Meroitic culture To Metallurgy (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

Meroitic culture

Evidence of Meroitic culture, from the ancient kingdom of Kush, is found in the middle Nile region, from the southern frontier of pharaonic Egypt at the First Cataract (Aswan) to the Khartoum area, and dates from the mid-third century BC, when the royal cemetery shifted from the region of Napata farther south to the city of Meroe, to the end of the kingdom, circa AD 350. Meroe was the name of the kingdom in classical literature.

A continuity of traditions of the earlier Napatan period, when the capital of the kingdom of Kush was farther north at Napata, is seen in Meroitic culture and there was an intermittent but intense Egyptian influence. In the initial phase, a re-emphasis of the cults of ancient Kushite deities and their connection with the ideology of kingship is seen. This renaissance of the third century BC coincided with, and was probably partly brought about by, economic and intellectual contacts with early Ptolemaic Egypt, established in circa 274 BC after the end of a conflict between the two powers. It may have been a consequence of the conflict with Egypt that in the first half of the third century BC a new dynasty, originating at Meroe, came to the throne. The new dynasty shifted the royal cemetery to Meroe, but this did not mean a shift of the center of power in a multi-centered kingdom. The ensuing development of the settlements in the Butana and the growth of agricultural production and cattle-breeding was part of a general process extending over the entire kingdom. Such activities were supported by large water reservoirs, some measuring circa 250m in diameter, which are probably evidence of state organized labor as well as of the control of the semi-nomadic transhumants.

The expansion of cultivated land and territorial power, the rapid development of specialized industries in urban settlements, and, by the turn of the second and first centuries BC, the emergence of a dense chain of prosperous villages in Lower Nubia inhabited by settlers from the south, was promoted by contacts with Egypt. The main items traded or sent in gift exchange to Egypt were war elephants, Nubian gold, ivory and exotic African wares. In exchange, Meroe received luxury wares and craftsmen, and information from Hellenistic Alexandria and Upper Egyptian temples such as Philae. During the third-second centuries BC a standardized material culture emerged as a result of the presence of a powerful central government, productive royal workshops and a well functioning redistributive system. The principal ethnic groups were Meroitic speakers living in the Butana and Nubian speakers who originally occupied the Napata/Dongola region. Although it may be presumed that there were a number of different ethnic groups that inhabited distinct regional units, cultural differences can be observed only in burial customs. However, these differences may only indicate social differentiation and different levels of initial Egyptianization.

Economic prosperity culminated around the late third/early second centuries BC. After the Upper Egyptian revolt against the Ptolemies (207/6-186 BC), which was supported by Meroe, Meroitic Lower Nubia emerged as a good market for craft goods traded from Upper Egypt and became a region where Egyptian religion and material culture were transmitted among the middle and lower social strata. Another culmination of prosperity and intense contact with Egypt occurred after the Roman occupation of Egypt, following an armed conflict between Meroe and Roman Egypt in 29-21/20 BC.

The Meroitic king, whose power was based on the ideology of the divine son, which was closely related to the New Kingdom Egyptian myth of the state, governed his land through a clericalized territorial administration. The intricacy of civil administration of the territorial units, settlements and temples of the vast kingdom, the management of the interconnected royal and temple economy, and trade and redistribution, brought about and then was promoted by the development of a Meroitic script, with a cursive form as well as a hieroglyphic one. Consisting of twenty-three symbols, the cursive alphabet was a reduction of the Egyptian demotic script system to a simple writing with vowel notations and was used for non-royal and then also for royal funerary texts, administrative purposes, private temple inscriptions and, increasingly in the late Meroitic period, for monumental royal inscriptions. The hieroglyphic script, with signs equivalent to the cursive signs, was used only for royal and temple inscriptions.

The structure of the government, the economy and social stratification are all reflected in settlement patterns. In the southern, central part of the kingdom were the ancient centers of an ambulatory kingship. The temple towns of Meroe, Sanam, Napata and Kawa were built around temple-palace complexes.

In urban settlements monumental architecture along processional avenues (for example, at Meroe and Kawa) and planned streets (at Meroe) have been excavated. While the smaller settlements of the south are unknown, there is more information about the Lower Nubian settlement pattern, as a result of the archaeological surveys connected to the building of the High Dam at Aswan. Provincial centers, such as Faras and Qasr Ibrim, were fortified temple towns. Smaller agricultural villages were built around temple-magazine compounds, such as at Meinarti. In early Meroitic villages nuclear families lived in terraced houses consisting of uniformly arranged two- or three-room units (Gezira Dabarosa, Gaminarti). In late Meroitic times (second-fourth centuries AD) villages of solidly built, two-story mudbrick houses, with barrel-vaulted rooms on the ground floor, have been found.

Multi-chambered temples erected in the major centers, such as the temples of Amen and Isis at Meroe, and the Amen temples at Naga and Amara, closely followed the standard plan of a Ptolemaic cult temple in Egypt. This consisted of pylon gateways, columned court, hypostyle hall, pronaos and naos, where the sacred bark of the god Amen rested. At Meroe the architecture of the Amen temple naos also reflects the traditions of the earlier Napatan period. One-room temples, consisting of a pyloned cella within enclosure walls, were erected to the cults of the native deities Apedemak, Arensnuphis and Sebiumeker.

Monumental statues, with squat proportions and massive limbs, attest to the preservation of the style of Napatan monumental art, and the influence of archaizing traits in sculpture in Egypt in the Late period. Contemporaneous Egyptian influence is also prevalent. A synthesis of the tradition of Napatan archaizing with the classicizing tendency of early Ptolemaic sculpture is apparent in the extraordinary late third century BC gilded bronze statue of a Meroitic king from Tabo in Upper Nubia. The same style characterizes the architectural statues of the desert palace at Musawwarat esSufra. where, however, non-Egyptian iconographic themes predominated, such as parapet walls ending in carved elephants and elephant column bases. A more direct Hellenistic Egyptian influence is seen in statues of the late second and first centuries BC from the water sanctuary at Meroe, of reclining draped figures, harpists, flute players and philosophers.

These belonged to an iconographic program connected to royal ancestor worship and the inundation of the Nile.

Reliefs carved in the soft Nubian sandstone decorated exterior and interior walls of the temples and the royal funerary cult chapels. On the exteriors the reliefs are sunk, while the interior ones are raised. Iconographic and stylistic continuity is indicated by the reliefs of the Apedemak temples at Musawwarat es-Sufra (late third century BC) and Naga (first century AD). Stylistic traits of the Napatan period, derived from Late period Egypt where Old and Middle Kingdom canons and forms were revived, were synthesized with trends arriving from contemporaneous Egypt. But Egyptian themes and forms were adapted and transformed: Meroitic concepts were articulated in Egyptian style, and vice versa. Direct imitation of Egyptian models occurred only exceptionally, such as the first century AD kiosk in front of the Apedemak temple at Naga, which, with its purely Roman-Egyptian structure and details, indicates the importation from Egypt of a plan as well as the presence of Upper Egyptian stonemasons.

In the archaeologically largely unexplored Butana region, the ruins of stone and fired brick temples and palace complexes (at Musawwarat es-Sufra, Naga and Wad ban Naga) indicate the survival of architectural types of the earlier Napatan period as well as the emergence of new types (such as one-room temples and temples or audience halls erected on podia). The presence of Egyptian craftsmen and the influence of both Hellenistic and traditional Egyptian architecture of the Ptolemaic period are also attested.

The rulers were buried in a cemetery at Meroe in the subterranean chambers of pyramid tombs with funerary chapels decorated with reliefs in Egyptianizing style. These reliefs reflect an iconographic development that began in Napatan times under the decisive influence of pharaonic religion and mortuary customs, and was then shaped by Kushite concepts and cult traditions of the temple of Isis at Philae. Mummification of the bodies in royal burials attests to the maintenance of Egyptianized burial customs, yet the abandonment in burials of servant figures (shawabtis) and canopic jars (containers for the viscera) shows a re-emphasis of Kushite customs, which are, however, more conspicuous in lower status burials.

The excavated burials of higher status officials and priests in Upper Nubia (Amir Abdalla, third century BC to first/second centuries AD; Sedeinga, third century BC to fourth century AD) and in Lower Nubia (Faras, late second century BC to fourth century AD; Karanog, first century BC to third century AD; Arminna, Qasr Ibrim, Nag Gamus and so on, second to fourth centuries AD) had mudbrick pyramid superstructures complemented with an offering niche, which replaced the earlier royal funerary cult chapel. Beginning in the first century BC, stelae and offering tables inscribed in Meroitic cursive script, and statues of the deceased as an anthropomorphized bird ("ba-bird"), were associated with the niches. Burials of commoners and also of Meroitic as well as non-Meroitic groups living at the periphery of the Butana region were covered with earth mounds. In general, the dead were buried with personal ornaments, and royal and aristocratic burials also contained many luxury vessels, mostly of Egyptian origin. In all grave types, vessels connected to water libation are common.

Wheel-made pottery wares, surpassing contemporaneous Egyptian ones in technical quality, and vessel types known from the earlier Napatan period, were produced at Meroe in the third century BC. The large output of the central workshops and the system of redistribution explain the typological and stylistic homogeneity of the pottery assemblage throughout the kingdom. In the first half of the second century BC, the workshops at Meroe began to adopt vessel types and painted decoration patterns of Upper Egyptian (Theban) workshops, which, in turn, were directly influenced by Alexandrian Hellenistic pottery styles. Vessels decorated with simple floral friezes were produced at Meroe in the second half of the second century BC. By the middle of the first century BC, pottery painting reached a high artistic level, and workshop styles and individual painters can be distinguished. Designs of rich floral motifs and religious symbols, and figural motifs, including humans, animals, divine images, caricatures, illustrations of now lost tales and Dionysian scenes, were executed in two colors. The iconographic connections with monumental art are conspicuous.

With the discovery of an extraordinarily fine marl clay in the late first century BC, the Meroe workshops developed a fine, thin-walled "egg-shell" ware. This pottery was inspired by imports: wares of the Augustan period ("Eastern Sigillata"), fine Roman wares and fine Egyptian wares (especially from Memphis) and faience. A native tradition from pre-Napatan times was also continued in the Butana region with the production of handmade vessels with burnished red or black slip and incised decoration of human figures, ostriches, trees and geometric friezes. The high quality and standard execution of this ware indicate production in central workshops.

While the importance of iron working at Meroe was overestimated by earlier scholars, other industries achieved extraordinary standards by the first century BC. Jewelry from this period discovered in the pyramid of Queen Amanishakheto consists of gold bezel rings decorated with scenes from the cycle of the royal birth legend. Gold working techniques of engraving, embossing, granulation and cloisonne were all employed. The florescence of the royal faience workshops can be dated to the mid-first century AD, when the walls of temples and palaces were decorated with reliefs of faience inlays.

The reasons for the economic decline of the kingdom in the third-fourth centuries AD are unknown, but were presumably determined by the decline of the Roman empire and its trade, the growing aggression of nomadic tribes in the area of the Egyptian frontier (the Blemmyes) and along the southern periphery (the Noba), and attacks by the emerging power of Aksum (in northern Ethiopia). Meroe’s decline was also aggravated by the social and cultural imbalance caused by the settlement in Meroitic territory of superficially acculturated groups of Noba. The last Meroitic ruler was buried in the royal cemetery at Meroe in circa AD 360.

The post-Meroitic rulers were probably of non-Meroitic descent and did not continue to be buried in pyramid graves in the royal cemetery at Meroe. They nevertheless claimed legal continuity by adopting Meroitic symbols of power without, however, maintaining Meroitic administration and institutionalized cults. Territorial unity was preserved until the first third of the fifth century AD, when the former Meroitic kingdom was split up into two kingdoms. By the sixth century there already were three independent kingdoms between the First Cataract (Aswan) and the Butana region.


Egyptian metalworkers do not seem to have placed a great deal of emphasis upon work in copper, bronze or iron, at least not after the Old Kingdom. Gold was the Egyptian metal par excellence; much of our evidence for metal technology in ancient Egypt relates to the acquisition of and work in gold. It is no accident that the most famous Egyptian map relating to mining and metallurgy is the Turin Museum papyrus from the mid-twelfth century BC (reign of Ramesses III of the 20th Dynasty), showing the location of gold mining installations at Bir Umm Fawakhir in the Eastern Desert.

Egyptian silver, which seems to have been even more valuable than gold, at least prior to the New Kingdom, is more accurately identified as "aurian silver," i.e. silver derived from silver-rich alluvial gold rather than extracted from silver-bearing galena by a process known as cupellation, the usual source of silver in the ancient world. This is why the earliest Egyptian texts refer to silver as "white gold" (nbw hci). Egyptian "silver" artifacts therefore have a high gold content, a fact demonstrated by metallurgical analyses. These "silver" artifacts also contain a significant amount of copper (as much as 15 percent).

Since alluvial gold (and aurian silver) almost never contain more than 1 percent copper, the copper in Egyptian aurian silver must have been added intentionally, producing what is technically a silver-gold-copper tertiary alloy. The copper was added to harden the naturally soft silver, just as in modern sterling silver (about 7 percent copper). By the middle of the fourth millennium BC, Egyptian metalworkers had already discovered that copper hardens silver (and gold) and had developed the technology of producing intentional alloys.

Copper (bmty)

The use of copper itself goes back to the Badarian period (circa 4,500-3,800 BC). The four copper beads excavated by Guy Brunton at Mostagedda, in grave 596, remain the earliest copper artifacts known from Egypt. The use of copper increases slightly in the following Nagada I phase (circa 4,000-3,500 BC), and more perceptibly during the Nagada II period (circa 3,500-3,200 BC). A range of copper tools and implements, including axes, adzes, hoes, saws and knives, can most likely be placed in this period.

One of the axes found by Brunton at Matmar (Tomb 3131) was studied metallurgically in 1932. It proved to have been cast, probably in an open mold, then cold-worked and annealed by heating at low temperature to reduce the strain created by hammering. The ax had been more heavily worked at the edge in order to harden the cutting edge of the tool.

Analysis of early materials is of exceptional importance. It demonstrates that the basic metallurgical techniques of casting, annealing and work-hardening were already in use in Egypt by at least the mid-fourth millennium BC. Egyptian work in copper (and eventually bronze) continued to develop during the Early Dynastic period down to the end of the Old Kingdom. In the Middle and New Kingdoms, gold and hard stones tended to replace copper and bronze in importance. In the Late period, especially the 25th and 26th Dynasties, there was once again a great increase in the use of bronze, chiefly for the manufacture of human and animal figurines.

The fourth millennium BC site of Ma’adi on the east bank of the Nile has often been described as a copper production center, but, given the paucity of metallurgical finds, this interpretation is unlikely. The site has produced some evidence for actual metalworking in the form of about 16kg of copper ore and some copper fragments that seem to derive from melting operations. Analysis of the ore samples suggests a Palestinian source, either Timna or Fenan, both known centers of ancient copper mining that were being exploited as early as the second half of the fourth millennium BC. This is supported by the presence of Palestinian pottery.

One of the pieces of copper from Ma’adi, possibly a fragment of an ax, had 2.7 percent arsenic and 2.5 percent nickel. This demonstrates that arsenical copper, distinctive of the following phases in Egyptian copper technology, was being used already in Nagada II times. This is almost certainly a fortuitous alloy, since the arsenic came into metallic copper from the ore. From royal tombs of the 1st Dynasty at Abydos (especially the tomb of Djer) and the 2nd Dynasty (especially that of Khasekhemwy) come a number of copper vessels in a variety of forms, including ewers, basins and bowls, some with spouts and loop handles attached by rivets or wire, used in a washing ceremony. Many of these vessels were made of arsenical copper (with isolated examples of bronze) and were formed by raising a flat sheet of copper. Many other copper artifacts from the Old Kingdom were made of unalloyed copper, as demonstrated by the analysis of eleven of the copper artifacts from the tomb of Impy at Giza.

The use of ewers and other spouted metal vessels continued throughout the Old Kingdom. Much larger vessels of copper were also being produced at this time. One, found in a tomb at Abydos opened by Emile Amelineau in 1896-7 and subsequently lost, had a height of about 66cm and an estimated diameter of 75cm.

Probably the most famous copper artifacts from the Old Kingdom are the large copper statue of King Pepi I (6th Dynasty) and the much smaller statue of his son Merenre, both excavated by James Quibell at Hierakonpolis, along with the magnificent gold image of the god Horus. The statues were made by hammering plates of copper over a wooden core. They were found in a poor state of preservation and have never received proper care or scholarly attention. Large-scale metal statues from the Middle and New Kingdoms are quite rare, as hard stone had become the desired medium.

The Old Kingdom has also produced some of the most interesting pictorial evidence relating to ancient Egyptian metalworking technology. Several Old Kingdom tombs are decorated with scenes of a group of men crouched around some sort of furnace, each of them blowing into it through a long hollow tube. At first interpreted as glassblowing scenes, they were soon correctly identified as metallurgical scenes, but the exact nature of the procedure being depicted remains controversial. The best preserved examples come from the Saqqara tombs of Mereruka and Ti.

According to the inscriptions, individuals identified as metalworkers are melting copper. It has been claimed that human breath, blown onto a fire, could not produce the temperatures necessary for smelting copper ore or for melting metallic copper, which required a higher temperature than smelting, but more recent studies have demonstrated that both processes would be possible, at least on a small scale. These scenes must depict the melting of metallic copper in a crucible; there is very little evidence that the Egyptians themselves were ever engaged in extractive copper metallurgy.

At the Nubian fort of Buhen there is actual evidence of an Old Kingdom copper smelting "factory." This consisted of three furnaces and some quantity of malachite ore. Middle Kingdom copper smelting installations are also reported from the Nubian fort of Kuban, a site that had an estimated 200 metric tons of slag.

The "furnaces" depicted in the Old Kingdom tomb scenes consisted either of a single crucible (tomb of Wepemneferet) or of two crucibles placed back to back (tomb of Mereruka). In the latter scene the crucibles are of the type which provided the model for the hieroglyphic sign that Egyptologist Alan Gardiner identified with an ingot of metal, but which must represent a crucible.

This type of crucible is known from actual examples found in the Sinai (Serabit el-Khadim), in Syria (Tell el-Qitar) and in Mesopotamia (Tell ed-Dhiba’i). Such crucibles tend to be associated not with blowpipes, but with the innovation in smelting/melting technology brought about by the introduction of the pot bellows. With a pair of foot-operated pot bellows, it was possible to reach higher temperatures and to maintain a more controlled atmosphere in the furnace through the use of ambient air rather than human breath. Although known at earlier sites in southwest Asia, the pot bellows does not seem to predate the New Kingdom in Egypt. This has suggested to some scholars that it was introduced into Egypt in the Second Intermediate Period by the Hyksos, but there is no firm basis for this belief.

The revolution in smelting/melting technology is clearly depicted. The old technology, with blowpipes and crucibles, is still found in scenes in the Middle Kingdom tombs at Beni Hasan. The "bellows," which is thought to be depicted at Beni Hasan in the famous scene showing the caravan of nomadic Asiatics, is not the pot bellows and is probably not any sort of bellows. The new technology, with pot bellows, tuyeres and furnace, is known from a number of New Kingdom tomb paintings, especially those in the Theban tombs of Rekhmire (TT 100) and the Two Sculptors (Nebamen and Ipuky, TT 181).

The best collection of metallurgical paraphernalia associated with the pot bellows actually comes from the metal workshop found in Mine L at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai. As this site is now recognized as an area of turquoise rather than copper mining, the excavators propose, following a suggestion first made by Flinders Petrie in 1906, that the metal workshop in Mine L and the smaller one in Mine G produced metal tools used there by the turquoise miners. This would also explain the references to copper workers in the Middle Kingdom inscriptions from the Sinai, especially from the reigns of Amenemhat II, III and IV. The metal workshops there, however, must be of New Kingdom date, roughly contemporary with the time of the vizier Rekhmire (Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III). Copper deposits are also known in the Sinai (Wadi Ba’ba, Wadi Kharig, Bir Nasib, Regeita), and it is now even claimed that the Sinai was the major Egyptian source of copper, as well as turquoise, throughout the pharaonic period. There are major differences of opinion concerning this, however, that have yet to be resolved.

Evidence from the Eastern Desert indicates that the copper deposits there were exploited during pharaonic times, especially at Umm Semiuki (Gebel Abu Hamamid), but also at Gebel el-Atawi and Abu Seyal. At Umm Semiuki the ancient copper workings are said to be some 16m deep, with the oxidized zone, consisting of the carbonate ores malachite and azurite, comprising the first 7m followed by sulphide deposits at greater depths. In general, mining during pharaonic times consisted of following a surface exposure along the ore vein until the mineralization petered out. Such shaft mining, known also from the galena mines at Gebel Zeit, never exceeded a depth of some 20m. This is in contrast to the mines from the Graeco-Roman period, where shafts some 200m deep were not uncommon.

The Egyptians also derived copper from Timna (now in southern Israel) and Fenan (Jordan), the former actually being an Egyptian-controlled mining operation during the thirteenth-twelfth centuries BC. The Papyrus Harris (dating to the end of the reign of Ramesses III) refers to an expedition by boat and by donkey to the land of "Atike" (most likely the Timna area) in quest of copper. Timna has also produced extensive evidence of the smelting of the copper ore mined there, which was more efficient than smelting it elsewhere. A temple to the goddess Hathor was constructed in the mining area at Timna that was similar to (and presumably contemporary with) the Hathor temple on the acropolis of Serabit el-Khadim.

Egypt, at least during the New Kingdom, also obtained copper from Cyprus, known throughout the second millennium BC as the land of "Alashiya." Some of the Amarna Letters, exchanged between the ruler of Alashiya and various fourteenth century BC pharaohs, contain numerous references to royal presents of copper sent from Cyprus to Egypt.

The Egyptian word for copper, generally read as A""^ " although some scholars still prefer the reading "bi3," appears as early as a year name from the 2nd Dynasty inscribed on the Palermo Stone, a 5th Dynasty king list. Various types or grades of copper are mentioned in texts, including "new" copper, "hard" copper and "glittering" copper. From at least the 6th Dynasty (Coptos Decree), texts refer to the use of "Asiatic" copper. It has been proposed that Asiatic copper was the Egyptian designation for copper from Cyprus, shipped in the form of oxhide ingots. This is most unlikely, as references to such copper in Egyptian texts predate the earliest known oxhide ingot by about a thousand years. Oxhide ingots are shown in the Rekhmire tomb paintings being carried by men from "Keftiu," the Egyptian name for (Minoan) Crete. However, other tomb paintings show such ingots being carried by men from Palestine or Syria.

Other scholars have argued that Asiatic copper was an Egyptian designation for bronze. This is also most unlikely. Although there is sporadic evidence for the use of bronze (an alloy of copper and tin, normally having 5-10 percent tin) going back to the time of the 2nd Dynasty, as shown by the analysis of some of the ewers from the tomb of King Khasekhemwy, the use of bronze in Egypt really begins only in the New Kingdom. A group of Middle Kingdom artifacts from the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, were analyzed and proved to be made of arsenical copper, whereas those of New Kingdom date were of bronze.

Bronze (to*™)

Egyptian texts use the word usually translated as "bronze," but only during the New Kingdom, after which virtually all copper-based artifacts were of bronze so that the distinction between copper and bronze (p&nR) was no longer of any interest.

Egyptian texts also refer to ‘^Jfv(tin), and one late Ramesside letter even mentions adding tin to copper, in order to make a knife and two lamp-pots (?) of bronze. Papyrus Anastasi IV refers to ingots of copper and bars of tin being carried on the necks of the inhabitants of Alashiya. Why tin is here associated with Cyprus, a land that has no local tin deposits, has long been a problem, but the form of the two raw materials designated in the text is exactly that depicted in the metalworking scene from the tomb of the Two Sculptors (reign of Amenhotep III). Ingots of copper and tin were in wide circulation across the Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age, as clearly demonstrated by the Uluburun shipwreck, excavated off the southern coast of Turkey.

Extensive deposits of alluvial tin (or cassiterite) are known from the Eastern Desert, in contexts often associated with Old Kingdom inscriptions, but there seems to be no evidence attesting to their use in pharaonic times. Sources of tin for pharaonic Egypt still constitute a great enigma.

Iron (bi3)

The ancient Egyptians do not seem to have made much use of iron. The earliest Egyptian iron objects are the nine beads found by Gerald Wainwright in two Badarian graves at Gerza in 1911. Analysis by Desch, the leading archaeo-metallurgist in the 1920s-1930s, revealed that one of these beads had 92.5 percent iron and 7.5 percent nickel, thus establishing beyond reasonable doubt that they were made of meteoritic iron (about 5.0 percent nickel). It is generally assumed that all early iron artifacts from Egypt and elsewhere were made of meteoritic iron. This is not necessarily correct; smelted iron was sometimes inadvertently produced in the course of copper smelting operations. This seems to have been the source of iron used in making the iron artifacts from the New Kingdom Hathor temple at Timna, as none of the eleven analyzed artifacts contained any nickel.

The distinction between terrestrial or smelted iron and meteoritic iron was possibly of interest to Egyptian scribes, so that, when the former became more readily available during the New Kingdom, the latter was further qualified as "iron from heaven" bi3 n pt). The implement (nttrty) used in the "Opening of the Mouth" ceremony on mummies seems to have always been made of meteoritic iron. Many examples are known, including a complete set from the tomb of Tutankhamen, but none has been analyzed. The famous iron dagger from Tutankhamen’s tomb is also said to have a blade of meteoritic iron, but this cannot be determined on the basis of the existing evidence. This dagger was clearly made to be a companion piece to the one with a blade of gold, a clear demonstration of the value of iron in New Kingdom Egypt.

On the basis of the surviving artifactual evidence it has been argued that Egypt entered the Iron Age (from the technological point of view) about 700 BC. The full technology necessary for turning wrought iron into quenched and tempered steel is not attested in Egypt until then. The best evidence comes from the analytical work carried out on a remarkable collection of twenty-three iron artifacts exca vated about a century ago by Petrie at Thebes (and now in the Manchester Museum), which are attributed to the seventh century BC.

Iron working in ancient Egypt has been most closely associated with Meroitic civilization in Upper Nubia, following the discovery of massive slag heaps at the site of Meroe during the initial excavations in 1904-14. Iron working at Meroe seems to date from circa 600 BC to the first century AD. A series of five iron-smelting furnaces were excavated in the renewed fieldwork at Meroe (1969-75). Although a controversial issue, it still seems reasonable to assume that knowledge of iron working came to Meroe from Egypt.

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