ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egypt: Stone vessels - the stone, the craftsmen, the tools, the vessels
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Stone vessels

    The heyday of Egyptian stone vessel production was the time between the late Naqada Period and the end of the Old Kingdom, when they produced large amounts of stone vessels and experimented with many different kinds of rock: glasses like volcanic obsidian imported from Turkey, gem stones such as carnelian, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, and amethyst, rock and quartz crystal, hard rock such as granite, chert, basalt or diorite and soft stone like limestone. Most of these materials were to a large extent abandoned [6] after the end of the Old Kingdom, but limestone and Egyptian alabaster (travertine or calcite) remained popular throughout the pharaonic era [1].
    Egyptian stone vessels, some of them inscribed with pharaonic names, reached many parts of the levant. The oldest, dating to the Old Kingdom, have been found at Biblos, a trading partner since pre-dynastic times [8].

The craftsmen

Vase maker's shop     Stone vessels above all those made of the much coveted hard stones were expensive items and only the richest could afford them. Their makers were therefore in the pay of the pharaoh, the nobility and the heads of the administration. They worked in little shops of the kind found at Hierakonpolis.

An Old Kingdom vase grinder's shop at Hierakonpolis.
The entrance to the workshop was at the upper right, (3) marks the position of a door socket drilled into a sandstone doorstep.
On Mouseover: Map of the neighbourhood

Round the room ran a bench of beaten earth 0.8 m above the floor. The bench projects considerably in the W. angle and to a lesser degree in the S. angle. The upper parts of these projections have cup-like hollows in which were vase borers... That marked "1" was of chert. It stood with working surface upwards in the depression in the bench; under it was a quantity of sand that had been used as an abrading material. On the top of the borer were two rough pieces of chert... The borer marked "2" was of diorite.
J. E. Quibell, F. W. Green, Hierakonpolis Part II, p.17
Workmen boring vases     Most Egyptian craftsmen worked crouching on the ground, and the vase makers were generally no exception as some tomb depictions suggest. In the Hierakonpolis workshop, though, they seem to have ground their vessels standing by the workbench, and big vases anywhere had to be bored in an upright position.

Two workmen drilling stone vessels.
Tomb of Mereruka
Source: John Albert Wilson, Thomas George Allen eds, The Mastaba of Mereruka, University of Chicago, Oriental Institute Publications, Volume XXXI, 1938, Part I, plate 29

    While the risk of having a limb crushed or broken - as happened quite frequently to other workers dealing with stone such as builders and quarrymen - was small, the eyes of the vase makers were in danger from stone splinters during the knapping phase, and their lungs were at times filled with silica dust and developed silicosis. Their backs were under constant strain and one may suppose that backache was a frequent complaint.

The tools

    While metal chisels could be used to shape soft limestone, the metals available to the ancient Egyptians, copper, bronze and during the first millennium BCE wrought iron, were far too soft to work igneous rock. Hard stone vessels were given their form by poundingStonedrill hieroglyph them with hammerstones (See Drawing 1 in the diagram below) made of stone harder than the work piece itself. Sometimes copper saws were used, where the sawing action was due to quartz sand particles embedded in the metal [5].
    Sand was also used as an abrasive for boring and drilling. No coring drills have been found, but apparently hollow copper drills in conjunction with quartz sand were used extensively (2), though whether they used bow-drills [2] or drills with cranks similar to the stonedrill on the right is uncertain. At times tubular drills of various diameters were applied concentrically (3), so that the remaining cores could be broken off cleanly (4), creating a big hollowed-out space. Another option was to drill five or six holes around a central core which could then be removed.
    Stonedrills, similar to the hieroglyph on the right, consisted of a wooden shaft (a) with a fork (b) at the bottom which held the stone drill (c), a crank (d), and two stones (e) serving as weights. This kind of drill allowed the drilling of holes which were wider at the bottom than at the neck, as, after creating a hole with a coring drill, a drill bit somewhat wider than the hole could be inserted vertically (5) and would assume a horizontal position as its grinding action widened the hole (6-8).
    In modern experiments better results were achieved by moving the crank back and forth in a quarter-circle than by performing continuous full rotations.
Stages in the production of a vase:
Stages in the making of a vase
Drill core; Source: J. Bodsworth

Basalt drill core
Extract, source: J. Bodsworth

    Denys A. Stocks who experimented with ancient Egyptian techniques,[9] produced a limestone vessel almost 11 cm tall, with a diameter of 10 cm and a neck opening of 5 cm. It took him 22½ hours to achieve his task:
1 rough shaping - 6½ hrs
2,3 core drilling - 5 hrs
6-8 boring - 10 hrs
undercutting the vase shoulder - 1 hr.
    He reckons that an accomplished craftsman could have done it in half the time, and that the production of a similar hardstone vessel would have taken three to four times longer [1]. This estimate doesn't take into account mishaps. Breakages, according to the great quantity of vase fragments found were seemingly not a rarity.
    Once the vessel was completely hollowed out, the outside received its final treatment. With small stones and sand as abrasive the surface was smoothed and, above all when it was made of hard stone, it was polished with micron-sized quartz grains to a very high standard.
    In the production of vases, which are generally rotationally symmetrical, the use of the lathe suggests itself and circular striae on unfinished work pieces seem to point in this direction, but the employment of the lathe is not documented before the middle of the first millennium BCE.

The vessels

     Breccia vessel
Late Predynastic
British Museum
Extract, source: Jon Bodsworth [4]
breccia vessel ,late predynastic, british_museum
Calcite bowl
3rd dynasty
British Museum
Extract, source: Jon Bodsworth [4]
calcite bowl, 3rd dynasty, british_museum
Travertine bowl
3rd dynasty
Extract, source: Jon Bodsworth [4]
travertine bowl, el reqaqna, 3rd dynasty, ashmolean
Limestone Hes vase
Middle Kingdom
Source: Petrie Museum website [3]
Hes vase, Limestone, Middle Kingdom, Petrie Museum
Alabaster vase
Middle Kingdom
Source: Petrie Museum website [3]
vase, Alabaster, Middle Kingdom, Petrie Museum
Alabaster pilgrim flask
New Kingdom
Source: Petrie Museum website [3]
Pilgrim flask, Alabaster, New Kingdom, Petrie Museum
    The stone vessels we know of formed all part of tomb equipment. Some of them seem to have been made especially for this purpose:
  • Canopic jars, containing the inner organs of mummies, were produced in sets of four often depicting the sons of Horus.
  • Vases which from the outside seem perfectly normal but are, apart from a symbolic hollow drilled into their neck, mostly solid.
  • Vessels which have been cut in half in order to save the expense of labouriously drilling the interior through a small neck, and stuck together again
    But most vessels were fully finished and were probably in daily use until they were put in the grave. Egyptian alabaster, for instance, was highly recommended by Pliny the Elder:
Unguents keep best in boxes of alabaster.
Pliny, Natural History, Book XIII, § 3
    Stone was one of the most durable materials the ancient Egyptians knew. It is no wonder that the funerary equipment which was to last for an eternity should, if possible, be made of it.
    Hardstone vessels have mostly been found in royal tombs, while vases made of limestone are more widespread. The majority are small, just a few centimetres tall and wide.
    Many stone vessels are of a simplicity which appeals strongly to our modern sense of beauty. To wealthy ancient Egyptians, who painted flawless stone statues in gaudy colours, they may well have looked humdrum, everyday articles, even if they were expensive. The decline in stone vase production during the late Old Kingdom was dramatic. While tens of thousands of stone vessels survive from the early Dynastic Period and the third dynasty step pyramid at Saqqara alone yielded about eighty tons of them, the tomb of Tutankhamen contained only seventy-nine and none of these was made of hardstone. It is not as if the New Kingdom Egyptians did not know how to work granite and the like as they continued producing hardstone statues and sarcophagi [7]. For some reason, possibly because gold and other precious metals became more available, they ceased to invest the considerable effort the making of hardstone vessels required.

[5] The ancients were of course fully aware of the importance of the sand in cutting stone:
But whoever it was that first invented the art of thus cutting marble, and so multiplying the appliances of luxury, he displayed considerable ingenuity, though to little purpose. This division, though apparently effected by the aid of iron, is in reality effected by sand; the saw acting only by pressing upon the sand within a very fine cleft in the stone, as it is moved to and fro.
The sand of Aethiopia is the most highly esteemed for this purpose; for, to add to the trouble that is entailed, we have to send to Aethiopia for the purpose of preparing our marble--aye, and as far as India even; whereas in former times, the severity of the Roman manners thought it beneath them to repair thither in search of such costly things even as pearls! This Indian sand is held in the next highest degree of estimation, the Aethiopian being of a softer nature, and better adapted for dividing the stone without leaving any roughness on the surface; whereas the sand from India does not leave so smooth a face upon it. Still, however, for polishing marble, we find it recommended to rub it with Indian sand calcined. The sand of Naxos has the same defect; as also that from Coptos, generally known as "Egyptian" sand.
Pliny, Natural History, Book 36, § 9
[6] This was probably not just due to the difficulty of finding or working certain kinds of stone. There were also fashions in ancient times which dictated which kinds of stone were used, though Egyptian sources are silent concerning such matters. Among the Romans the new-fangled Egyptian porphyrites seems to have made little impact:
Porphyrites, which is another production of Egypt, is of a red colour: the kind that is mottled with white blotches is known as "leptospsephos." The quarries there are able to furnish blocks of any dimensions, however large. Vitrasius Pollio, who was steward in Egypt for the Emperor Claudius, brought to Rome from Egypt some statues made of this stone; a novelty which was not very highly approved of, as no one has since followed his example
Pliny, Natural History, Book 36, § 11
[7] e.g. Lucas in Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries lists the quartzite sarcophagi of Thutmose I (?), Thutmose II, Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Amenhotpe II, Thutmose IV, and Tutankhamun
[9] Denys A. Stocks, Experiments in Egyptian Archaeology: Stoneworking Technology in Ancient Egypt, Routledge, New York, 2003.

- -Stone working
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Offsite links   (Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content of these sites
-[1] Ancient Egyptian Stoneworking Tools and Methods: Stone Vessel Making by Archae Solenhofen
-[2] Ancient Egyptian Stoneworking Tools and Methods: Copper coring drills by Archae Solenhofen
-[3] Petrie Museum website
-[4] Jon Bodsworth's Egypt Archive
-[8] Rachael Sparks, The Contribution of Luxury Stone Vessels to an Understanding of Relations Between Egypt and the Near East during the Bronze Age: Diplomatic Gifts, Dowries, Rewards and Booty.
-Francesco Raffaele: Stone Vessel inscriptions of Early Dynastic Egyptian Kings
-Francesco Raffaele: Stone Vessels in Early Dynastic Egypt
-Denys A. Stocks Two Unusual Stone Vessels in Cairo Museum
Feedback: please report broken links, mistakes - factual or otherwise, etc. to me. thanks.


© September 2004
April 2011