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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

SILVERADO in the ANCIENT Egyptian Kingdom (The Truth about Silver)

"The earliest Egyptians didn't have a word in their language for silver, only gold and electrum - an alloy of gold and silver found naturally. When silver was first introduced it was considered more valuable than gold, most likely because it was rarer. This may be verified because silver jewelry at the time was thinner and weighed less than comparable to gold jewelry. And silver items during the Old Kingdom of Egyptian rule were listed above gold items in household inventories.

In the middle Egyptian Kingdom gold was valued at about double that of silver. One of the first measurements of value was the silver shat. It was a flat round silver disk of a specific weight. It was not used as coinage per se but as a measurement of value. A cow was valued at 8 shats while a modest house was valued at 10 shats. One could exchange the house for the cow and demand an additional 2 shats of beer, bread, or other goods.

The Egyptians used silver by itself, in conjunction with gold, and as an overlay of copper. Solid silver coffins did appear but in most cases silver was used as a trimming or overlay.
Silver, as well as gold, jewelry in ancient Egypt was worn for decorative purposes and served a religious purpose. An amulet was thought to have spiritual powers that were bestowed on the person wearing it. An amulet is the representative symbol of a power fashioned into a concrete form, such as jewelry. For example: The beetle or scarab represented rebirth and was often worn by the deceased when they were entombed to help them in their journey to the afterlife." - Why was silver more valuable than gold in ancient Egypt?

"Gold was considered to be the skin of the ancient Egyptian gods, but their bones were thought to be of silver.

At the onset of recorded history, silver may have been unknown to the ancient Egyptians. They could obtain gold and even electrum, which was a natural alloy of silver and gold from the mountains of the Eastern Desert and Nubia, but the Egyptian language at first lacks a word for silver. They described it only as the "white metal", and when they did run across it, they seem to have regarded it as a variety of gold.

When silver was finally introduced into Egypt, it probably was more valuable than gold. It continued to be rare, and on lists of valuables, items of silver were listed above those of gold during the Old Kingdom. Jewelry made of silver was almost always thinner than gold pieces, as indicated by the bracelets of the 4th Dynasty queen Hetephere I, in marked contrast to the extravagance of her gold jewelry. A silver treasure excavated at the site of Tod comprised vessels probably made in Crete, or perhaps somewhere in Asia but under Cretan influence. This cache dates to the reign of Amenemhat II who ruled during the 12th Dynasty, and is roughly contemporaneous with the finds of fine silver jewelry at el-Lahun and Dahshur.

However, by the Middle Kingdom, silver may probably have been considered less valuable than gold. By this time, there was perhaps a much better supply of the metal. According the the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, which was written in the Second Intermediate Period but perhaps composed originally during the 12th Dynasty, silver had acquired a value approximately half that of gold. By the 18th dynasty silver and copper had been established as a mostly abstract means of exchange, with silver continuing to be worth about half its weight in gold. It was imported into Egypt from western Asia and the Mediterranean. In fact, by the New Kingdom onwards, there was a readily available supply of silver. Nevertheless, studies of metal prices between the 12th and 19th Dynasties seem to indicate that its price remained relatively constant at about half the value of gold. Copper was valued at about one-hundredth the value of silver.

Interestingly, demand seems to have not always played a major role in the price of silver. For example, there was little silver found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, perhaps because there was an abundance of the material, though perhaps it may have had something to do with personal, religious or artistic preferences at that specific point in time. The rulers of the 21st and 22nd Dynasty, who were buried at Tanis used considerably more silver in their burials. Sheshonq II had a solid silver coffin with gilded details in the form of the hawk-god, Sokar.

Left: Silver casket of Sheshonq II of the 22nd Dynasty
Right: Silver Coffin of Psusennes I from the 21st Dynasty

Silver, generally treated much like gold and electrum, could also be stained black using sulphur. This niello was occasionally applied as decoration. Beaten into sheets, silver was used to plate copper and other materials, especially mirror surfaces.

Interestingly, silver also acted as a valuation for exchange. Perhaps as early as the Middle Kingdom, the values of commodities such as bread, beer, clothing and just about every other item available for trade had their values expressed in comparable units based on the weight of precious metals. The shat (seniu, Sna or shena) was originally a flat silver disk. It came to denote about 7.5 or 7.6g of silver. A deben, or kit, was a weight of 90 to 91g. It should be noted that the shat was always used as a unit of value and not as a weight for other purposes, while the deben was used in such a manner. This does not imply that coinage was in use, but these weights were used to express abstract values in contracts, trade and bookkeeping. At the end of the 18th dynasty a goat, for example, cost one half of a shat of silver, a cow was eight shat and a typical house cost ten shat of silver. A male slave could bring seven deben of silver, while a female slave might bring four deben. However, items could and frequently were also be expressed in the form of copper, and sometimes gold.

It should be noted that these weights appear to have changed over time. A late Middle Kingdom account (Papyrus Boulaq 18) refers to small and large deben. It would seem that prior to the New Kingdom, a deben may have weighed less. Also, towards the end of the New Kingdom, it would appear that the value of most items were expressed in either gold or copper, rather than silver." -

TitleAuthorDatePublisherReference Number
Ancient Egypt (Anatomy of a Civilization)Kemp, Barry J.1989RoutledgeISBN 0-415-06346-9
Ancient Egypt The Great Discoveries (A Year-by-Year Chronicle)Reeves, Nicholas2000Thmes & Hudson, LtdISBN 0-500-05105-4
Atlas of Ancient EgyptBaines, John; Malek, Jaromir1980Les Livres De FranceNone Stated
Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, TheWilkinson, Richard H.2003Thames & Hudson, LTDISBN 0-500-05120-8
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, TheShaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul1995Harry N. Abrams, Inc., PublishersISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in CairoTiradritti, Francesco, Editor1999Harry N. Abrams, Inc.ISBN 0-8109-3276-8
History of Ancient Egypt, AGrimal, Nicolas1988BlackwellNone Stated
Life of the Ancient EgyptiansStrouhal, Eugen1992University of Oklahoma PressISBN 0-8061-2475-x
Tutankhamun (His Tomb and Its Treasures)Edwards, I. E. S.1977Metropolitan Museum of Art; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.ISBN 0-394-41170-6

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