Largest emerald mines of the Roman period discovered in the Egyptian desert

(ORDO NEWS) — A topographic scan of the emerald mines in Egypt’s Eastern Desert has revealed dozens of time-locked chambers, tunnels and sacred sites dating back to the Greco-Roman and Byzantine periods.

The emerald mines produce green emeralds, a mystical translucent green variety of beryl, which was one of the godstones of the ancient world, associated with the transmission of divine powers. While this stone was highly prized by the Roman elite, it was no less valuable to the Blemmi nomads, according to a new study.

The Blemmii were an Eastern Desert people who existed from the 7th century BC to the 8th century AD. At the end of the 4th century they occupied Lower Nubia.

New archaeological finds suggest that these nomadic hunters and traders gained control of Egypt’s valuable Roman emerald mines before the collapse of the Roman Empire.

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UAB lecturer Professor Joan Oller Guzman has published a new study revealing the results of excavations carried out in 2020-2021 at the Roman site of Sikait, located on the territory of the Wadi Sikait archaeological site in the Wadi el-Gemal National Park in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.

The study was carried out jointly with scientists from the Polish Center for Mediterranean Archeology at the University of Warsaw, Poland.

A new article details how the research team uncovered evidence of “funeral practices and social organization of local workers.”

However, all of this was the result of a new topographical scan of the emerald mines and a formal study of the extraction and recording methods of the miners in the Roman period.

A scan 40 meters (131 feet) below the surface revealed the presence of “small settlements, necropolises, ramps, paths, work areas and watchtowers”. In total, the scan revealed “eleven new archaeological sites.”

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Traditionally called “Mons Smaragdus”, meaning the place with the only emeralds in the Roman Empire, Sikait includes work buildings located around the emerald mines of Roman Egypt’s Eastern Desert.

Evidence has been found to suggest that the impressive Three-Piece Building was a residence and storage facility for emeralds. In addition, the Great Temple, which is the main temple of Sikait, includes two ritual chambers that were last used between the 4th and 5th centuries AD during the reign of Blemmyes in the region.

According to Eurekalert, Joan Oller Guzman said the new finds “confirm the relevance of religion and local rituals in this late period.”

Moreover, the exploitation of the mines may have fallen into the hands of the Blemmias at this time, “before the fall of the Roman Empire.” The study shows that during the period from the 4th to the 6th century AD, some of the mine buildings were built by the Blemmi people.

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A rare collection of ancient inscriptions has provided archaeologists with information about who worked in the mines and how all mining processes were connected.

Oller explained that one particular inscription made by a Roman legion shows that the Roman army was directly involved in the exploitation of Egypt’s emerald mines, “not only protecting them, but probably assisting in their construction.”

In addition to discovering dozens of new mining settlements and mining infrastructures, the team of researchers also unearthed a hitherto unknown necropolis of 100 tombs containing evidence of ancient burial rites.

The new discoveries have given archaeologists new insights into the ancient community that lived at the mining site shortly before it was abandoned.

In January of this year, archaeologists unearthed the Small Temple, in which a Greek inscription in honor of the gods was discovered.

Overall, all of these new studies represent a great leap forward in scientific understanding of how emeralds were mined and traded during the Greco-Roman and Byzantine periods.

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