Tricks of the Trade: Buying Egyptian Brass Products

Tricks of the Trade
Buying Egyptian Brass Products
by Diaa Khalil

Various fine brass containers in an Egyptian shop

There is an endless variety of handmade products produced in Egypt. If one examines this merchandise and is familiar with it over a span of years, it is easy to see that, even though the Egyptians have been working metal, alabaster, papyrus, glass and other materials for thousands of years, their efforts continue to improve.

One of the many materials that Egyptians work with by hand is brass, and they have a long history of doing so. One sees many products made from it, from banquet trays to minaret finials. Like glass, the Egyptians make a vast array of items. Amongst the items favored as souvenirs are pots, lamps, embossed plates and inlaid or reposed trays (the larger ones are often mounted on stands to serve as tables), candlesticks holders, water-pipes, gongs, coffee sets, statues, archaic style lamps, mirror frames, vases, swords, and many others items.

History of Copper and Brass in Ancient Egypt

Brass is actually an alloy of copper and zinc (tin). When the two metals are alloyed there is a high increase in hardness and sharpness of the metal. The melting temperature is 1,005 C (copper alone is 1,083 C).

Copper Statue of Pepi I

Copper was the most common metal for everyday use in ancient Egypt. Egyptian copper was especially hard because of its natural content of arsenic. The material was probably first worked during the Neolithic period (6th millennium BC). The oldest Egyptian copper artifacts, including beads and small tools, date to the early 4th millennium BC. It has been proposed that they were fashioned from native copper. According to this (unproved) theory working copper predated its extraction from ore. Others claim that the metal was extracted from malachite, hydrated copper carbonate occurring in some abundance in Egypt and used as eye paint.

Various objects seem to have been somewhat common by the Old Kingdom. Notably, a copper figure of Pepi I found at Hierakonpolis also survives from the Old Kingdom.

Copper also became a measure used for common exchange in ancient Egypt. Though rarely changing hands, it was used as an equivalent, within a system of barter. 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 metals such as copper.

A wide variety of brass plates in an Egyptian shop window

Ores containing about 10 to 12% copper were mined and melted in the eastern desert and in the Sinai during ancient times. The Wadi Maghara region was conquered by Djoser and exploitation of the ore seems to have begun during the third dynasty, though some experts claim there was never enough copper there to be exploited. There are traces of copper working at Buhen dating from the 4th and 5th dynasties. The ore in the Eastern Desert became available to the Egyptians during the Middle Kingdom.

The copper mines in the Sinai desert were the aim of the first major Egyptian forays abroad and an important reason for imperial expansion into southern Canaan later. Since the 18th dynasty Egypt controlled this deserted region, thus breaking the monopoly the town of Arad had exercised over the locally extracted copper.

Copper was generally mined under dreadful conditions. The miners were the least fortunate captives from Egypt's wars of expansion, enslaved and worked to death in the mines in western Sinai, Timna and other locations in the Arabah Valley, which stretches from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Dead Sea.

Carving a very large brass plate by hand

A slag-heap in the Sinai desert has been estimated to contain 100,000 tons of dross, which would have meant a yield of about 5,500 tons of copper. The amount of copper the Egyptians produced annually was about four tons during the Bronze Age. This quantity is quite small actually, and therefore, considerable quantities of copper had to be imported from Syria, Cyprus and other countries of the region. For example, the tribute of the princes of Retenu to Thutmose III exacted in his 31st year included 40 blocks of native copper and lead and in his 38th year he received 276 blocks of crude copper.

Objects of just about every nature are produced in brass

Tin, a necessary ingredient for bronze, was not mined in Egypt and had to be imported from Syria. The earliest known bronze objects date to the 2nd Dynasty (Spencer 1980: 88). There are also several well-known bronze objects from the Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BC). These included a number of small scale bronze figures, both royal and private. However bronze was not common until the New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC), though Copper remained an important metal alongside bronze. The nature of objects made of copper changed with the advent of the harder bronze, however. Copper tools and weapons ceased to be produced, while models of such tools were still sometimes fashioned in copper. From the Third Intermediate Period we find a number of high quality bronze objects produced in impressive scale, including a number of statues of royal women.

In the Late Period small bronze statues (donations of private persons to temples) were produced in very high numbers. Most such bronzes in museums are without provenance. Some were found in deposits (for example the 600 figures found in a wooden box at Abydos, and thousands retrieved from the Karnak cachette, in the open court south of the Great Amun Temple). The bronzes seem to have been produced at a number of local centers and then taken to different temples.

Egyptian Brass Today

A finely made, inlaid brass plate

Modern brass products take many shapes and forms, and may be produced using a number of different techniques. These objects may be of differing colors, between red and yellow, but details, particularly when brass is used for depiction, may have a number of different colors.

Copper (bronze or the brass) can be colored by heating, oxidizing or by using glass or oil colors, but the best technique of coloring copper is inlaying, which is the most expensive (compared with the other techniques). With this technique, the colors are limited. Red copper thread is used to achieve a red-brownish color, silver thread is used for white-silver, and oxidized copper thread is used for black. This technique of coloring is usually used for Islamic designs, which explains why such work is generally limited to four colors (yellow, silver, black and brownish red).

The heating technique is not used often in Egyptian products because it is hard to use many colors in the same piece.

Detail of an inlaid brass plate

The oxidizing method is the most common technique of coloring brass or copper, especially in pictures produced on plates, though some oil or glass colors may also be used if more colors are needed. The basic chemicals used in the oxidizing process includes cupric nitrate, cobalt nitrate and potash sulfurated (also known as liver of sulfur) copper sulfate, and potassium sulfide in crystal and powder form. These are the basic chemicals used mostly by artists, sculptors and architects for coloring of copper, brass and bronze.

However, the problem with the oxidizing technique is that the colors are not as long lasting as those products produced using the inlaying technique. Particularly if an inlaid object does not use black, it can be polished and cleaned repeatedly without losing any of its shiny colors, while the oxidized item looses the colors over time and cannot be polished. However, the inlaid technique requires considerably longer to design and inlay the colors, so it is also more expensive.

Faded colors of an oxidized brass plate

By closely examining an object, one can determine which technique is has been employed. The inlaid technique looks very shiny, very clean and very well finished, but some of the oxidized objects one can see the edges of the colors have run onto each other or out of its lines. Also, items that have been in a shop for some time may have oxidized and already some of the colors may have faded.

The manner of working designs into a brass object also varies. Some of the factories do the hammering by hand while others do it by compressing (embossing) machines. The machine work will not be deep in the object, such as a plate, but will create smooth, clear lines. The hand hammered items will have deeper lines that are not as smooth.

Working a brass plate by hand

The first step for making the plates is getting the brass sheets then cutting them as the design needs. Brass sheets come in various sizes and some factories prefer to get the larger sheets and cut them by machine to suit their design needs. The designs are drawn on the sheets of brass using special tools and other tools are used to shape the brass.Brass PlatesTo save time and energy some factories use a hot tar backing to support and protect the back of the brass material as it is being hammered or chiseled. Then they inlay the colors (if the plate will be inlaid). After this process is completed they hammer the edges of the hardened tar very carefully until it falls off. At this time the oxidizing process begins (if it will be oxidized). If it is to be inlaid the tar remains in place until the inlay has been completed. Then the tar backing is carefully removed and the object, if inlaid, is polished. Oxidized plates cannot be polished.

Brass Pots

Brass pots come in many different sizes. In Egypt, one may find them in many places such as hotels, restaurants, office buildings, homes, etc, where they are often used for plants. Fortunately they are all almost the same quality, but their price is most dependent on the thickness of the brass. Of course the decorated pots are more expensive than the plain ones because of the time involved in the workmanship. Usually the decorated ones are less thick than the plain ones, because the brass material is a hard material to reshape, especially when it is done by hand, and most of the pot work is decorated in this manner.

Egyptian brass pots

Usually craftsmen make the shape of the pot and then weld the bottom prior to the decoration process. However, others like to leave the bottom open until they finish the decorating.

After the pot design is complete the rough marks are removed by a polishing process to achieve the shine and smoothness desired.

Customers purchasing brass pots should hold the item to feel the weight and consider the decoration to make a decision if the asking price is reasonable. Also they need to put the pot up in front of a strong light source to make sure that it has no holes that may have been caused by a bad weld.

Brass Lamps

Like other brass items, the thickness of brass in a lamp determines much of the price, so be careful because the heavy glass may be misleading. Look closely and feel the edges of the lamp (regarding of the shape of the lamp) to see how thick it is. Also check the finishing of the decorations. Look for a very smooth, well finished lamp as opposed to a poorly finished product that may cause damage to a table top or other surface.

Egyptian lamps made from brass

The customer needs to make sure to test the lamp and check if the wiring is long enough. Check to make sure the wiring is stable and well covered. Also make sure the light bulb socket is stable and not loose.

Some brass lamps contain glass, either colored or not, so make sure that all the pieces are very well sealed and none of them have fallen out. If the lamp has a chain, check it and make sure it is strong enough to hold the lamp and that it is very well connected to the lamp body.

Finally, make sure after choosing your souvenir that you watch the seller wrapping it, because some of them have been known to cheat and change the product while they are wrapping it, especially with products like plates.

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last updated: June 8th, 2011