Ancient Egyptian Science

Ancient Egyptian Science
Edited and Prepared by Prof. Hamed A. Ead


One of the oldest in history the ancient Egyptian civilization, emerges from pre-history into the period of more or less precise chronological record up to a date perhaps not far removed from 3400 B.C. This highly developed but in many respects static civilization lasted for over 3000 years, during which it spread its influence far and wide. Some archaeologists, indeed, claim to see in all other civilizations signs of an Egyptian origin. It is universally agreed, however, that in technical arts Egyptian workers pointed the way to the rest of the world, and it is to them that all must turn for the first discovery of those facts that made science possible.

Chronological Record.....



Approximate Date

Stone Age

Paleolithic Period

Neolithic Period

Undated Possibly ended about 5000 B.C

Pre dynastic

Badarian Civilization

Early Pre dynastic

Middle Pre dynastic

Late Pre dynastic

5000 t0 3400 B.C.


I and II

3400-2980 B.C.

Old Kingdom



V and VI

2980 to 2900 B.C.

2900 to 2750 B.C.

2750 to 2475 B.C.

First International Period

VII to X

2475 to 2160 B.C.

Middle Kingdom

XI and XII

2160 to 1788 B.C.

Second International Period

(includes the period of Hyksos domination)


1788 to 1580 B.C.

New Kingdom or Empire




1580 to 1350 B.C.

1350 to 1200 B.C.

1200 to 1090 B.C.

Period of which little is known


1090 to 663 B.C.

Late Egyptian Period


663 to 525 B.C.



525 to 332 B.C.

Greek (ptolmaic)


332 to 30 B.C.



30 B.C. to A.D. 640



A.D. 640

The historical period is divided for the sake of convenience into thirty Dynasties, each of which corresponds to a different royal House. So little is known about the first two Dynasties that they are frequently either classed together as Protodynastic, or grouped with the late Pre
dynastic period, the whole being called Archaic.

With the Third Dynasty began the old Kingdom or Pyramid Age, as it is sometimes called, which lasted until the end of Sixth Dynasty.

The period from the Seventh Dynasty to the Tenth Dynasty inclusive was one of internal conflict and is very obscure. This is known as the First International period.

The Eleventh and Twelfth Dynasties constitute the Middle Kingdom or Feudal Age, a time of great prosperity.

From the Thirteenth Dynasty to the Seventeenth Dynasty inclusive was a period of disorganization, about which present knowledge is very scanty, except that it included an interval of foreign domination under the Hyksos kings. This is the Second Intermediate period.

The Eighteenth Dynasty ushered in the New Kingdom or Empire, which lasted until the end of the Twentieth Dynasty, during which time Egypt conquered the countries now known as Palestine and Syria respectively and became a great power in western Asia.

In the Twenty-first Dynasty the Empire fell to pieces. Of the next four Dynasties, the Twenty-second to the Twenty-fifth inclusive, very little is known, except that during part of the time the country was under the domination first by the Ethiopians and later of the Assyrians.

In the Twenty-sixth Dynasty there was a revival of independence and prosperity, which was followed by the Persian conquest and the period from the Twenty-seventh Dynasty to the Thirtieth Dynasty inclusive was one of Persian domination, except for brief intervals when
the Egyptians gained temporary independence.

After the conquest of the Persians in Asia by the Greeks, Alexander the Great took possession of Egypt and the Greek domination under his successors, the Ptolemies, lasted until Egypt became a Roman province, the country then remaining in Roman occupation until the Arab

As may be seen from the above short summary, there are several periods of Egyptian history, lasting in some cases two or three hundred years, about which very little is known, and even of the periods that are better known the information is very partial.

1) Technical Arts Related To Alchemy In Old Egypt Origin of the word Alchemy

The word 'alchemy', as the Arabic definite article al- indicates, is Arabic (al-klmya'). The origin of the word kimya', pre-Arabic, is controversial. Several more or less plausible or legendary hypotheses have been advanced. For some the word came from the Egyptian kemi (black), whence the Greek kemia which might indicate two things:

Egypt, 'the black land' according to Plutarch - alchemy would be preeminently the science of Egypt; 'the Black', the original matter of transmutation, i.e. the art of treating 'black metal' to produce precious metals.

For others, the word 'chemy' could have come from the Greek khymeia, 'fusion', i.e. the art of melting gold and silver. A Byzantine text states that Diocletian ordered the destruction of Egyptian books relating to khymeia, to the 'fusion' of gold and silver.

The image of King Gehouti or Thot, the ancient Egyptian God of wisdom and knowledge. The Ancient Egyptians usually represented him by either one of two symbols, that of Ibis or monkey. He was worshipped in Ashmounin, a town in Upper Egypt. In the emblem, the God
takes the image of a man crowned with the head of the bird Ibis. He is seated and holds a pen and paper. Important and valuable archaeological discoveries connected with this god were made under the sponsorship of Cairo University in the area of Ashmounin and Tuna
El Gabal.


Metallurgy in particular was carried on with an elaborate technique and a business organization not unworthy of the modern world, while the systematic exploitation of mines was an important industry employing many thousands of workers. Even as early as 3400 B.C., at the
beginning of the historical period, the Egyptians had an intimate knowledge of copper ores and of processes of extracting the metal. During the fourth and subsequent dynasties (i.e. from about 2900 B.C. onwards), metals seem to have been entirely monopolies of the Court, the
management of the mines and quarries being entrusted to the highest officials and sometimes even to the sons of the Pharaoh.

Whether these exalted personages were themselves professional metallurgists we do not know, but we may at least surmise that the details of metallurgical practice, being of extreme importance to the Crown, were carefully guarded from the vulgar. And when we remember
the close association between the Egyptian royal family and the priestly class we appreciate the probable truth of the tradition that chemistry first came to light in the laboratories of Egyptian priests.

Metal-Workers' Workshop in Old Egypt

Metal-Workers' Workshop in Old Egypt

Copper and Iron Extraction

In addition to copper, which was mined in the eastern desert between the Nile and the Red Sea, iron was known in Egypt from a very early period and came into general use about 800 B.C. According to Lucas, iron appears to have been an Asiatic discovery.

It was certainly known in Asia Minor about I300 B.C. One of the Kings of the Hittites sent Rameses II, the celebrated Pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty, an iron sword and a promise of a shipment of the same metal.

The Egyptians called iron 'the metal of heaven' or ba-en-pet, which indicates that the first specimen employed were of meteoric origin; the Babylonian name having the same meaning.

It was no doubt on account of its rarity that iron was prized so highly by the early Egyptians, while its celestial source would have its fascination. Strange to say, it was not used for decorative, religious or symbolical purposes, which - coupled with the fact that it rusts so
readily - may explain why comparatively few iron objects of early dynastic age have been discovered.

One which has fortunately survived presents several points of interest: it is an iron tool from the masonry of the great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza, and thus presumably dates from the time when the Pyramid was being built, i.e. about 2900 B.C. This tool was subjected to chemical
analysis and was found to contain combined carbon, which suggests that it may have been composed of steel. By 666 B.C. the process of case-hardening was in use for the edges of iron tools, but the story that the Egyptians had some secret means of hardening copper and
bronze that has since been lost is probably without foundation. Desch has shown that a hammered bronze, containing 10.34 per cent. of tin, is considerably harder than copper and keeps a cutting edge much better.

Of the other non-precious metals, tin was used in the manufacture of bronze, and cobalt has been detected as a coloring agent in certain specimens of glass and glaze. Neither metal occurs naturally in Egypt, and it seems probable that supplies of ore were imported from Persia.
Lead, though it never found extensive application, was among the earliest metals known, specimen having been found in graves of pre-dynastic times. Galena (PbS) was mined in Egypt at Gebel Rasas ('Mountain of Lead'), a few miles from the Red Sea coast; and the supply must have been fairly good, for when the district was re-worked from 19I2 to 1915 it produced more than I8,000 tons of ore.


The vast quantities of gold amassed by the Pharaohs were the envy of contemporary and later sovereigns. Though much was imported, received by way of tribute, or captured in warfare, the Egyptian mines themselves were reasonably productive.

Egyptian Goldsmiths Washing, Melting and Weighing Gold Beni Hasan, 19800 B.C.

Egyptian Goldsmiths Washing, Melting and Weighing Gold Beni Hasan, 19800 B.C.

Over one hundred ancient gold workings have been discovered in Egypt and the Sudan, though within the limits of Egypt proper there appear to have been gold mines only in the desert valleys to the east of the Nile near Ikoptos, Ombos and Apollinopolis Magna. Of one of these mines - possibly near Apollinopolis - a plan has been found in a papyrus of the fourteenth century B.C., and the remains of no fewer than 1,300 houses for gold-miners are still to be seen in the Wadi Fawakhir, half-way between Koptos and the Red Sea. In one of the treasure chambers of the temple of Rameses III, at Medinet-Habu, are represented eight large bags, seven of which contained gold and bear the following descriptive labels

The Egyptian word for gold is nub, which survives in the name Nubia, a country that provided a great deal of the precious metal in ancient days. French Scientist Champollion regarded it as a kind of crucible, while Rossellini and Lepsius preferred to see in it a bag or cloth, with
hanging ends, in which the grains of gold were washed - the radiating lines representing the streams of water that ran through.

Gold Washing in Ancient Egypt

Gold Washing in Ancient Egypt

Crivelli has more recently advanced the theory that the gold symbol is the conventional sign for a portable furnace used for the fusion of gold, and that the rays represent the flames, which, 'as can be observed in the use of this type of furnace, are unable to ascend because the wind inclines them horizontally'.

In the later dynasties, the Egyptians themselves forgot the original significance of the sign and drew it as a necklace with pendent beads. Elliot Smith however says that this was the primitive form and became the determinative of Hathor, the Egyptian Aphrodite, who was the guardian of the Eastern valleys where gold was found.

Egyptian Goldsmith Workshop in the Pyramid Age

Egyptian Goldsmith Workshop in the Pyramid Age

The gold mines in Nubia and other parts of the Egyptian empire seem to have been very efficiently designed and controlled, though with a callous disregard for the human element employed.

Alluvial auriferous sand was also treated, a distinction being made between the gold obtained in this way and that extracted from the mines. The latter was called nub-en-set, i.e. gold of the mountain, while alluvial gold was named nub-en-mu, i.e. 'gold of the river'. Auriferous
sand was placed in a bag made of a fleece with the woolly side inwards; water was then added and the bag vigorously shaken by two men. When the water was poured off, the earthy particles were carried away, leaving the heavier particles of gold adhering to the fleece. There is a picture of this operation on one of the buildings at Thebes.


Mercury (Greek-hydrargyros, liquid silver; latin-argentum vivum, live or quick silver) is stated to have been found in Egyptian tombs of from 1500-1600 B.C.

Metal and Mysticism

In the early centuries of our era, however, there gradually developed a mysticism among chemical writers due to Egyptian and Chaldean religious magical ideas, and there developed a fanciful relation of the metals as such to the sun and the planets, and as a consequence there
arose the belief that it was necessary to confine the number of metals to seven.

Thus Olympidorous-in the 6th century of our era gives the following relation:

Gold - The Sun
Silver - The Moon
Electrum - Jupiter
Iron - Mars
Copper - Venus
Tin - Mercury
Lead - Saturn

Metallurgy was by no means the only art practiced with conspicuous success by the ancient Egyptian craftsmen. Glass was almost certainly the invention, not of the Phoenicians, but of the Egyptians, and was produced on a large scale from a very early date.

Art of Glass Making

This art is of very ancient origin with the Egyptians, as is evident from the glass jars, figures and ornaments discovered in the tombs. The paintings on the tombs have been interpreted as descriptive of the process of glass blowing. These illustrations representing smiths blowing
their fires by means of reeds tipped with clay. Therefore it can be concluded that glass-blowing is apparently of Egyptian origin.

The remains of glass furnaces discovered by Flinders-Petrie at Tel-El-Amarna (1400 B.C.) illustrate the manufacture of rods, beads, and jars or other figures, formed apparently by covering clay cores with glass and later removing the cores.

Egyptian glass articles were of colored glass, often beautifully patterned. Analyses of ancient Egyptian glass articles show that generally glass was a soda-lime glass with rather soda content as compared with modern soda-lime glass.

Egyptian Making Pottery, With Furnace Beni Hasan, 1900 B.C.

Egyptian Making Pottery, With Furnace Beni Hasan, 1900 B.C.

The given analyses do not differ from those of some soda-lime glasses of modern times. Lead was used in glasses from very ancient times. French scientist analyzed a vase of the Fourth dynasty in Egypt which contained about one quarter lead.

Artificial pearls, made of glass, were manufactured in such numbers that they formed an important article of export trade, and the old legends of enormous emeralds and other precious stones are most reasonably explained on the assumption that the preparation of paste
jewelry was widely undertaken.

The earliest glass-works remains of which have been found date from the eighteenth dynasty, and the oldest dated glass object is a large ball bead bearing the cartouche of Amen-Hotep I, now in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. The invention of glass-blowing, as opposed to
the older method of glass-molding, is comparatively recent, dating back only to about the beginning of the Christian Era. Sir Flinders Petrie has shown that the reliefs at Beni-Hassan, which were formerly supposed to represent glass-blowers are more probably to be interpreted as metal-workers blowing a fire.

Textile and Dyeing Materials

The beginning of the art s of weaving and dyeing are lost in antiquity. Mummy cloths of varying degrees of fitness, still evidencing the dyers skill, are preserved in many museums.

The invention of royal purple was perhaps as early as 1600 B.C. From the painted walls of tombs, temples and other structures which have been protected from exposure to weather, and from the decorated surfaces of pottery, chemical analysis often is able to give us knowledge of
the materials used for such purposes.

Thus, the pigments from the tomb of Perneb (at estimated 2650 B.C.) which was presented to Metropolitan Museum of New York City in 1913, were examined by Maximilian Toch. He found that the red pigment proved to be iron oxide, haematite; a yellow consisted of clay
containing iron or yellow ochre; a blue color was a finely powdered glass; and a pale blue was a copper carbonate, probably azurite; green were malachite; black was charcoal or boneblack; gray, a limestone mixed with charcoal; and a quantity of pigment remaining in a paint pot
used in the decoration, contained a mixture of haematite with limestone and clay.

So many analyses results made by known scientists all serve to illustrate the character of the evidence furnished by chemical analysis of surviving samples of the products of early chemical industries.

Chemical Manuscripts

Last Updated: Aug 9th, 2011