Silver in 4,600-year-old Egyptian queen’s bracelets came from Greece

A new study of silver bracelets discovered in the tomb of 4th Dynasty Queen Hetepheres I has revealed the silver was imported from Greece 4,600 years ago. Lead isotope analysis narrowed the silver’s source to the Cyclades, with the Lavrion mines in Attica as the second most likely place of origin.

Hetepheres I was the wife of 4th Dynasty pharaoh Sneferu and mother of Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Her tomb was discovered at Giza in 1925 in the shadow of her son’s pyramid. Although her white alabaster sarcophagus was empty, likely robbed of its precious contents, the tomb contained a wealth of grave goods including gilded furniture, jewelry, gold vessels and the oldest intact set of canopic jars ever discovered in an ancient Egyptian tomb.

Perhaps the most notable of Hetepheres’ funerary furnishings were found inside the remains of a wood box covered with gold sheeting. It held a collection of 20 deben-rings, bracelets worn ten to an arm. Some of them were fragmentary, but even with some corrosion and loss, the queen’s bracelets were and remain to this day the largest collection of silver artifacts from early Egypt found. They were crafted of silver inlaid with turquoise, lapis lazuli and carnelian in the shape of butterflies.

The style and materials of the inlay are Egyptian, but not the silver. Old Kingdom silver is very rare. Egypt has no native silver ore deposits and silver artifacts don’t make a consistent appearance on the archaeological record until the Middle Bronze Age (around 1900 B.C.). Queen Hetepheres I’s bracelets were a testament to her great wealth and status.

A hundred years after their discovery, the bracelets have for the first time been subjected to compositional, mineralogical, microscopic and isotopic analysis.

“The origin of silver used for artefacts during the third millennium has remained a mystery until now,” said Dr Karin Sowada, from the Department of History and Archaeology at Macquarie University. “This new finding demonstrates, for the first time, the potential geographical extent of trade networks used by the Egyptian state during the early Old Kingdom at the height of the Pyramid-building age.”

The silver was likely acquired through the port of Byblos on the Lebanese coast and is the earliest attestation of long-distance exchange activity between Egypt and Greece.

The research team included leading scientists from France and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where several bracelets are located. Their analysis also revealed the methods of early Egyptian silver working for the first time.

“Samples were analysed from the collection in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the scanning electron microscope images show that the bracelets were made by hammering cold-worked metal with frequent annealing to prevent breakage,” said Professor Damian Gore from Macquarie University’s School of Natural Sciences.

The findings have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports and can be read here.

Largest stone coffin found at Yoshinogari Ruins

The largest sarcophagus tomb yet has been discovered at the Yoshinogari ruins, an archaeological site from the Yayoi period (ca. 5th c. B.C. – 3rd c. A.D.) in the Saga Prefecture in Kyushu, Japan. The tomb dates to the late 2nd century to the middle of the 3rd century. At 3.2 meters (10.5 feet) long and 1.7 meters (5.6 feet) wide, the sarcophagus pit is much larger than any of the other 18 found at the site. They are usually about two meters (6.6 feet) long, and before this, the longest was 2.7 meters (8.9 feet). The stone sarcophagus itself is 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) long and .65 meters (2 feet) wide at the widest point.

The lid is composed of four stone slabs engraved with numerous linear symbols, including Xs and hashes. These are believed to have apotropaic properties, to ward off evil and keep the deceased safe. They appear to have worked in this case. The tomb has not been opened yet, but it is intact and undamaged, so archaeologists believe it was never looted and may contain historically important grave goods.

The Yoshinogari site is vast, covering approximately 40 hectares, and has been excavated continuously since its discovery in 1986. It contains the remains of settlements, granaries, bronze casting workshops, a watchtower, a mound burial and more than 3,000 jar burials. The mound and jar burials are from the early and middle Yayoi period. The recently-discovered sarcophagus tomb is the only late Yayoi grave discovered at the site thus far.

It is solitary, not part of a larger burial ground. It was discovered at the top of a hill where a Shinto shrine was built much later. The area had never been excavated before because of the shrine, but it was relocated last year, opening up the possibility of excavation. The grave is located on a high point with a magnificent view, and would have been a prime burial location. The deceased must have been an influential person.

The site — which is a national park and includes replicas of the ancient settlement and other attractions — is currently open to the public. Excavation of the sarcophagus tomb resumes next week. Archaeologists plan to open the lid of coffin and investigate its contents.

Ancient quarry found in Malta

An ancient stone quarry has been discovered during work by the Water Services Corporation between the town of Żejtun and Marsaxlokk Bay in southeastern Malta.

Because the site is close to the megalithic multi-period temple complex of Tas-Silġ, an archaeologist from the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage was present to monitor the trenching work. He recognized the large rectangular cut blocks were archaeological remains and notified the Superintendence. The trenching works were stopped while archaeologists excavated the find.

Still bearing visible toolmarks, the stone was in the process of being cut into ashlar blocks when the quarrying work ceased. The sides of the rectangular stones were cut, but the bottoms were still connected to the bedrock. Unfortunately no associated objects or remains were discovered to help date the quarry. Based on the ashlars that had not been fully cut out of the bedrock and the type of quarry that it is, archaeologists believe it was active in the classical era (5th c. B.C. – 5th c. A.D.).

Embalming workshops unearthed at Saqqara

Two ancient embalming workshops, one for humans and one for animals, have been discovered at the necropolis of Saqqara southeast of Cairo. The workshops, found beneath a hill near the temple of the cat goddess Bastet, date to the 30th dynasty (380-343 B.C.) and the Ptolemaic dynasty (305-30 B.C.).

The workshops were rectangular in overall shape and divided into rooms that were used for different stages of the mummification process. The animal mummification workshop was made of mud and stone floors. Five stone beds were still inside the room, used to embalm the bodies of sacred animals . Mummification tools and materials were also found in the space.

The human mummification workshop had stone beds as well, albeit larger. They are 6.5 feet long by 20 inches wide. Bodies were laid out on the beds for the mummification process — the cleaning of the body, the removal of organs, the application of embalming fluids. A number of materials, including wooden stirring sticks, rolls of linens, clay pots containing nitrate salts and black resin were found in the workshop.

The team also discovered two tombs, one from the Old Kingdom, one from the New. The New Kingdom tomb belonged to an 18th Dynasty priest named Men Kheber. He died around 1400 B.C. Vividly-colored paintings in his tomb depict the deceased engaged in different functions.

Inscriptions in the Old Kingdom tomb identify its owner as Ne Hesut Ba, 5th Dynasty head scribe and priest of Horus and Maat who died in around 2400 B.C. In addition to his duties as priest and scribe, Ne Hesut Ba was in charge of digging waterways for the pharaoh. An alabaster statue depicting him was found inside a niche of the tomb, and wall paintings depict him engaged in religious rituals and activities from daily life.

Earliest Iron Age house in Attica found

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of the earliest Iron Age house in Attica at the archaeological site of Thorikos 40 miles south of Athens. The structure first emerged in a 2019 excavation that uncovered the corner of a wall. Archaeologists first thought it was the corner of a tomb, but a wider excavation found no burial, but rather a building, likely a dwelling, from the 10th or 9th century B.C.

Over the past year, the scientists continued to research the extent of the building and identified five to six rooms. In the largest room there were still numerous pebbles in association, which indicate a paved courtyard. An analysis of inorganic and organic features of the rock confirmed a use from about 950 to 825 BC.

“Existing grinding stones for grain indicate a function as a residential building. The differentiated structure of the residential building speaks for either a complex society or an already developed social hierarchy,” says [Prof. Dr. Johannes Bergemann, Director of the Archaeological Institute at the University of Göttingen]. “Scientific analyzes will show whether there was animal breeding here and whether the silver ore typical of the area was mined at this time.”

Inhabited since the 4th millennium B.C., Thorikos was an early center of mining starting from the Neolithic era, first just lead in the 3rd millennium B.C. and then silver from 1500 B.C. Mycenaean underground beehive tombs from that era have been found at the site, and there is material evidence of Mycenaean mining operations at Thorikos dating to the 12th century B.C.

Thorikos became part of the polis of Athens along with the rest of Attica in around 900 B.C., so the newly-discovered structured dates to the early years of the Athenian synoikismos, the process of combining many small polities into one powerful city-state.

With funding now secured from the Gerda Henkel Foundation, the University of Göttingen team in cooperation with the University of Ghent will be able to complete the excavation over the next two years to unearth the full extent of the building. Discoveries will then be studied and analyzed.