Archaeologists identify sources of ancient Egyptian copper

Brooks Hays

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Archaeologists identify sources of ancient egyptian copperScientists traced the origins of ancient Egyptian copper artifacts through chemical and lead isotope analysis. Photo by Frederik W.Rademakers, et al./Journal of Archaeological Science

The movement of traded goods across the ancient Mediterranean is mostly well understood, but scientists have struggled to detail the movement of metals into Egypt.

However, fresh analysis of Egyptian metal artifacts, sourced from several European museum collections, has helped archaeologists rediscover the sources of ancient Egyptian copper.

The analysis of artifacts was undertaken by two different teams of researchers. Each detailed their findings this week in separate scientific papers -- both published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The first study, carried out by archaeologists in the Netherlands and Belgium, suggests ancient Egyptians relied mostly on local copper ore, sourced from the Eastern Desert and Sinai Peninsula. Scientists traced the origins of the copper through lead isotope and chemical analyses of artifacts and ore samples dated to the Predynastic, Protodynastic and Old Kingdom periods.

"These findings are based on a very particular segment of the ancient Egyptian metal economy -- namely funerary consumption -- and thus only reveal the tip of the iceberg," Frederik W. Rademakers, researcher at KU Leuven in Belgium, said in a news release. "The underlying organization of early supply networks, clearly reliant on a variety of mining and production zones, and the development of copper production technology are only slowly revealed through ongoing research."

The second study, from a team of Czech researchers, showed ancient Egyptians procured some types of metal from distant sources.

Analysis of artifacts from Egyptian Museum of Leipzig University in Germany revealed elevated levels of nickel, suggesting the copper was sourced from Early Bronze Age Anatolia.

"The results were quite unexpected," said Czech Egyptologist Martin Odler. The study confirms that special metals had circulated around the ancient Near East earlier than previously thought."

In an overview of the two studies, Erez Ben-Yosef, an archeologist at Tel Aviv University, detailed the ways breakthroughs in metallurgic analysis can help researchers better understand economic, social and cultural dynamics in ancient Egypt.

"These studies constitute important steps forward in our understanding of early Egyptian metallurgy and raw materials procurement strategies," Ben-Yosef said. "These and future studies can benefit from a modular presentation of interpretational insights that takes into account differences in the insights' robustness and susceptibility to change as more data become available."