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Ancient Egyptian resources: Stone. Quarrying, transporting and working it.
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map of quarries and mines
Pyramids, mines and quarries


Ancient Egyptian resources: Stone

The quarrying

Sandstone quarry at Gebel Silsileh     Many different kinds of rock were quarried [1]:
  • Red, grey and black granite near Aswan,
  • limestone near Memphis in the Muqattam hills,
  • sandstone in the Red Mountains and of lesser quality in all the three southern nomes,
  • alabaster - a few hours' walking from El Amarna,
  • diorite at a three days' march distance west of Idahet in barren desert terrain, abandoned during the Middle Kingdom, which even the Ramessides, with abundant slave labour available, did not reactivate,
  • marble,
  • serpentine,
  • the purple porphyry found only on Jabal Abu Dukhan, important above all to the Roman emperors,
  • black slate three days from Koptos in Wadi Rohanu, where the workmen left inscriptions and reliefs,
  • basalt and
  • dolomite. [5]
    Some of them, limestone above all, were used in huge quantities. The Khufu pyramid alone contains about 2.3 million blocks [10] of limestone and granite, weighing up to 15 tons each.
    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. Excerpt from a photo by Michel Audrain

Excavation at el Arian.
Excerpt from a photo by Michel Audrain

    Ramses IV gathered 8368 workers under the leadership of thirteen high officials, among them the High Priest of Amen, his chief steward to get Bekhen stone from Wadi Hammamat. Twenty army scribes, experienced men, served as engineers and administrators. There were ninety-one soldiers responsible for the chariots, fifty policemen, fifty scribes assigned various duties and, perhaps somewhat strangely, two hundred fishermen. 5000 of the expedition members belonged to the army, 2000 to the temples and 800 were foreigners, Hapiru. 900 were officials of the central government, who didn't accompany the expedition to the quarry itself, but stayed behind. This whole mass of people was needed to enable the chief artisan, three expert miners, 130 quarrymen and stone-cutters, two draftsmen and four engravers to do their job, to haul the rocks to the river and food-supplies and water to the quarry [11].
    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.
His majesty has ordered to bring him monuments from this august mountain, from the west of the wadi. The stone was being carved from this western mountain as it had been done before. These stones fell in such a way that they broke and not a pebble was left. Then the overseer of the works, herald of the audience hall, Meri says: One should make a ramp to extract the rock.
Then the ramp was built, these monuments were carved just as he had said. One had never acted so before.
Then he escorted ten statues of august [stone].
His team of quarrymen from the necropolis: twenty men. Workers: thirty men. Many mariners [3]: 2000 men.
The stela of Meri
My translation of a French translation by Serge Rosmorduc [13]
    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 [9].

Granite quarry at Aswan. Excerpt from a photo by Michel Audrain 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
Source: Michel Audrain

    The detached slabs were dragged to the riverside, loaded on barges, and shipped downriver.
    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.

Half finished obelisk. Excerpt from a photo by Michel Audrain

Unfinished giant obelisk
Excerpt from a photo by Michel Audrain

    An unfinished obelisk carved from the rock was not yet completely detached when it cracked. This is always a risk when quarrying. As layers are removed, the pressures on the freshly exposed rock change, different parts expand at different rates, and the rock reacts by fissuring. When these are more than micro fissures, the rock becomes useless.
    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.

Houses of workmen. Excerpt from a photo by Michel Audrain

The mountain of the West
Excerpt from a photo by Michel Audrain

    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.
    Most buildings in Egypt, palaces included, were completely or partially built of adobe bricks. With the raw materials, Nile mud and straw or the like, close at hand adobe buildings were cheaply and quickly built. On the other hand, even in a virtually rainless country these structures don't endure for more than a few generations.
    Villages too distant from the Nile to make the transport of mud bricks worthwhile, had to be built with the materials available locally, in the case of workers' settlements near quarries, mines or tomb sites like Deir el Medine mostly stone.



Workman pouring water. Excerpt from a photo by Michel Audrain

From a tomb at Saqqara
Excerpt from a photo by Michel Audrain

    Moistening the soil turned it into a slippery surface, on which heavy smooth rocks or sledges could be dragged with relative ease, once they had been set in motion. The pulling was often done by people, though animals were employed at times:
......... The stone was dragged with oxen which his m[ajesty] captured [in his] victories [among] the Fenkhu .........
18th dynasty quarry inscription
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Two, § 27
    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.
The biography of Ineni (18th dynasty)
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 105

    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.
    Moving a statue to a temple was a festive occasion with many spectators lining the road. The statue was loaded unto a sled, and, if made of soft alabaster for instance, carefully cushioned. The sled was pulled by four ropes manned respectively by soldiers, servants of the temple, men coming from the west and men coming from the east, while water bearers sprinkled water in front of it.

Two sculptors working on  a statue
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 stone

Unfinished relief. Excerpt from a photo by Michel Audrain     A half finished relief in the tomb of Horemheb in the Valley of the Kings.

Unfinished relief.
Excerpt from a photo by Michel Audrain

    Whether they were producing reliefs or sculptures, masons and sculptors worked in teams. Draftsmen drew the outlines, masons with chisels and hammers did the carving, then the stone was polished and painters finished the job.

Cutting and drilling

Saw marks in basalt, tubular drill marks in granite, Gizeh     According 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.
W.M.Flinders Petrie [14]
    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 [8]. 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 [15], 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. [4]
Stone drill

Hieroglyph in the form of a drill for stone vases.
Two stone weights are tied to the drill shaft with ropes.

    Unfortunately for Dunn's theory, the only tools ever found that can be dated to the Old Kingdom, are a few copper chisels and hammerstones. So apart from the tool marks [2] left in the stone nothing factual [6] even remotely supports Dunn's theories [7]; and these marks are explained by orthodox Egyptology without recourse to energies or materials the availability of which cannot be proven. If Old Kingdom Egyptians had extraordinary tools and methods for working hard stone, this knowledge (and with it every trace of the tools or power sources) was lost during the turmoil of the First Intermediate Period, but the production of stone vessels continued well into the Roman Period, a highly unlikely scenario.
    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
[3]     Mariners - according to the French translator probably men handling ropes.
[10]   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. [12]
[11]   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.
W.M.Flinders Petrie A History of Ancient Egypt Part 3, p.169
Translation of the inscription.
 -Building in stone
 -Stone vessels
 -The decorative palettes of the late 4th millennium
-Hammamat inscriptions
-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.
-[1] Ancient Egyptian Quarries
-[2] Kernbohrungen im Alten Ägypten
-[4] Advanced machining in ancient Egypt by C.Dunn
-[5] Ancient Egyptian Quarries
-[6] Some specific reasons why Dunn is dead wrong by Margaret Morris
-[7] Ancient Egyptian stone technology (R.Francis, W.M.F.Petrie, C.Dunn)
-[8] Cutting granite with sand (PBS website)
-[9] Hieratic Inscriptions from the Quarry at Qurna: an interim report by Shin-ichi Nishimoto, Sakuji Yoshimura and Jiro Kondo
-[12] Courses and Block Counts - Supplement to KMT Article - Fall, 2002
-[13] Inscription de Mery au Ouadi Hammamat
-[14] The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh
-[15] 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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© August 2000
August 2004
November 2002