Egyptian Queen Hetepheres’s 4,600-year-old bracelets reveal ancient trade networks

New information on trade networks in Old Kingdom Egypt has been revealed by an analysis of bracelets found in the tomb of ancient Egyptian Queen Hetepheres I.

Hetepheres was one of Egypt’s most important queens. She was the wife of fourth dynasty King Sneferu and mother of Khufu, whose reign was famous for the construction of major structures like the Great Pyramid at Giza.

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Hetepheres’s tomb dates to 2,600 BCE and is the largest and most famous collection of silver artefacts from early Egypt. Her bracelets were among jewellery found inside the tomb when it was first uncovered in 1925.

The bracelets have been examined for many decades, but only now have with modern metallurgical techniques made it possible to determine their origins.

An international team, including researchers from Macquarie University and the Australian Catholic University, used new images and lead isotope analyses to determine the bracelets’ composition, origin and manufacturing processes.

Made primarily of silver with traces of copper, gold and lead, they were embellished with crescent shapes of turquoise, lapis lazuli and carnelian iconography that substantiates the jewellery’s Egyptian origin.

Old photograph showing bracelets in an ancient tomb
Bracelets in the burial chamber of Tomb G 7000X as discovered by George Reisner in 1925. Credit: Mustapha Abu el-Hamd, August 25 1926) (Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition; Photograph © May 2023 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

But Egypt, while rich in gold, has no local sources of silver. Instead, the lead isotope measurements of the metal were found to be consistent with silver ores extracted from mines in the Cyclades, now part of the Aegean islands of Greece.

“The origin of silver used for artefacts during the third millennium has remained a mystery until now,” says Dr Karin Sowada, from 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.”

Given its Aegean origins, the researchers believe the silver was shipped to the port of Byblos in modern-day Lebanon where it was finally acquired: the earliest evidence of long-distance trade between Egypt and Greece.

“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,” says Professor Damian Gore, also of Macquarie University.

“The bracelets were also likely to have been alloyed with gold to improve their appearance and ability to be shaped during manufacture.”

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Hetepheres’ tomb was discovered in 1925. As well as the jewellery inside were impressive pieces of furniture and the oldest example of intact canopic jars recovered from ancient Egypt.

The US expeditioners who uncovered the tomb found her white alabaster sarcophagus empty. One theory is Hetepheres’ body and its gold trappings were robbed soon after her burial, so finding the unique bracelets is significant.

“The rarity of these [bracelets] is threefold,” Sowada says.

“Surviving royal burial deposits from this period are rare, only small quantities of silver survived in the archaeological record until the Middle Bronze Age, and Egypt lacks substantive silver ore deposits.”

The research is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

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