The term "bronzes", as applied to Egyptian sculpture in metal, is generally rather loosely used, and frequently no attempt is made to differentiate between the various alloys employed. This situation is due primarily to the difficulty of distinguishing in field excavation between copper, true bronze, and copper-lead alloy, the three principal materials used. It is only occasionally that, after an object has been deposited in a museum, proper analysis is made and the results published. Thus in discussing Egyptian bronzes, it should be understood that objects are meant which have as a major constituent copper, whether or not alloyed with tin, lead, or other metals.
A copper ore (malachite) was known to the Egyptians from the earliest times, being used as an eye paint in the Early Predynastic Period. It was obtained from the Sinai Peninsula, where the mines at Maghâra and Serâbît el Khâdim yielded malachite and turquoise. The ore was smelted for metallic copper in the First Dynasty, probably even as early as the Middle Predynastic Period, 1 and the mines were worked till at least as late as the Twentieth Dynasty. 2 Another source, tapped principally subsequent to the Middle Kingdom, was the eastern desert between the Nile and the Red Sea, where there are several mines showing evidence of ancient use, but little or no inscriptional material making it possible to fix the dates of working. During the Empire a considerable supply of copper (and bronze) was obtained as tribute and booty, notably from Syria and western Asia.
Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, was used commonly in Egypt from the Middle Kingdom on. Its possible use prior to that date is supported by a few somewhat uncertain examples, but if actually used it appears to have been rare and of only sporadic occurrence. The virtual absence of bronze in the earlier periods accords well with the lack of evidence for any local source from which the Egyptians might have obtained the tin necessary for production of the alloy. On the other hand bronze is recorded at Ur in Mesopotamia prior to 3000 B.C.3 a thousand years before it became common in Egypt, and authorities seem agreed that its discovery and first use are to be attributed to some foreign land. Opinions as to where this may have been vary greatly: the presence of bronze at Ur lends credence to a source of the ingredients in Persia, 4 and it seems more probable 5 that the mountain region of Kesrwan, not far from Byblos, was the principal district from which early Egyptian bronze was obtained.
In addition to copper and bronze the Egyptians, in the later historical periods, frequently made use of an alloy containing a proportion of lead. From Predynastic times lead ore (galena) had been in common use as an eye paint, and there are numerous deposits of the mineral in the eastern desert, so that the material was easily obtainable throughout Egyptian history.