For millennia, ancient Pharaohs built powerful kingdoms made possible by the unparalleled riches of the Egyptian gold deposits. More recently, however, active gold mining has been recorded throughout the 20th Century when British mines were producing gold. However, despite the obvious prosperity that lies underfoot, modern Egypt has seen little in the way of active gold mining over the last 100 years, with only the Sukari mine producing gold at present. This overview intends to examine how gold mining has ebbed and flowed from the very beginning up until the modern day and the reasons for its evolution.
Early Dynastic Period (3100 BC-2686 BC)
In the beginning, the earliest discoveries of gold nuggets was in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. There existed a common pattern to the location of these gold mines with the similar geological environments present at all the sites. These geological sites usually consisted of high levels of quartz-veins or, alternatively, granodiorite and neoproterozoic granites. In terms of extraction, this period included the very notable two-handed stone hammers; their length reached up to 40 cm and weighed up to 8 kg, meaning that they could only be properly manipulated with both hands.
New Kingdom (Eighteenth to Twentieth Dynasty)
The mining extraction was shaped in the New Kingdom by the historical context; the conquest of Nubia during the eighteenth dynasty, gold mining subsequently expanded on an unprecedented scale into the southern territories. Due to the gold-hungry conquest of Nubia, one witnessed the depletion of the Middle Kingdom mines which then fostered a need for further exploration. Thus, this led to targeted exploration with the purpose of testing selected quartz samples. Copper samples were no longer the sole litmus test for prospective mining. One also witnessed a change in mining paraphernalia. This can be explained by chisel marks found in the New Kingdom, pointing to the use of metal chisels. Outside the mine, the quartz chunks were crushed to smaller, more manageable fragments on flat stones. The gravel was then further crushed in special mills to such a size that the gold was extractable. This period represented a watershed moment in Egyptian mineral exploration with the introduction of Nubia into the Egyptian Empire at the beginning of the New Kingdom and subsequently the introduction of new mining fields.
Ptolemaic Period (~300–30 BC)
The gold mining industry in the Ptolemaic Period is also assumed to have had a relatively high output, allowing the ptolemies to exert political and military might. By this time though, mining had retracted mainly to the southern regions of the Central Eastern Desert. There were considerable structural advancements that occurred in this period with the introduction of abutments, which gave extra support to the mine and permitted much deeper drilling into the mountain. This had the consequence of enhancing security significantly within the mines and thus permitted expeditions to embark on deeper mining projects. This said, the depth to which workers could dig was hindered by the quality of ventilation. Archeologists believe that there was also a slight change to extraction techniques, with mallets and chisels being used in tandem. The evidence for this is the more elongated chisel marks than those found during the New Kingdom.
Roman-Byzantine and Early Arab Periods
During the Roman Period gold mining in Egypt descended into a phase of decline. In the Nubian Eastern Desert it partly even came to a standstill. In the Early Arab Period, gold exploration moved south to areas such as Wadi Allaqi and the Nubian Desert. It was in this period that processing technology underwent a final, but fundamental improvement by means of the rotary quern; a two piece round mill consisting of a flat, stationary stone accompanied by a rotary disc with a handle, which ground the quartz. Such was its success that this technique remained widely used for the coming centuries until the Early Arabic Period in both Egypt and Nubia. This development ultimately improved the effectiveness of the rotary motion resulting in a finer quartz powder fraction to higher proportions of released gold.
Modern Day Mining
If one looks at modern mining in Egypt, alteration zones are considered the most promising areas for mineral exploration in the Central Eastern Desert (CED). Ancient gold miners in Egypt targeted the smoky quartz veins that contain large amounts of gold; however, they left the alteration areas untouched.
A much larger emphasis is placed on mapping, as much of the readily available reserves have already been extracted. Remote-sensing techniques have been employed such as image rationing, principal component analysis, and image classifications to enhance one’s ability of locating gold.
The evolution of gold mining has been shaped by the historical context of the time, whether it be the improvements in technology allowing development of more advanced extraction techniques or the drive for gold during time of expansion such as during the conquest of Nubia. With this said, there needs to be a more holistic approach to future mining in gold-centric Egypt. Expeditions that have started in the Sinai have indicated the presence of zinc, tin, lead, and copper deposits and no doubt there is a whole plethora of unexplored materials throughout the region.