Gold in Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, gold, silver and electrum were the metals of choice for making jewelry. Due to its brilliance and incorruptibility, gold was associated with the Sun and the concept of immortality (hence the decision to make the bodies of gods from gold). Silver was associated with the Moon, and was used for the bones of the gods.

Obverse of an Egyptian gold stater of Nectanebo II (360-342 BC) with hieroglyphs nfr-neb meaning “fine gold”. Now in the Kestner Museum, Hannover. In its natural state or when produced artificially, electrum is a composite of gold and silver. As a result, it assumed symbolic functions.

Weighing gold and silver in ancient Egypt
Weighing gold and silver in ancient Egypt

“While the lapis lazuli was likely imported, the gold would have come from the eastern deserts of Upper Egypt. The vicinity of Naqada and Hierakonpolis to the gold-rich land between the Nile and the Red Sea may account for their early political preeminence.

Compositional analysis of gold objects from the Predynastic period and first dynasties indicates that gold was mostly acquired from veins embedded in quartz outcrops that would have been highly visible in the desert terrain or from placer gold accumulated in dry wadi riverbeds.

Quartz veins were easily separated from their matrix after smashing with heavy hammers. There is evidence that pit mining began in Predynastic times at sites like Wadi Dara and Umm Elegia, where miners followed quartz veins underground.”

Gold and Gold Mining in Ancient Egypt and Nubia, by Rosemarie Klemm, Dietrich Klemm (#aff)

In ancient Egypt gold was more plentiful than dirt. The oldest known map of a gold mine was drawn in the 19th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt (1292–11189 BC), whereas the first written reference to gold was recorded in the 12th Dynasty around 1900 BC.

The Ancient Egyptians had an infatuation with gold (Nebu), as it represented, not just wealth and glory but divine spiritual purpose.

Egyptian hieroglyphs from as early as 2600 BC describe gold, which King Tushratta of the Mitanni claimed was “more plentiful than dirt” in Egypt. Egypt and especially Nubia had the resources to make them major gold-producing areas for much of history.

Not only was Augustus Caesar in charge of an empire that accounted for 25% to 30% of the world’s economic output, but according to Stanford history professor Ian Morris, Augustus at one point held personal wealth equivalent to one-fifth of his empire’s economy.

That fortune would be the equivalent of about $4.6 trillion in 2014. “For a while,” Morris adds, Augustus “personally owned all of Egypt.” That’s hard to top.

Obverse of an Egyptian gold stater of Nectanebo II, "Nefer-nub", meaning "fine gold". The coin was composed of solid gold and was circular in shape.
Obverse of an Egyptian gold stater of Nectanebo II, “Nefer-neb”, meaning “fine gold”. The coin was composed of solid gold and was circular in shape. Late Period, 30th Dynasty, ca. 360-343 BC.

Gold, known as “nub” in ancient Egyptian, was highly valued and associated with the sun god Re. It was considered a divine metal and represented eternal life, the sun’s radiant power, wealth and the king’s divine authority.

Gold was used extensively in religious rituals, temple decorations, and the adornment of kings and nobility. It was also used as a form of currency and played a crucial role in trade and commerce.

Both gold and silver were considered precious metals and played important roles in the religious, social, and economic aspects of ancient Egyptian society.

Importance of Gold in ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, gold held significant cultural, religious, and economic importance. It was considered a symbol of divine power and associated with the sun god Re.

Gold was believed to be the flesh of the gods and was used in religious rituals and offerings to the deities. It was also used to adorn statues, temples, and tombs of pharaohs and other high-ranking individuals.

Gold was highly valued for its rarity and beauty, and it served as a measure of wealth and status. It was used as a form of currency and played a crucial role in trade and commerce. The kings and nobles adorned themselves with gold jewelry and accessories as a display of their wealth and social standing.

Additionally, gold was used in the creation of intricate and elaborate burial masks, such as the famous mask of Tutankhamun, to protect and accompany the deceased in the afterlife.

The abundance of gold in the tombs of kings and nobles reflected their belief in the eternal nature of the precious metal. Gold held immense significance in ancient Egypt, representing divinity, wealth, and eternal life.