Ancient Mining

Imagine a world without the color purple

Most of our purple today is from made from dyes or synthesized materials. But 4000 years ago in Ancient Egypt, purple was not common. The mineral amethyst was one of the only natural sources of purple. There are only a handful of examples of amethyst in the ancient Mediterranean world prior to 2000 BCE, but everything changed at the start of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (2000-1700 BCE). Egyptian prospectors discovered the ancient world’s largest source of purple, in Wadi el-Hudi. During the Middle Kingdom, amethyst became very fashionable as officials and courtiers scrambled to get these purple jewels, like this one from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collections. It likely became an object of high status that the pharaoh acquired through massive expeditions and doled out to privileged individuals, like princesses.

How was an Egyptian mining expedition carried out?

Inscriptions from Wadi el-Hudi and elsewhere have provided us with abundant information for how a royal mining expedition worked in the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000 to 1700 BCE). When the pharaoh wanted amethyst or another mineral resource for the royal workshop, he appointed a high official, such as a Chief Steward to gather together administrators, soldiers, and “strong men” to oversee an expedition into areas of the desert where the minerals were found. Most of the inscriptions boast about how much amethyst they brought back, about how they kept their men safe in the desert, and about how highly the pharaoh thought of his able administrators. It appears that these expeditions organized by a high official were temporary, lasting only a few months each. The expedition would caravan into the desert, and it would be supplied by a vital chain of deliveries of food and water from the Nile Valley the whole time. The participants would scout locations for a profitable mine, and once they found a good spot, the miners would build a camp using the loose small boulders lying on the floor of the desert as building materials. When subsequent expeditions reused these camps, they would expand or renovate them. Miners dug giant holes following a vein of ore visible from the natural surface.

They used granite hammerstones to break apart the rock and isolate the veins of amethyst. After procurement, the first level of refining occurred next to the mine, but higher levels took place inside the camp. Then the raw amethyst was brought back to the pharaoh’s craftsmen in the Nile Valley, refined further, and turned into jewelry. Some mines at Wadi el-Hudi are as big as 60 meters long by 20 meters wide, while the mining camp was an additional 70 meters long by 50 meters wide. This was a huge operation. By studying the archaeology at Wadi el-Hudi, we have the opportunity to check if the inscriptions match the reality. Some of them state that over 1500 men participated in these expeditions, yet the largest settlements studied have only about 75 rooms, which could not house everyone at one time. As archaeologists we have to question, whether the number in the inscriptions are accurate, and if so, how could they be accurate? Could people coming in and out on shifts, for example, have totaled 1500? In addition to living spaces, the discovery of discarded hammerstones, the volume of material in spoil heaps, and other factors are allowing us to evaluate how the royal mining expedition was carried out.

For more information see this video.

What did they mine?

Wadi el-Hudi, like elsewhere in the Eastern Desert, is a region rich in mineral resources. Its special geology is responsible for the concentration of desirable raw materials: this area not only lies at the border between an older metamorphic gneiss complex and younger igneous granites but also contains Nubian sandstone and veins of volcanic basalt, minerals, and other stone types. The geology has proven difficult to fully map and understand due to how weathered the area is, but Per Storemyr has conducted a geoarchaeological survey of the area around some of the sites. The combination of geological complexes made the wadi a valuable source of quartz (rock crystal), amethyst, gold, lead, mica, and copper.

In ancient times, the chief resource for mining was amethyst, a beautiful purple gemstone that is a variety of irradiated quartz containing iron. Amethyst occurs in the mineralized veins that cross the Eastern Desert in small, geode-like rocks. Because the purple color fades in bright sunlight, no amethyst would have been visible on the surface – in order to find it, miners opened up starter or test mines to check below the surface for these gems.

In the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000 to 1700 BCE), amethyst was in vogue, and the main place to mine for amethyst in Egypt was at Wadi el-Hudi. Amethyst is a beautiful purple semiprecious stone that was used in the jewelry worn by elite Ancient Egyptians, including queens and princesses. Arguably, the pharaoh procured amethyst in order to be able to reward members of his court for their good deeds. Ownership of amethyst likely had social clout, as bling from pharaoh, because all of it came directly from the supply in royal workshops. Amethyst is also very commonly found in Middle Kingdom burials, reflecting the extent of the craze for it at the time. Interestingly, the darker the stone, the more prestige the object held. Amethyst also was reputed to have magical properties in Ancient Egypt, associated with sex and love, on earth and in the afterlife. A magical spell known as Coffin Text 576 states, “As for any man who knows this spell, he shall have sex in this land by night or by day, and he will have the heart of the woman beneath him when he has sex.” In order to work, this spell was specifically, “to be recited over a bead of carnelian or of amethyst, to be placed on the right arm of the deceased.” Images are Public Domain from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Did slaves dig the mines?

Whether or not slaves dug the mines is a major question of our ongoing work, and it is still under debate, in part because the inscriptions at Wadi el-Hudi offer contradictory information. For example, an inscription (WH6) from year 17 of Senwosret I states that they brought 1000 “strong men” from Thebes, indicating that Egyptians were used as miners. Perhaps they were paid well for their labor or perhaps they were conscripted as corvée laborers (a tax in labor that all Egyptians had to pay to their government). On the other hand, another inscription (WH143), this one undated, but from the reign of Senwosret I states: “As for every Iwn-bowman of Ta-Seti [=Nubians], his working as a slave is achieved only by the awe of this god [= pharaoh Senwosret I].” The inscription implies that the Egyptians gathered Nubians and forced them to work under threat of the king. It is the job of archaeology to corroborate and contextualize the inscriptions. As archaeologists, we are looking at questions like: Do the design and architecture of the mining camps support their use as prisons? Could miners leave on their own accord? How were miners treated by the Egyptian administrators? Were they fed well and cared for or beaten for not working? Were the guards who we know worked there present to keep prisoners in the camps or to keep pillagers out?

Did Nubians work at Wadi el-Hudi as miners?

Yes. The Egyptians absolutely used both Egyptian and Nubian miners in these temporary expeditions. Even some of the earliest inscriptions from Wadi el-Hudi, like WH4 dating to year 2 of pharaoh Montuhotep IV, states that they brought “All the Nehesy [=Nubians] of Wawat, Sety [=Nubia], and South and North” to establish these amethyst mines. There is also evidence for Nubians at Wadi el-Hudi archaeologically. All of the sites dating to the Middle Kingdom contain a small amount of C-Group-Nubian pottery, made up of mostly cooking pots, cups, and bowls. This is pottery a person would use to eat in his own home. Additionally, Nubian construction techniques were used in the building of the camps. It seems that an Egyptian official designed the layout, but then instructed Nubian workers to make them. They followed the Egyptian design, but laid the stones and included small windows using their own Nubian learned techniques from home.

What did soldiers do at Wadi el-Hudi?

Soldiers guarded Wadi el-Hudi. There are several places in the settlements, and on mountaintops arounds the settlements where soldiers sat for hours on end watching the area around them. Each of these guard posts has amazing sight lines, allowing the guards to see far into the wadis in many different directions. These soldiers must have been watching for any movement in the desert, including caravans, pastoral nomads, animals, etc. Similarly—if this were a slave labor camp—they were probably also watching the workmen to make sure they did not leave and did not steal anything from the settlements. In their boredom, the soldiers carved hundreds of inscriptions on the rocks at their posts. Most are figures of soldiers holding weapons like sticks. Some soldiers are accompanied by dogs, others have names and titles carved next to their pictures, and some just drew their feet or a game board. We hope to analyze these inscriptions to determine, among other things, the levels of literacy among a soldiering class. There is almost no other place in Egypt where this question can be answered. The camps are such unique contexts.

Who carved the hundreds of inscriptions?

Being able to study the various inscriptions in their original landscape is essential to our ability to interpret them. Three types of inscriptions exist. First are the so-called “historic” inscriptions, carved by well-trained scribes. They often include the name of the king, the names of high officials, and formal statements about the expedition. Historic inscriptions are purposely located in places where a lot of people can see them, along paths, overlooking entrances, on well-placed rock outcrops, etc. Second, there are the inscriptions that the soldiers carved at their guard posts (see above). Lastly there are names or images carved in the rooms where individuals lived. These inscriptions are often on interior walls that no one sees unless they walk into the room. It would be nearly impossible to interpret transcriptions of these inscriptions out of their physical contexts. But, in context, the Wadi el-Hudi team can study not only them, but the spaces, objects, and garbage of real people living on the expedition.

What can animal bones tell us?

Animal bones are one of the more commonly recovered artifact types in Wadi el-Hudi. These animal bones can give us a great deal of information about how the miners subsisted in the harsh desert environment. By studying what kinds of animals were present, we can learn about diet and cuisine in these far-flung communities. For example, by looking at the range of species present, we can see if the inhabitants of these camps were reliant on meat from animals that were brought from communities in the Nile Valley or if they were also exploiting animals in the desert. By studying what body parts were thrown away – and by looking at butchery marks in the bones – we can also learn a little about how animals were killed, how their meat was processed, and how meat was cooked. By looking at the sex and age-at-death of the slaughtered animals, we can also learn whether animals were being exploited for other non-meat products like milk or traction. In 2018, Kate Grossman began studying the animal bones from Sites 5 and 9. Her analysis will add an important new dimension to our understanding of the lives of the miners in Wadi el-Hudi.

What did they eat and drink in the desert?

This is another fundamental and debated question of our work because no water or scrub trees, and few wild animals existed naturally in this part of the desert. All food and water would have had to be brought from elsewhere, which means that either the state or other individuals had to supply these expeditions. The short answer is that the expeditioners ate bread and meat, and they drank beer and water. We have found remains of animal bones in the corners of people’s houses. Similarly, we have found remains of grains, but we are still studying whether the Egyptians brought grain from the Nile Valley which the workers made into their own bread, or whether they transported pre-made bread from the Nile Valley so the workers did not need to bake. What their water supply was is also unknown. We have not yet found wells dug near any of the largest settlements. But it is also unlikely that anyone trekked water 35 kilometers from the Nile Valley. We are still looking for wells that the expeditioners may have dug in the desert, and even then, they may have needed to carry water several kilometers to the major sites. Water was likely the most precious commodity in the desert. It was no doubt protected and rationed by the state.

Were these fortresses in the desert?

No. Much of the early literature about Wadi el-Hudi called the mining camps “fortresses,” mostly because Site 9 mimics the shape of contemporary fortresses along the Nile in Lower Nubia, such as Buhen (which has walls that were nearly 30 meters thick). However, unlike the architecture there, that of Site 9 is impractical for the protection of the people from any attack of an army. The walls are a mere 2 meters tall and 1 meter thick at their base; they can be scaled by any able-bodied person. There are also small holes in the exterior walls of Site 9 that previous scholars called “loopholes,” hypothesizing that arrows could be shot through them. However, they do not flare open, like contemporary loopholes in the Lower Nubian forts. So archers behind them could have shot only straight forward. And they have jagged rocks peeking into the openings that would have blocked many shots.

On the other hand, most of the holes in the Site 9’s exterior walls open into small passages or rooms that probably needed light, or they point to places where a lot of people worked or would have walked by. These holes much more probably functioned as windows for light and vision. The walls did offer minimal enclosure and protection, but they were more akin to town walls. That is to say, they restricted access, and gave minimal protection to people inside from animals or perhaps a small group of thieves, but they never were intended to withstand a frontal attack by an army. We should, instead, call Site 9 a “settlement” or “camp” or even “fortified settlement,” but never a “fortress.”

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