Egyptian and African Copper Metallurgy. Contextualisation, Preservation and Patrimonial Value in Federal Collections.

Project funded by the Belgian Science Policy (BELSPO) BRAIN-BE programme.

Copper has played a crucial symbolic and technical role in several African civilisations. However, its production technology has until recently been neglected by academic research. The aim of this project is to exploit the considerable potential of the federal collections and the expertise within the federal institutions to contribute significantly to our understanding of copper production processes, in Egypt and in sub-Saharan Africa. To do so we intend to use objects connected with copper working conserved in the Egyptian collections of the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels (RMAH) and in the ethnographical and archaeological collections of the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA). A comparative technology approach combining material analysis, archaeological data, experimental archaeometallurgy and ethno-archaeological studies focusing on the use of very similar techniques and tools found in Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa will allow for the valorisation of an exceptional federal collection.

The project focuses on the contextualisation and actualisation of all material kept in the Ancient Egyptian collections of the Royal Museums of Art and History and in the archaeological and ethnographical collections of the Royal Museum for Central Africa that is linked to the chaîne opératoire of copper, the step-by-step production of copper artefacts. This material, abundant, rich and diverse, and of considerable potential scientific value, was not adequately exploited, either at the time of acquisition or subsequently, partly because of a very embryonic knowledge and understanding of the societal contexts and their relation with the metallurgical process, partly because of a lack of adequate study methods, partly because of limited means.

 These collections can now be revisited through a multidisciplinary approach that capitalises on a vastly improved understanding of contexts and permits both a synchronic and diachronic perspective on the combined material of the two institutions. New data from several fields as well as non-invasive analytical methods, not available at the time these collections were constituted, but now well developed and of tested reliability, available within the complementary expertise of the five partners, will be applied in the project, allowing a proper understanding of the artefacts, their relation to the social acts involved in their production and use, their role in the development of lifestyles and cultures, thus generating a considerable qualitative enrichment of the material.

 Work will focus on studying the diachronical evolution and the regional variations of each step in the copper metallurgical process – from extraction to the finished object.  To this aim, archaeological, ethnographical and archaeometric data will be gathered and confronted with the 4000 artefacts pertaining to the chaîne opératoire of copper metallurgy in an attempt to reconstruct the ensemble of skills and parameters that were, in their time, mastered by the artisans. This includes the qualitative choice of materials (types of clay and degreaser used, modes of fermentation, type of fuel, mineralogical nature of the copper ore), the manufacturing techniques (wax, ceramics ovens, lithic tools), the know-how (orientation of ovens, understanding of oxydo-reducing atmospheres, of the reactions specific to each type of fuel, optimisation of the reduction and melting phases), the finishing techniques (annealing, hammering, wire drawing, polishing) and the reuse of artefacts. Ethnographical comparisons will be used as a reference tool in order to reconstruct the technical process, building on the expertise of the ethnographic section of the Royal Museum for Central Africa and on their large collection of ethnographic archives in films, photographs and descriptive reports on the copper production and transformation in the Congo.

From a technological point of view, the present understanding of some artefacts requires recourse to new investigations and sampling. Indeed, a technically complex artefact (such as lithic and ceramic material), separated from its archaeological context, is difficult to interpret. The study of similar objects is the only pathway to scientific understanding. In this framework, the contribution of African techno-metallurgy to the archeo-metallurgy of Ancient Egypt leads to a re-interpretation of our methodologies, a redefinition of research priorities and the identification of new fields of investigation. Ethno-archeology offers the possibility to understand the particular attention paid by artisans to the choice of raw materials, to the improvement process of clay and to advantages that can be drawn from the natural environment. This new methodological approach has already been successfully used by the University College London (UCL) Archaeological Material and Technology, as well as on the site of Ayn Soukhna (Egypt). It has confirmed the importance of the quality of materials, and of the methods used to streamline the production process. It helps to understand the use of certain artefacts not otherwise understood in the collections.

The working hypotheses will be verified by archaeometrical analyses by the Centre for Archaeological Sciences of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and by experimental reconstitutions undertaken at the Archéosite of Aubechies (Belgium) and in situ at Ayn Soukhna (Egypt) by the Royal Museums of Art and History. These analyses will focus on

  • nature and provenance of ores
  • nature of the flux
  • composition and temperatures of the oxydo-reducing atmospheres,
  • composition and reactivity of clays
  • types of combustible used
  • complex alloy composition