2012 was the first year since 1999 that I was not able to spend one or two or three field seasons in Egypt, exploring ancient quarries, rock art and generally some of the world’s most fascinating archaeology. So I have had to make virtual travels in my photo archives… As the the year draws to a close, I have collected impressions from ten ancient quarries that, over the years, particularly touched me; one for each day until New Year’s Eve.
The quarries I will highlight are often not of the truly spectacular ones of which Egypt is so famous, but rather those hardly known outside of the archaeological community. They are a reminder for me that I may soon be back working in Egypt, and also a way to say HAPPY NEW YEAR to all of my readers!
Particular greetings this year to my Egyptian friends, who are currently struggling amidst political chaos. I hope you will find a stable and peaceful way ahead that takes account of the cultural, religious and political diversity of your country!
So, let’s start the quarry tour in the Eastern Desert, a mountainous desert landscape where Arabian tribes, from beyond the Red Sea, settled as nomads after the Arabian expansion and the spread of Mohammed’s teachings from the seventh century AD. Though soapstone had been modestly quarried and used since time immemorial in Egypt, it was the Arabian Bedouins that sparked a truly immense development in the Middle Ages – a development that ended only a few decades ago. From Arabia the tribes brought the arts and crafts of making soapstone vessels, especially to be used for cooking pots. They opened thousands of small quarries and presumably traded their products in the Nile Valley and even “back home”, across the Red Sea.
Over time, it became, perhaps, the largest soapstone industry the world has ever seen. Tens of thousands of soapstone vessels were manufactured from the thousands of small quarries. It was a development not unlike what happened in other regions with fine soapstone; in America, Scandinavia, the European Alpine countries and in India – to name a few.
This is part of Egypt’s history. A story of people roaming and settling the north-eastern corner of Africa, and taking advantage of the fantastic natural resources here. Hang on! Tomorrow we’ll explore another quarry, another story, going backwards, perhaps ending up amidst Palaeolithic people on their way “Out of Africa”.
Want to know more?
Here’s a summary of the series, with links to all the stories: Ten quarries of Ancient Egypt: Series summary
Soapstone in Egypt:
- Harrell, J. A. and Brown, V. M. 2008. Discovery of a medieval Islamic industry for steatite cooking vessels in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. In Y.M. Rowan and J.R. Ebeling (eds.), New Approaches to Old Stones – Recent Studies of Ground Stone Artifacts. London: Equinox Archaeology Books, 41-65
- Storemyr, P. (2008): Organisation of soapstone vessel production as reflected in Egyptian and Norwegian quarry landscapes. Table ronde sur les récipients en pierre ollaire dans l’Antiquité. 19-20 September, Musée de la pierre ollaire à Champsec, Bagnes, Valais, CH. Poster as PDF (1,3 MB)
General on Ancient Egyptian quarries:
- Harrell, J.A. & Storemyr, P. (2009): Ancient Egyptian Quarries – An Illustrated Overview. In: Abu-Jaber, N., Bloxam, E., Degryse, P. & Heldal, T. (eds.): QuarryScapes. Ancient stone quarry landscapes in the Eastern Mediterranean, Geological Survey of Norway Special Publication 12, 7-50. PDF (7,6 MB)