Gold was commonly used to make jewelry and ornaments. The Egyptians believed gold to be the flesh of the sun god Ra, a deity worshipped by many people in the region. Craftsmen used gold to make amulets, masks, diadems, and ornamental weapons. It was often used in funerals to adorn the tombs of pharaohs, and it was common practice to put decorative gold items in the tombs of fallen leaders to bestow them with wealth and beauty for the afterlife.
According to ancient Egyptian belief, one needed to offer something of value in order to pass the final gate into the afterlife. That’s why most of the pharaohs were buried with gold items, ensuring their passage to the afterlife. Even if most of the gold was controlled by leaders and the wealthy, non-royal Egyptians were also known to own gold jewelry.
Embossing and engraving the metal was another common practice. Gold was combined with glass and precious stones to create a gold piece of different color and form. It was even pounded into thin plates which could be glued to different materials. This technique was used in the making of columns, obelisks, furniture, jewelry, death masks, and altars. Ancient Egyptians loved experimenting with combining different metals. They frequently used a naturally-occurring alloy known as electrum by combining gold, silver, and a small amount of copper. It was used for statues, offering tables, and chariots.
Copper was the first metal used by ancient Egyptians. The oldest Egyptian artifacts, dating back to the fourth century BC, were beads and small tools made of copper. Copper, rarely found in a pure state, was often contaminated with small amounts of zinc, iron, or arsenic. So extracting it was difficult, making it valuable once pulled from the other elements. Later, the Egyptians found a way to use this to their benefit by deliberately mixing those materials to make bronze, which is a much stronger metal.
Copper objects of the era were often molded, which was a difficult process due to the bubbles that formed when the metal was poured. However, being metalsmithing professionals, the Egyptians discovered that by heating and hammering the copper, the metal became harder and stronger, and this technique was applied to other metals as well, such as iron. Egyptians used this process to create copper weapons, tools, vessels, and ornaments.
Silver was quite rare in ancient Egypt, and that’s what made it so valuable. Silver was actually treated much like gold. It was used to meet a variety of needs. One different use of the metal was that the craftsman would beat it into sheets to plate mirror surfaces, and it could also be stained black with sulphur.
Working with bronze is similar to working with copper. Bronze allowed for big improvements in the tools and weapons forged by the Egyptians. The material was produced by mixing a small amount of tin with copper during the smelting process. The physical characteristics of bronze were better compared to copper, as it was harder and melted at a lower temperature, which made it easier to cast.
This metal was likely imported from western Asia. Aside from its use in bronze production, tin was rarely used by itself. Sometimes tin oxide was added to glass to make it dark, and tin was later used as a binding metal. Using tin in combination with other metals created a demand for the metal and formed a trade network that linked the distant sources of tin to the markets of Egypt
Interestingly, iron was also known as the “metal of heaven” because the only known sources of it came from meteors until about 500 BC. Most of the metal was imported to make tools and weapons. Iron was most often used to make knives, but it was sometimes used ornamentally for things like amulets and beads.
Concluding our brief discussion of metal in history, bear in mind that this is only an examination of the Egyptian use of metals. Other civilizations like ancient Turkey worked with precious metals and used them for things like decoration and currency. This is all to say that metal has been used throughout history, and has proven to be an important piece of everyone’s cultural puzzle.