Powdered quartz used to make faience vessels discovered by Polish archaeologists during excavations in the ancient city of Athribis in Egypt’s Nile Delta came from tailing heaps left over from gold mining, according to scientists from the University of Warsaw and the Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University.
Tell Atrib (Athribis) was an important political center in the Nile Delta. It was an ancient city in Lower Egypt, just northeast of Benha on the hill of Kom Sidi Yusuf. The Polish-Egyptian archaeological mission operating there in the years 1985-95 discovered the remains of baths, craft workshops, and an ancient villa.
During excavations by a Polish-Egyptian archaeological mission between 1985-95, archaeologists found the remains of craft workshops and kilns.
Kilns caught the researchers’ attention. What they might have been used for was unclear. Researchers assumed that faience vessels were fired in them, as those were also discovered by Polish researchers. Egyptian faience is the term used to describe objects made of a sintered-quartz ceramic material.
A new National Science Centre-funded research project on Tell Atrib faience products, led by engineering geologist Magorzata Zaremba of the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyski University in Warsaw, has confirmed that some of the kilns could be used to fire faience vessels at temperatures ranging from 1050 to 1150 degrees Celsius.
The researchers analyzed 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 of the vessels was precisely ascertained by the researchers involved in the project. The ingredients used to make faience items in ancient Egypt included approximately 90% powdered quartz, approximately 4% burnt lime and bone meal mixture, approximately 2% river fluvisol, 2% gelatine, 1% feldspar flour, and 1% lead sulphide. Each of these components served a crucial purpose 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 stylized 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 BCE and later, during the reign of Hatshepsut and Ramesses the Great.
Cover photo: Egyptian vessels were discovered in Tell Atrib. Photo from: F. Welc, ‘Tell Atrib 1985-1995 IV. Faience Objects. PAM Monograph Series 5’