Amber in ancient Egypt


Following the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, which brought to light some objects containing elements made of a brown brittle material, as well as a quantity of powdered red substance of resinous character, it was postulated that the ancient Egyptians knew real amber. However, chemical analysis has shown that only semi-fossil copal can be considered, being a very rare and imported material. In November 1922 Howard CARTER unearthed the tomb of TUTANKHAMUN, which was probably the most spectacular discovery ever made in Egyptian archaeology. Among the several thousand objects recovered were a number of pieces of jeweler made of gold, lapis lazuli, cornelian and colored glass paste. A few objects, however, also included other, atypical materials. Most famous in this respect remains the iron dagger, the handle of which is made partly of rock crystal. Several other items of jeweler: a necklace of 60 (actually of only 55) beads, another necklace, one hair-ring and a pair of ear-adornments contained some elements made of a dark brown, brittle amber like material.

  These objects were discovered in various parts of the tomb. The ear-rings were found in the so-called Treasury: a room situated behind the Sarcophagus Chamber, deposited in a wooden case in the form of the royal cartouche, beside some other pieces of jeweler. Another chest (ornamented with ivory and ebony) found in the "Treasury" contained " crude string of alternate dark resin and lapis lazuli beads". Sixty amber-like beads, once belonging to the necklace mentioned earlier came from the famous casket painted with hunting scenes and depictions of the Pharaoh's triumph over his enemies. This box was found in the Antechamber. "[...] part of large cylindrical bead in dark resin was also found here, as well as"[...] a ring of resin, or possibly amber". In addition to all these objects (to which we can further add "two knuckle bones, the knob of a box", and "ear studs"10) resin in its crude form was found in several parts of the tomb. These were mentioned in Carter's handwritten catalogue as "fragments of resin", "fragments of resin (one showing inlay)", "lumps of resin, scraps of red resin", and "five pieces of red resin tied up in linen". Red (or amber-like) resin should not be confused with the black variety. Therefore, a finger-ring and the "black resin scarab suspended on gold wire", which were found on the King's mummy, are not considered here.

   Thirty-two years after the discovery of the tomb, in 1954, the German scholar Heinrich QUIRING published an article entitled Die Herkunft des Bernsteins im Grabe des Tutanchamon, in which, for the first time, the hypothesis that the ancient Egyptians knew amber was put forward expressis verbis. Since then the word "amber" has appeared from time to time in publications in "an Egyptian context", and the entry: "Bernstein" exists in the Lexikon derAgyptologie. However - as is stated in the Lexikon - this issue seems far from being a proven certainty, at least as regards fossil resin (real amber).

  The first objection concerns the aesthetic value of the "burning stone" - this is, after all, the etymological explanation of the word "amber" in some languages (Bernstein, bursztyn). This aesthetic value lies in the color of amber, varying from yellow, through orange to red or brown, and also in its surface transparency and beautiful shine which may evoke that of the sun (amber is sometimes designated in German by the use of poetic term: Sonnenstein). However, it was cornelian that played the role of a "burning stone" in ancient Egypt, often being used in pieces of jeweler to render the idea of a solar disc (or solar sphere).


Secondly, some amber like material from TUTANKHMUN'S tomb was subjected to chemical analysis, and was subsequently declared to be resin. One should, however, repeat after HOOD, that none of the material under discussion has been tested by modern methods, and "...all speculation about amber in Egypt must be tentative until adequate tests can be made on the relevant material". In this situation, the results of investigations carried out by Curt W BECK at the Amber Research Laboratory of Vassar College on a pendant from Eshnunna (Tell Asmar) seem to be of importance. This object, dated toe. 2500-2400 BC, was long believed to be amber. However, testing by infrared spectroscopy has recently determined that the material is copal from a region of East Africa

In one of the corners of the Sarcophagus Chambei, thus just beside the mummy ensemble of TUTANKHAMUN, a double wooden naos was discovered, containing two different powdered substances, enclosed in stone vessels. One of these substances appeared to be natron the well-known natural soda used in the mummification process the other being resin of a reddish color. From the archaeological context we can assume that this material might also have been used for the same purpose, i.e. for mummification. Chemical analysis has shown that this substance dissolved very easily in alcohol and also, to some extent, in water. When heated up, the powder emitted a smell similar to that of turpentine. This and other observations resulted in the conclusion that the substance was copal, which came from Angola or the Sudan

In addition to those objects from the tomb of TUTANKHAMUN, red amber like material (probably copal) was used in the production of a big scarab inserted in the center of the wooden, gilded pectoral of a scribe and prince named 'bay. A further three small scarabs one in the British Museum and two others from the collections of University College, London - are mentioned in publications as having been made of amber. Apart from the problem of identifying the material from which the objects in question are made, another debate concerns textual evidence of the possible occurrence of amber in ancient Egypt. Here, a stimulus was furnished by Pliny's mention of the substance called sacal; from the context it appears to be identical to amber.

Undoubtedly, the word sacal can be understood as a derivative of the Egyptian s/3/kr//s/3/k1 or s/3/hrt//3/hlt , which is, however, the designation of a kind of resin. This resin was undoubtedly an imported substance. From some sources among texts in Egyptian temples of very late (Greek and Roman) periods we learn that this resin was used in some rituals:

A - In the temple at Dendera a figure of the god SOKAR - patron of the dead - was made of the resin during the feast of OSIRIS; thus the funerary context of this substance is confirmed here.

B - In Edfu a text mentions a number of objects of some liturgical meaning, also made of the same resin, which is described as "coming from Baharia-oasis".

C - In Kom Ombo the name s3hrt is linked with that of the lioness-headed goddess SAKHMET, who is associated in various myths with fire, blood and -geographically - with Nubia, from whence, after her mythical damaging activity, the tempered, calmed lioness came back to Egypt.

D - In Dendera another liturgical text says: "I am filling the udjat-eye with s3hr-resin and am calming this what is inside". A short explanation is necessary here, as not everybody is familiar with ancient Egyptian mythology: the udjat-eye plays a similar symbolic role to the lioness. During the mythical fight between OSIRIS's son HORUS and his terrible uncle SETH, one of HORUS's eyes was wounded, which led to its bleeding and becoming inflamed. However, it was subsequently healed in a magical way, and thus calmed. One should stress that the same word (s3hri) also means, "to calm". Any ritual act of filling a mould in the form of an udjat-eye with s3hl-resin was equal to a symbolic ad of victory over (and thus, a calming of) any evil. Similarly, the heart of the dead subjected to the last judgment had to be calmed in order not to rebel against its owner - informs Chapter 29 of the Book of the Dead. In one of the Books of the Dead-papyri (known as Busca-papyrus, now in Milan) this text is entitled: "Spell over a heart made of stone s3hrt". A scarab in the ancient Egyptian art, usually symbolized the heart. This hieroglyphic sign meaning: "to become, to come into existence", symbolized the rising sun and all types of revival, the most important of which was, of course, the resurrection of the dead. It is interesting to note that the same text, which is found in the Busca-papyrus in connection with the "stone s3hrf", is also engraved on the reverse of the scarab inserted in the pectoral of IBAY, discussed above.


All of the earlier quoted texts confirm that the copal s3hrltl was probably used for exactly the same purposes in the Egyptian liturgy as was PLINY's "sacal", however, at the same time these texts also hint at its rather rare use and foreign origin. A substance of a similar name - skr/skl - is, for instance, listed among the tributes brought to Egypt by foreign countries in the 37th year of the reign of King TUTHMOSIS III (c. 1443 BC). The key question is: where did this mineral, most probably a sub-fossil resin, originate from? There are three possibilities, which do not, however, necessarily exclude each other:

A - Import from the West. The aforementioned inscription at Edfu, which refers to the Baharia-oasis, can be regarded as supporting this possibility. Baharia might have been only a stop on the way of the s3hrt or skl-mineral from West Africa. The characteristics of the powdered substance from the tomb of TUTANKHAMUN are similar to those of a copal from Angola.

B - Import from the South. The mythical allusions to the lioness-headed goddess SAKHMET, coming from Nubia and called "mistress of s3hrt", may find some support in PLINY's Historia Naturalis. This author mentions a theory, according to which "Egyptian amber" would have originated from Ethiopia, where - in accordance with a version of the famous myth -HELlOS's son FAETON crashed his chariot. From then on, FAETON's sisters, who had been turned into trees, wept tears in the form of copal pieces. The Egyptian expeditions, attested to in many sources, to the land of Punt, localized somewhere on the East-African coast (Somalia?) provide a possible historical basis for the hypothesis that copal was an import of southern origin. The regions of Somalia, Tanzania and nearby Zanzibar abound in copal. A number of exotic products were imported to Egypt from Punt, among them incense gum and myrrh, which are also varieties of resin.

C - Import from the North-East. Again, on the linguistic level, one should point to a similarity between the Egyptian words ski or s3hr and the Mesopotamian word SAG.KAL used in a cuneiform letter sent by Tusratta, king of the realm of Mitanni, to his son-in4aw Amenhotep IV~ some elements of necklaces sent from Mitanni to Egypt were made of a stone: SAG.KAL. TUSRATTA also sent other gifts to his daughter TADUHEPA, among them two daggers, the description of which corresponds to the actual objects found on the mummy of TUTANKHAMUN. Heinrich QUIRING, who may be right in supposing that TADUHEPA was TUTANKHAMUN's mother, suggests that some other atypical objects, such as earrings containing some elements made of brown resin, might also have originated from Mitanni. The raw material used for producing these elements, according to QUIRING, had earlier been imported to Mitanni from a northern region on the Black Sea and River Dnieper Whatever can be supposed about the origin of the resin found in Egypt, one should conclude that the semi-fossil copal, which can be identified with the substance called s3krt or skl in some Egyptian texts, was a rare and exotic material that never played any essential role in Egyptian imports, when compared for instance with lapis lazuli (imported from Afghanistan). As to the title of the present paper - Amber in Ancient Egypt - we should perhaps regret that Egyptian mythology does not include any allusions to amber, which was, after all, so popular a subject in legends. It is sufficient to mention the one about the tears of FAETON's sisters, or another, Lithuanian legend of an amber palace broken into small pieces by the furious father of enamored JURATA. Unfortunately, the only legend linking the real (fossil) amber with Egypt seems to be the modern myth which claims that amber was known by the ancient Egyptians and that amber objects have been found in Egypt.


by Andrzej NIWINSKI