Kemet Klub

Words spoken by: Lore Anne McNicol ‘Silver objects in Tutankhamun’s tomb’

This centenary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb has given us fine illustrations and analysis of what we regard as its most remarkable artefacts.  Tutankhamun’s gold mask and gilded coffins are fabulous and breathtaking to our sensibilities.  But our own cultural awe at the extensive use of gold in these iconic objects overshadows the presence of materials whose value to the ancient Egyptians more than equalled modern perceptions of the luxury of gold.

One of these was silver.  During pharaonic times silver was scarcer and more valuable in Egypt than gold (Schorsch, D. 2001).  Silver was obtained by smelting mixed metallic ores mined in the Eastern Desert, starting with prehistoric times.  But throughout Egyptian history it was largely imported as processed ingots from the Near East.  Most ancient silver typically contains noticeable amounts of gold and other trace elements, such as lead and sulphur (Lacovara, P. and Markowitz, Y. J. 2001, pp. 286-288).  The material in Tutankhamun’s tomb that has been assayed contained 20% gold and is uniformly called silver (Ogden, J. 2000, pp.162-163).

Tutankhamun’s throne, Fig.1, illustrates the most spectacular example of his artisans’ skill in using silver.  The inlay of his kilt and Ankhesenamun’s dress perfectly captures the folds of their diaphanous white linen clothing and reveals the body below.

Only three solid silver objects were found in the tomb, despite ancient evidence from the box dockets that a considerably larger number had originally been included. Most were undoubtedly stolen by the early thieves (Reeves, N. 1990 p.197).

Left: Figure 1. Tutankhamun’s Golden Throne, Portrait Inlays on Back of Chair. Copyright Meretseger Books, Tutankhamun-Golden Throne-003

Fig.2  LEFT: A masterly crafted small vase in the shape of a pomegranate, with its reed stopper still inside.  1.3in H, copyright Meretseger Books, Tutankhamun-Varia-005; 

Fig. 2 CENTRE: displays the front and back of a small silver aryballos vase (Greek for “bag purse”).  Such small vases typically held costly ointments or oils. Centre, Two Views of an Aryballos Vase.

 

Fig. RIGHT is the gold-banded horn of the long, beaten-silver trumpet with its protective wooden core.  It was played in modern times, to reveal a single pitch with a powerful-sounding blare; it would have been used for military calls.  The trumpet and pomegranate carry very stylish etchings. Detail, Horn of Silver Trumpet with Terminal Gold Band, 23in L, copyright Meretseger Books, Tutankhamun-Sticks Staves and Fans-017. [Image references: Pomegranate Vase, 1.3in H, copyright Meretseger Books, Tutankhamun-Varia-005; Center, Two Views of an Aryballos Vase, Burton p1320, Copyright Griffith Institute, University of Oxford; Right, Detail, Horn of Silver Trumpet with Terminal Gold Band, 23in L, copyright Meretseger Books, Tutankhamun-Sticks Staves and Fans-017.]

In addition, there were over twenty objects that used silver.  The outer coffin had silver handles; and the second coffin had silver tenons and nails.  Also found were an ointment container, a sickle, five sticks, a sword-stick guard, and a pair of staves that contained silver inlays.  Pieces of jewelry with silver inlays included bracelets, a lunar pectoral (Fig.3), and a counterpoise (Schorsch 2001, p.64). Image: Burton p1131, Copyright Griffith Institute, University of Oxford.

Beware of presentism when examining Egyptian or any other ancient artefacts.  It is illuminating to consider the Ancient Egyptians’ perceptions while basking in the beauty and meaning of the details.

Bibliography
Burton Photographs are available at http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk , accessed  12 August 2022. 
Lacovara, P. and Markowitz, Y. J. (2001), 
Silver, in Redford, D. B. The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Vol. 3.  Oxford: Oxford University Press., pp. 286-288.
Ogden, J. (2000) Metals, in Nicholson, P. T. and Shaw, I., eds. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 162-163.
Reeves, N. (1990) The Complete Tutankhamun:  The King, the Tomb, and the Royal Treasury.  London:  Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2008 reprint of 1995 paperback ed.
Schorsch, D. (2001) Precious-Metal Polychromy in Egypt in the Time of Tutankhamun.  Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 87:  55-71.

Further Reading:
James, T. G. H. (2000) Tutankhamun.  New York: MetroBooks.

 

 

 

Lore Anne McNicol:  PhD in Medical Sciences 1968, Boston University School of Medicine. 
Career in research, teaching, and administration.  MA in Egyptology 2021, University of Manchester.  Interests include equids,fossil water, and glass.

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