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. In its natural state or when produced artificially, electrum is a composite of gold and silver. As a result, it assumed symbolic functions.

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.

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-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 (360–342 BC) with hieroglyphs nfr-nb meaning “fine gold”. Now in the Kestner Museum, Hannover.

Weighing gold and silver. Tomb of Rekhmire (TT100), Sheikh Abd el Qurnah, West Thebes.
Weighing gold and silver. Tomb of Rekhmire (TT100), Sheikh Abd el Qurnah, West Thebes.

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.

Amulet showing the head of the Egyptian god Osiris. Late Period, ca. 664-332 BC. Egyptian Museum of Barcelona. E 506JA
Amulet showing the head of the Egyptian god Osiris. Late Period, ca. 664-332 BC. Egyptian Museum of Barcelona. E 506JA

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.

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