Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Silver in Ancient Egypt

Silver was used to fashion beads as early as the Predynastic Period (ca. 4400–3100 B.C.) and remained important for personal ornaments and cult objects in Egypt through Roman times. Temple inscriptions suggest that for much of Egypt’s history, silver was valued more highly than gold. However, unlike gold, which is known to have been brought from the Eastern Desert and Nubia, the sources of silver are obscure, and in view of the relative scarcity of local geological resources, assuredly much was imported from neighboring lands. For this reason, and because silver, especially hammered sheet, is highly susceptible to the corrosive salts found in most Egyptian burial environments, it generally appears less frequently in the Egyptian archaeological record than gold or cupreous metals.

There are few documented finds of silver predating the early Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1650 B.C.). From the tomb of Hetepheres I, mother of the Dynasty 4 king Khufu (r. ca. 2551–2528 B.C.), come notable exceptions: a group of bangles inlaid with semi-precious stones and furniture fittings, now divided between the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

The earliest Egyptian silver in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection comes from burials of women associated with the temple of the Dynasty 11 king Mentuhotep II (r. ca. 2051–2000 B.C.) at Thebes excavated by Herbert Winlock in 1922–23. Nearly all is in the form of small beads, but an interesting sa-amulet of alternating electrum and silver wires secured with electrum bands was also found (25.3.253). As defined by the Roman author, naturalist, philosopher, and historian Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79) in his Naturalis historia¸ electrum is a natural alloy of gold and silver containing more than 20 percent of the latter. Dependent on composition, its color can range from pale gold to yellowish white, and in the past, when based on visual inspection, much whiter electrums were frequently mistaken for silver. For example, a Middle Kingdom “silver” amulet from Abydos representing Anubis recumbent on a shrine (04.18.9), which was recently analyzed using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, is actually electrum containing approximately 40 percent gold.

A wealth of silver was found on the body of Wah, a minor official buried in Thebes around the beginning of Dynasty 12 (ca. 1981–1802 B.C.). In death, as probably in life, Wah wore two ball bead necklaces, a typical form of jewelry in the Middle Kingdom. The larger is silver (40.3.19), the smaller gold, and the beads from each were made in a similar way from hemispheres of hammered sheet that were joined using an early, experimental form of soldering. The round beads were separated by cylinder beads rolled from small rectangles of hammered sheet. In this case, not only the silver survived 4,000 years of burial, but also the linen cords. Wah’s extraordinary scarabs were made of silver as well. The larger is the earliest example of metal-into-metal inlay—in this instance, electrum hieroglyphs hammered into cast silver—known from Egypt (40.3.12). How a private individual at this time, even one as well connected as Wah, had access to so much of this rare metal remains a puzzle. The inscription indicates he received the scarab from his powerful superior, Meketre, although the phrasing is generally reserved for a royal donation. As Royal Treasurer under Mentuhotep IV (r. ca. 1988–1981 B.C.) and Royal Chief Steward under Amenemhat I (r. ca. 1981–1952 B.C.), Meketre would have had access to precious materials. As for the raw material, lead isotope analysis indicates that the metal likely came from Lavrion (Greece), an important source of silver during classical times.

In many ways, silver was used similarly to gold. A recent Museum acquisition, sumptuous silver jewelry from Haraga, a provincial site near the mouth of the Fayum Oasis, reflects the refinement of gold cloisonné inlay jewelry worn by elite women during the Middle Kingdom (2014.619.7). Unlike most silver antiquities in the Museum, these have never been cleaned—a fate suffered by many in the past—and they retain a thick crust of archaeological silver chloride corrosion. On a fragmentary pectoral, flanking the central bovine emblem, are two bees. A single bee is repeated in a unique three-dimensional representation, possibly from a diadem (2014.619.6). Perhaps only two other Middle Kingdom pectorals not associated with royalty are known, but another Haraga fragment points to royal patronage: a gilded silver cartouche with the prenomen of Senwosret II (r. ca. 1887–1878 B.C) (2014.619.8). Gilded silver was quite rare in Egypt at this time.

Like gold, silver was hammered to produce leaf that was used to adorn various materials, but very little has survived. A polychrome wood figure of Lady Dedetamun—a poignant representation dating to Dynasty 13 (ca. 1802–1650 B.C.)—has her eyes indicated in silver leaf (with painted-on black pupils), as well as her finger- and toenails. She wears silver ribbons in her wig and has a generous suite of silver-leaf and painted jewelry (19.3.1).

Most mirrors in Egypt and elsewhere around the ancient world were cast from copper or bronze, the latter sometimes containing large amounts of tin to render them silvery, such as a New Kingdom example in the Museum’s collection (1972.118.30). The mirrors were generally highly polished to increase reflectivity. Egyptian mirrors are round or slightly flattened ovals and have a tang that was inserted into a metal, wood, or occasionally ivory handle and secured with a rivet. But silver, because of its pale color and soft luster, was the ideal material for this purpose, and for the elite who had access to precious metals, it was preferred. One of the two silver mirrors with gilded wooden handles—the wood is a modern restoration—associated with the so-called foreign wives of Thutmose III (r. ca. 1479–1425 B.C.) is inscribed with his name (26.8.97). Like these two, most Egyptian mirrors with known findspots have been found in burials of women and include images of, or relating to, women: in this case, there is a cow’s face on the handle that is an emblem of Hathor, one of Egypt’s goddesses most closely associated with women and femininity.

More silver was available in Egypt during the New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 B.C.) than earlier, but still only five additional silver objects are among the numerous gold vessels, jewels, and sumptuous items associated with burials of Thutmose’s foreign wives. These include three lidded libation vessels, each inscribed with the name of a different lady (18.8.21a, b). It is likely that each vessel was made in two pieces from hammered sheet, for example with a separately made bottom added to an open “shell,” like similarly shaped hammered vessels of copper and bronze (98.4.66), but their state of preservation makes this difficult to confirm. Each stopper was made from three pieces of sheet.

Although most silver in ancient Egypt—like these libation vessels—was used in the form of hammered sheet, there are a number of surviving solid-cast silver statuettes (30.8.93). On the Museum’s monochromatic figure of an unclothed woman, the fluid contours and smooth surface of her lissome body contrast with the textures of her separately made broad collar, wristlets, anklets, and earrings, and her tightly curled wig. Although long recognized as Saite in date (664–525 B.C.), it was only when the figure was radiographed and cleaned of massive archaeological corrosion in the late 1980s that raised hieroglyphs on her shoulders naming King Necho II (r. 610–595 B.C.) and other surface details were revealed, including delicate punch marks indicating her pubic hair. Also exposed by removal of the corrosion are a scattering of patches required to repair casting flaws and a series of abrasions on the inside of the right arm, barely visible without magnification, that are rare evidence of a step in the finishing process that is usually obliterated in subsequent polishing and burnishing.

Because of its pale color, the Egyptians associated silver with the moon (as opposed to the golden sun), ritual purity, and the bones of the gods (coupled with their golden flesh). Although Thoth was the major lunar deity, silver was not particularly favored for his images. On the other hand, more silver statuettes representing Nefertem than any other deity are known, as well as numerous amulets, although the correlation between the deity and the metal finds no parallel in textual sources (26.7.853).

A fluted bowl of the fourth century B.C. decorated in an “international” style is one of several silver vessels that had their weight written in Demotic script in traditional Egyptian measures (18.2.14). Under the Ptolemies (305–30 B.C.), silver became far more common in Egypt than during preceding millennia, and its value in relation to gold kept more with standards in neighboring lands.

Egypt joined the international economy of the Hellenistic world in another way. Coinage was invented in western Anatolia in the seventh century B.C. and from there spread westward to the Greek coastal cities and the Greek mainland. Foreign currency apparently circulated in Egypt in the second half of first millennium B.C., introduced by Greek traders and Persian invaders, but there were few locally minted coins of native or foreign rulers prior to Ptolemaic reign. A silver tetradrachm of King Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, who participated in tumultuous family struggles over rule of Egypt from 170 to 116 B.C. (05.44.884), may have been minted in the ancient Greek province of Cyrenaica (modern Libya), where he was sole ruler from 164 to 145 B.C. In Western cultures (as opposed to East Asia, where metal currency generally was cast), coins were produced by striking, which entails hammering cast blanks of known weight and purity into intaglio dies.