Vase with stirrup spout

Copper, together with gold and silver, was one of the first metals used in prehistory, perhaps because at times it appeared in small natural nuggets. Various centuries later it was discovered that copper could be extracted from diverse materials (malachite, chalcopyrite, etc.) by smelting in special furnaces in which oxygen was blown in through long tubes or bellows to reach over 1000º centigrade. The oldest copper object known comes from Tal-i-Iblis (Iran) and dates from 4100 B.C. Together with this piece, smelting kilns, moulds and crucibles were found.

The technique of smelting copper is relatively easy when the minerals used are copper carbonates extracted from a copper ore deposit. The key is that the furnace should reach the adequate temperature, which is achieved injecting blown air or using bellows with long nozzles. This technique is called metal reduction. The crushed metal, for example, malachite (copper carbonate), is mixed, with charcoal. With the heat the impurities are released in the form of carbon monoxide and dioxide, reducing the mineral to a relatively pure copper. On reaching 1000º centigrade the metal becomes liquid and is deposited in the lower section of the furnace. An opening here allows the red-hot liquid to flow out where it is collected in moulds. Part of the slag remains in the oven and the impurities of the metal float on the molten metal, making it easy to remove them with a special tool.

The technique of copper production quickly spread right across the Near East coinciding with the birth of the first historical civilizations in the zone, principally in Sumer and Ancient Egypt. As copper could be melted down many times, it was often formed into ingots to be made into diverse objects later by fusion and using moulds. In the Metropolitan Museum in New York there are various examples of copper in ingots. It is a very ductile and malleable metal and can be hammered in cold or when heated. This latter technique increased its consistency and hardness. In Egypt metals were valuable and during certain epochs were controlled by the state. Then a strict control of the weight of the instruments on beginning and finalizing of the work of the artisans was carried out.

In all the tombs of the Predynastic Period a great number of vessels in pottery and stone have been found, forming part of the grave goods. It is a fact that a large industry existed in Egypt for the making of these recipients and vessels. This industry lasted for the entire history while the number of types, forms and materials used in the production multiplied. In the tomb in Abidos of the last pharaoh of Dynasty II, Khasekhemwy, a great number of stone and metal vessels were found, among them a copper bowl and cup with a stirrup spout. These are today conserved in the British Museum in London.

The vase here is one of the most classic types found among the few which are conserved in museums. It is a vase or jug with a circular upper opening where liquid could be poured I, and with a long, curved stirrup spout to pour the liquid out.

All the types of copper vases can be seen in the reliefs in the mastabas of Saqqara and Giza. There are even reliefs showing artisans producing this sort of vessel. The tombs of this period provide the best source of information about the manufacture of practically all the objects that are found at burials.

These vessels, above all those with frontal spouts, were used during the ceremony of purification and the pouring of the liquid offering, the libation, to the gods. This group of pieces are clearly from a collection of grave goods, both due to the number of the pieces and given their importance. This importance is due to the excellent state of preservation and the high testimonial value of the pieces. In the period when they were produced, they were already luxury items, so the owner would have been a wealthy person in Egyptian society.


- Vase. Old Kingdom. Dynasty V ca. 2465 – 2323 a.C. Núm.: 26.9.13. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York. Seelink


- ALDRED, Cyril. Old Kingdom Art in Ancient Egypt. A. Tiranti. London. 1949.
- HAYES, William C. Scepter of Egypt I: A Background for the Study of the Egyptian Antiquities in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: From the Earliest Times to the End of the Middle Kingdom. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Cambridge. 1953. p. 120, fig. 74.
- SCHORSCH, Deborah. "Copper Ewers of Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom Egypt―An Investigation of the Art of Smithing in Antiquity." In Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Kairo, 48. 1992. pp. 145–59, pl. 31b.
- SCHORSCH, Deborah. "A Conservator's Perspective." In Archaeometallurgy in Global Perspective: Methods and Syntheses, edited by Benjamin W. Roberts and Christopher P. Thornton. Springer Publishing Company. New York. 2014. p. 270, fig. 12.1.

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