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Topics: Topics: Metal Work
Crafts > Metal Work

A variety of metals occur naturally in Egypt, but a few, such as silver and tin, were imported. Copper was the most frequently used metal in Ancient Egypt. Gold was used for jewelry in predynastic times, as was silver. Bronze, which is an alloy made from copper and tin, has been discovered as early as the Second Dynasty but became common only in the New Kingdom. Iron was first discovered in meteorites and was not mined or commonly used until the Greco-Roman Period. Tin was probably imported from Crete and Cyprus and mostly used for the production of bronze.

To reach high enough temperatures to extract metal from its natural state, ancient Egyptians built special hearths that were heated with charcoal. Metals were smelted in a crucible over the fire. In the Old and Middle Kingdoms, workers blew into blowpipes to reach the melting temperature of metal, which required several workers to take turns. Bellows were introduced during the New Kingdom. These consisted of a shallow earthenware dish covered in leather. Once the metal was extracted, it was usually formed into a sheet, and then shaped through hammering with small oval stones. To make metal objects, the shapes were cut from the sheet, bent into shape, and riveted together. The seams and rivet heads would be rubbed with stones until they disappeared. Another method was to lay the metal over a rounded anvil, where one worker would hold it in position while the other pounded it with a stone. The lost-wax casting process and casting in complex forms were developed later in the New Kingdom.

Plain round copper beads and simple pins were found in burial grounds dating to 4000 BC. In the Old Kingdom, vessels, tools, and weapons were made of copper. Gold beads have been found from this period as well. By the Middle Kingdom, gold work reached a high standard. Jewelry, scarabs, and seal impressions all display a high level of craftsmanship using techniques that created outlines of figures and symbols with gold wires that were then soldered to sheets of beaten gold and later inlaid with colored stones or glass. Filigree, a lacelike ornamental work of gold or silver wire, and granulation, which created designs by soldering very tiny gold balls to the surface of gold sheets, were also metalworking techniques commonly used in the Middle Kingdom.

Bronze became the most common metal for tools, weapons, and objects for daily use in the New Kingdom. It was used for jewelry, axes, spear heads, fish hooks, vessels, razors, daggers, and mirrors. By the end of the New Kingdom, bronze began to be cast, rather than hammered, which allowed for mass production. Small bronze statues were cast in large numbers and then sold as votive offerings at temples. Bronze continued to be the most common metal through the Ptolemaic period.

Under the Muslims, from about the seventh to the tenth century AD, metal work was influenced by Byzantine and Sassanian traditions. By the eleventh century, metal objects such as perfume sprinklers, boxes, lamps, and candlesticks have intricate inlays of different metals. The fourteenth century under the Mamluks brings the introduction of new motifs, such as rosettes and fish. The Mamluks were well known for their spectacular metalwork, most of which was commissioned by the sultans and amirs.

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