Roman Empire’s Emerald Mines In The Egyptian Eastern Desert

Archaeologists led by the UAB complete the first topography of the interior of the only existing Roman emerald mines, located in Egypt.

Their work concentrated on the area that in Antiquitywas known as “Mons Smaragdus”, and it was the only place within the Roman Empire where emeralds could be found.

A team of archaeologists, led by UAB lecturer Joan Oller, has now published the results of the 2020 and 2021 dig seasons at the Roman site of Sikait, in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.

The study shows that the Blemmyes, nomad tribes living in the region from the 4th to the 6th centuries CE, may have gained control of the emerald mines until the end of the mining activities. Researchers documented funerary rites, the social organization of inhabitants and workers, the typology of the mines, as well as details on extraction methods and how production was registered.

Emerald Production In Eastern Desert Of Roman Egypt With New Evidence

The international team of archaeologists led by Joan Oller Guzmán, lecturer at the UAB Department of Antiquity and Medieval Studies, published the results of the 2020 and 2021 dig seasons at the Roman site of Sikait, a set of buildings surrounding Roman Egypt’s emerald mines, located in the Eastern Desert.

This scientific collaboration was conducted jointly with the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw, Poland, and focuses on the study of how emeralds were extracted and commercialized in Antiquity.


First Topography of the Mines

The two dig seasons began with a detailed surveying of the mining areas in which up to eleven extracting areas were found surrounding Wadi Sikait, the dry valley in which the archaeological site is located. For the first time, archaeologists were able to conduct a detailed topographic study of the two most important mines, one of them consisting of hundreds of galleries and with a depth of more than 40 metres.

Involvement of the Roman Army

The most remarkable characteristic of this mine is the documentation of an important set of ancient inscriptions which allow researchers to infer information on who worked there and how the tasks were carried out.

Among these is an inscription by a Roman legion, which would for the first time demonstrate that the Roman army was directly involved in the exploitation of Egypt’s emerald mines “not only to defend them, but also probably to help in their construction”, Oller explains.

The researchers continued to add to the documentation of emerald mines within the Wadi el Gemal National Park, of which over 300 have already been studied. In addition to the discoveries, the surveying of the area has led researchers to document dozens of new settlements, mines, infrastructures and even a new necropolis with over 100 tombs, which has added to the knowledge of ancient funerary rites and social features of the community living there shortly before the site was abandoned.

The research is a huge step forward in understanding how emeralds were extracted and commercialized in the Graeco-Roman and Byzantine periods.

Fifth Dig Season

In January of this year, the archaeological team ended what was the fifth dig season of this site. The new season has focused on the excavation of what is known as the Small Temple, which, among other elements, has yielded part of an inscription in Greek dedicated to different Egyptian divinities.

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