One-hundred years ago a five-year search culminated in arguably the world’s greatest ever exploration success. No, not a mineral deposit (although lots of gold was found), rather the almost intact tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh.
The ancient burial site in the Valley of the Kings outside Luxor (formerly Thebes) had been widely assumed to be fully explored, and it was only the persistence of a 48-year-old British archaeologist, Howard Carter (1874-1939), that exposed the entrance to the valley’s 62nd royal tomb.
The burial site was, of course, that of Tutankhamun (1341-1323 BC). Although the first step leading to his tomb’s entrance portal was found on Nov. 4, the outer door was only breached 20 days later (awaiting the arrival from Great Britain of the exploration sponsor Lord Carnarvon). Famously, after a further two days, Carter made a small hole in the inner, tomb door (on Nov. 26, 1922) and, on being asked what he saw, said “wonderful things.”
These wonderful things were fashioned from local gold, with Egypt being a major producer of precious metals for over 2,000 years. In addition to vast mineral resources in the Eastern Desert, the Pharaohs had access to the riches of Nubia (a region stretching south from Aswan in Egypt to the confluence of the Blue and White Niles at Khartoum in Sudan).
Gold mining (initially from alluvial deposits) on these Precambrian rocks of the Arabian-Nubian shield dates back to almost 2500 BC, and some 250 ancient gold mines have been identified (including sites at Abu Marawat, Abu Zawal, Barramiya, Sir Bakis and Wadi Hammamat in the Eastern Desert). Current gold mines in the area include the Sukari open-pit operation.
The 100th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb reminds us of the need in exploration for finance, expertise and perseverance, and of the significant rewards for success.
The need for success in mineral exploration was highlighted recently by analysis from S&P Global Market Intelligence (SPGMI). The Northern Miner reported on Nov. 9 that increasing consumption will “outstrip the mining industry’s ability to ramp up supply, resulting in commodity deficits as early as 2024.”
In its report, ‘The Big Picture: Metals and Mining,’ SPGMI notes that global efforts to decarbonize are driving the rollout of metals-intensive technologies, bringing about near-term challenges in the commodities sector. SPGMI also expects deteriorating global macroeconomic conditions to persist into early 2023, representing a downside risk to the metals and mining sector. Producers will be hit by “narrowing margins,” while “exploration activity next year will slow amid tighter financing conditions.”
While SPGMI sees a bumpy road ahead, the International Energy Agency reports that to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, sectors contributing to the green energy transition will be responsible for over 45% of the total copper demand, 61% of the nickel demand, 69% of the cobalt demand, and a staggering 92% of lithium demand by 2040. The Northern Miner noted that this dramatic increase in consumption “poses a massive challenge for the market’s supply side.”
Although exploration expenditure is expected to decline next year, SPGMI has reported that commercial exploration budgets for non-ferrous metals are 16% higher this year than in 2021, at US$13.0 billion. This is based on SPGMI’s survey of 2,200 companies with a published exploration budget of over US$100,000 and follows a 35% exploration hike last year.
Gold accounts for over 53% of this year’s exploration budget, with copper accounting for nearly 22%. Regionally, Canada (21%), Australia (18%) and the U.S. (12%) account for the lion’s share, with Latin America attracting 25% and Africa only 10%.
The total is still well short of the almost US$21 billion spent on exploration in 2012, and there are 300 fewer companies with significant exploration budgets. Worryingly, the industry is also increasingly risk averse, with grassroots exploration accounting for only 25% of the total, compared with a 50% share at the turn of the millennium. In contrast, the spending proportion for mine site exploration remains near an all-time high of 38%, compared with a share of barely 20% only 22 years ago. Carter’s search was focussed on a single brownfield site, but the Pharaohs explored across the Arabian-Nubian shield. Modern explorers could do worse than emulate their ancient efforts.