The source of ancient Egypt’s copper during a time of turmoil has been uncovered by researchers using lead isotope analysis. A new study published by a team led by Shirly Ben-Dor Evian in the Journal of Archaeological Science reveals that the material, found inside four 3,000-year-old bronze funerary figurines called ushabtis, was sourced from the Arabah region in an area south of what is now Israel.
The inclusion of copper offers potential proof that the civilization continued to prosper during an understudied era known as the Third Intermediate Period, which ran from 1070 B.C.E. to 664 B.C.E. This latest research indicates there was a copper exchange network between the Egyptians and the Arabah region that continued to operate, even as other nearby empires were collapsing around Egypt.
Ben-Dor Evian, a curator of Egyptian archaeology at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, collaborated on the project with researchers from Tel Aviv University and Geological Survey of Israel. In said in a statement to ARTnews, she said that the new research shows that, “despite internal strife within Egypt and the decline of the empires in the ancient near east, Egypt continued to play a significant role in the region.” Ben-Dor Evian also noted that the research will aid in identifying materials from the Timna and Feynan copper mines that date back to the Third Intermediate Period.
Ushabtis were common grave goods in ancient Egypt. They were believed to perform any labor required in the afterlife on behalf of the deceased. The four royal ushabtis, examined by Ben-Dor Evian and her team, and currently housed at the Israel Museum, were recovered from Tanis, the Pharaoh’s capital, and date to the reign of Psusennes I, who ruled from 1056 to 1010 B.C.E.
The Third Intermediate Period was a time of uncertainty and divided rule for Egypt, which faced multiple invasions and political upheaval, with a split kingdom ruled by the Pharaoh in Lower Egypt and a high priest in Upper Egypt. Despite this, Psusennes was able to import copper from the thriving industry in Arabah, and these ties may have even allowed metal art to flourish in Egypt during this time.
After Psusennes, Pharaoh Sheshonq I invaded Arabah as part of his Egyptian unification campaign, perhaps in an effort to control the copper supply himself. But the figurines prove the existence of trade routes that predate Sheshonq I’s reign, potentially showing that Egypt had not become as isolationist as was previously thought.