This fall I joined the Wadi el-Hudi expedition to the famous Middle Kingdom amethyst gemstone mines in the Eastern Desert south-east of Aswan. The expedition is led by Dr. Kate Liszka of California State University San Bernardino (US), and over the last few seasons it has excavated and documented the ancient mining settlements in very high detail. My task was to take a closer look at the geoarchaeology – to try and understand relationships between geology and mining. It is hugely important to document what is left, for the ancient mining area is now at high risk from looting, modern gold mining and stone quarrying.
Archaeology at stake
The Wadi el-Hudi Expedition works in a remote desert area 30-40 km SE of Aswan, an area where intensive modern mining and quarrying – and looting – is ongoing, posing an immediate threat to rich archaeological remains. Archaeology is at stake in this region, which has been duly acknowledged by The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.
Thus, the Wadi el-Hudi Expedition focuses on rescue archaeology, in partnership with the Ministry, in practical cooperation with the regional Aswan heritage authorities – and with the aid of modern quarrying companies that have understood the importance of the area’s archaeological record.
History of research
Several researchers have worked at Wadi el-Hudi, starting in the 1920s, when the ancient mining sites were rediscovered by geologist Labib Nassim. The first recording of ancient remains was made by Murray and Abdel ‘Al in 1939, but it was not before the 1940s that the wealth of pharaonic inscriptions, specifically related to mining, were thoroughly studied by Ahmed Fakhry.
Modern survey started in the 1990s by Ian Shaw, in cooperation with Robert Jameson, resulting in several publications. Also Rosemarie and Dietrich Klemm, in cooperation with Andreas Murr, have studied the area, in connection with their monumental work on ancient gold mining in Egypt and Nubia.
For there are not only several amethyst mines in Wadi el-Hudi, but also ancient gold mines, as well as mines for barite and possibly rock crystal, perhaps also mica, some of these rather modern. Most of the ancient mines have associated fortified settlements, and infrastructure, from wells and roads, paths and cairns, to places with inscriptions, rock art and stelae (the latter of which now are in magazines and museums).
A rich geology
Like elsewhere in the Eastern Desert, a region so rich in mineral resources, it is obvious that a special geology is responsible for the concentration of mines in Wadi el-Hudi. The area is within the Precambrian basement of North-East Africa, here occurring as a “window” in much younger (cretaceous) Nubian sandstone, and lies at the border between an older metamorphic gneiss complex and younger granites.
In this border zone the bedrock is crisscrossed by a truly amazing network of younger, volcanic dikes; fine-grained basaltic, intermediate and felsic rocks, as well as pegmatite, and an assortment of veins with barite, sometimes carbonatite – and especially milky quartz and rock crystal, with or without amethyst, gold – and also copper and lead.
A weathered geology
Detailed geological mapping has been initiated in order to try and understand the relationship between all these geological units, but the studies are hampered by the fact that the bedrock is deeply weathered, in particular along mineralised veins. Also, thin dikes of hard rocks tend to appear much larger than they are in reality. This is because of boulder weathering, fracturing and the spreading of smaller and larger blocks far from the dike itself. Thus, it simply takes much time to reconstruct the geology “under” all this weathering.
It is clear, though, that small geode-like occurences of amethyst follow mineralised veins of quartz and rock crystal. This is no wonder, since amethyst is just a purple variety of quartz, the purple colour by most scientist attributed to a small content of iron in the crystal lattice. It also seems that the mineralised veins are related to dikes of more or less basaltic composition, from where iron might have been provided. Interestingly, as a comparison, the largest amethyst deposits in the world, in Brazil, occur as geodes in basaltic rocks.
Rock crystal on the desert floor
How did the ancient Egyptians find the amethyst? I think they just followed the most important marker on the surface: For around the mines there are multiple, mineralised veins, implying that rock crystals are strewn “everywhere” on the desert floor. There are single crystals, but more often cracked, geode-like small boulders and blocks are seen.
Such places must have been known since time immemorial. Excavating further down to recover “better” crystals may at some stage have happened, the diggers “accidentally” finding amethyst. For purple quartz/amethyst cannot be seen on the surface today, and probably would not have been seen in the Middle Kingdom either, the period in which amethyst was in the highest esteem as a gemstone, and from which most of the mining in Wadi el-Hudi dates. This is because the purple colour tends to fade in bright sunlight.
Middle Kingdom exploration and mining
There are numerous old test pits and small excavations in the near vicinity of the probably largest amethyst mine in Wadi el-Hudi, called “site 9” by Fakhry in his 1952-publication, a designation adopted by all subsequent investigators. Many of the test pits attest to exploration activity in the Middle Kingdom, before, under or after the working in the large mine that developed in a broad wadi by low hills rising in the east.
The open-pit mine is impressive, almost 100 m long, c. 20 m wide and probably more than 10 m deep. The depth is impossible to judge without drilling or excavating through the stratified layers of fine debris that has filled the mine over the last 4000 years. This debris originates from the mighty spoil heaps surrounding the mine and which have accumulated through run-off during rare rainy days. In these hyperarid surroundings, the stratified infill may in fact constitute a great climate record – of the number of rainy days over 4000 years!
The fortified settlement at site 9
The mine is associated with a well-built fortified settlement integrated with the workings. It is 70 m long, divided in numerous sections and rooms, and a large open space, with well-built walls not reaching higher than about 2 m. Thus, this was not a real fortification, but rather a delineated space to host the mining community – and to provide some protection against raiding nomads or other folks – and wild animals –, but definitely not armies on the march!
Whether the whole mining community lived within the precincts of the fortified settlement is hard to interpret. Some may also have camped under the clear sky and bright stars in the environs, though there is, in fact, little to account for such camping activities.
Also, it is yet difficult to interpret the composition of the mining community. According to general findings from the Wadi el-Hudi Expedition, the community certainly must have involved workers and specialised craftspeople of various sorts, but there is debate as to the extent of “state organisation” of mining and living out here in the desert. It will be very interesting to see what the further analyses of the archaeological material and inscriptions can tell us!
But it is not very difficult to reconstruct the operation of the mine. This is because there is – in this special case – little subsequent looting and disturbance, in other words because the mine is very well preserved.
The array of hammerstones provide a general insight to work processes. There are at least six different types, all fashioned in a rather standardised way and/or sought out very carefully from natural blocks and small boulders. At the one end of the scale are very heavy ones, weighing 10 kg or more, at the other end are fine, one-handed spherical pounders and special hand axes, weighing 3-400 g. The first type was obviously used to break loose solid stone to get access to the ore in the mine, the other applied in the final process of separating purple amethyst from colourless quartz.
In between these extremes, the most important type of hammerstone is a two-handed, oval or longish, rather heavy one (c. 5 kg), which could be used either by holding it at both ends, breaking stone with its middle part, or holding it with both hands at one side, using it as a heavy, pointed tool. There are variations of this tool with a prepared (pounded) circle at one end, probably intended for hafting; thus making it a heavy-duty maul or sledgehammer. Also, there are many types of lighter, longish hand axes.
Similar arrays of stone tools are found in several Pharaonic and later quarries and mines in Egypt, for example famous, mainly Old Kingdom Chephren’s Quarry west of Abu Simbel and many gold mines in the Eastern Desert. With a detailed inventory now having been carried out at Wadi el-Hudi site 9, it will be very interesting to see how the hammerstones compares with other, known assemblages in terms of standardisation.
There are also marks of metal tools in the mine at site 9. They usually come in the form of long tool tracks in the rock, likely a result of the use of flat chisels and mallets. These tracks may belong to the original Middle Kingdom operation of the mine, but they can perhaps also be attributed to minor Graeco-Roman or later reuse. Iron tools were in use by the Roman period, whereas the Middle Kingdom only knew copper and bronze tools. However, the soft, deeply weathered bedrock in the mine can easily be worked with bronze tools.
The spoil heaps – working rock crystal
The well-organised spoil heaps provide other insights to the work processes. There are several, very steep “paths” out of the mine, obviously the ways taken by workmen with their baskets full of waste, which they would have filled using wooden scrambles and spades. At some places it is still possible to see where individual basket-loads were dropped – 4000 years ago!
On top of the spoil heaps there are several sites for sorting and refining. Thus, chunks with rock crystal were brought to these workplaces to be broken up with special hammerstones in search for amethyst. Such places are now strewn with broken quartz and they were carefully selected, away from deposition of crude spoil. Presumably, the “best” pieces of rock crystal; those with amethyst within, were then brought to special rooms in the attached settlement for further refining and subsequent transport with donkeys to specialist amethyst gemstone workshops in the Nile Valley.
Use of local geological resources
The environs of the mine at site 9 provide further information as to how the practical work was undertaken. Though a few quartz wadi pebbles were used as pounders, nearly all hammerstones were collected from dikes consisting of a fine-grained, dark “granitic” rock (petrographic classification pending). Such dikes are very common in the area, they often stand out from surrounding granite and gneiss, but is subject to intensive boulder weathering and fracturing.
This implies that the miners could simply pick naturally formed hammerstones of all sorts, though there are indications that some quarrying and subsequent working of natural small boulders took place – to get desired hammerstone forms.
Building the fortified settlement
The dark “granitic” rock was also used in building the fort, for example when there was a need to roughly work blocks to desired forms used in doorways. But small, naturally formed boulders of the same stone were used to a larger extent in the generally crude masonry.
Interestingly, a large proportion of the walls are made from blocks of deeply weathered granite. There is reason to believe that the amethyst mine provided much of this material. In other words: spoil from the mine was used to build the fort, which – of course – has a bearing on dating. It has been known for a long time that the fort was built in two stages during the early Middle Kingdom, but the first stage may thus have been built at the same time as the first workmen opened the mine.
The significance of Wadi el-Hudi
Site 9 at Wadi el-Hudi is very well-preserved. It is a “gem” of an ancient mine, also because the operation was rather short-lived, probably spanning a couple of generations only. This means that original work processes now can be studied in high detail – we may be able to get very close to the daily life of the crew that operated the mine so long ago. This is also because of inscriptions, and – of course – the architecture and archaeology of the fortified settlement, which is studied by other members of the Wadi el-Hudi Expedition.
A taste of the work processes has been conveyed in this article; much greater detail is to be expected when all excavations and finds have been processed and analysed.
The destruction and preservation of Wadi el-Hudi
Several other sites at Wadi el-Hudi are not so well-preserved. Many were subject to re-working already in antiquity, several show signs of medieval and early-modern operation – and many have been subject of recent looting and “digging for gold”.
Like everywhere in contemporary Egypt, Wadi el-Hudi is no exception as regards looting, even though the area is situated far into the desert and even in a closed military zone. The Expedition is, therefore, very grateful to the Ministry of Antiquities (MoA) for their awareness of the situation and for granting work permits. Also the Expedition greatly acknowledges the day-to-day cooperation and practical aid from the regional tafteesh (Aswan office of the MoA). It is also indebted to some of the modern granite quarries in the area, those who have understood the value of archaeology and which are giving us great aid in the field.
The Expedition is, in particular, happy to provide both competence and necessary 4WDs in order to work at – and monitor – these remote archaeological sites. We are aware of the practical difficulties many regional offices have in undertaking such work.
I joined the Wadi el-Hudi Expedition as a geoarchaeologist at a time when work had already been ongoing for several seasons. I wish to thank the whole Expedition for being so warmly welcomed, all Egyptian, US and Polish members of the team! Also thanks to the main sponsor, The American Research Centre in Egypt. A special thanks to Kate Liszka and Bryan Kraemer, leading the Expedition, the former also for comments to the manuscript of this blog post. And, not least, thanks to James Harrell for great aid in understanding the geoarchaeology of Wadi el-Hudi. I very much hope that the Expedition will be successful in preserving the site, in good cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.
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Fahkry, A. 1952. The inscriptions of the amethyst quarries at Wadi el-Hudi. Service des antiquites de l’Egypte. Cairo
Shaw, I. & Jameson, R. 1993. Amethyst mining in the Eastern Desert: A preliminary survey at Wadi el-Hudi. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 79, 81-97. View at academia.edu
Klemm, R., Klemm, D.D. & Murr, A. 2002. Geo-archäologischer Survey im Wadi el-Hudi. In Eggebrecht, A (ed.) Festschrift Arne Eggebrecht zum 65. Geburtstag am 12 März 2000, Hildesheim, 53-66
Wadi el-Hudi site 9 in the middle of the map. Click on map to get to Google Maps