King Tuts’ Gold – A Treasure Nest

by | Dec 18, 2020 | Blog

Gold has been revered by cultures worldwide for thousands of years. From the crude casting of coins to the delicate crafting of funerary masks, goldsmiths have applied their skills and knowledge to use the precious noble metal to win royal favor and cement their place in the hierarchies of power.

So skilled were ancient artisans that not only are many of the techniques that were developed thousands of years ago still used today, some have even been lost to history, and nowhere is this more evident than in the masterpieces of ancient Egyptian art.

Metalworking in ancient Egypt can be dated back to the First Dynasty, c. 3150 – c. 2890 BCE. Little is known about this dynasty, which lasted only about 34 years. Narmer (sometimes called Menes) was the first true pharaoh of Egypt. He is credited with uniting Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt in what is believed to have been a prosperous reign – the Old Kingdom.

Where did the gold come from?

Egyptian gold was retrieved from alluvial deposits and quartz rock. There is geographical evidence of the exploitation of alluvial sands and gravels in the modern-day eastern desert region of Egypt and Northern Sudan.

What is not so clear is how the raw deposits were cleaned. Such gravels need to be washed before they are melted and the desert areas from which the deposits were extracted are a great distance from water sources. It is suspected that the gravel was carried across the vast desert landscape to the Nile for washing.

There is no evidence to show where or how the deposits were sourced and transported, this is speculation, but, there are hieroglyphics that depict the melting, casting, and working of gold. These reliefs, in the tomb of Mereruka (2300 BC), show the process of weighing the precious metal, smelting over a furnace, the creation of an ingot that is then beaten to a sheet, and the final crafting of the metal into elaborate pieces of jewelry. This artwork is an insight into the practical applications of goldsmithing at the time and shows that the same methods and techniques used today were also employed thousands of years ago.

One major difference, apart from technology, is also the quality of gold. There is no evidence that ancient Egyptians refined the precious metals they worked. Analysis of the many artworks found showing that there are great color and quality variances because of the wide range of impurities remaining in the ingots.

There is one gold that remains a mystery. It has a rose-pink film on the surface, of which scientists are yet to discover the origin. Gold was used as a medium for art, and it was exclusively for royals and powerful people in society. It was not used as a form of barter or currency, and so for this reason some of the variations and even techniques used by goldsmiths have long since been lost to time.

There is evidence that by as early as 2600 BCE, gold sheathing had been mastered, a technique little changed to this day. However, the most commonly applied technique of gilding shows how craftsmen adapted techniques and refined their work to create some of the most intricate pieces of gold art remaining to this day.

After hammering and crushing rock in mortars, gold dust was extracted from rock in a powder form before being melted into ingots. These ingots were then beaten into thin sheets, fixed to wooden or plaster walls and other structures that had already been carved with elaborate designs. The gold sheet was then beaten into place, leaving a raised impression of the design beneath. Goldsmiths were fast to learn that the thinner and finer the sheets, the easier it was to work. This technique was adopted and widely used, but one question remains – what was the adhesive used to secure the gold sheeting in place over the wooden and plaster structures? Science has yet to find an answer to this question.

Few examples of the ingenuity of Egyptian goldsmiths remain, and in some cases, researchers are left with more questions than answers. However, one discovery changed that, and we were given a close look at one young king and the riches he was adorned with as he entered the afterlife.

Hidden Treasures

In the tombs of Egyptian kings are found objects, and pieces of art, that were made wholly of gold, or were embellished with gold. Gold wire, statues, vessels, jewelry, and gold foil used to cover the openings of jars litter the inner chambers of leaders long forgotten to history.

Wealthy leaders were buried in tombs filled with all they would need in the afterlife, such as food, water, riches, horses, and slaves. The gold that was used to adorn the mean pieces of furniture, the coffins, the vessels, and the statues placed in the tombs often did not remain in the tomb for long.

Even before the unification of Egypt under Narmer, tomb raiding was commonplace. As early as the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 – c. 2613 BCE), tomb raiding was seen as a major issue. Thieves would steal into the tombs to remove the treasures within, trading the items on the black market with corrupt officials who would, likely, have accepted the pieces for a sack of grain or other commodities, have the piece melted down, then refashioned for their own collection. Precious metals were not used as currency at the time and the value of gold was in its artistic application. Hence, it was already wealthy leaders who accepted the stolen goods.

It was this raiding of tombs that influenced the intricate design of the pyramid complex of Djoser (c. 2670 BCE). The burial chamber was purposefully located, and the rooms and hallways of the tomb were filled with debris, to prevent thieves from entering the inner chamber. It didn’t work, and even the king’s mummy was stolen.

Located in a region set aside as a “gravesite”, the Valley of the Kings was a purpose-built site where kings would be safe from the greedy hands of thieves. The valley was populated with laborers who were there to build tombs from the rocks. They were to be well-rewarded for their work and so many people felt it was a privilege to be doing such work. However, supplies were scarce, often long-delayed and on arrival, of poor quality. People were far from Cairo and their families and the work was hard. It perhaps forced many workers to consider the rewards of tomb raiding well worth the risk of capture.

Looting was attractive because of the treasures that were buried with the dead. The gilded coffins, precious stones, imported artifacts, and jewelry were too tempting. Even the curses and debris-filled tombs were not enough to deter those who wanted to claim easy riches. It has also meant that much of the most precious and rare artifacts from the time have long since been lost. Great kings like Khufu or Thutmose III or Seti I or Ramesses II would have amassed huge wealth in their lifetimes, and the riches that were buried with them would have been some of the finest examples of master craftsmanship at the time, but we’ll never see them as they have long since disappeared, reworked into new forms.

King Tuts’ Tomb

It is fortunate then, that in 1922 CE, the English archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, the most intact pharaoh’s tomb discovered. The tomb remained relatively intact, despite it having been broken into twice in antiquity and robbed. The tomb was accidentally buried by workers constructing the tomb of Ramesses VI (1145-1137 BCE) nearby. While it is unclear how this happened, it meant that Tutankhamun’s tomb disappeared and was forgotten for thousands of years. It was preserved without disturbance until the early 20th century when for the first time in 3,000 years, humans beheld the treasures of King Tutankhamun.

The young king died at only 19 years old. While for many years stories circulated about the cause of his early demise – a murderous wife, genetic illnesses, and even a hippo attack – it now seems that the most likely cause of his death was gangrene infection caused by a broken leg. The king was buried with many walking sticks and it is believed that he suffered many ailments that could have contributed to his early demise.

Tut’s small tomb was lost as builders covered the structure while constructing another tomb, and later built workers’ lodgings over the entranceway. Although the tomb had been robbed twice shortly after Tut’s internment, it was undisturbed and became a place of legend among archaeologists competing to make the discovery of the tomb.

Carter was the determined archaeologist who uncovered a treasure estimated to be worth about three-quarters of a billion dollars. Among the treasures, now relocated to a museum in Cairo, was Tutankhamun’s death mask, which is considered a masterpiece of Egyptian art.

Inside the Nest

Carter and his team entered the inner chamber in February 1923, to find a wall of ‘solid gold’, and uncovered the outermost coffin, the largest of three nested coffins inside which King Tutankhamun’s mummy was interred. The crafted wooden coffin covered in gold and semiprecious stones were only moved in 2019 to the Cairo museum for preservation. It is the last piece to be moved from the more than 3,000-year-old site. The second innermost coffin was similarly crafted from wood and covered in gold and semiprecious stones.

Chippings from the first sarcophagus reveal that it was made of cypress with a thin layer of gesso (a plaster-like substance) overlaid with gold foil. The gold layers vary in thickness from heavy sheet for the face and hands to the very finest gold leaf for the headdress. There is a  color variance in the gold work with the hands and face rendered in a paler alloy than the rest of the coffin. Carter said that this gave “an impression of the greyness of death.”

The outer coffin is adorned with rishi, a feather decoration executed in low relief. On the sides and superimposed upon this feathering are two finely engraved images of protective gods, Isis and Nephthys, with their wings extended. Their embrace, representing the goddesses’ guiding Egyptians through life and death, is alluded to in one of the two vertical lines of hieroglyphs running down the front of the lid. At the end, the coffin is another depiction of Isis, this time kneeling upon the hieroglyph for “gold”, and below this are 10 vertical columns of text.

The lid is carved in high relief with a recumbent image of the dead king as Osiris. He wears a broad collar and wrist ornaments carved in low relief, while his crossed arms, resting over his chest, clutch a crook (heqa Scepter) and a flail, the twin symbols of royal power at the time. The “Two Ladies”, Wadjet and Nekhbet, representing the divine cobra of Lower Egypt and the vulture goddess of Upper Egypt, rise from the king’s forehead. A small wreath tied around the pair was crafted from olive leaves and flowers bound to a strip of papyrus pith. The olive leaves were placed in an alternating pattern showing the green front and silver-black back of the leaves.

The Second Coffin

The second inner coffin is 2.04m long and was constructed from a still unidentified wood, covered in gold foil. The second coffin is more resplendent than the first, with extensive inlay woodwork. The carved wood was first overlaid with sheet gold on a thin layer of gesso, then narrow strips of gold were soldered to the base to form cells in which the small pieces of colored glass were secured using cement. The technique was used to create details, such as stripes on the nemes-headcloth (the striped head-cloth was typically worn by pharaohs in ancient Egypt), eyebrows, cosmetic eye lines, and a beard using lapis-blue glass. The uraeus (a stylized Egyptian cobra) on the forehead is wood-carved and gilded, with a head of blue faience and inlays of red, blue, and turquoise glass. The head of Nekhbet, the vulture, is also crafted of gilded wood with a beak of ebony. The eyes are laid in obsidian. The crook and flail are inlaid with lapis-blue and turquoise glass and blue faience, while a broad “falcon collar” containing inset pieces of brilliant red, blue and turquoise glass adorned the king’s throat. Two similarly designed bracelets are carved onto the wrists, matching the chest plate.

Rishi-pattern decorations cover the entire surface of the king’s body with feathers inlaid with jasper-red, lapis-blue, and turquoise glass. Images of the winged vulture goddess Nekhbet and the winged uraeus, Wadjet, embrace the coffin and are also inlaid with pieces of red, blue, and turquoise glass.

Inner Secrets

The innermost coffin is made of solid gold that, according to Carter’s writing, did not gleam. On excavation, after the linen shroud and papyrus collar were removed, it was revealed that the innermost coffin was covered “with a thick black pitch-like layer which extended from the hands down to the ankles,” according to Carter. This fatty resinous perfume poured over the coffin, filling the whole space between it and the base of the second coffin and making them solid and causing them to stick firmly together.

“This pitch like material hardened by age had to be removed by means of hammering, solvents, and heat, while the shells of the coffins were loosened from one another and extricated by means of great heat, the interior being temporarily protected during the process by zinc plates – the temperature employed though necessarily below the melting point of zinc was several hundred degrees Fahrenheit. After the inner coffin was extricated it had to be again treated with heat and solvents before the material could be completely removed.” – Howard Carter

The golden coffin, measuring 1.88m long, was beaten from heavy gold sheets with variable thickness ranging between 2.5mm and 3mm and weighed 110kg (3536.58 Troy ounces). An image of King Tut is sculpted on the coffin, including pupils of obsidian and calcite-white eyes and eyebrows and cosmetic lines inlaid with lapis-lazuli colored glass. The beard, also  inlaid with lapis colored glass, was crafted separately and later attached to the chin.

Interestingly, during this period of Egyptian history, males wore earrings only up until puberty. King Tut’s coffin reveals gold foil patches over the ear lobes to conceal that the ears, also cast separately, were pierced. Some historians have suggested that the young king’s early death was expected and that the crafting of his coffins began early in his life. Others argue that perhaps his death was sudden and artisans had to work quickly to adapt existing artworks in the image of the king.

Two heavy necklaces crafted from disc beads made in red and yellow gold and dark blue faience, threaded on glass bound with linen tape are found near the neck of the coffin. Each of the strings had lotus flower terminals inlaid with carnelian, lapis, and turquoise glass. Such adornments were typically awarded to military commanders and high officials for distinguished services to the Egyptian dynasty. Under the necklaces was the falcon collar of the coffin, again crafted separately from the lid, and inlaid with eleven rows of lapis, quartz, carnelian, felspar, and turquoise glass imitating tubular beadwork, with an outer edge of inlaid drops.

The king is laid in the same manner as the first and second coffins, with sheet bracelets inlaid in a similar manner to the collar using lapis, carnelian, and turquoise-colored glass. The crook and flail are overlaid with sheet gold, dark blue faience, polychrome glass, and carnelian. Much of the decoration of the flail’s shaft has decayed, likely because of the resin application. The goddesses, Nekhbet and Wadjet, made from gold sheet and inlaid with red-backed quartz and lapis and turquoise colored glass, spread their wings protectively around the upper body of the king, each grasping in their talons the hieroglyphic sign for “infinity”. The lid and base feature the images of the winged goddesses Isis and Nephthys on a rishi background. Like the outermost coffin, this innermost sarcophagus was fitted with handles attached using eight gold tongues, four on each side, which dropped into sockets in the shell and were retained by gold pins. Because the available space between the two coffins was so narrow, these pins had to be removed piecemeal.

The Death Mask

Beneath all the intricate work of the three coffins was discovered one of the most well-known Egyptian artworks of our time. Tutankhamun’s funerary mask.

The funerary mask would originally have rested on the shoulders of the mummy inside the innermost gold coffin. It is constructed of two sheets of gold that were hammered together and weighs 10.23kg (321.5 Troy ounces). Tutankhamen is depicted wearing the striped nemes headdress with the goddesses Nekhbet and Wadjet protecting his brow. He wears the false beard and a broad collar, which ends in terminals shaped as falcon heads. The back of the mask is covered with Spell 151b from the “Book of the Dead”, written in hieroglyphs. The book was used by Egyptians as a map for the afterlife, and this particular spell protects Tutankhamun’s limbs as he moves into the underworld. This gives greater credence to the theory that the young king died of gangrene as the result of a broken leg.

Art Over Profit

X-ray crystallography shows that the mask contains two alloys of gold: a lighter 18.4 karat shade for the face and neck, and 22.5 karat gold for the rest of the mask. Gold was commonly used to make jewelry and ornaments for two main reasons: the Egyptians believed that gold is the flesh of the sun god, Ra, and secondly because gold was plentiful in the region. Most of the techniques that goldsmiths developed more than 3,000 years ago are still used today, and many of them little changed by the influence of time and technology.

Ancient Egyptian art is some of the finest and delicate working of gold, particularly unrefined gold, in the world, and thanks to an accident of time, King Tut’s tomb continues to be a source of discovery for gold application, workmanship, and adaptation.