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An etched pot sherd with an image of a scribe holding an ink palette. Found near an ancient Egyptian amethyst mine.

3,900-Year-Old Lost Inscriptions Surface at the Ancient Egyptian Amethyst Mines

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Archaeologists working in the timeworn deserts of Egypt have uncovered more than ‘100 ancient inscriptions' at Wadi el-Hudi, where ancient miners once collected amethysts which were believed to be imbued with supernatural powers.

Wadi el-Hudi lies in Egypt’s Eastern Desert, 21 miles (35 km) southeast of Aswan in the Eastern Desert. At this remote mining site archaeologists have announced the discovery of “14 stele” ( inscriptions carved on a stone pillar or slab) and “45 ostraca” (inscriptions written on pieces of pottery) dating back about 3,900 years.

One of more than 100 inscriptions that were recently discovered by researchers at Wadi el-Hudi. (Wadi el-Hudi Expedition)

One of more than 100 inscriptions that were recently discovered by researchers at Wadi el-Hudi. ( Wadi el-Hudi Expedition )

Belong to an era known as the Middle Kingdom (2000-1700 BC) Wadi el-Hudi has been surveyed several times in the past but very little hands on excavations have ever been undertaken. What is more, according to an article in Live Science , Kate Liszka, the director of the Wadi el-Hudi expedition said, “The site is just so full of inscriptions behind every boulder and around every wall” that previous surveys missed “a lot of them.”

WH 21 by bkraemer on Sketchfab

Liszka also told reporters that “One of the inscriptions mentions Pontius Pilate ”, the controversial Roman governor who according to the Bible oversaw the trial of Jesus.

Previously, in 2015, Kate Liszka directed an American archaeological mission sponsored by Princeton University in collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities and the Aswan Inspectorate that inspected “several amethyst mines each connected with their own fortified settlements.” At that time Head of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Sector, Dr. Mahmoud Afify, told Heritage Daily “the Wadi el-Hudi is an important area because it contained a number of amethyst quarries, a beautiful purple stone used in jewelry. Ancient Egyptians periodically sent several expeditions in the Middle Kingdom.

Mysteries of the Ancient Egyptian Amethyst Mines

The ‘Wadi el-Hudi Expedition’ is now in its fifth season and the official website explains that amethyst was one of “the only natural sources of purple” at the start of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom and Egyptian prospectors discovered the ancient world’s largest source of purple in Wadi el-Hudi.

The Wadi el-Hudi Expedition is actively “mapping the standing architecture, documenting the sites and inscriptions, creating a 3D model of the sites, and studying how the ancient Egyptian state provided luxury mineral resources for a royal gift economy.”

Dating back around 3,900 years, this site at Wadi el-Hudi houses a settlement in a valley between two hills and an amethyst mine. (Wadi el-Hudi Expedition)

Dating back around 3,900 years, this site at Wadi el-Hudi houses a settlement in a valley between two hills and an amethyst mine. ( Wadi el-Hudi Expedition )

Wadi el-Hudi was the primary source of purple, and “Once the [pharaohs] found it, they kind of went bonkers to go get it,” and “they were bringing it back and making it into jewelry and doling it out to their elite and their princesses,” said Liszka .

Amethysts, like most semi-precious stones in Egyptian art, had a religious or magical purpose and amulets and talismans were believed to be blessed or imbued with the magical properties necessary to achieve specific goals. Physicians worked hand-in-hand with magicians as the disciplines of magic and medicine were integrated.

Egyptian Middle Kingdom amethyst scarab. (The Met)

Egyptian Middle Kingdom amethyst scarab. ( The Met )

Another research paper published by the University of Arizona explains that the fashion trend for wearing amethyst in Egypt and the Near East had “dried up along with the Wadi el-Hudi mine” by the mid-18th century BC, but the stone’s popularity persisted in the Aegean well into the 12th century.

Unanswered Questions

The scientists are still not clear on several aspects of the mines, for example, if the miners working at the site were slaves or if they mined for pay at their own free will. Groups of soldiers are depicted on some inscriptions looking down at the mines but it is unclear if they were ‘protecting’ or ‘policing’ the miners. Uncertainty also surrounds the question of how water was flowed into the mines for the miners as the closest well is about 2 miles (3 km) away from the mines.

Perhaps the most mysterious aspect of the excavations was a 3,400-year-old stela written in the name of Usersatet, a viceroy of Kush, a region to the south of Egypt. Dating to a time when Wadi el-Hudi had been abandoned, archaeologists are puzzled as to why someone transported this stela some 18.6 miles (30 km) into the Eastern desert and left it at Wadi el-Hudi. What kind of magic was this?

Another inscription found near the ancient Egyptian amethyst mines at Wadi el-Hudi. (Wadi el-Hudi Expedition)

Another inscription found near the ancient Egyptian amethyst mines at Wadi el-Hudi. ( Wadi el-Hudi Expedition )

Top Image: An etched pot sherd with an image of a scribe holding an ink palette. Found near an ancient Egyptian amethyst mine. Source: Kate Liszka

By Ashley Cowie

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