold-miners are still to be seen in the Wadi Fawakhir, half-way between Koptos and the Red Sea. In one of the treasure chambers of the temple of Rameses III, at Medinet-Habu, are represented eight large bags, seven of which contained gold.
The Egyptian word for gold is nub, which survives in the name Nubia, a country that provided a great deal of the precious metal in ancient days. French Scientist Champollion regarded it as a kind of crucible, while Rossellini and Lepsius preferred to see in it a bag or cloth, with hanging ends, in which the grains of gold were washed - the radiating lines representing the streams of water that ran through. Crivelli has more recently advanced the theory that the gold symbol is the conventional sign for a portable furnace used for the fusion of gold, and that the rays represent the flames, which, 'as can be observed in the use of this type of furnace, are unable to ascend because the wind inclines them horizontally'. In the later dynasties, the Egyptians themselves forgot the original signification of the sign and drew it as a necklace with pendent beads, though Elliot Smith says that this was the primitive form and became the determinative of Hathor, the Egyptian Aphro dite, who was the guardian of the Eastern valleys where gold was found.
The gold mines in Nubia and other parts of the Egyptian empire seem to have been very efficiently designed and controlled, though with a callous disregard for the human element employed.
Alluvial auriferous sand was also treated, a distinction being made between the gold obtained in this way and that extracted from the mines. The latter was called nub-en-set, i.e. 'gold of the mountain', while alluvial gold was named nub-en-mu, i.e. 'gold of the river'. Auriferous sand was placed in a bag made of a fleece with the woolly side inwards; water was then added and the bag vigorously shaken by two men. When the water was poured off, the earthy particles were carried away, leaving the heavier particles of gold adhering to the fleece. There is a picture of this operation on one of the buildings at Thebes.


Mercury (Greek-hydrargyros, liquid silver; latin-argentum vivum, live or quick silver) is stated to have been found in Egyptian tombs of from 1500-1600 B.C.

Metal and Mysticism.

In the early centuries of our era, however, there gradually developed a mysticism among chemical writers due to Egyptian and Chaldean religious magical ideas, and there developed a fanciful relation of the metals as such to the sun and the planets, and as a consequence there arose the believe that it was necessary to confine the number of metals to seven.
Thus Olympidorous-in the 6th century of our era gives the following relation:

	Gold.....................the Sun
	Silver...................the Moon
Metallurgy was by no means the only art practiced with conspicuous success by the ancient Egyptian craftsmen. Glass was almost certainly the invention, not of the Phoenicians, but of the Egyptians, and was produced on a large scale from a very early date.

Art of Glass Making

This art is of very ancient origin with the Egyptians, as is evident from the glass jars, figures and ornaments discovered in the tombs. The paintings on the tombs have been interpreted as descriptive of the process of glass blowing. These illustrations representing smiths blowing their fires by means of reeds tipped with clay. So can conclude that glass-blowing is apparently of Egyptian origin, at the beginning of our era.
The remains of glass furnaces discovered by Flinders-Petrie at Tel-El-Amarna (1400 B.C.) illustrate the manufacture of rods, beads, and jars or other figures, formed apparently by covering clay cores with glass and later removing the cores.
Egyptian glass articles were of colored glass, often beautifully patterned.
From analyses of ancient Egyptian glass articles, it show that generally the glass was a soda-lime glass with rather soda content as compared with modern soda-lime glass. The given analyses do not differ from those of some soda-lime glasses of modern times. Lead was used in glasses from very ancient times. French scientist analyzed a vase of the Fourth dynasty in Egypt which contained about one quarter lead.
Artificial pearls, made of glass, were manufactured in such numbers that they formed an important article of export trade, and the old legends of enormous emeralds and other precious stones are most reasonably explained on the assumption that the preparation of paste jewelry was widely undertaken.
The earliest glass-works of which the remains have been found date from the eighteenth dynasty, and the oldest dated glass object is a large ball bead bearing the cartouche of Amen-Hotep I, now in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. The invention of glass-blowing, as opposed to the older method of glass-molding, is comparatively recent, dating back only to about the beginning of the Christian Era. Sir Flinders Petrie has shown that the relieves at Beni-Hassan, which were formerly supposed to represent glass-blowers are more probably to be interpreted as metal-workers blowing a fire.

Textile and Dyeing Materials.

The begining of the art of weaving and the art of dyeing are lost in antiquity. Mummy cloths of varying degrees of fitness, still evidencing the dyer's skill, are preserved in many museums.
The invention of royal purple was perhaps as early as 1600 B.C. From the painted walls of tombs, temples and other structures which have been protected from exposure to weather, and from the decorated surfaces of pottery, chemical analysis often is able to give us knowledge of the materials used for such purposes.
Thus, the pigments from the tomb of Perneb (at estimated 2650 B.C.) which was presented to Metropolitan Museum of New York City in 1913, were examined by Maximilian Toch. He found that the red pigment proved to be iron oxide, haematite; a yellow consisted of clay containing iron or yellow ochre; a blue color was a finely powdered glass; and a pale blue was a copper carbonate, probably azurite; green were malachite; black was charcoal or boneblack; gray, a limestone mixed with charcoal; and a quantity of pigment remaining in a paint pot used in the decoration, contained a mixture of haematite with limestone and clay. So many analyses results made by known scientists all serve to illustrate the character of the evidence furnished by chemical analysis of surviving samples of the products of early chemical industries.