I’ve been reading and thinking about the sublime aspects of gold (Au, element 79) for several years, but in contemplating a first blog post about gold my mind instantly went to King Tut and his golden coffins. Yes, there are actually three nested coffins–and the famous death (or funerary) mask. Why King Tut? Well, there are several possible reasons why the famous coffins of a pharaoh popped into my head: perhaps it’s because I’m still mourning the death of two friends this past November, or perhaps it’s due to the recent Nativity and Epiphany seasons where we recall that the Holy Family journeyed to Egypt as refugees fleeing King Herod, or perhaps the King Tut coffins and death mask at this point are simply the prime archetype of something made of gold. (And speaking of the Holy Family, isn’t it a sublime thought that when Joseph, Mary, and young Jesus journeyed to Egypt, those famous King Tut coffins had already been buried in their tomb for over 1300 years?)
The pharaoh Tutankhamun, who died at the age of 19, was at best only moderately significant historically, but it happened to be his largely intact tomb that was discovered in 1922, thus propelling him to the “King Tut” rock-star status he enjoys today. All the gold and precious stones found in the tomb made it the most complete ancient Egyptian royal tomb ever found. The tomb had been quickly buried and forgotten, making it one of the few untouched by grave robbers through the millennia (though there were at least two small robberies, thought to have occurred shortly after the burial).
The three anthropoid coffins found within the quartzite sarcophagus, all bearing similar heads and hands holding crooks and flails, fit within each other like Russian nested dolls. (There were also five nested shrines surrounding the sarcophagus.) The first coffin (below left) is stunning (see a close-up here), but it is nowhere close to being solid gold. What I find fascinating about gold and gold leaf objects is that so little gold is needed to create the one-of-a-kind luster and power of gold. The ancient Egyptians were the first to hammer gold into thin sheets to cover objects and give the
appearance of solid gold. While gold leaf can be made so thin as to be see-through, the typical Egyptian gold leaf on something like a coffin or statue was typically 10-20 micrometers (microns) thick (a micron is one millionth of a meter [10-6 m] or 0.001 millimeters). Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) studies of a piece of this first coffin show the leaf thickness varies between 14 and 19 microns. As remarkably golden as the first coffin looks, then, it would only take about 2540 grams of gold to cover it (though there are definitely areas where it is actually thicker than this). 2540 g of gold is not much at all–it would occupy the volume of about 75 peas, or, equivalently, the size of a tennis ball (actually, more like a lacrosse ball which is 2 mm smaller). The current market value of that tennis ball of gold is $91,500 (assuming $1120/troy ounce). Modern gilding is often just 1 micron thick, in which case this large first coffin could be covered with 4 peas worth of gold, or a large 1″ marble (a “bowler”) of gold worth just $5560.
The second coffin is gold-plated like the first one, but the third one is solid gold and was the mother-lode of Howard Carter’s archaeological triumph. It weighs 110.4 kg, but given the number of inlaid precious stones and glass on the torso, the gold weighs perhaps 108 kg (238 lbs). 108 kg is 3473 troy oz., and at $1120/tr. oz. the gold in the third coffin is today worth $3,890,000.
The 108 kg of gold from the third coffin would form a solid sphere only about the size of a soccer ball (the coffin walls were not terribly thick). This reflects the extraordinarily high density of gold (19.3 g/cm3), which is much greater than most metals, e.g. the density of lead is “only” 11.3 g/cm3.
Lastly, aren’t you curious about how much surface area would be covered if that soccer ball of gold were beaten into a 1 micron thick gold leaf sheet? The answer is 5596 m2, which is just about the exact area of an American football field (including the end zones). Rather fitting, as this Sunday is the Golden Super Bowl, number 50!
Photo credits: death mask and close-up of third coffin are from the Wikipedia page for tomb KV62, courtesy of Jon Bodsworth; unaltered outer coffin photo is 100_3078 from "Inside the Luxor Hotel's King Tut Museum" by Maggie N on Flickr.com with this public license. Second coffin close-up and third coffin from here by Grisel Gonzalez.