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Egypt: Silver in Ancient Egypt


Silver in Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

Silver and gold vase with a Handle in the form of a goat from Tell Basta and dating to the 19th Dynasty.


Gold was considered to be the skin of the ancient Egyptian gods, but their bones were thought to be of silver.

At the onset of recorded history, silver may have been unknown to the ancient Egyptians. They could obtain gold and even electrum, which was a natural alloy of silver and gold from the mountains of the Eastern Desert and Nubia, but the Egyptian language at first lacks a word for silver. They described it only as the "white metal", and when they did run across it, they seem to have regarded it as a variety of gold.

When silver was finally introduced into Egypt, it probably was more valuable than gold. It continued to be rare, and on lists of valuables, items of silver were listed above those of gold during the Old Kingdom. Jewelry made of silver was almost always thinner than gold pieces, as indicated by the bracelets of the 4th Dynasty queen Hetephere I, in marked contrast to the extravagance of her gold jewelry. A silver treasure excavated at the site of Tod comprised vessels probably made in Crete, or perhaps somewhere in Asia but under Cretan influence. This cache dates to the reign of Amenemhat II who ruled during the 12th Dynasty, and is roughly contemporaneous with the finds of fine silver jewelry at el-Lahun and Dahshur.

Patera of the Swimmer in gold and silver dating to the 21st Dynasty

However, by the Middle Kingdom, silver may probably have been considered less valuable than gold. By this time, there was perhaps a much better supply of the metal. According the the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, which was written in the Second Intermediate Period but perhaps composed originally during the 12th Dynasty, silver had acquired a value approximately half that of gold. By the 18th dynasty silver and copper had been established as a mostly abstract means of exchange, with silver continuing to be worth about half its weight in gold. It was imported into Egypt from western Asia and the Mediterranean. In fact, by the New Kingdom onwards, there was a readily available supply of silver. Nevertheless, studies of metal prices between the 12th and 19th Dynasties seem to indicate that its price remained relatively constant at about half the value of gold. Copper was valued at about one-hundredth the value of silver.

Interestingly, demand seems to have not always played a major role in the price of silver. For example, there was little silver found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, perhaps because there was an abundance of the material, though perhaps it may have had something to do with personal, religious or artistic preferences at that specific point in time. The rulers of the 21st and 22nd Dynasty, who were buried at Tanis used considerably more silver in their burials. Sheshonq II had a solid silver coffin with gilded details in the form of the hawk-god, Sokar.

Silver casket of Sheshonq II of the 22nd DynastySilver Coffin of Psusennes I from the 21st Dynasty

Left: Silver casket of Sheshonq II of the 22nd Dynasty
Right: Silver Coffin of Psusennes I from the 21st Dynasty

Silver, generally treated much like gold and electrum, could also be stained black using sulphur. This niello was occasionally applied as decoration. Beaten into sheets, silver was used to plate copper and other materials, especially mirror surfaces.

Interestingly, silver also acted as a valuation for exchange. Perhaps as early as the Middle Kingdom, the values of commodities such as bread, beer, clothing and just about every other item available for trade had their values expressed in comparable units based on the weight of precious metals. The shat (seniu, Sna or shena) was originally a flat silver disk. It came to denote about 7.5 or 7.6g of silver. A deben, or kit, was a weight of 90 to 91g. It should be noted that the shat was always used as a unit of value and not as a weight for other purposes, while the deben was used in such a manner. This does not imply that coinage was in use, but these weights were used to express abstract values in contracts, trade and bookkeeping. At the end of the 18th dynasty a goat, for example, cost one half of a shat of silver, a cow was eight shat and a typical house cost ten shat of silver. A male slave could bring seven deben of silver, while a female slave might bring four deben. However, items could and frequently were also be expressed in the form of copper, and sometimes gold.

Silver boat from the Tomb of Queen Ahhotep I at Dra Abu el-Naga dating to the 18th Dynasty

It should be noted that these weights appear to have changed over time. A late Middle Kingdom account (Papyrus Boulaq 18) refers to small and large deben. It would seem that prior to the New Kingdom, a deben may have weighed less. Also, towards the end of the New Kingdom, it would appear that the value of most items were expressed in either gold or copper, rather than silver.

References:

Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Ancient Egypt (Anatomy of a Civilization) Kemp, Barry J. 1989 Routledge ISBN 0-415-06346-9
Ancient Egypt The Great Discoveries (A Year-by-Year Chronicle) Reeves, Nicholas 2000 Thmes & Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05105-4
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2003 Thames & Hudson, LTD ISBN 0-500-05120-8
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo Tiradritti, Francesco, Editor 1999 Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0-8109-3276-8
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Life of the Ancient Egyptians Strouhal, Eugen 1992 University of Oklahoma Press ISBN 0-8061-2475-x
Tutankhamun (His Tomb and Its Treasures) Edwards, I. E. S. 1977 Metropolitan Museum of Art; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. ISBN 0-394-41170-6

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