Gilding in ancient Egypt is a practice well-known to this culture in ancient times and served a variety of purposes. Much like today, gold leaf was used to add an important and eye-catching element to certain fixtures to provide beauty, elegance, and a sense of awe to the item it adorned. In this article, we’ll detail many of the ways in which gold leaf was used, as well as how it was often produced in Egypt.
Table of Contents
- Did Ancient Egyptians Use Gold Leaf?
- How Did Ancient Egyptians Make Gold Leaf?
- Gilding in Ancient Egypt: A Very Common Ancient Practice
Did Ancient Egyptians Use Gold Leaf?
As mentioned, the use of a gold leaf for ancient Egyptians was a common practice. In fact, many believe the use of gold leaf originated from this culture with use of gold leaf spanning back as far as 2300 B.C.
Gold layers were utilized, along with precious metals and precious jewels, to create stunning statues and surfaces to adorn the spaces around them. Thus, many Egyptians would use gold leaf in the same way it is used now. Using adhering resources available to them, such as animal glue, tamping, and cladding methods, ancient Egypt used gold leaf to produce gold artifacts that were displayed both internally and externally.
Most items were first made of wood or porcelain before it was lain with the precious metal of gold. This gilded wood would cover important relics like statues, furniture, and even ceilings. In the case of statues, there are many times that precious jewels would be used for eyes, ivory used for skin, and thin sheets of gold for hair, crowns, armor, or clothing.
Despite their brilliance, many of these gold artifacts can no longer be found today, at least, not in their original form. There are many metallic structures that were created back then, even from other ancient civilizations, that did not make it up to our time due to a variety of reasons including sieges by opponents, destruction, and normal wear and tear over time.
How Did Ancient Egyptians Make Gold Leaf?
Ancient Egyptians made gold leaf in much the same way that it is made now, though techniques did vary.
For example, ancient Egyptian cultures did not have the means to have access to machinery that way that we do now. Instead, ancient gilders would beat the leaf with mallets until it was about the same thickness as aluminum foil as we know it today. In fact, gold leaf beaten this “thick” is often referred to as “gold foil” while gold leaf tends to be thinner.
Once the gold leaf was beaten to its desired thickness, the beaten gold would then be applied to carved wood, hollow casting core using usual hollow casting methods, furniture, and more to create beautifully artistic sculptures and items of many uses. Gilding techniques would usually involve a binding medium of some type, including the use of a binder of animal origin or beeswax in some cases.
This practice of using gold leaf would continue into other cultures as well including ancient Greece, and materials found from either culture indicate that uses of wood, plaster, metal, and more all played an important role in ancient gilding techniques uncovered by excavators.
Note also that while cladding was often used on architecture, the use of water gilding methods, or even mercury gilding (also known as fire gilding), was not commonly utilized for outdoor use. This is because gilding achieved by these methods would not last very long due to their inability to resist weather elements. Believe it or not, the same principle applies today, as using any sort of water-based adhesive (otherwise known as “size”) would be unsuitable for outdoor use.
Instead, gilders need to defer to oil size in order to improve the lastability of gold leaf and other metal leaf types on structures, relics, furniture, and architecture to be placed outdoors.
Ancient Egyptian Gilding Methods
Ancient Egyptian gilding methods included the use of a binding medium after the gold was beaten, much as it is today. Externally used pieces would need to use cladding as a method of tamping down gold, while water gilding was used for indoor use. As mentioned before, the use of adhesive from animal origin was also a common way to get gold to stick, and this would be used when applying gold leaf to a clay based mixture, wood, or other surfaces.
Other gilded artifacts discovered include the use of gilded hollow bronze statues and other items made of gilded bronze, letting you know that metal objects were often lain with precious metal different from pure gold alone. Some may have even included the use of filler material and other forms of alloy composition to make the final project come to life.
Today, much of our gilding methods reflect those of ancient Egypt. Although we more readily take advantage of the capabilities of machinery in modern times, there are many modern manufacturers that use the hand beating process to achieve thin sheets of gold. As far as how gold leaf is applied, we, too use animal-based adhesive at times but there are also many other adhesive types available on the market.
As for leaf thickness, know that gold leaf today is more delicate than they ever could have achieved in those times. Thin leaves today are thinner than that of a human hair, but again, that is because of our ability to use machinery as a means to get gold leaf thinner than ever before. Today’s gilding technologies obviously weren’t around during ancient times, and thereby could not have been employed by ancient cultures to produce gold leaf as thin as the sort we use today.
Gilding in Ancient Egypt: A Very Common Ancient Practice
As described, the act of gilding in ancient Egypt was a very common process. By beating gold leaf until it was about as thin of a gold sheet as aluminum foil, the gold could then be used as an external layer for any outer or inner structure the Egyptians would have intended to use it for. The use of gold leaf varied in ancient culture in regards to what specific method was used to produce certain artifacts, but one thing’s for certain, and that is that the practice of gilding was very common in ancient Egyptian civilization.
Remember also that gold leaf was not the only metal leaf to make its way onto ancient structures, furniture, relics, and artifacts. Bronze was also a popular and prominent metal used during ancient times to communicate the same level of grandeur and to highlight features related to deity, importance, or respect. Both bronze and gold could be used on roofs, furniture, statues, relics, and the like.
Hand application, mercury gilding, and other types of gilding could be used to achieve a metal layer surface on most items. Gold leaf and other metal leaf types were hand beaten over and over to achieve the thin sheets that could layer metal objects for the purpose of layering over statues and other pieces. The gold leaf is then applied using binding mediums made from organic elements or was used by cladding methods or fire gilding techniques to help the gold leaf adhere.
Ancient gilding can be traced back to a number of cultures, including ancient Egyptian culture, the Byzantine Empire, ancient Greece, Chinese culture, the Middle Ages, and even contemporary times. Though many methods, such as fire or mercury gilding are no longer readily used because of their lack of durability and safety risks, the art of gilding remains a popular one, especially in certain parts of the world.
Ancient gilding was used to cover statues, artifacts, architecture, furniture, and more. During medieval times, it was popular to use gold leaf in paintings, especially those of religious significance relating to the Christian faith.