Practically the whole of Egypt is dotted with quarries and tool workshops dating to the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic (some 3-400.000 to 30.000 years ago), showing how our predecessors adapted to the geological resources along the Nile and in the adjacent deserts. I’m very far from an expert on these periods, but over the years I’ve often been truly fascinated by quarries from these times that just popped up while looking for much later archaeological remains. In 2006, while on a tourist trip in the Eastern Desert with Red Sea Desert Adventures, we started to look for Palaeolithic tools and quarries. They were really very common. An experience we share with other people that have traversed the Eastern Desert.
We started the trip by the ancient emerald mines at Sikait and crisscrossed the country between the Precambrian basement in the east and the Nubian sandstone in the west, until ending up at the ancient Bokari gold mines, just north of Barramiya. The extremely rich Predynastic rock art in this region was our main “target”, but then the Palaeolithic quarries turned up…
The most impressive quarry was located on a plateau by Wadi Beiza, which drains from the Barramiya area to the Kom Ombo plain by the Nile. This is in Nubian sandstone country – where very thin layers in the sandstone through the geological history have become extremely hard since they are enriched in iron minerals and have undergone so-called silicification. Thus, such dark layers are hard as flint and useful for stone tools. They are often called ferruginous sandstone or silicified sandstone.
There were loads of fragments from tool making (debitage) at our plateau quarry, but few real tools, though it seems that the one and the other biface (hand axe) were present, which would probably place the quarry rather far back in time.
The problem with such quarries is that they are not really situated exactly where work went on back in the Palaeolithic. This is because the softer sandstone below weathers over the millennia, and so the quarry quite literally sinks and is spread out over a larger area than as compared to its original position and size. This is a process that has been beautifully described by Guichard & Guichard in another area of Egypt, in Lower Nubia, by the Second Cataract.
So, the quarries are usually out of their original archaeological and geological context, which make them very difficult to study and date – also because in quarries the actual tools produced are normally gone and mainly debitage remains. And it is normally the tools that are diagnostic of a given period and human culture.
Anyway, the Eastern Desert is full of such quarries, none of them properly recorded and published. So where did the tools go? Also a very difficult question, since very few habitation and camp sites are known from these early periods in this area of Egypt – with the Sodmein and Bili caves as the most prominent ones.
Time to take all these quarries more seriously than before? For despite all the difficulties, with special methods and quite some imagination, such quarries can be properly studied and may yield data of key interest to the question of mankind’s relationship with natural resources – and how people may or may not have traversed Egypt on their way out of Africa.
Though it is reasonable to state that few of the Palaeolithic quarries are immediately threatened by modern development, it must be noted that they are not located in a risk-free area. For the Eastern Desert has since long been a very important target for the Egyptian and international mining industry. They look for gold and whatever there is that give revenue. Better that the archaeologists record before things are destroyed – or even better, that recording forces the modern industry to look for places where no or few old remains can be eaten up by their machines!
Caution: When in the Eastern Desert on a tourist trip: CAREFUL where you step! NEVER move archaeological remains like stone tools and pottery! NEVER even think of bringing them back home! It is illegal and you may end up in an Egyptian prison! If you remove artefacts, you may have destroyed the possibility of professional archaeologists to come up with answers about our common past! Just look, enjoy and take photos!
Want to know more?
Here’s a summary of the series, with links to all the stories: Ten quarries of Ancient Egypt: Series summary
For an overview of the archaeology of the Eastern Desert, with many references, see the excellent website by Andrea Byrnes: http://archaeology-easterndesert.com/
A selection of works on the Palaeolithic in Egypt, with emphasis on stone and quarries:
- Guichard J. & Guichard G. 1968. Contributions to the Study of the Early and Middle Palaeolithic of Nubia. In: The Prehistory of Nubia. 1, ed. F Wendorf, pp. 148-93. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press
- Marks A. E. 1968. The Mousterian Industries of Nubia. In: The Prehistory of Nubia. 1, ed. F. Wendorf, pp. 194-314. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press
- Midant-Reynes, B. 2000. The Prehistory of Egypt. Blackwell.
- Vermeersch, P. M. ed. 2002. Palaeolithic Quarrying Sites in Upper and Middle Egypt. Leuven University Press
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)