Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egypt: Building in Stone - the tools, the stone, the craft, working conditions
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Mastaba of Netjer-Aperef;Excerpt;Source: Dr. Stephan J. Seidlmayer
The core of the mastaba of Netjer-Aperef (4th dynasty) consisted of rough local rocks. The were covered by fine limestone blocks
Source: Dr. Stephan J. Seidlmayer
Freie Universität Berlin

The use of mortar in the Khufu pyramid;Excerpt;Source: Frank Doernenburg
The use of mortar in an interior layer of the Khufu pyramid
Source: Frank Doernenburg

Karnak: Remains of a mud brick ramp;Source: Jon Bodsworth
Karnak: Remains of a mud brick ramp
Source: Jon Bodsworth, UK


Building in stone

The tools

Hammerstone, Extract, Source: Clair Ossian     Masons used stone tools such as hammerstones which were partially superseded by copper and later bronze saws, drills and chisels, and during the Late Period by iron implements.

Photo courtesy Clair Ossian

According to the traces and marks left on limestone blocks, they also used copper saws and drills. It was the sand added as abrasive and the grit that got embedded in the soft metal which did the cutting.
    Igneous rock like granite is especially difficult to work. The builders seem to have shaped it with the help of diabase (dolerite) hammerstones pounding it to dust, as metal, even early iron tools were for many tasks inadequate and expensive. Large numbers of these rounded hammerstones with diameters of about 15 cm and their remains have been found in abandoned quarries. But according to the evidence, hard rock was seemingly also sawed and drilled.
    On the whole many questions regarding the working of hard stone such as granite or diorite have not been answered satisfactorily and research is still needed.
Boning rods

    Not all mason's tools were made of metal or stone. Mallets and floats for applying plaster were carved from a single piece of wood [1]. Wooden cramps were found at Kahun and signs of their use were left in the pavement at Hawara. A simple tool consisting of three pegs of equal length (boning rods), two of which were tied together with a string was instrumental in achieving flat rock faces. The edges of the stone block were given their final flat draft, the connected pegs stood on end on opposite edges with the string taut between them. The amount of stone to be trimmed could then be measured with the third peg.

Square, plumb and square level Square, plumb and square level (its right leg is broken off)
Source: D. Arnold: Building in Egypt; Pharaonic Stone Masonry, Chapter 6

    They used wooden cubit rods with palm and digit marks for measuring short distances and measuring cords for longer ones, plumb lines for finding the vertical and square levels the horizontal, and squares for setting right angles.

Stone masonsLine drawing after a New Kingdom ostracon [6].
Two masons are carving with hammer and chisel while sitting on a scaffold, four labourers are removing debris. There is a pile of debris near the tomb entrance.

    When working at heights they erected scaffoldings, simple supports with a plank between them, on which the workmen could straddle while they were carving walls or decorating

The stone

    The finished stone used in construction was referred to as jnr nfr [8] meaning fine stone or the like or jnr HD nfr [9] - fine white stone. In the same building they often used different kinds of stone [5] though generally the bulk consisted of limestone often quarried at Tura and thus called ajn  [10] or, in Upper Egypt, of sandstone, which is generally a bit harder than limestone and was therefore referred to as rwD.t[11] hard stone:

  • The outer casing of Menkaure's pyramid was pink granite.
  • In Sahrure's pyramid complex the walls of the buildings were made of limestone, in the main buildings on top of basalt dados, columns and architraves were of granite and floors of alabaster or basalt.
  • In Seti I's temple at Abydos columns, architraves, transoms and lintels were sandstone.
  • The same elements in the temple of Ramses II were granite, sandstone or Egyptian alabaster [3].

The mason's craft

Marks left by hammerstones,Extract;Source: Clair Ossian     The myth of Egyptian perfection is widespread. Without belittling their achievements we should accept the fact that Egyptian builders were as prone as their modern counterparts to cut corners, use inferior materials or employ unproven building techniques, often in an attempt at saving labour and time.

Marks left by hammerstones
Photo courtesy Clair Ossian

    Working with stone was enormously laborious. In order to pry a granite obelisk from the bedrock for instance, trenches had to be excavated all around it, wide enough for the quarry-men to work in. With hammerstones the rock was slowly ground to dust. This back-breaking work was seemingly performed by gangs, probably working in unison and accompanied by chanting. Simultaneously masons shaped the surface. Then the workpiece had to be split from the bedrock by cutting holes underneath it and wedging well dried pieces of wood into them. After wetting them the wedges expanded causing the rock to crack. Finally it was hauled out of the quarry by large numbers of workers, loaded onto a barge and shipped downriver.

    On relatively weak foundations Egyptian masons built their stone walls relying often only on the weight of the blocks to give firmness to the structure. At times metal cramps or sycamore dovetails were used. But generally the blocks were bonded together with mortar, which was mainly pure, crumbly lime, sometimes with sand or crushed bricks added.
    The size of the blocks could be considerable. The beams in the Karnak hypostyle were more than nine metres long, weighing 60 tons. But ordinarily handier blocks were used with volumes of about one to two cubic metres. Ease of handling smaller blocks was offset by the greater exertion needed for extracting them. One may suppose that the block sizes they chose optimised their efforts.

Wall of the Crow, Gizeh; Excerpt. Source: Jon Bodsworth     The Egyptians were of course capable of producing large numbers of blocks of equal size and stacking them in straight layers.

Wall of the Crow, Gizeh
Excerpt, photo courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    But occasionally, when blocks were damaged during transportation, building or because of another reason, they were re-cut in situ, which gave the bare walls a somewhat untidy appearance. They were covered with plaster when necessary hiding the defects. [2]

    Often well cut stones covered an interior of inferior quality:
  • At Luxor the great columns have cores filled with a kind of crumbly concrete.
  • The inner layers of thick walls and stone pyramids were seemingly made of rather crudely shaped blocks. Gaps were filled with debris and mortar and then covered with a layer of perfectly cut stone blocks fitting together so well, that the blade of a knife cannot be inserted between them.
  • Middle Kingdom pyramids were built of mud bricks over the rock tomb chamber and covered with casing stones which were removed by later kings, leading to the erosion of the brick structure.
Unfinished granite casing stones, Menkaure pyramid, Source: Jon Bodsworth     The hidden faces of the casing stones covering the pyramids were cut with great precision before positioning. The side facing outwards was trimmed when the stones were in place.

Unfinished granite casing stones, Menkaure pyramid
Excerpt, photo courtesy Jon Bodsworth

The masons may have used pegs and string to achieve a flat surface, grinding the stone with hammer stones.
    What is known about how these sometimes huge blocks were transported and then lifted to the required height, has been deduced from a few reliefs and ramp remains: Apparently heavy loads were dragged on sledges by men while the surface of the ground was turned slick by pouring small amounts of water on it. According to an experiment by French archaeologists it seems that a person can drag several times his own weight in this manner.

Line drawing of men moving a statue, source: Lepsius
Source: Lepsius, Richard ; 1897, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien

    For the raising of the blocks ramps were built of compacted soil or mud bricks, up which they could be pulled. Some of these ramps are partially extant. In the case of high structures like the Great Pyramids these ramps would have to have been very long in order not to be too steep. It has been suggested that they were built as spirals hugging the pyramids and that the limestone quarries adjacent to the Great Pyramids were filled in with their remains. There is however no evidence for the spiral theory, nor is there any for the use of levers and the like apart from Herodotus' account:

This pyramid was made after the manner of steps which some called "rows" and others "bases": and when they had first made it thus, they raised the remaining stones with machines made of short pieces of timber, raising them first from the ground to the first stage of the steps, and when the stone got up to this it was placed upon another machine standing on the first stage, and so from this it was drawn to the second upon another machine; for as many as were the courses of the steps, so many machines there were also, or perhaps they transferred one and the same machine, made so as easily to be carried, to each stage successively, in order that they might take up the stones; for let it be told in both ways, according as it is reported. However that may be the highest parts of it were finished first, and afterwards they proceeded to finish that which came next to them, and lastly they finished the parts of it near the ground and the lowest ranges.
Herodotus, Histories II, 125
Aerial photograph of Khufu's pyramid;Excerpt; Source:     Just how sophisticated were the ancient builders? The Greeks of the classical period noticed something strange happening when they looked at their columns: straight shafts appeared to be concave. They counteracted this phenomenon by entasis, by giving the columns a slightly convex curve. Similar optical illusions occur when long flat surfaces are geometrically straight: they appear to bulge to the onlooker.

Aerial photograph of Khufu's pyramid
Excerpt, Ikonos satellite image [4]

    Two thousand years earlier the Egyptians had built the great Gizeh pyramids, the sides of which are somewhat concave:
Sir Flinders Petrie noted a distinct hollowing of the core masonry in the central portion of each face of the Pyramid. Though the hollowing amounts to as much as 37 inches on the north face, it is not directly observable unless special lines of sight are taken. Petrie found no evidence of hollowing along the lower- level casing stones running along the base of the Pyramid, which have now been completely uncovered. A recent survey by two Italian scholars, Maragioglio and Rinaldi, indicates the casing stones above the base line may have been slightly sloped toward a central line.
P. Tompkins
Had the Egyptians tried to remedy a flaw caused by visual misperception? Unfortunately, the casing stones have long gone, and one can only speculate [7].

Working conditions

    Working with stone was both laborious and fraught with danger. Much of the quarry work was done outside under the blazing sun, often in locations where it was difficult to supply large numbers of labourers with food, water and appropriate shelter. In the tombs lighting was bad which increased the possibilities for accidents. There was only natural ventilation, and the air became stale and dusty after years of construction work.
    The masons and their workmen's mates ran the risk of having limbs broken or squashed by falling debris and workpieces; the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus bears witness to the expertise ancient Egyptian surgeons acquired setting fractures and treating broken skulls. The workmen were only lightly clad and did not wear any eye protection. Flying stone splinters, often as sharp as razor blades, could easily cut their skins and cause infections, or enter their eyes blinding them.
    Moving heavy loads for years caused chronic ailments such as deformation of the joints and backaches must have been the lot of many. The metalworkers, constant companions of the masons whose metal tools had to be re-sharpened frequently were prone to suffer burns and other mishaps connected with fire and red-hot metal.

[  ] The pictures of the hammer stone and the trench alongside the obelisk are extracts from pictures taken by Clair Ossian.
[2] This is unlike the building techniques of the Inca, who joined different sized blocks on purpose in order to achieve greater resistance to earth quakes.
[3] Egyptian alabaster or calcite (calcium carbonate) is much harder than what is normally called alabaster (calcium sulfate) which can be carved with a fingernail.
[8] MdC transliteration jnr-nfr, Wb 2, 253.5
[9] MdC transliteration jnr-HD-nfr, Wb 2, 253.6
[10] MdC transliteration ajn, Wb 1, 191.4-5; from the name of the quarry Ayan (Tura-Masara)
[11] MdC transliteration rwD.t, Wb 2, 412.14-413.2
Bibliography for this and related pages
-[1] Building: Planning, materials, tools
-[5] Quarrying, transporting and working stone
-Index of Topics
-Main Index and Search Page
Links(Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further study. I do not assume any responsibility for the content or availability of these websites.
-[4] The Great Pyramid of Giza - on
-[6] Uni Basel im Tal der Könige - on
-[7] The Concave Faces of the Great Pyramid
-Gegossene Pyramiden by F.Doernenburg, on
-Building Materials of the Pyramids Builders by Alan Winston
-Dieter Arnold: Building in Egypt; Pharaonic Stone Masonry

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March 2014
April, January 2006


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