Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Precious Metals from Tell Basta

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  • In 1906, workmen constructing a railway across the Egyptian delta uncovered two hoards of metal objects buried at Tell Basta (near modern Zagazig). The caches had been hidden close to the ancient temple dedicated to the feline goddess Bastet. The Metropolitan Museum acquired some vessels from the first cache the following year. The second find included jewelry and silver ingots as well as vessels, and now resides in the collection of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Several vessels in Cairo bear the cartouches of Queen Tawosret, the last ruler of Dynasty 19, and those inscriptions, along with the granulated decoration on the boss (30.8.371), suggest most pieces were manufactured between 1295 and 1186 B.C. The lion handle on one jug (07.228.187) and the mixture of Near Eastern motifs with traditional Egyptian scenes on the bowl (07.228.20), however, indicate a slightly later date for some pieces, and the Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1070–713 B.C) must be considered.


    The hoards contain a mixture of vessel forms covering a period of time with decorative motifs common to the circum-Mediterranean region, that is, widely found in many cultures along the Mediterranean coast. Some pieces seem not to be Egyptian, such as Canaanite-style earrings now in Cairo. This mixture of styles and motifs suggests that the objects may have been discarded temple equipment that had been collected for reuse. The partially recycled nature of some pieces—bits and pieces are missing—along with the hoards' location near a temple argue that a temple workshop owned the material. We know that craftsmen were using old or looted pieces to create new objects some time after 1000 B.C.


    Vessels made from precious metals were created for use in only a few settings, the temple or the tables of royal and noble households, where money and status permitted more opulent materials to replace the customary ceramic or bronze. Gold was the easier of the two precious metals for Egyptians to acquire, since nearby Nubia had significant deposits. Silver had to be imported, most likely from Greece or Anatolia, and as a result was an uncommon material in Egypt, although increasingly larger amounts were available to craftsmen by the late New Kingdom (ca. 1250 B.C.). Few gold and silver containers survive into modern times. Rare in antiquity, most were melted in the past to reuse the metal for new projects after the original item no longer had a relevant social or ideological value. Thus, the Tell Basta hoards were exceptional finds.


    The long open form called a situla (07.228.18; 07.228.22) was a drinking vessel, while jars (07.228.16), jugs (07.228.187), and bowls (07.228.20) were used to serve food and drink. The hoards had several strainers (30.8.369) designed to make the thick beer and wine more palatable. Vessels bearing representations of deities (30.8.370) most certainly were dedicatory items to the temple's cult.

    Diana Craig Patch
    Department of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art