Gold in Ancient Egypt

Posted by on 12/12/2014 to Jewelry
gold in ancient egypt

Gold is one of the most popular metals for jewelry, and has been for thousands and thousands of years. The Ancient Egyptians used it in jewelry making as early as 3000 BCE, and associated the rare metal with royalty and gods. Gold was mined in ancient Egypt from around 2000 BCE and allowed to be worn only by kings for a long time before the privilege was extended to priests and the rest of the royal court. From about 2600BCE, kingdoms would store gold that they mined, imported, won in battle, or were given as tribute, in temples. It was state property and could be used in trade, to bolster the reputation of the king or kingdom, or opulently displayed when used to make fittings, doors, flooring, or pillars within the temples themselves.

Gold was considered to be the “skin of the gods,” especially the sun god, Ra, and was therefore sacred and used to make ritual objects. It was also associated with eternity and used for funerary objects, which were often buried with the dead and their quantity and quality indicated the social status of the deceased. Pharaoh Tutankhamun (King Tut) was buried in Thebes in 1323BCE, where he lay until archaeologist Howard Carter discovered his tomb in 1922CE. His mummy was housed in a solid gold coffin. His gold death mask, striped with lapis lazuli and adorned with the protective vulture and cobra, has become symbolic of ancient Egyptian culture and craftsmanship and is now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

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Gold was seen as eternal because it does not corrode or tarnish, unlike most other metals such as silver and copper. As there was little silver in Egypt and copper and gold could be mined in the region, most jewelry was made from these two metals. Poorer people could afford copper, leaving gold as a marker of status. However, jewelry could never be made of pure gold because it is such a soft metal, ranked at only 2.5-3 on Mohs scale of hardness. This means that it is extremely malleable and can be manipulated into pretty much any shape desired, but also that it needs to be alloyed with other metals such as silver, copper, zinc, and cobalt to achieve the necessary durability to withstand the wear that jewelry endures.This is what the karat numbers mean. Pure gold is 24 karat, or 24K, but the purest gold jewelry is only 22K (91.67%), which is extremely popular in India. In the US, most of the gold jewelry we see is 14K (58.33%) or 18K (75% gold aka 750 in Europe). All gold is yellow, but if it is alloyed with metals such as nickel, palladium, platinum, or manganese, it can become whiter in color. Nickel is used less frequently, especially in Europe, because so many people have nickel allergies and gold jewelry alloyed with nickel is more likely to cause a skin rash than that alloyed with other metals. To get the super shiny white gold color, jewelry may also be plated with a thin layer of rhodium (which can be redone as necessary). White gold provides the desired color, but doesn’t tarnish as easily as silver and is less expensive than platinum.
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