An analysis of bracelets owned by an Egyptian Queen has found that Egypt and Greece were involved in trade during the bronze age, much earlier than previously known.
Queen Hetepheres was the mother of King Khufu, who would go on to build the Great Pyramid. Her tomb represents the largest and most famous collection of silver artefacts from early Egypt.
While researchers have long known that the ancient Egyptians traded with other civilizations, the new study provides the first scientific evidence that silver was sourced from the Aegean Islands in Greece, researchers report today in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
“This kind of ancient trading network helps us to understand the beginnings of the globalised world,” said the study’s lead author Karin Sowada, director of the Australian Centre for Egyptology at Macquarie University.
“For me, that’s a very unexpected finding in this particular discovery.”
Queen Hetepheres, bearing the title ‘Daughter of God’, represented the direct royal bloodline of the Fourth Dynasty in Egypt, in a period of time known as the Old Kingdom (2700 BC – 2200 BC).
For thousands of years, her place of burial remained a mystery, until archaeologists came across a shaft in Giza in 1925 — where they found her empty sarcophagus.
The researchers conjectured that Hetepheres had originally been buried near her husband’s pyramid in Dahshur, but her son ordered her tomb be moved to Giza after robbers broke in.
While the whereabouts of her body and gold trappings remain unknown, a number of items were recovered from the tomb, including the bracelets.
The team, which included researchers from France and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where the bracelets are stored, scanned fragments to work out what they were made of.
While the bracelets were last examined decades ago, Dr Sowada said they had never been analyzed “scientifically to a high degree.”
Silver at bracelets prove bronze age trade between Egypt and Greece
The new analysis revealed the bracelets consist of silver with traces of copper, gold, lead and other elements.
They were made by hammering cold-worked metal with frequent annealing — which involves heating it to a certain temperature to prevent breakage.
The addition of gold would have helped improve the silver bracelets’ appearance and ability to be shaped.
While ancient Egypt was known to be rich in gold, it had no local sources of silver, Dr Sowada said.
“So this period of early Egypt is a little bit terra incognita from the perspective of silver,” Dr Sowarda said, noting that the bracelets represented “essentially the only large-scale silver that exists for this period of the third millennium BC”.
“Silver also has the added disadvantage of corroding more easily.”
And it wasn’t until the early second millennium BC that “large quantities of silver” were preserved, she said.
While ancient Egyptian literature makes mention of materials like silver and lapis lazuli “in the context of imported commodities”, their origins were never preserved, Dr Sowada explained.
For a “very long time” researchers assumed the silver was extracted from local gold with a high silver content.
But the new analysis of these bracelets has cast doubt on that theory, with lead isotope ratios in the silver from this time period found to be consistent with ores from the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean, and to a lesser extent, Lavrion (Attica in Greece).
“So these bracelets represent a very, very unique opportunity to understand not just the metalworking techniques at this time, but also the trade networks that were existing, which are very important to understanding the emergence of Egyptian state,” Dr Sowada said.
While lead isotope analysis has been done on other silver objects from the Middle Kingdom — with artefacts stored in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also believed to have come from mainland Greece — we “just haven’t had that scientific evidence before” to show that Egypt was active in the Mediterranean region prior to that, Dr Pitkin, said.
“Egypt having international relations at this time is not surprising, but to be able to use robust scientific evidence to show it with the Aegean or mainland Greece, that is interesting,” she said.