Ancient Egyptian resources: Stone. Quarrying, transporting and working it.
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Ancient Egyptian resources: Stone
The quarryingMany different kinds of rock were quarried :
Yet, the quarries were not worked on a permanent basis. Whenever the need for stone arose, the pharaohs would draft workmen and send them by their thousands to the quarry.
Excavation at el Arian.
While they were on the job, food was scarce and water scarcer, some bread and beer and water doled out carefully. The gods were not forgotten and thanks were given to Min, Osiris and Horus.
Whenever possible rocks lying on the ground were used, at first those close at hand. Later higher lying rocks were rolled downhill, breaking often, until Meri, an overseer, had the idea to build a sloping ramp on which the rocks could slide down. He was rewarded with ten statues, each five cubits tall.
Year 19, under his majesty the king of Upper and Lower Egypt NyMaatRe, son of Amenemhet, endowed with life, permanence, power like Re.Quarrying was very expensive, they therefore planned the extraction of the stone as well as they could and - at least at the limestone quarry of Qurna near Thebes during the reign of Amenhotep III - kept a record of their progress by inscribing marks on the rockface .
The granite quarries at Aswan
Quarrying with ancient tools was hard work. Even the relatively soft lime stone was difficult to cut with Old Kingdom copper saws, and chisels and hard stone like granite was worked with diabase - often called dolerite - hammerstones. Holes were cut into the rock, wooden wedges driven into the slots and moistened. The expanding wood cracked the rock. Doubt has been cast on wood being strong enough for the purpose, but no alternative theories for pharaonic stone extraction have been proposed.
Granite quarries at Aswan
Only temples and tombs were built in lasting stone. Houses and even royal palaces were constructed with adobe bricks and have largely disappeared. But even stone structures have decayed or were used as quarries.
Unfinished giant obelisk
One can still see the pits made by diabase hammer stones, which were used to pulverize the granite in order to shape it. Wet sand and sandstone were then used to burnish the surface. This obelisk, if it had been successfully detached would have weighed more than a thousand tons, three to six times as much as ordinary obelisks.
The quarrymen tried to salvage part of the obelisk by recutting it, but abandoned the attempt.
The mountain of the West
The remains of the dwellings of the workers who built the tombs of their pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. More remains of these humble abodes than of most royal palaces.
From a tomb at Saqqara
......... The stone was dragged with oxen which his m[ajesty] captured [in his] victories [among] the Fenkhu .........The detached blocks of stone and finished or possibly just half-finished obelisks were moved to the near-by bank of the Nile. Special barges were built to ship the 100 to 500 ton obelisks downriver.
I inspected the erection of two obelisks ......... built the august boat of 120 cubits in its length, 40 cubits in its width, in order to transport these obelisks. (They) came in peace, safety and prosperity, and landed at Karnak ...... of the city. Its [track] was laid with every pleasant wood.
Questions have been raised as to how this was achieved and no conclusive answer has been forthcoming yet. Attempts at moving heavy loads by what are considered methods available to the ancient Egyptians were at least partially successful at showing how it could have been done. But the fact that scaled down versions, weighing tens rather than hundreds of tons, were handled leaves doubts in one's mind. Scaling up such methods is not always straightforward.
The sculptor on the left is chipping away with a small hammer stone, while the one on the right is burnishing the statue
Photo: V. Easy
Working the stoneA half finished relief in the tomb of Horemheb in the Valley of the Kings.
Cutting and drillingAccording to W.M.Flinders Petrie the builders of the Gizeh pyramids had a sophisticated set of tools at their disposal
They comprised bronze saws over eight feet long, set with jewels, tubular drills similarly set with jewels, and circular saws. These were employed on the granite work, and perhaps saws of a less costly nature on the limestone The casing blocks were dressed by very fine picking or adzing. The system of using true planes smeared with ochre, for testing the work, shows with what nicety they examined their work, and what care was taken to ensure its accuracy and truth.Petrie did not take into account that you do not need a material harder than the one you are cutting. While today we are using diamond studded saws and drill bits to work hard rock, sand used as an abrasive which gets imbedded in soft copper tools, may be less efficient, but works as well . According to Denys A. Stocks when drilling or cutting hard stone, diorite, granite or the like, for every three millimetres of depth cut one should expect to lose one millimetre of the copper tool. For soft stone such as calcite or limestone the ratio is much more favourable, estimated to be greater than one hundred to one.
But not everybody is satisfied with this theory. C.Dunn , relying on the work done by Petrie and his own expertise as an engineer, thinks that any kind of copper is far too soft for dealing with granite (which of course it is - on its own). He proposes that
The application of ultrasonic machining is the only method that completely satisfies logic, from a technical viewpoint, and explains all noted phenomena. Ultrasonic machining is the oscillatory motion of a tool that chips away material, like a jackhammer chipping away at a piece of concrete pavement, except much faster and not as measurable in its reciprocation. The ultrasonic tool-bit, vibrating at 19,000 to 25,000 cycles per second (Hertz) has found unique application in the precision machining of odd-shaped holes in hard, brittle material such as hardened steels, carbides, ceramics and semiconductors. An abrasive slurry or paste is used to accelerate the cutting action. 
Hieroglyph in the form of a drill for stone vases.
The Egyptians went from copper to bronze and then - during the first millennium BCE - iron tools, inventing many of them by themselves. Marks left on limestone by claw chisels, which had been thought to be an invention of Greek masons working marble, were found in a 7th century tomb.
[ ] The black and white pictures on this page are excerpts from photographs by Michel Audrain The Glory of Egypt, 1955
 Mariners - according to the French translator probably men handling ropes.
 Petrie's estimate based on 2.5 ton blocks sized 50 by 50 by 28 inches. Others estimate that the number of blocks may be almost twice as high. This uncertainty stems from a number of reasons: 1.The pyramid is built over a little knoll, the size of which cannot be ascertained. 2.The average size of the blocks has not yet been statistically evaluated in a scientific manner. 3.Rubble may have been used to fill voids between blocks in the interior. 
 Petrie gives the following numbers:
170 officials, 5000 soldiers, 200 fishermen (to procure food in the Red Sea), 800 Bedawin, 2000 civil service men, 50 police, artist, 3 architects, 130 masons, 2 draftsmen, 4 sculptors. Out of the total of 8368 men, 900 died in the journey. Ten carts, each drawn by 6 yoke of oxen, formed the baggage train.Translation of the inscription.
|Building in stone|
|The decorative palettes of the late 4th millennium|
|Quarry inauguration under Ahmose I|
|Index of Topics|
|Main Index and Search Page|
|Links (Opening in a new window)|
|These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites.|
| Ancient Egyptian Quarries|
| Kernbohrungen im Alten Ägypten|
| Advanced machining in ancient Egypt by C.Dunn|
| Ancient Egyptian Quarries|
| Some specific reasons why Dunn is dead wrong by Margaret Morris|
| Ancient Egyptian stone technology (R.Francis, W.M.F.Petrie, C.Dunn)|
| Cutting granite with sand (PBS website)|
| Hieratic Inscriptions from the Quarry at Qurna: an interim report by Shin-ichi Nishimoto, Sakuji Yoshimura and Jiro Kondo|
| Courses and Block Counts - Supplement to KMT Article - Fall, 2002|
| Inscription de Mery au Ouadi Hammamat|
| The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh|
| C.Dunn: Gizapower|
|Rock Quarrying in Ancient Egypt|
|Hard Stone Quarries|
|Properties of various kinds of stone|
|Unforbidden geology: The not so hidden history of Man from the often overlooked geologic perspective.|
|Early Egyptian stone cutting (Plate from W.M.F.Petrie The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh)|
|Expeditions to the Quarries in the Ancient Egypt|
|Rock Quarrying in Ancient Egypt|
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