Archaeologists have found evidence of complex Roman mining systems, but also that the Romans may have lost the mines to a nomadic desert people.
Centuries ago, the Romans traveled to the Eastern Desert of Egypt with one goal in mind: to mine precious green emeralds. Now archaeologists have carried out a detailed topographic survey of two of the most important mines, revealing the intricate work that once took place there.
In 2020 and 2021, an international team of archaeologists led by Joan Oller Guzmán from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) carried out excavations at the Roman site of Sikait in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. Surveying the site, which was called Mons Smaragdus in antiquity, they identified 11 mines where the ancient Romans mined emeralds.
According to a UAB statement, archaeologists have carried out a detailed topographic survey of two of the “most important mines”. One of these mines contained “hundreds of galleries” and plunged to a depth of about 130 feet. They also found evidence that the Romans first identified “productive veins” before mining began in earnest.
Additionally, the topographical survey revealed that the mines were a small part of a sprawling logistics operation. Dwellings, necropolises, ramps, paths, working areas and watchtowers surrounded the mines, ensuring the extraction of beryl, the mineral base of emeralds. A structure called the Tripartite Building nearby also likely provided storage.
This work would have been important to the Romans, as emeralds were believed to have healing and fertility powers. Indeed, archaeologists have also found evidence that Roman soldiers were stationed in Sikait. According to Guzmán, this indicates that the Roman soldiers were in Sikait “not only to defend [the mines]but also probably to help in their construction.
But the team also discovered that the Roman soldiers may not have been able to protect the mines. Some of the buildings in Sikait, which date from the 4th to 6th centuries, appear to have been “occupied or even built” by the Blemmyes, a nomadic tribe living in the desert.
Archaeologists have determined this by looking past nearby mines and structures. They examined the main temple of Sikait, called the Great Temple, and found “two perfectly preserved ritual shrines, one of which contained the last votive offering to be returned intact (between the 4th and 5th centuries CE) .”
According to Guzmán, this suggests that the Blemmyes had settled in Roman territory and resumed emerald mining. It is possible that the Blemmyes managed to do this even before the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century.
“The find confirms the relevance of local religion and rituals in this late period, suggesting that mining may have fallen into the hands of the Blemmyes at this time, before the fall of the empire,” explained Guzmán.
Ultimately, the investigation of Roman mines is about much more than the mines themselves. In addition to better understanding how the Romans searched for and mined emeralds, archaeologists now have a better idea of how the Romans lived – and died – at the site.
“In addition to the finds, surveying the area has led researchers to document dozens of new settlements, mines, infrastructure and even a new necropolis with over 100 tombs, which has added to knowledge of ancient burial rites and social characteristics of the community that lived there shortly before the site was abandoned,” the UAB statement explained.
He added: “The research is a huge step forward in understanding how emeralds were mined and traded in Greco-Roman and Byzantine times.”
During the 2022 excavations, which ended in January, archaeologists also focused on a structure in Sikait called the Small Temple. There they found Greek inscriptions and allusions to Egyptian gods.
The discovery of the 2022 excavations and the mines examined during the 2020 and 2021 excavations show the immense promise of the Sikait site. There, archaeologists have found many clues to how the ancient Romans lived and worked, and how they likely lost their valuable emerald mines to local nomads.
After reading about Roman emerald mines, learn about the 700-pound emerald found in a Brazilian mine. Or, learn about the history of Timgad, the Roman ruins that were “lost” in the Algerian desert for 1,000 years.