New ways of looking at highly organised stone quarrying in Ancient Egypt

Fig. 24 – Multiple-block extraction on descending platforms in the New Kingdom to Late Period part of the el-Sawayta limestone quarry near Samalut. Note the wide, shallow steps left by offset platforms and, at center and at left, the two narrower but deeper, squarish platform remnants. Photo by JAMES HARRELL.

Multiple-block extraction on descending platforms in the New Kingdom to Late Period part of the el-Sawayta limestone quarry near Samalut and Minya. Photo by JAMES HARRELL.

The ancient Egyptians are considered “conservative” as regards technology and crafts. Yet, with their mastery of organisation, they took quarrying of stone to new levels, especially from the New Kingdom on, from about 3500 years ago. The manner, in which they quarried their huge amount of stone from then on, is reflected even in modern-day stone quarrying.

In a brand new paper James Harrell and I take a fresh look at the evidence for very systematic extraction of sandstone and limestone that commenced by the New Kingdom. Key is the introduction of very long chisels and broad extraction platforms. The organised quarrying was obviously related to the grand building projects by well-known kings such as Ramesses II. And it is particularly well-displayed at famous quarrying sites, such as Gebel el-Silsila between Luxor and Aswan, and el-Sawayta by Minya. We also follow the manners in which quarrying took place prior to the New Kingdom – and we look at analogies from many periods and cultures, from the Minoans until today.

Unfortunately, the publisher does not allow us to upload the paper. But read on, and you will get the abstract, a gallery of quarry images and addresses for obtaining a free PDF.

Here’s the title and abstract of our paper:

Limestone and sandstone quarrying in Ancient Egypt: tools, methods and analogues

An analysis is made of the tools and methods for quarrying limestone and sandstone in ancient Egypt. It is concluded that the chisel, originally of copper and later of bronze or iron, was the principal quarrying tool during all periods, with chisels becoming longer (over 50 cm) at the beginning of the New Kingdom (about 1500 BC). Iron picks and wedges were also occasionally used during the Graeco-Roman period and perhaps also earlier in the Late Period.

Prior to the New Kingdom, stone in open-cut quarries was mainly extracted in a non-systematic manner with blocks removed individually or in small groups. From the New Kingdom onward, quarrying was usually done more systematically with multiple blocks extracted simultaneously on descending bedrock platforms, a method of quarrying which first appeared in the early Old Kingdom (about 2500 BC).
Stone extraction in the underground gallery quarries was similar in all periods with blocks removed sequentially from ceiling to floor along the walls.

The use of descending platforms and long chisels were major quarrying innovations. Although the former continued in use up until the present day, ancient Egyptian conservatism prevented the general adoption of quarrying tools more advanced than the chisel, such as picks.

Full reference:

  • Harrell, J. A. and Storemyr, P. 2013. Limestone and sandstone quarrying in Ancient Egypt: tools, methods and analogues. Marmora – an international journal for archaeology, history and archaeometry of marbles and stones, 9, 19-43 (the publishing year is 2013, but this is more of a technical issue; the paper appeared just now, in May 2015)

In this paper, we have relied on our own observations from many years of fieldwork in Egypt, but – of course – also on the numerous scholarly books and papers dealing with the issue. However, Egypt is a big country, with hundreds of ancient quarries, and we are dealing with thousands of years of history. Hence, it is impossible for individuals “to have seen it all”. Papers, such as this one, have to be regarded as “work in progress”.

We thus very much welcome constructive critique, comments and feedback of all kinds!

If you wish, you can buy the paper at the publisher’s website (libraweb.it), but you can also contact one of the authors to obtain a free PDF:

  • James Harrell: james.harrell@utoledo.edu
  • Per Storemyr: per.storemyr@hotmail.com

We look forward to hearing from you!

And here follows a gallery of images that appeared with the paper

About Per Storemyr

I work with the archaeology of old stone quarries, monuments and rock art. And try to figure out how they can be preserved. For us - and those after us. For the joy of old stone!
This entry was posted in Ancient Egypt, Archaeology, New publications, Old quarries and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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