Gold, Granite and Water: Mining in the Egyptian Desert


Dr. Carol Meyer received her BA in Anthropology & Classics from Tulane University, and her MA & Ph.D. in Mesopotamian Archaeology for the University of Chicago. She has excavated in Mexico, England, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and, of course, Egypt. She is currently a Research Associate at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

Dr. Meyer began by telling the audience that she first became interested in working at Bir Um Fawakir, while working on the Epigraphic Project at Chicago House. During her tenure at Chicago House she was assigned for a period to a project at Quesir in the Red Sea Cost. Traveling to and from Quesir she was intrigued by the ancient graffiti that appears at the Wadi Hammamat, an ancient quarrying/mining center, and the ancient Roman watering stations that are spaced along the entire route. At Bir Um Fawakir, however, the remains did not meet the standard watering station pattern. She determined to investigate what was really going on there and in 1992 took a small group out to the site and began a survey.

Bir Um Fawakir translates to "Well of the Mother of Pots", and pottery there was, in abundance. There were sherds everywhere, dating mostly from the 5th and 6th centuries into the Byzantine period. Though vast amounts of pottery was found at the site, no significant texts of any sort turned up, save wine dockets from broken amphorae.

It theory, the site ought not to exist at all. The Byzantine literature says that the empire was too weak to support Eastern Desert habitation. So what was the function of this site? Was it a watering station? No, itís too big to be a watering station.Was it a military installation? There were way too many people living there for it to be military and there are not fortifications of any kind, so it was not military.Was it used for granite quarrying? Maybe, but the site seemed to be earlier than the period of granite quarrying in the area.Was it a gold mining site? The mountains of the Eastern Desert are on the edge of the continental shelf that has been pushed up by the Great Rift. Precambrian Fawakir Granite is shot through with a variety of metals. The granite itself also forms an aquifer, which provided water. It would have been hard to support mining on this spot if it had not been for the water. The signs pointed most promisingly to a gold mining operation.

So, the team determined to map the site, starting at the eastern end, which was the best preserved segment of the site. Two weeks were allotted to accomplish this task! As it turned out, two week was not near enough to map what eventually proved to be 230 structures. The whole project took 8 years of field work when all was said and done.

So, in 1993, the team returned, rented a house from the Egyptian Geological Survey and settled in for a second season of mapping. Dr. Meyer screened a slide of a lovely spot with a large house and a widely spreading acacia tree, which is the house she hoped to have assigned. She then screened a second slide of a small rectangular building with a small open porch on a gentle rise, and with not a sign of any growing thing around it. This was the house the team actually used because it was the structure with a toilet and a kitchen! Such is the joy of field work!

The structures mapped were predominately dwellings, gen-erally of 2-3 rooms, some with out buildings. The structures are made of stone, and the preservation is quite good. Some walls stand 5-6 feet high, and it was possible to spot and plot such features as mastabas, and grain storage silos, without having to do any excavation.

Bir Um Fawakir is a particularly important site as there is only one other town from the period that is known in any detail, and Bir Um Fawakir is much better preserved. Thus, this town is important. It is also the site of the only intensively studied gold mines and the only one from the Byzantine period.

In surveying the site, no administrative structures were found, nor any churches, large animal enclosures or fortifications. The site commands a good view of all the main roads to the Nile and the Red Sea. A cemetery was found in the hills, containing very small burial chambers, which did not afford room for many if any grave goods. Near some of the graves, wine jug sherds seem to indicate that perhaps a commemorative feast took place in the vicinity. It was standard practice to celebrate a commemorative feast 40 days and 1 year following a death.

In 1997 the team pushed to finish mapping the main settlement and started investigating the gold mines. They were particularly interested in Outlier 2 as it contained some features found no where else, such as grain silos.

Another intriguing question presented itself. Who were the miners working here in the desert? According to Diodorus Siculus who referenced Agitharkides, slaves and criminals manned the mines in Ancient Egypt. Work at Bir Um Fawakir found absolutely nothing to support their theory. The site looks much more like it supported a live-in population who received wine and grain rations plus some compensation in the form of coinage. References have been found providing instructions as to the disposition of money, some to be delivered to a specific person in the Luxor area, other to be banked, etc. It looks much more like career miners, perhaps working for the government or even a private concern, inhabited the site.

The team worked with maps of both the modern and ancient mines, and were able to locate five ancient mines. One thing that Agitharkides did provide that is quite useful is technical descriptions of the mining process that could be compared with what the investigating team actually found. Agitharkides noted that fires were set against metal-bearing quartz rock faces to fracture and splinter the stone for easy access to the minerals. The team found absolutely nothing that would support this technique. They did, however, find at least one iron wedge that would have been an appropriate mining tool.It was becoming clear that very probably neither Diodorus Siculus nor Agitharkides had ever actually visited the mines they wrote about.

The team took samples in mine #3 and found pyrite, hematite, etc., all of which are sulfides and hard to smelt. Agitharkides says the stone was crushed to "seed"-sized fragments when it was removed from the mine to separate out the ore, then the ore was further crushed in preparation or smelting. Clearly some crushing did occur, and at the site. The team found many dimpled stones used to break the ore bearing stone. To test the process, the team took chunks of ore to the modern Wadi es Sid mine and processed it by hand until the seed-sized fragments had been milled to a flour-like state, then repeatedly washed to separate the gold from the other materials. They confirmed that it had to be ground to this base powder before it could be smelted. The concentrated ore must then be smelted in a porous crucible mixed with lead. The combined mixture is heated until the lead is absorbed into the porous base, leaving the precious metal (cupation).

Dr. Meyer and her team believe that the ore was transported from Bir Um Fawakir to a fine crushing and smelting site in the Nile Valley, probably at Luxor. There are probably several reasons for this. The work involved in preparing the ore for the smelting process would have been exceptional labor intensive and time consuming, so not a particularly good use of the miner time. Also, the unprocessed ore was of little use to the miners, so not likely to be stolen, whereas the separated gold would have been a greater temptation.

Bir Um Fawakir was a hard rock mining site, rather than an open pit or placer mine, both of which are much easier processes. Hard rock mining requires a large labor force and major capitalization. Hard rock miners, therefore, make a reasonable living but never "strike it rich", as sometimes happens with placer miners.

In 1999 the team did their first actual excavating on the site. All prior work had been instrument surveying. They selected two houses, two trash heaps and one out building to excavate. Within the first excavated structure they found an iron ladle, storage bins, a Bes amulet [Bes was the last of ancient pagan gods worshiped in Egypt], some fragments of gold jewelry and a whole pot, at various levels. Based on the excavation results, the team determined that the site was probably not inhabited continuously, but rather only when the government needed the mines to be worked.

One of the trash heaps turned out to be a kitchen, with lots of animal bones: cattle, sheep and goats mostly. Several levels revealed pots, and even one container for making soft cheese such as it still used in the villages today.

The second building excavated had four rooms but a simpler stratigraphy. It produced a bronze plaque and a vessel that was probably an incense burner. Throughout the site the team has found lots of fragments of Coptic plates with impressed decoration of palm leaves and what has been interpreted as a "Sa Ra" symbol in the center. The ancient kings had among their titulary a "Sa Ra" or "son of Ra" name. The ancient symbol seems to have carried over into early Coptic imagery, as a "son of God" symbol.

Much of what remains at the site is Coptic/Byzantine, but some older things still exist. Remains of a Ptolemaic temple and indications of Roman presence in the form of roads and a watch tower have all been detected. On the edge of and above the tailings from the modern mine at Wadi es Sid, the team found Ptolemaic and New Kingdom material, amazingly still visible and relatively in tact. Roman "things" were found in the camp, amphorae, lamps, etc. Perhaps they too actually came from the Wadi es Sid. They are very old. Some of the guard posts and a large sherd dumb contain New Kingdom material.

The Turin Papyrus discussed the mines at the Wadi Hammamat and also shows a mountain of gold and a mountain of silver in the vicinity, which would seem to confirm that the ancients were doing hard-rock mining as early as 1200 BC.

ó Nancy Corbin

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