In the early spring of 1925, Mohamadien Ibrahim (part of a team led by George Reisner) scraped the desert sand away from what he thought was the limestone bedrock of the Giza plateau. He quickly realised the surface was not rock, but plaster. Further clearing outlined the edge of a sealed entrance – the unmistakable sign of an intact tomb.
With the world still digesting the news coming almost daily from excavations at the tomb of Tutankhamun, this new discovery caused a sensation. Its location was in a privileged position in the royal cemetery, close to the eastern side of Khufu’s Great Pyramid. Could this new tomb contain the same wealth as that of the boy-king? To whom did it belong?
However, any surface remains of a burial were scanty. There was no visible pyramid monument befitting a member of the royal family. In addition, a vertical shaft cut into the rock, some 27 metres deep, was a significant hurdle to overcome before those questions could be answered.
While the tomb was not the lavish burial expected by the public, the royal sepulchre of Queen Hetepheres is still the richest known dating to the Old Kingdom (c.2686-2181 BC). Her tomb contained a jumbled collection of intact personal items, gilded furniture, jewellery, metal vessels, pottery and many other precious artefacts. The finds included her sealed alabaster sarcophagus and a set of four alabaster jars containing her internal organs. But the biggest mystery was her missing body.
Queen Hetepheres I
Little had been known about this queen prior to that summer of March 1925. Neither was the identity of the tomb’s owner immediately apparent to the excavators. As its objects were uncovered deep in the burial chamber, excavators read the names ‘Hetepheres’ and ‘Sneferu’ from the hieroglyphic inscriptions, Sneferu being the first king of the Fourth Dynasty (c.2613-2589 BC). Reading the titles ‘mother of the king’ and ‘wife of Sneferu’, the excavators realised the tomb was the resting place of this now-famous queen, and that the contents belonged to her.
Owing to the high incidence of ancient and modern tomb-robbing, intact royal burials for this period are rare. But questions remained. Why was the burial chamber so small? Royalty could expect a burial of great magnificence, so where were the other objects? And, finally, why was the sarcophagus empty? Even today, these questions are not fully settled. Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass believe that the body of Hetepheres was originally buried at Dahshur, close to the pyramid of Sneferu. The burial goods were then transferred to Giza at the behest of her son Khufu, possibly after a robbery of her original tomb. The body of Hetepheres may have been desecrated or illicitly removed from the Dahshur tomb in the quest for jewellery and precious metals enclosed in her mummy wrappings.
The grave goods
George Reisner labelled the tomb ‘G 7000 X’ and proceeded to excavate the burial carefully and methodically. Today, the meticulous detail of his recording, including the original field photographs, is available online through Digital Giza, a comprehensive database of the Harvard University–Museum of Fine Arts Expedition: giza.fas.harvard.edu.
These images show us exactly what Reisner and his team found: a jumble of decayed wood, many pieces of gold sheeting, and hastily packed objects. Although much of the wood was reduced to dust, enough remained beside the gold sheets for the excavators to determine the shape of the objects that had been encased in the gold.
One object was the remains of a wooden box bearing the inscription ‘box containing deben-rings’. Twenty deben-rings or bracelets were originally interred inside the box, one set of ten for each arm, in diminishing sizes. Nearby were several bracelets, some intact and still lined up on a wooden roller, alongside more fragmentary pieces. The dark grey colour quickly identified the metal as worked silver, inlaid with semi-precious stones forming the decorative figures of butterflies on the exterior surface.
Nothing like this had been found in the Old Kingdom. Even today, the bracelets represent a unique find. Each ring is made by shaping thin metal into a crescent shape around a convex core, creating a hollow cavity on the underside. This type of bracelet shape is seen in the Early Dynastic period (c.3000 BC), and marks the silver as having been worked in Egypt.
Depressions impressed into the exterior received stone inlays forming the shape of butterflies. At least four insects are depicted on each bracelet, rendered using small pieces of turquoise, carnelian, and lapis lazuli, with each butterfly separated by a circular piece of carnelian. The use of turquoise, lapis lazuli, and carnelian inlay is also of importance: carnelian is plentiful in the Egyptian deserts, but turquoise was obtained in the Sinai by Egyptian royal mining expeditions, while lapis lazuli is obtained through long-range exchange mechanisms originating in the Badakhshan region of modern Afghanistan. In several places on the bracelets, pieces of painted plaster had been used in ancient times as a substitute for real lapis.
Over time, all the artefacts were sent to the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square in central Cairo; today, they are in the new Grand Egyptian Museum. In 1947, one set of bracelets was given by the Egyptian Government to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (MFA), who co-sponsored the original expedition with Harvard University. The MFA collection includes bracelets on display and fragments in the storeroom.
Silver in early Egypt
Egypt was rich in gold, but lacked native deposits of silver ore. For this reason, silver was regarded as rare and more precious than gold. Acquiring silver was also more complex and expensive. From an early time, silver was imported, but its source in the 3rd millennium is not known. Limited analysis was conducted on Hetepheres’ bracelets in the 1920s, but, remarkably, nothing had been done since.
The source of early silver has never been fully determined in Egyptian archaeology. For decades it was thought that it was derived from aurian silver (silver occurring occasionally in gold deposits) or from electrum, the ‘white gold’ of early Egyptian texts. However, now that greater instrument precision and larger regional reference datasets are available, we can gain further clarity on the question of silver origins and exchange in the region.
Historical sources indicate that silver was imported into Egypt during the Old Kingdom. The Royal Annals for Sneferu (c.2613-2589 BC) record ‘silver and lapis lazuli’ in the context of imported commodities, although the origins are not preserved. A late Sixth Dynasty inscription (c.2300 BC) lists silver imported via the trade entrepôt of Byblos in Lebanon. By this time, silver passed through the city-state polity of Ebla in western Syria, too, from which it was exchanged as a commodity and a currency. Egypt enjoyed connections with Eblaite elites directly, through the mediation of Byblite agents, and through direct visits by Eblaite representatives and regional commercial merchants to Egypt. Silver is even specifically mentioned in the Ebla Texts as having been exchanged with Egypt, which also reveal that Eblaite elites had direct access to silver mining in the Taurus Mountains (the ancient ‘Silver Mountain’) of Cilicia and sources in south-eastern Anatolia.
Yet, during the time of King Sneferu, 300 years earlier than the Sixth Dynasty, solid evidence for Egyptian engagement with this region is not known. Rather, silver may have been acquired via Byblos on the Lebanese coast, evidenced by many silver objects found in late 4th millennium Byblos tombs. Trade between Egypt and Lebanon is known from the Predynastic Naqada IIIA1 period (c.3320 BC) and probably earlier. Over the ensuing centuries, Egypt developed intensive trade relations with Byblos and the region. By the Fourth Dynasty, the Egyptian state also sourced commodities directly or through intermediaries. By the late Old Kingdom (c.2300 BC), trade networks for metals extended eastward, accessing silver from Ebla.
New analysis of an old issue
In 2019, an international research collaboration involving four institutions on three continents began a programme of scientific analysis of bracelet fragments in the MFA, to reveal the origins and trade networks of early silver ore and metalworking techniques in the 3rd millennium BC.
With the two bracelets at the MFA already on fixed display in its galleries, the team turned to several bags of corroded fragments in the storeroom. One metallic piece was examined in detail using non-invasive X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and scanning electron microscopy/energy dispersive X-ray spectrometry (SEM/EDS) at the MFA, to separate the trace elements in the silver, and to understand the manufacturing process. During the latter process, high-precision SEM imaging on a cross-section of a bracelet fragment revealed the distinctive layers of cold-worked metal. Back in Sydney, micro-XRF and mineralogy analyses were conducted on a corroded bracelet sample provided by the MFA. A further sample of the metallic piece was sent to Lyon for lead-isotope analysis, with the results data-matched to source material from known mines in the Mediterranean.
The results revealed information about the silver composition, and provide a unique window into metalworking techniques in Egypt more than 4,600 years ago.
First, it could be clearly seen from the SEM imaging that the silver was cold-worked by repeated hammering and annealing. Annealing is a process of repeated heating and cooling while working brittle metals to prevent breakage. This attests to the high degree of Egyptian expertise in working high-value prestige metals at this time.
Second, the silver was evidently alloyed with an average of 7% gold to improve its appearance and malleability. This gold was probably added in Egypt during the metallurgical process.
But the most surprising result was the origins of the silver ore. The lead-isotope results identified the Cycladic islands in Greece as the most likely location. For the time of Sneferu and Khufu, direct relations between the Greek islands and Egypt are not attested, although there are Egyptian objects on Crete dated to the Sixth Dynasty and later (c.2300 BC). Could the Egyptians have travelled there at this early time?
This seems unlikely, but there is a more plausible alternative conclusion when the role of Byblos on the Lebanese coast is considered. By the Old Kingdom c.2600 BC, trade with Byblos for cedar, oils, and other luxury items was already well-established. Lapis lazuli from Badakhshan was also coming to Byblos from the East via long-distance exchange mechanisms through Mesopotamia. Thus, the presence of silver objects in Byblos tombs pre-dating the Old Kingdom indicates that an exchange with silver-bearing regions of the eastern Mediterranean have a long history. It is also known that silver sources in the Aegean – the Attic mines of Lavrion and the Cyclades – were worked in the 4th and 3rd millennium.
Thus, while surprising, the presence of Greek silver in Egypt reveals the nature and extent of networked Early Bronze Age societies. Remembering that Egypt was the only territorial state in the region during this time, its impact and voracious appetite for prestige commodities may have had a more significant impact on the wider region than previously thought.
Dr Karin Sowada is Director of the Australian Centre for Egyptology at Macquarie University, Sydney. Her project team included: Dr Richard Newman (MFA, Head of Scientific Research) and Dr Michele Derrick (MFA, Scientific Research); Dr Gil Davis (Australian Catholic University, Sydney); Professor Damian Gore (Department of Natural Sciences, Macquarie University); and Professor Francis Albarède (École normale superieure, Lyon). Professor Albarède leads the European Science Project ‘Silver Isotopes and the Rise of Money’, of which Dr Davis is also part, identifying and analysing silver sources in the ancient world. Research on the bracelets was funded by an Australian Research Project Grant (#FT170100288).
K Sowada et al. (2023) ‘Analyses of queen Hetepheres’ bracelets from her celebrated tomb in Giza reveals new information on silver, metallurgy and trade in Old Kingdom Egypt, c.2600 BC’, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 49 (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2023.103978).