Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Composition and development of ancient Egyptian tools: Wooden tools, Stone tools, Copper tools, Bronze tools, Iron tools
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Composition and development of ancient Egyptian tools

List of tools, tomb of Kaiemankh     Quite a lot is known about ancient tools thanks to the importance the Egyptians attributed to their use in the next world. The graves of craftsmen often contained tools or models of tools, and tomb walls were at times decorated with scenes of artisans at work demonstrating their techniques. And just to make sure that one would not be left without the necessary implements some had lists of tools carved into the walls.

List of tools, mastaba of Kaiemankh, 6th dynasty, Giza
Hermann Junker ed., Grabungen auf dem Friedhof des Alten Reiches, Band IV: "Die Mastaba des Kai-em-anch", Wien und Leipzig 1940, Tafel IX

The 6th dynasty official Kaiemankh had such a list: a thousand adzes (an.t) [23], a thousand axes (mjb.t), a thousand mnx-chisels , a thousand DAm.t-chisels, a thousand sA.t-chisels, a thousand gwA-chisels, a thousand saws (tfA). He also did not forget to supply some raw materials like bD.t, apparently chunks of metal (bD refers to a crucible or mould), and Tr, a mineral brought from Elephantine [22].

Wooden tools

12th dynasty spindle and wooden 19th dynasty tools found at Gurob     Wood, ivory, bone and stone have been used for making tools since earliest times. Wood has marvellous qualities for which it is used and loved to this day. It combines toughness and pliability and can be given almost any shape. It was part of many tools, generally forming the handle. But some tools were made entirely of wood and remained so through the millennia:
    Ploughs did not have a European-style ploughshare. There was no need to turn over the soil, as the Nile deposited nutrients with every yearly flooding. Used only to break up the topsoil, they continued to be lightly built.
    Hoes, rakes [18][19] and grain scoops too were made of wood as were some tools mostly women used, such as spindles [13] and looms [14][15]. Carpenters' mallets were often just blocks of wood with a handle [16]. Fire drills consisted of a wooden bow and a plant fibre string [17]
    Many of these tools changed but little over the centuries. The spindles of the twelfth dynasty for instance had whorl of greater depth than those of the New Kingdom and at the top a long spiral groove for the thread. In Roman times this groove was replaced by a metal hook.

Stone tools

12th dynasty stone tools     Stone has basically three functions for which it is suited: pounding, grinding and cutting. A relatively high specific weight and hardness give it much more impact power than a similarly sized piece of timber would have. This hardness is also what restricts its use as a hammer, because it splinters easily.
    The stone was either chipped or ground into the desired shape depending on the kind of stone: Fine sandstone, limestone and the like were ground serving as grinding stones and the like, while flint was generally chipped and used for cutting. [4]
    Some materials like granite could only be worked with spherical hammerstones made of diorite, a stone of even greater hardness. Thanks to their roundness and composition these hammerstones rarely splintered. Applied with measured force they were used to slowly pulverize and shape the workpiece.
    The possibility of creating cutting edges is due to the hardness and crystallinity of the stone. It would be wrong to think that one could just bend down, pick up any stone and make a blade of it. Few kinds of stone are suitable for knapping, the most widely used being flint and chert. Such stone was often found far from the population centres and had to be mined and transported. Desert flint is found in the eastern desert in the form of small cobbles while tabular flint contained as nodules in limestone is quarried: Upper Egyptians got much of their flint from the quarries near Thebes, while Lower Egyptians were possibly supplied from Abu Roash.
    Opaque flint was preferred by the toolmakers to the clearer varieties. It seems the resulting flakes were longer and straighter, their edges tougher and they did not splinter as easily.
    Because of the flint's brittleness little pressure should be exerted on thin blades. Stone knives had therefore often no real handle. At one end the blade was left blunt for a few centimetres and wrapped with some fabric and string to give a minimal amount of grip, just enough for cutting, but not enough for breaking the blade. But the knowledge of how to make proper handles and how to fasten them to blades dates back to prehistoric days [21].
    The amount of work a knapper invested in making a tool was dependent on the length of time it could be expected to be used. Axes which received harsh treatment and therefore broke quickly were generally fashioned with a few well-placed strokes [5]. The heads were fastened to the handles by cutting a socket into the wood, inserting the blade and tying it with a cord two or three feet in length. No cement was used.
    Broken tools were often reshaped and dull edges resharpened. Axe heads were sometimes ground down to such an extent that little stone was left protruding from the socket, before they were discarded.


18th dynasty stone tools     Knapping was quite a difficult craft and became specialised in pre-historic times. Workshops producing stone tools have been found in 4th millennium Hierakonpolis.
    The advancing bronze age saw a decline in the frequency of use and quality of stone tools, not just because metal displaced stone but possibly also because the best craftsmen preferred the material which offered the more interesting possibilities.
    Bronze tools must have been significantly more expensive than flint and therefore less affordable. Knapping, a specialized profession once, probably became one of the tasks which labourers who were not very expert at it but too poor to be able to purchase metal tools, had to perform of necessity.
    The quality of the stone had deteriorated as well. Deposits closer-by were being exploited despite the poor quality of the flint. But the knowledge of manufacturing basic stone blades continued until Roman times.


Copper tools

Bronze tools, Kahun, 12th dynasty     Copper may have been the first metal to be worked in Egypt, even before the metallic gold. The ores had a 12% copper content and given the scarcity of fuel and the difficulties of transportation one may well marvel at the fact, that they succeeded at extracting copper at all. In the beginning it was probably worked cold. In early Egyptian graves copper ornaments, vessels and weapons have been found as well as needles, saws, scissors, pincers, axes, adzes [12], harpoon and arrow tips, and knives.
    This wide array of tools made of a metal difficult to cast and even with tempering too soft to be of use with any but the softest stone and wood shows the urgent need people felt for tools more flexible than what could be made of wood and stone.
    Pure copper (like silver or gold) has a hardness factor of 2.5 to 3 on the Moh scale which is just about the same as limestone's. Naturally occurring copper is somewhat harder due to metallic impurities. Thanks to tempering, copper chisels [7] and saws could be used to work freshly quarried limestone from the 4th dynasty onwards, but annealing with fire and hammering also rendered the tools more brittle. Because of the metal's softness, copper tools lost their edge quickly and had to be resharpened frequently.
    When cutting and drilling grit was probably used, which lodged itself in the edges of the soft copper bits and performed the abrasive action.
    At first copper and bronze tools were similar to their stone equivalents, but soon the properties of the metal, among them malleability, began to influence their design. Fishing hooks were given barbs [8]. Knives grew longer[9]. Sowing needles [10] were fashioned less than 1½ mm thick.
Copper tools found at Kahun
1 Piercer or bradawl with wooden handle
2, 3, 4 Barbed fishing hooks
5 Needle
6 Pin
7 Netting bobbin
8 Hatchet
9,10,11 Knives
12 Chisel

Bronze tools

Bronze implements found at Gurob, 18th-19th dynasty     Bronze was a great improvement on copper. The oldest real bronze found in Egypt dates to the 4th dynasty and consists of 90% copper and 10% additional metals, which is about the best combination. Brittler than pure copper, it was easier to cast and could be hardened by repeated heating and hammering.
    The first bronze tools were not the result of a deliberate attempt at improving the metal, but of the natural mix of copper and other metals in the smelted ore, in Egypt mostly arsenic. This poisonous metal was replaced during the second millennium by tin. [3]
    Adding more tin results in a harder alloy which cannot be worked cold, but has to be heated to temperatures of between 600 and 800 °C. Tools and weapons were generally made of this harder bronze, while softer metal was preferred for casting statues and vessels which were subsequently hammered and engraved.
Bronze tools found at Gurob
1 Chisel with tang
2, 3, 4 Chisels
5 Adze blade
6 Hatchet [11]
7 Rasp
8 Hatchet
9, 10 Nails
11 Arrow head
12 Lance head
16 Knife of unknown use
17 Switching blade
18, 19 Fishing hooks, barbless

Iron tools

Iron tools from Naukratis, 7th century BCE     Rare meteoritic iron has been found in tombs since the Old Kingdom, but Egypt was late to accept iron on a large scale. It did not exploit any ores of its own and the metal was imported, in which activity the Greeks were heavily involved. Naukratis, an Ionian town in the Delta, became a centre of iron working in the 7th century BCE, as did Dennefeh.
    Iron could not be completely melted in antiquity [1], as the necessary temperature of more than 1500°C could not be achieved. The porous mass of brittle iron, which was the result of the smelting in the charcoal furnaces, had to be worked by hammering in order to remove the impurities [2]. Carburizing and quenching turned the soft wrought iron into steel [20].
    Iron implements are generally less well preserved than those made of copper or bronze. But the range of preserved iron tools covers most human activities.
    The metal parts of the tools were fastened to wooden handles either by fitting them with a tang or a hollow socket.
    While iron replaced bronze tools completely, bronze continued to be used for statues, cases, boxes, vases and other vessels.
Iron tools found at Naukratis
1, 2, 3 Arrow heads
4 Hoe or adze
5 Knife blade
6, 7 Barbed fishing hooks
8 Borer ?
9 Sickle blade
10 Small point chisel
11 Chisel with tang, for wood
12 Chisel with socket, for wood
13 Borer, socketed
14 Bell ?
15 Scraper ?
16 Double edged pick
17, 18, 19 Chisels for stone or metal
20 Gouge
21 Borer
22 Socketed celt
23 Axe head


[1] The Chinese succeeded in casting iron in the 4th or 3rd century BCE, while they began forging only three centuries later.
[4] Anthony J. Cagle The Spatial Structure of Kom el-Hisn: An Old Kingdom Town in the Western Nile Delta, Egypt: Chapter 6 - Artifact Analysis, dissertation, University of Washington, 2001 (
[21] Cf. The Gebel el Arak knife
[22] Hermann Junker ed., Grabungen auf dem Friedhof des Alten Reiches, Band IV: "Die Mastaba des Kai-em-anch", Wien und Leipzig 1940, p.72f.
[23] On the transliteration and pronunciation of ancient Egyptian

Bibliography for this and related pages

--Craftsmen and artists
-Carpenters' tools
-Goldsmiths' tools
-Tools of builders and masons
-Working with stone
-The farmer and his tools
-[20] Metals: sources, technologies, uses
-Index of Topics
-Main Index and Search Page


Offsite links(Opening in a new window)
These are just suggstions for further study. I do not assume any responsibility for the content or availability of these websites.
-The stone implements of Kahun. By F. C. J. Spurrell
-[2] The Emergence of Iron Smelting and Blacksmithing: 900 B. C. to the Early Roman Empire
-[3] The Bronze Age
-[5] Flint axe
-[7] Copper/bronze chisel, well hammered
-[8] Copper fish hook
-[9] Hollow backed copper knife, 12th dynasty
Copper needle[10] Copper needle with eye
Bronze axe[11] Bronze axe, MK
Copper adze blade[12] Copper adze blade. 1st Dynasty (Jon Bodsworth)
Wooden spindle[13] Wooden spindle, Middle Kingdom (Petrie Museum)
Wooden heddle jack[14] Wooden heddle jack (?), Kahun (Petrie Museum)
Loom weight[15] Loom weight, clay, Kahun (Petrie Museum)
Wooden mallet[16] Wooden mallet, 12th dynasty (Petrie Museum)
Wooden bow drill[17] Wooden bow drill, Kahun (Petrie Museum)
Wooden hoe[18] Wooden hoe, Lahun (Petrie Museum)
Wooden rake[19] Wooden rake, Lahun (Petrie Museum)
City of the HawkExplore the City of the Hawk: Flint mines
Early pre-dynastic flint knivesEarly pre-dynastic flint knives
Stone Age reference collectionStone Age reference collection (Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oslo, Norway)
Stone Age Tools in the Bronze AgeFlint Industries: Stone Age Tools in the Bronze Age

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March 2007
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