The Early Egyptians

Owing to its seclusion in the Nile Valley, coupled with its unbroken history ranging over more than five millennia, Egypt has provided more relics of its early civilization than any other country; and despite the difficulties in deciphering the hieroglyphics and the later hieratic writing, an enormous amount is known both about the country's political history and how the various classes of the people lived. The outstanding fact concerning metallurgical development is that from beginning to end of their first three thousand years, copper was the basic material and occupied a position similar to that of iron in modern technology.

From the earliest Dynasties onwards, Egypt developed a very high degree of civilization, and the exploitation of metals-copper, bronze and precious metals such as gold and silver-was an essential part of their culture. The Egyptians first made considerable improvements over the Mesopotamian technique, and then, apparently being satisfied that they had reached the summit of human excellence, they continued the same practices, century after century, so that only by reference to the king concerned can distinction be made between articles which may differ in age by a thousand years or more. This stolid conservatism is unique in the world's history. The museum visitor who for the first time actually sees a few of their abundant metal utensils, implements and other domestic articles cannot fail to be amazed by their variety, their close resemblance to patterns still in use, and their wonderful state of preservation (Fig 3).

fig 3
Figure 3. The tombs of the Egyptians have yielded many examples of copper craftwork. The copper altar and vessels shown above date from the 6th Dynasty and are the tomb of the priest, Idy.
Their excellent condition today can, to a large extent, be attributed to the dry climate, and our knowledge owes a considerable debt to their practice of burying in the tombs of the important dead complete equipment for one's needs in the next world. Thus they had model set-pieces, showing bakehouses, tanneries, brew-houses, boats, all complete with carved wooden human figures and implements which show the actual life of ancient Egypt. With these were buried the real bronze, copper and precious metal objects connected with the deceased. Despite a tremendous amount of plundering by tomb robbers throughout all the ages, much has remained for posterity.

The Egyptian coppersmith must have been a man of importance since he had to make saws, chisels, knives, hoes, adzes, dishes and trays, all out of copper or bronze, for artisans of the many trades. There still exist very serviceable early Egyptian bronze strainers and ladles; likewise tongs, some of which had their ends fashioned into the shape of human hands. Thebes has yielded beautifully preserved bronze sickle blades with very business-like serrated edges. The author once handled a copper knife, shaped like a large pen-knife and almost as sharp, although it was Pre-Dynastic, i.e. about 5,000 years old. The Egyptians even possessed bronze model bags which were carried by servants at important funerals.