New research reveals what Ancient Egyptian faience has to do with gold

Researchers from the University of Warsaw, and the Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University, have found that powdered quartz for the production of faience vessels from the ancient city of Athribis in the Nile Delta in Egypt, came from tailing heaps that remained after gold mining.

Tell Atrib (Athribis), was an ancient city in Lower Egypt, just northeast of Benha on the hill of Kom Sidi Yusuf. The city was once the capital of the tenth Lower Egyptian nome, with Egyptian occupation of the site dating back to the Old Kingdom

During excavations by a Polish-Egyptian archaeological mission between 1985-95, archaeologists found the remains of craft workshops and kilns. At the time, it was not clear what the kilns were used for, but researchers assumed that faience vessels found in the vicinity were fired in them.

A new research project funded by the National Science Centre on faience products from Tell Atrib, led by engineering geologist Małgorzata Zaremba from the Institute of Archaeology of the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, has confirmed that some of the kilns could actually be used to fire faience vessels at a temperature of 1050-1150 degrees C.

- Advertisement -

The researchers analysed the chemical composition of seven fragments of 2,000 years old bowls that were covered with a glaze giving them a blue colour and shine. They are decorated with convex and concave motifs typical of Egyptian, Greek and Oriental cultures: from geometric patterns and floral patterns (lotus flowers, leaves, etc.) to figural scenes.

The composition consisted of approx. 90 percent powdered quartz, approx. 4 percent burnt lime and bone meal mixture, approx. 2 percent river fluvisol, 2 percent gelatine, 1 percent feldspar flour and 1 percent lead sulphide. Each of these ingredients had an important function during the firing process, for example, gelatine gave the mixture its plasticity

“All the ingredients for the production of the vessels came from Egypt, but that included its more distant regions. All the samples of faience bowls from Tell Atrib we analysed had been made of high-quality quartz powder from gold-bearing veins in the Eastern Desert in Egypt,” says Zaremba.

The quartz for the production of faience came from heaps formed after gold mining, meaning that it was obtained from the mines in the Eastern Desert. These sites are located 500-600 km from Tell Atrib, between the Red Sea and the Nile Valley.

According to Zaremba, so far no one has attempted such a comprehensive analysis of faience items, especially their cores, hence the lack of data that could be compared.

“However, the research methodology we have developed and the obtained results may encourage other researchers to conduct further interdisciplinary research on faience objects, not only from the Ptolemaic Period,” she adds.

Faience items were very popular throughout the long history of ancient Egypt. Blue and green figurines, pendants and amulets, e.g. in the shape of the key of life – ankh, were being made of faience in Egypt for several thousand years. To this day, scientists have not determined the exact recipe and production method. Souvenirs stylised as faience products are now sold at tourist stalls at famous monuments, such as the Giza pyramids or the Luxor Temple.

The oldest items made this way in Egypt come from the times of the builders of the first pyramids, over 4,500 years ago. The technology flourished in the middle of the second millennium BC and later, during the reign of Hatshepsut and Ramesses the Great.


Header Image Credit : Małgorzata Zaremba


- Advertisement -
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is an award winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education and the BCA Medal of Honour.

Mobile Application


Related Articles

Clusters of ancient qanats discovered in Diyala

An archaeological survey has identified three clusters of ancient qanats in the Diyala Province of Iraq.

16,800-year-old Palaeolithic dwelling found in La Garma cave

Archaeologists have discovered a 16,800-year-old Palaeolithic dwelling in the La Garma cave complex, located in the municipality of Ribamontán al Monte in Spain’s Cantabria province.

Burials found in Maya chultun

Archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have uncovered burials within a chultun storage chamber at the Maya city of Ek' Balam.

Archaeologists analyse medieval benefits system

Archaeologists from the University of Leicester have conducted a study in the main cemetery of the hospital of St. John the Evangelist, Cambridge, to provide new insights into the medieval benefits system.

Major archaeological discoveries in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania

In an announcement by the State Office for Culture and Monument Preservation (LAKD), archaeologists excavating in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania have uncovered seven Bronze Age swords, 6,000 silver coins, and two Christian reliquary containers.

Early humans hunted beavers 400,000-years-ago

Researchers suggests that early humans were hunting, skinning, and eating beavers around 400,000-years-ago.

Archaeologists find burial bundles with carved masks

A team of archaeologists from the PUCP Archaeology Program “Valley of Pachacámac” have uncovered over 70 intact burial bundles with carved masks.

Should the Elgin Marbles be returned?

The Elgin marbles are a collection of decorative marble sculptures taken from the temple of Athena (the Parthenon) on the Acropolis in Athens.