NATURAL RESOURCES IN ANCIENT EGYPT: PRECIOUS METALS, GEM STONES AND ORNAMENTAL STONE

RESOURCES IN ANCIENT EGYPT

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Nubian gold
Iron was made around 1500 B.C. by the Hitittes. About 1400 B.C., the Chalbyes, a subject tribe of the Hitittes invented the cementation process to make iron stronger. The iron was hammered and heated in contact with charcoal. The carbon absorbed from the charcoal made the iron harder and stronger. The smelting temperature was increased by using more sophisticated bellows.

About 1200 BC, scholars suggest, cultures other than the Hittites began to possess iron. The Assyrians began using iron weapons and armor in Mesopotamia around that time with deadly results, but the Egyptians did not utilize the metal until the later pharaohs.

Diorite limestone and granite were two of the most important resources. They were used to build temples and monuments and were of such importance quarrying them was controlled by a government monopoly. Limestone was mined at sites near Memphis, Amarna and Abydos. Granite, diorite and sandstone were mined primarily around Aswan.

Flint, stone, copper, feldspar, amesyth, jasper, agate, turquoise, Egyptian alabaster, and malachite were mined and quarried from sites mostly in Eastern Desert, the Sinai and around the Red Sea. Nubia was a major source of gold and exotic materials. Valuable obsidian came from Ethiopia. Egyptians may have used amber in mummification because its is a powerful desiccant (or drying agent).

The main resource that Egypt had to trade was gold. An envious Assyrian king wrote: “Gold in your country is dirt: “one simply gathers it up.” The mines that ancient Egyptians used to get gold, emeralds and silver are all depleted now.

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Gold, Silver and Platinum in Ancient Egypt


Gold was valued by Egyptian pharaohs The Egyptians obtained gold from the Eastern Desert from an early period and from Nubia in the Middle Kingdom. Gold was called nub in ancient Egypt and may be the source of the name Nubia.

Ancient gold miners crushed ore into powder in mortars and crushers made of gray stone. The powdered ore and water was added to pans from which gold was panned out.

Pharaoh Gold Mines, an Egyptian-Australian joint venture, has invested millions of dollars prospecting for gold near Sukkari (500 miles southeast of Cairo) in a southeastern desert of Red Sea using treasure map---a copy of an ancient cutaway papyrus drawing of mine tunnels now residing in an Italian museum---that date back to the reign of Seti I, who ruled from 1290 to 1279 B.C.

The mines were mined by Romans, Britons and Russians. The results from Pharaoh Gold Mines' test drillings have been good. The company is waiting for gold prices to rise and hopes to make a large profit with an open mine.

The Egyptians refereed to silver as "white gold." In ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome silver was used to fight infections. In the 7th century B.C., the world's first coins were minted with a silver and gold alloy called electrum. Traces of platinum have been found in inlays from ancient Egypt, where the metal was probably mistaken for silver.

Egyptian Red Gold

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Ankh mirror from Tutankhamun'sTomb
Tony Frantz and Deborah Schorsch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote in: “Egyptologists have long noted that the surfaces of many ancient Egyptian objects made of gold bear a distinctive coloration that ranges from a pale reddish hue to a dark purple. This effect is observed on solid cast figures as well as on hammered sheet metal and gold leaf, such that its origin would seem to be independent of the technology used for fabrication. A typical example is the gilded face mask on the mummy of Ukhhotpe. While the effect has been recognized for more than a century, its cause remained a subject of speculation until recently. Over the years, numerous hypotheses have been advanced to explain the phenomenon, including tarnishing of a debased gold alloy, remanent colloidal gold following selective corrosion and removal of alloying elements such as silver and copper, deposition of organic films, and adventitious or deliberate addition of iron-bearing minerals such as hematite or pyrite to the gold alloy. Notably, Alfred Lucas, one of the foremost early researchers in the study of ancient Egyptian technology, correctly surmised that the vast majority of such colorations resulted from fortuitous tarnishing of silver-bearing gold and also recognized correctly that a smaller group of objects bearing a distinctly different red coloration represented another phenomenon altogether. Tony Frantz, Department of Scientific Research, Deborah Schorsch, Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, March 2007, metmuseum.org \^/]

“Alfred Lucas, one of the foremost early researchers in the study of ancient Egyptian technology, correctly surmised that the vast majority of such colorations resulted from fortuitous tarnishing of silver-bearing gold and also recognized correctly that a smaller group of objects bearing a distinctly different red coloration represented another phenomenon altogether. The idea that this coloration derives from a corrosion process and not a deliberate patination is prompted partly by the fact that nearly all native gold occurs as an alloy of gold and silver known as electrum, and partly by occurrences of the coloration in what are sometimes observed to be seemingly irregular distributions on the surfaces of objects. The most notable examples of this kind are the gold-leaf decorations on the wood sarcophagus enclosures from the tomb of Tutankhamun, where areas of bright gold leaf are seen juxtaposed against areas of a dark purple coloration along irregular borders that would seem to have no relationship to an intended design. \^/

“Early attempts to analyze the red colorations often were confounded by the extremely small thicknesses of the layers, such that samples obtained by scraping-no matter how judiciously performed-were usually overwhelmed by contamination from the substrate alloy. However, analysis in situ by x-ray diffractometry and x-ray fluorescence spectrometry has provided a rapid and straightforward way of characterizing the films and has shown them typically to be composed of one or more silver-gold sulfides. The species responsible for the predominant reddish purple coloration is most often indicated to be AgAuS, a compound sometimes found in nature as the mineral petrovskaite. In addition, synthetic gold-silver alloys having a silver content between approximately 8 and 11 weight percent silver have been observed to develop red-purple tarnish films identical in appearance and composition to those found on ancient Egyptian silver-gold objects when exposed to sulfide ion for extended periods at elevated temperatures. With increasing silver content and prolonged exposure to sulfide ion, both historical gold-silver objects and modern synthetic gold-silver surfaces develop black tarnishes that include another phase, Ag3AuS2, which also occurs in nature as the mineral uytenbogaardtite. Taken together, the evidence suggests that the red colorations derive largely-as Lucas first conjectured-from fortuitous tarnishing of native electrum having silver-gold compositions appropriate for the formation of the AgAuS phase. \^/

“Red sulfide tarnishes have been identified on historical gold-silver objects from other cultural contexts, including goldwork from the Royal Cemetery at Ur and nineteenth-century European jewelry. That these tarnishes occur predominantly on ancient Egyptian objects likely reflects the high sulfide ion activity associated with the typical contexts of sealed burial chambers as well as the unparted gold-silver alloys used in antiquity. \^/

“As a footnote to the discussion, it should be added that not all red-purple colorations on historical gold objects belong to the sulfide-tarnish group described here. Indeed, as Lucas also observed, a small number of gold pieces from the tomb of Tutankhamun bear a bright, translucent red coloration on their surfaces distinctly different in appearance from the darker and more opaque examples. The origin of the color on these unusual objects has not been determined, but may well reside in the deliberate or accidental addition of iron-bearing compounds to the gold, as synthetic samples of such composition have yielded similar appearing surfaces. There also occur archaeological gold objects that bear reddish accretions of hydrated iron oxides, such as lepidocrocite, presumably deposited as residues from groundwater during burial, as well as the gold masks and other objects from Pre-Columbian South America that exhibit deliberately applied coatings of the red mercuric sulfide mineral cinnabar. Finally, we should mention that the addition of copper to gold in several types of Egyptian objects during the reign of Akhenaten appears to have been done for its rutilizing effect, and that during the Third Intermediate Period copper-rich gold inlays were used with precious-metal inlays of other compositions and hues for the embellishment of large figural bronzes.” \^/

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mining map

World’s Oldest Geological Map

John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “A 3,100-year-old papyrus scroll, depicting gold mines in ancient Egypt, is probably the oldest surviving geological map and earliest evidence of geological thought, two American researchers have concluded. The scroll, known as the Turin Papyrus and kept at the Egizio Museum in Turin, Italy, is familiar to Egyptologists and historians of cartography as one of the earliest maps from the ancient world. It portrayed roads, quarries, gold mines, a well and some houses. Pink, brown, black and white were used to illustrate mountains and other features. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 29, 1988 ==]

"The two geologists---James A. Harrell and V. Max Brown from the University of Toledo in Ohio---examined the map and went into the field to compare it with the site. The area mapped is a wadi, or ravine, in the mountains of Egypt's eastern desert between Qift on the Nile, down from Thebes, and Quseir on the Red Sea. The geologists recognized topographical features from the map, a roadway still in use and the mountains on both sides, shown as cones. Harrell and Brown also noted that the colors were apparently not added for esthetic reasons. In a report at the recent annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver, they said the colors ''correspond with the actual appearance of the rocks making up the mountains.'' ==

Sedimentary rocks in one region, which range in color from purplish to dark gray and dark green, are mapped in black. Pink granitic rocks correspond with the pink- and brown-streaked mountain on the scroll. The scroll notes the locations of the mine and quarry, the gold and silver content of surrounding mountains and the destinations of the roadways. ''The streaks may thus represent the iron-stained, gold-bearing quartz veins that the ancient Egyptians were mining, or they may depict mine tailings,'' Dr. Harrell, who is chairman of the geology department at the University of Toledo, told the New York Times. ==

Dr. Harrell and Dr. Brown made their discovery while conducting research for an atlas of the stones used in ancient Egyptian sculptures. Dr. Harrell told the New York Times: ''In order for it to be a geological map, it must show distribution of different rock types. Secondarily, it should indicate the location of geological features like mountains and valleys. In both regards, the scroll qualifies, and reminds us of modern geologic mapping.'' The scroll map was apparently prepared around 1150 B.C. in the reign of Ramses IV. William Smith, an English surveyor, is generally credited with initiating modern geologic mapmaking in 1815. ==

Precious Metals from Tell Basta


Tell Basta

Diana Craig Patch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In 1906, workmen constructing a railway across the Egyptian delta uncovered two hoards of metal objects, including vessels, jewelry and silver ingots, buried at Tell Basta (near modern Zagazig). The caches had been hidden close to the ancient temple dedicated to the feline goddess Bastet. Several vessels in bear the cartouches of Queen Tawosret, the last ruler of Dynasty 19, and those inscriptions, along with the granulated decoration on the boss, suggest most pieces were manufactured between 1295 and 1186 B.C. The lion handle on one jug and the mixture of Near Eastern motifs with traditional Egyptian scenes on the bowl, however, indicate a slightly later date for some pieces, and the Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1070–713 B.C.) must be considered. [Source: Diana Craig Patch, Department of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, metmuseum.org \^/]

“The hoards contain a mixture of vessel forms covering a period of time with decorative motifs common to the circum-Mediterranean region, that is, widely found in many cultures along the Mediterranean coast. Some pieces seem not to be Egyptian, such as Canaanite-style earrings now in Cairo. This mixture of styles and motifs suggests that the objects may have been discarded temple equipment that had been collected for reuse. The partially recycled nature of some pieces—bits and pieces are missing—along with the hoards' location near a temple argue that a temple workshop owned the material. We know that craftsmen were using old or looted pieces to create new objects some time after 1000 B.C.\^/

“Vessels made from precious metals were created for use in only a few settings, the temple or the tables of royal and noble households, where money and status permitted more opulent materials to replace the customary ceramic or bronze. Gold was the easier of the two precious metals for Egyptians to acquire, since nearby Nubia had significant deposits. Silver had to be imported, most likely from Greece or Anatolia, and as a result was an uncommon material in Egypt, although increasingly larger amounts were available to craftsmen by the late New Kingdom (ca. 1250 B.C.). Few gold and silver containers survive into modern times. Rare in antiquity, most were melted in the past to reuse the metal for new projects after the original item no longer had a relevant social or ideological value. Thus, the Tell Basta hoards were exceptional finds. \^/

“The long open form called a situla was a drinking vessel, while jars, jugs, and bowls were used to serve food and drink. The hoards had several strainers designed to make the thick beer and wine more palatable. Vessels bearing representations of deities most certainly were dedicatory items to the temple's cult.” \^/

Gem Stones in Ancient Egypt


New Kingdom faience Broad collar from Amarna, 1370 BC

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “The gemstones of ancient Egypt, broadly defined, include all rocks, minerals, and biogenic materials used for jewelry (beads, pendants, ring stones, and cloisonné inlays), amulets, seals, and other small decorative items (figurines, cosmetic vessels, and inlays in furniture and sculpture). At least 38 gemstone varieties were used by the Egyptians, but ancient mines in Egypt are known for only nine of these. Some of the gemstones were imported from sources in Asia while others certainly came from undiscovered Egyptian mines. [Source:James Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, Environmental Sciences, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org <>]

The ancient Egyptian word most closely matching “gemstones” is aAt (aat), which was a general term for “mineral,” but often with implications of value and rarity. Relatively few gemstones have known mines in Egypt. The use of other gemstone varieties is occasionally claimed in the Egyptological literature, but these are unconfirmed identifications. It is conventional to refer to the extraction sites for both gemstones and metals as “mines,” and those for other kinds of stones (i.e., building, ornamental, and utilitarian) as “quarries,” though there is no fundamental physical difference between the two groups of workings. <>

“Ancient gemstones are usually identified on the basis of their macroscopic attributes (e.g., color, diaphaneity, luster, cleavage or fracture type, inclusions, and crystal form), and when individual loose stones can be examined, standard non- destructive gemological tests (e.g., refractive index, specific gravity, spectroscopic pattern, and polariscope response, among others) can be an effective means of recognition. Mohs scratch hardness and reaction to dilute acid, both only mildly damaging, can also provide useful information, but certain identification sometimes requires destructive analytical tests for mineralogy and chemistry. Many gemstones lack rigorous or universally accepted definitions and so there can be some confusion over their names. A more serious problem, however, is the many misidentifications published by scholars who are not well versed in gem recognition. The naming conventions employed follow those of Klein and Dutrow, the latest edition of a long-used and widely respected mineralogy reference, and are consistent with the two most comprehensive and authoritative works on Egyptian gemstones: Andrews and Aston et al.. <>

“Terminology and correct identification are not the only difficulties in a survey of ancient Egyptian gemstones. Nearly all objects with gemstones come from tombs, most spectacularly the royal and elite private ones, but these are only the rare burials that were overlooked or incompletely plundered by thieves. Also, whereas the rock and mineral varieties do not deteriorate over time, the biogenic ones do and so may not survive in the archaeological record. Thus, the material now preserved in museum collections is not fully representative of gemstone use for all periods and especially for all social classes. Most of ancient Egypt’s tombs were robbed in antiquity, and the principal items sought were metals—especially gold—and gemstones. The metals were melted down and recast, but the gemstones were merely reused, although perhaps in a recut form. Consequently, a significant portion of the gemstones used in any given period was probably recycled from earlier times.” <>

Kinds of Gemstones Found in Ancient Egypt


Tutankhamun pectoral

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “With the exceptions of precious emerald and sapphire, the materials are, at best, what today would be called “semi-precious” stones. The ancient Egyptians chose gemstones not only for their visual effect in a particular application, but also for the symbolic or magical significance of their color. Red (in carnelian, garnet, and some jasper) connoted life-sustaining blood, power and vitality, and the sun; green (in amazonite, some chalcedony, some jasper, malachite, and some turquoise) signified rebirth in the afterlife, fertility, joy, and lush vegetation; dark blue (in lapis lazuli) represented the all-embracing and protective night sky; and light blue (in some turquoise) symbolized the primordial waters and daytime sky. Funerary amulets prescribed in the Book of the Dead sometimes called for specific stones with characteristic colors, e.g., shrt (probably green jasper) for “heart-shaped” amulets in Chapter 29B; nmHf (green jasper) for “heart scarab” amulets in Chapter 30B; xnmt (red jasper) for “girdle-tie-of-Isis” amulets in Chapter 156; and nSmt (green amazonite) for “papyrus scepter” amulets in Chapters 159 - 160. Additional common associations between amulet and stone type are sub-metallic hematite for the “headrest” amulet, and obsidian for the “two fingers” amulet. Similarly colored materials were sometimes substituted for these gemstones. [Source: James Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, Environmental Sciences, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org <>]

“Glass with red, green, and blue colors was widely used to imitate gemstones beginning in the 18th Dynasty. Also at this time, imitation carnelian was made by setting colorless rock crystal over a red paste. Colored faience (glazed composition) was another inexpensive substitute for gemstones used from the late Predynastic Period onward. These practices became so prevalent that ancient texts mentioning some of the more valuable gemstones (e.g., amazonite, lapis lazuli, and turquoise) sometimes appended the word mAa (maa), meaning “true,” to indicate their authenticity. The color of a material was, nevertheless, often more important than its preciousness, as is evidenced by the combination of cheap glass and costly gemstones in much of the royal and elite private jewelry from the Middle Kingdom onward. <>

“The most commonly used gemstone in Dynastic Egypt was carnelian, with amazonite, amethyst, red jasper, lapis lazuli, and turquoise next in abundance. The other gemstones were rarely used in comparison. Amethyst and carnelian continued to be among the principal gemstones of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, but changing tastes, new domestic discoveries, and imports from distant lands brought another group of gemstones into popularity, including aquamarine, common agate, coral, emerald, red garnet, pearl, peridot, onyx, sapphire, and sardonyx. Engraved colored transparent gemstones (aquamarine, red garnet, and sapphire, among others) and cameos in onyx and sardonyx were especially fashionable during the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, and Alexandria was one of the main centers where such objects were produced for both local consumption and export to the larger Mediterranean market. The Alexandrian gem trade left its influence on the Greek Septuagint Bible, the earliest surviving version of the Old Testament. This was translated from the original Hebrew in Alexandria during the Ptolemaic Period and the Septuagint’s many references to gemstones reflect to some degree what was then popular in this Mediterranean emporium. <>

“The most frequently mentioned gemstones in Dynastic texts, often together and in connection with other precious materials, are amazonite, carnelian, lapis lazuli, and turquoise. The colors of these gemstones are certainly partly responsible for the high esteem in which they were held, but they were difficult to obtain and so this also contributed to their value.” <>

Emeralds in Ancient Egypt

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Tutankhamun Falcon
Emeralds have been known for 5500 years. The earliest stones were mined from the legendary Cleopatra's Mines in the Sikait-Zabara region of Egypt. Until the Europeans discovered the New World it was the only source of emeralds. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all worked these mines. Unlike diamonds or rubies, emeralds were mentioned in the Bible: the forth foundation of the pearly gates is was encrusted with emeralds and one of the twelve stones on breastplate of Judgement is an emerald.

Wadi Sikait in Egypt is the home of the Emerald City, the source of all of the emeralds in ancient Rome. Described by Pliny the Elder and rediscovered in 1816, it contains the ruins and foundations of temples, graves and mine shafts where “Egyptian” and “Ethiopian” stones were mined. The ruins spread out over a large area. Particularly interesting is a large temple with a Doric facade cut into a mountain and buildings with subterranean rooms and tunnels. Some of the shafts go directly into Emerald Mountain. Other spiral downward into the earth.

Sources of Ancient Egyptian Gemstones

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “Turquoise came from the Sinai Peninsula’s Serabit el-Khadim and Wadi Maghara mines and lapis lazuli was brought from the Badakhshan region of northeast Afghanistan and possibly also adjacent areas in Pakistan. Certainly in the 18th Dynasty as well as in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, amazonite came from Egyptian mines on the Eastern Desert’s Gebel Migif and Gebel Hafafit, and workings from other periods may yet be discovered in this region where more amazonite deposits are known . Nevertheless, amazonite is a relatively scarce gemstone in Egypt and so it has been suggested that some of it was imported at great expense from the ancient mine at Zuma in southeast Libya’s Eghei Mountains, although there is no archaeological evidence to support this. [Source: James Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, Environmental Sciences, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org <>]

“In addition to amazonite and turquoise, ancient Egyptian mines are known for carnelian and the common and green chalcedonies at Stela Ridge, amethyst at Abu Diyeiba and Wadi el-Hudi , emerald at the six Mons Smaragdus mines, and peridot on the Red Sea island of Zabargad. Most of the other rock and mineral gemstones (common agate, common calcite and Iceland spar, red garnet, hematite, jasper, malachite, common microcline, muscovite mica, milky quartz, rock crystal, and silicified wood) are known to occur in the Eastern Desert or Sinai and these regions are probably where they were obtained. Egypt’s Western Desert is another possible source for silicified wood and it certainly supplied the famous Libyan desert glass. For the latter, the only known example of its use is for the scarab at the center of a famous pectoral belonging to king Tutankhamen. <>


Zabargad

“A few of the Dynastic rock and mineral gemstones (nephrite, onyx, and sardonyx) are not known to occur in Egypt, but it is conceivable that they are present and their deposits have merely been overlooked. Coral, pearl, mother-of-pearl and other mollusc shells, and tortoise shell undoubtedly came from the Mediterranean or Red Sea, and ostrich shell and hippopotamus ivory would have come from Egypt’s Eastern Desert and Nile Valley, respectively. In addition to lapis lazuli, gemstones imported from distant sources included amber probably from the Baltic region of northern Europe, obsidian and elephant ivory from the southern Red Sea region, and, during the late Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, a variety of gemstones (mostly aquamarine, red garnet, onyx, sapphire, and sardonyx) from India and Sri Lanka. <>

“The source of ancient Egypt’s most popular gemstone, carnelian, is something of a mystery. The only known mine is the aforementioned Stela Ridge in Egypt’s Nubian Desert. This site, which also supplied the common and green chalcedonies, but not amethyst as commonly reported, dates mainly to the Middle Kingdom but also bears faint traces of Old Kingdom and Roman activity. Where the Egyptians obtained the prodigious amounts of carnelian used both before and after the Middle Kingdom is unknown. It is often repeated in the Egyptological literature that carnelian pebbles are commonly found in the wadi gravels of the Eastern Desert, but this is not true. The claim is based on an early misidentification of ordinary (non-chalcedonic) quartz pebbles with reddish (iron oxide) coloring as carnelian. However, this gemstone, along with common agate and sardonyx, is found in the Nile terrace gravels in the Fourth Cataract region of northern Sudan and so may have been imported from there, but similar deposits have also been reported along the Nile in Nubia near Wadi Halfa. Given that lapis lazuli was able to travel from Afghanistan to Egypt as early as the late Predynastic Period, it is conceivable that during the Dynastic Period some carnelian came from distant Asian sources such as the famous carnelian deposits in western India’s Gujarat state, which are known to have been exploited since the third millennium B.C.. The Fourth Cataract is also a possible source for the red garnet used by the Egyptians, as this area has abundant gem-quality crystals in the placer deposits of the seasonally dry Nile River channels. Although rocks with red garnet are relatively common in the Eastern Desert and Sinai, the crystals found so far are all of either poor quality or minute size.” <>

Mining Gemstones in Ancient Egypt


Forsterite-Olivine from Zabargad

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “The extraction technologies employed at ancient Egyptian gemstone mines are essentially the same as those at the ornamental stone quarries, but the small crystal masses and thin veins where gemstones are typically found resulted in generally smaller workings. Both hand-held and hafted stone tools known as pounders or mauls were used to hack out pieces of gem-bearing bedrock. Although copper and, later, bronze picks and chisels were available during the Dynastic Period, they were too soft to work the hard igneous and metamorphic rocks in which most gemstones occur, and for these the stone tools were superior. Stone tools were largely replaced by “iron” ones (actually low-grade steel) toward the end of the Late Period. Mine excavations were usually surface pits and trenches, but those for emerald and turquoise also involved underground excavations like those found in the ancient gold workings.[Source: James Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, Environmental Sciences, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org <>]

“The raw gemstones, always occurring in relatively small pieces, would have been carried from the mines on the backs of men or pack animals (probably donkeys). They were brought to workshops where they were laboriously fashioned into their many forms, with beads being the most common. During the Dynastic Period, the Egyptians had no abrasive material harder than the hardest gemstones they worked, which were the many quartz varieties with a Mohs hardness of 7. It is often claimed that the Egyptians used emery (a granular combination of corundum and iron oxide, Mohs = 8-9) as an abrasive, but there is no credible archaeological evidence for this. What the Egyptians surely did use, and which they had in great abundance, was silica (SiO2) in its many forms, most notably: massive microcrystalline quartz (chert or flint), massive macrocrystalline quartz (silicified sandstone or quartzite), and loose macrocrystalline quartz (sand). Any material can be cut, ground, and polished by the material itself—the process simply takes longer than when a harder abrasive is used. Silica was thus a sufficiently effective abrasive for the Dynastic gemstones. During the late Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, diamond (Mohs = 10) and corundum (Mohs = 9) were almost certainly imported into Egypt from India and used as abrasives, especially for the harder gemstones like emerald (Mohs = 7.5-8) and sapphire (blue corundum). Emery from Mediterranean or Eastern sources may also have been employed as an abrasive at this time.” <>

Drilling, Grinding Carving and Polishing Gemstones in Ancient Egypt

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “Raw pieces of gemstone were first roughly shaped by a combination of chipping and grinding, the latter probably done on a slab of silicified sandstone. Hand-powered drills were used to pierce beads and other objects carved from gemstones. Such drills were equipped with a bit consisting of either a chip of chert or a copper/bronze wire that was used together with fine quartz sand, which did the actual cutting under the impulse of the wire bit. Bavay et al. report a notable collection of tiny chert drill bits and partially drilled amethyst, carnelian, obsidian, and rock crystal beads and flakes that were recovered from a deposit at Hierakonpolis dating to either the Early Dynastic Period or Old Kingdom. [Source: James Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, Environmental Sciences, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org <>]

“Drills were originally driven by hand with a back- and-forth twisting motion. This is depicted in the right vignette of the 6th-Dynasty tomb scene, where the hieroglyphic text above says “lapidaries (msnSdw) boring (wbA) carnelian (Hrst).” The rotation was done more efficiently with bows, where the bowstrings were intertwined around one or more drill shafts, and this process is illustrated in an 18th-Dynasty tomb scene. The gemstone being drilled is not specified, but the orange color of the finished bead strings to the right of the workmen suggests that it was carnelian. Although the ancient Egyptian bead drills were primitive and cumbersome, they were nevertheless effective as experimentally demonstrated by Gorelick and Gwinnett and Stocks. <>

“The tomb scenes also illustrate the final step in the preparation of beads: polishing. In one scene the text above the left vignette says “lapidaries polishing (snaa) carnelian” but it is not clear how this was accomplished from the drawing. The two workmen appear to be rubbing pieces of carnelian across the surface of a rock slab, and if this was a hard rock like silicified sandstone, then it seems only a rough smoothing effect could be achieved by this means. If, however, fine quartz sand had been added to the slab’s surface then this could conceivably result in polishing. In one scene, the worker at the center of the scene is bent over a table and rubbing the beads over one another by hand, and in this way polishing them. On the ground, below him and the workers with bow drills, are vessels, apparently with spoons, which must be for the quartz sand abrasive. Thus sand was added not only to the drill holes, but also to the mass of beads being polished. These same manufacturing techniques would have been applied to other gemstone objects. Carving and engraving, in the case of seals and other glyptic works, was probably done with a chert graver or perhaps the same kind of drill used to perforate beads. Polishing may also have been done the same way as it was for beads, but for the larger objects it was probably accomplished through rubbing with a fine quartz sand paste applied, perhaps, with a piece of cloth or leather. <>


Egyptian metal workers


“Archaeologists and art historians have not only the gemstone objects themselves to study, but also many depictions of gemstone jewelry on tomb and temple walls, mummy coffins, and statues. An especially vivid example of this is a Roman-era mummy portrait. The woman in this portrait wears emerald and amethyst necklaces of similar date and appearance to those in another scene.” <>

Commonly-Used Gemstones in Ancient Egypt

“Garnet (transparent to translucent; medium to mainly dark red, brownish red, or purplish red in compositionally gradational pyrope and almandine sub-varieties). Used: commonly in Pt/R, and rarely from Pd to LP. Source: no mine known, but red garnet occurs in many of the metamorphic rocks in the Eastern Desert and Sinai, and probably also in placer deposits near the same rocks. Placer deposits with good quality almandine garnet are found in northern Sudan’s Fourth Nile Cataract. During Pt/R, red garnet was heavily imported from India and possibly also Sri Lanka. Ancient names: probably HmAgt [hemaget] (Egyptian); anthrax and anthraka (Greek); carbunculus (Roman). [Source: James Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, Environmental Sciences, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org <>]

“Lapis lazuli (opaque; a rock composed of dark blue lazurite [(Na,Ca)8(AlSiO4)6(SO4,S,Cl)2] or haüynite [(Na,Ca)4-8(AlSiO4)6(SO4)1-2], both minerals of the sodalite group, with golden pyrite specks [FeS2] and white calcite veins or patches [CaCO3] as the main components). Used: commonly from Pd to LP, and rarely in Pt/R. Source: imported from northeast Afghanistan and possibly also neighboring areas in Pakistan. Ancient names: xsbd [khesbed] and also possibly tfrr [tefrer] (Egyptian); sapphiros/sappirus (Greek/Roman). <>

“Microcline feldspar (translucent to opaque [KAlSi3O8]) with two color varieties: 1) amazonite, amazonstone or green feldspar (light or medium green to mainly bluish green). Used: commonly from MK/2IP to NK/3IP, and rarely from Pd to OK/1IP and LP to Pt/R. Sources: two mines at Gebel Migif (no. 6; active NK, 18th Dynasty) and in Wadi Fayrouz at Gebel Hafafit (no. 7; active Pt and R) plus probably one or more undiscovered sources in the same general area. Ancient names: nSmt [neshmet] and possibly also Hsg [heseg] (Egyptian); probably smaragdos and possibly also iaspis (Greek); smaragdus and possibly its sub-variety galactites (Roman). 2) Common microcline (orange to mainly pink). Used: rarely in MK/2IP. Source: no mine known, but granitic rocks with large microcline crystals occur abundantly in the Eastern Desert and Sinai, and at Aswan. Ancient names: unknown. <>

“Quartz [SiO2] with macrocrystalline and microcrystalline varieties. Macrocrystalline quartz with four color varieties. 1) amethyst (transparent; light to dark violet or purple). Note that what has been reported as rose quartz is probably pale amethyst. Used: commonly in MK/2IP and Pt/R, and rarely from Pd to OK/1IP and NK/3IP to LP. Sources: two mines at Abu Diyeiba near Wadi Waseef (no. 4; active Pt/R), and near Wadi el-Hudi (no. 14; active MK). Ancient names: Hsmn [hesmen] (Egyptian); amethystos/amethystus (Greek/Roman). 2) citrine (transparent; light to medium yellow or brownish to reddish yellow). Used: rarely in Pt/R. Source: either imported from the East or, from the early Roman Period onward, produced by heat-treating Egyptian amethyst. Ancient names: possibly chrysolithos/chrysolithus (Greek/Roman). 3) milky quartz (translucent; white). Used: rarely from Pd to MK/2IP. Source: no mine known, but milky quartz occurs abundantly in veins throughout the Eastern Desert and at Aswan. Ancient names: possibly mnw HD [menew hedj] (Egyptian). 4) rock crystal (transparent; colorless). Used: rarely from Pd to Pt/R. Source: no mine known, but rock crystal deposits occur widely across the Eastern Desert, including the amethyst mines. Ancient names: possibly mnw HD [menew hedj] (Egyptian); krystallos/crystallus (Greek/Roman). Microcrystalline quartz – chalcedony or agate (mainly fibrous/chalcedonic silica and translucent) with seven color varieties

Carnelian or Cornelian (medium to dark orangey red, brownish red or red; note that during the Roman Period, but possibly earlier as well, carnelian color was often enhanced by heat treatment) plus sard (medium to dark orangey brown, reddish to yellowish brown or brown and gradational with carnelian). Used: commonly from Pd to Pt/R. Sources: one mine at Stela Ridge near Gebel el-Asr, principally for carnelian and sard but also for common and other chalcedonies (no. 16; active mainly MK but with OK and R traces) plus, for other periods, one or more undiscovered sources in Egypt’s deserts or, perhaps, in southern Egypt’s and northern Sudan’s Nile River terrace gravels. Ancient names: Hrst [herset], and also occasionally Hrst dSr [herset desher] and Drtt [djertet] (Egyptian); sardion/sarda (Greek/Roman). <>


lapis lazuli heart amulet

“Jasper (microcrystalline quartz, mainly granular/non-chalcedonic silica and opaque) with three color varieties: 1) medium to dark red. Used: commonly from Pd to Pt/R. Source: no mine known, but red jasper is commonly associated with metavolcanic rocks in the Eastern Desert. Ancient names: xnmt [khenmet] and mxn(m)t [mekhen(m)et], and possibly Hkn [heken] (Egyptian); probably haematitis (Greek); possibly sarda (Roman). 2) “medium to dark green. Used: rarely from Pd to Pt/R. Source: no mine known, but green jasper occasionally occurs in the Eastern Desert in the same metavolcanic rocks as red jasper, but is much rarer. Ancient names: nmHf [nemhef] and shrt [seheret or sehret], and possibly prDn [perdjen] (Egyptian); probably iaspis and also possibly prasinos or prasitis (Greek); possibly prasius (Roman). 3) “yellow. Used: rarely in Pd and NK/3IP. Source: no mine known, but almost certainly from the Eastern Desert. Ancient names: unknown but possibly the same as red jasper. <>

Turquoise (opaque; light to medium green to greenish blue or light blue with the blue color degrading over time to green due to dehydration [CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8

5H2O]). Used: commonly in MK/2IP and NK/3IP, and rarely from Pd to OK/1IP and LP to Pt/R. Sources: two mines in the Sinai at Serabit el-Khadim (no. 2; active MK to LP) and in Wadi Maghara (no. 3; active ED to NK) plus a possible third source at the Bir Nasib copper mine (no. 1; active MK to NK). Ancient names: mfkAt [mefkat] (Egyptian); probably smaragdos (Greek); callaina (Roman). <>

“Coral (opaque; white and light to medium red or pink marine coral). Used: commonly in Pt/R and rarely in Pd. Sources: the Red and Mediterranean Seas. Ancient names: korallion or kuralion (Greek); coralliticus (Roman). <>

“Pearl (translucent to opaque; mainly white or silvery gray). Used: commonly in Pt/R. Source: probably the Red Sea but possibly also imported from the East. Ancient names: physi and pinninu (Greek); margarites (Roman). <>

“Miscellaneous shells, including ostrich egg, mother-of-pearl (the iridescent nacre from oysters and other mollusks), whole marine and riverine mollusks, and tortoise. Used: commonly in Pd and rarely thereafter. Sources: Egypt and Red Sea. Ancient names: unknown

“No diamonds?

Less-Commonly-Used Gemstones in Ancient Egypt

“Beryl (Emeralds, transparent to translucent [Be3Al2(Si6O18)]) with two color varieties: 1) aquamarine (light to medium greenish blue to blue). Used: rarely in Pt/R only. Source: imported from India. Ancient names: beryllion/berullus (Greek/Roman). 2) “Emerald or green beryl (mainly light to medium green and translucent, rarely dark green and transparent). Used: rarely in late Pt and commonly in R. Sources: six mines in the ancient Mons Smaragdus region at Gebel Zabara (no. 8; active R and Is), in Wadi Sikait (no. 9; active late Pt and R), at Gebel Umm Harba (no. 10; active R), in Wadi Abu Rasheid (no. 11; active R), in Wadi Nugrus (no. 12; active R), and at Umm Kabu (no. 13; active R). Some emerald may have been imported from India. Ancient names: smaragdos/smaragdus (Greek/Roman). [Source: James Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, Environmental Sciences, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org <>]


sacred eye

“Calcite [CaCO3] with two color varieties: 1) Common calcite (translucent; white). Used: commonly in Pd and rarely thereafter for inlay. Source: no mine known, but almost certainly from the limestone in and near the Nile Valley either as crystal masses or white bands in travertine (“Egyptian alabaster”), one of the ornamental stones with many known quarries. Ancient names: unknown. 2) Iceland spar (transparent; colorless). Used: rarely in OK and NK/3IP. Source: no mine known, but probably from limestone like common calcite. Ancient names: unknown

“Muscovite mica (transparent to translucent; light to medium brownish yellow [KAl2(AlSi3O10)(OH)2]). Used: rarely in Pd and later by Nubia’s Kerma Culture. Source: no mine known, but muscovite deposits are commonly associated with pegmatite veins in the Eastern Desert. Ancient names: specularis lapis (Roman). <>

“Onyx (parallel, planar layers with alternating white or light gray and dark gray or black). Used: commonly in Pt/R, and rarely in Pd, NK/3IP, and LP. Source: imported from India during Pt/R and possibly from other Eastern sources earlier, although small amounts can be found at the Stela Ridge mine (see carnelian). Ancient names: possibly kA kilometers [ka kem] (Egyptian); onychion (Greek); onyx lapis (Roman). <>

“Sardonyx (parallel, planar layers with alternating white or light gray and reddish or brownish colors). Used: commonly in Pt/R, and rarely in NK/3IP and LP. Sources: imported from India during Pt/R and earlier probably from the same sources as carnelian. Ancient names: possibly kA HD [ka hedj] (Egyptian); probably onychion (Greek); sardonyx (Roman). <>

“Ivory (opaque; white or light yellowish white elephant or hippopotamus tusk). Used: rarely from Pd to Pt/R. Some of what is reported as ivory is probably bone. Sources: originally hippopotamuses in Egypt; later, elephants via Nubia and Punt. Ancient names: Abw [abu] (Egyptian); elephantinon (Greek); eboreus (Roman). <>

Rarely-Used Gemstones in Ancient Egypt

Fluorite or fluorspar (transparent to translucent; commonly light or bluish green or yellow, but other or multiple colors are possible [CaF2]). Used: rarely in Pd and Pt/R. Source: one mine at Gebel el-Ineigi (no. 5; ancient but specific period of activity unknown). Ancient names: probably murrina or myrrhina (Roman). [Source: James Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, Environmental Sciences, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org <>]

“Hematite (opaque brownish black to black with submetallic luster to silvery gray with metallic luster [Fe2O3]; figs 8-9). Used: rarely from Pd to Pt/R. Source: no mine known, but both types of hematite are found in some igneous and metamorphic rocks in the Eastern Desert. Ancient names: probably bjA [bia] but also possibly bjA osy [bia qesey], and bos anx [beqes ankh] (Egyptian); haematitis/haematites (Greek/Roman). <>

“Libyan desert glass (translucent; light to medium greenish yellow meteoritic silica glass [SiO2]). Used: confirmed only in an 18th Dynasty scarab in a pectoral belonging to king Tutankhamun. Source: the Western Desert near the Libyan border. Ancient names: unknown

“Malachite (opaque; patchy to mainly banded light and dark green. Used: rarely from Pd to NK/3IP as a gemstone, but commonly for paint pigment and eye shadow in all periods. Sources: malachite is the principal ore mineral for copper and so comes from the numerous copper mines in the Sinai Peninsula and Eastern Desert. Ancient names: Ssmt [shesmet] and probably also wAD [wadj] (Egyptian); probably smaragdos/smaragdus (Greek/Roman). <>


rock crystal frog

“Jade or nephrite (translucent; light to dark green in compositionally gradational actinolite and tremolite [Ca2(Mg,Fe)5Si8O22(OH)2]). Used: confirmed only in an 18th Dynasty ring bezel belonging to king Tutankhamen. Much of what has been called nephrite, jadeite or jade is apparently either green chalcedony, green jasper, or serpentinite, the latter one of the ornamental stones. Source: no mine known, but possibly associated with serpentinite in the Eastern Desert. Ancient names: unknown. <>

“Obsidian (translucent; light to dark brownish black to black volcanic silica glass [SiO2]). Note that what has been reported as smoky quartz is probably pale obsidian. Used: rarely from Pd to Pt/R. Source: imported either from the Eastern Mediterranean or especially the southern Red Sea. Ancient names: probably mnw kilometers [menew kem] (Egyptian); probably liparaios (Greek); obsianus lapis (Roman). <>

“Peridot (transparent to translucent; light or medium green to mainly yellowish green olivine [(Mg,Fe)2SiO4]). Used: rarely in Pt/R. Source: one mine on Zabargad (or St. John’s) Island in the Red Sea (no. 15; active Pt/R). Ancient names: topazos/topazion and chrysolithos (Greek); topazus/topazum and chrysolithus (Roman). <>

“Agate (parallel, curved to wavy concentric bands with alternating lighter and darker colors – typically white or light gray with dark gray, brown or black). Used: rarely from Pd to Pt/R. Source: no mine known, but agate pebbles and nodules are occasionally found in the Eastern Desert and Sinai. Imported from India during Pt/R. Ancient names: possibly HD [hedj], kA [ka], kA HD [ka hedj], or kAj kilometers [kai kem] (Egyptian); achates and possibly onychion (Greek); achates (Roman). <>

“Chalcedony (white or pale gray to mainly bluish white/gray). Used: rarely from Pd to Pt/R. Source: one mine at Stela Ridge, near Gebel el-Asr. Ancient names: probably Hrst HD [herset hedj] (Egyptian); probably leuachates and possibly also cerachates and ceraunia (Roman). green chalcedony2 (light to medium green). Used: rarely from Pd to Pt/R. Source: one mine at Stela Ridge, near Gebel el-Asr. Ancient names: possibly prDn [perdjen] (Egyptian); probably prasinos or prasitis (Greek); prasius (Roman). <>

“Petrified (or silicified wood (grayish to brownish with wood-fiber texture, fine-grained; can contain abundant granular/non-chalcedonic silica). Used: rarely in NK. Source: no mine known, but probably from occurrences in the Western or Eastern Deserts near Cairo. Ancient name: possibly xt-awA [khet-awa] (Egyptian). <>

“Sapphire (transparent to translucent; light to dark blue corundum [Al2O3]). Used: rarely in Pt/R. Source: imported from Sri Lanka and possibly India. Ancient names: hyakinthos/hyacinthus (Greek/Roman). <>

“Amber (translucent; light to dark yellowish to reddish brown fossil tree resin). Used: rarely from NK/3IP to Pt/R. Some of what is reported as amber is non-fossilized tree resin. Source: imported from northern Europe through the Mediterranean region. Ancient names: elektron and also probably ligyrion and lyngurion (Greek); sucinum (Roman). <>

Ornamental Stone in Ancient Egypt

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “The ornamental stones of ancient Egypt comprise a large and diverse group of rocks. Their attractive colors and patterns, and ability to take a good polish, made them sought after for decorative applications in art and architecture. At least 48 varieties of ornamental stone were used by the Egyptians and these come from 45 known ancient quarries, two in northern Sudan and the rest in Egypt. [Source: James A. Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]


head of man carved from stone

“The greatest selection of ornamental stones is found in the vessels made during the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods. Most of these are included in the table; those omitted, all rare, are discussed by Aston. About half of the listed varieties were used during the Roman Period and exported to many parts of the Mediterranean region. Some of the Roman names for these stones are preserved and these are also included in the table, along with the traditional names given by Italian stonecutters. It is by the latter names that the Roman stones are mainly referred to today in the archaeological and art historical literature. <>

“There is much confusion over the geologic names applied to Egypt’s ornamental stones. Many of those now in common use were suggested over a century ago by archaeologists and other non- geologists with a poor understanding of the rocks they were describing, and still others were introduced by geologists following now disused or inappropriate rock classifications. Also, some stones are known by multiple names with different petrological meanings. For example, the famous “metagraywacke” from Wadi Hammamat has been variously but incorrectly referred to as “basalt,” “durite,” “schist,” “siltstone,” and “slate,” all rocks that are very different from metagraywacke. Another notable example of misused terminology is the widespread actice of referring to “travertine” as “alabaster.” For geologists, alabaster is a variety of rock gypsum and consists of the mineral gypsum (CaSO4

2H2O), whereas travertine is a rock composed of the mineral calcite (CaCO3). To avoid this nomenclatural conflict, some writers have referred to travertine as “calcite,” “calcite- alabaster,” “Egyptian alabaster,” or “oriental alabaster,” but travertine is the only geologically correct name. It is important that the geologic names be applied consistently and follow widely accepted, modern petrological conventions. <>

“There are no comparable global classification schemes for metamorphic and sedimentary rocks, but the terminology used here follows the popular norms reported by Brown and Harrell with, additionally, for some metamorphic rocks, compositional descriptors based on the IUGS classification. Modern petrological nomenclature allows for still other, equally valid, rock names for most of the ornamental stones and these are sometimes encountered in the literature. It is common practice to add a generalized color term to rock names (e.g., “red granite” from Aswan and “green metaconglomerate” from Wadi Hammamat) but such characterizations can be misleading and are, in any case

Kind of Ornamental Stones Used in Ancient Egypt


Hippo relief carved in stone

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “From the Predynastic through Ptolemaic Periods, most of the ornamental stones, in terms of volume, were quarried in the Aswan region (vars. 1-2 granite, var. 1 granodiorite and silicified sandstone). The rest of the stones came from Cairo’s Gebel el-Ahmar (silicified sandstone), the Western Desert’s Fayum (basalt and rock gypsum) and Gebel el-Asr area (anorthosite gneiss and gabbro gneiss), and the Eastern Desert’s limestone plateau (travertine) and Red Sea Hills (var. 1 andesite-dacite porphyry, dolerite porphyry, var. 2 granodiorite, marble, metagraywacke, metaconglomerate, vars. 1-2 pegmatitic diorite, var. 2 serpentinite, steatite, tuff, and tuffaceous limestone). Quarries are known for all of these stones. Most of the other stones for which quarries have not been found almost certainly come from the Sinai or, more likely, the Eastern Desert, including vars. 1-2 andesite porphyry, var. 1 dolostone, buff limestone, limestone breccia, var. 1 recrystallized limestone, rock anhydrite, and var. 1 serpentinite. The source of the var. 1 bituminous limestone is perhaps to be found in the Helwan-Saqqara region, where such rocks have been reported in geological surveys. Two known quarries in northern Sudan’s Third and Fourth Nile Cataracts for the var. 3 granite and vars. 1-2 granodiorite-granite gneiss were primarily sources of stone for the Napatan and later Meroitic kingdoms, but they were also employed for royal statues and stelae of Egypt’s 25th Dynasty and, in the case of the var. 1 granodiorite-granite gneiss at Tumbos, an 18th Dynasty stela. Peridotite was used for a few 18th Dynasty royal statues found at sites in northern Sudan, and its quarry is perhaps north of the Third Cataract, where outcrops of this rock occur. Many of the Dynastic quarries for ornamental stones continued to be worked during the Roman Period, but most of the activity at this time involved new quarries producing a wide variety of colorful rocks in the Red Sea Hills (vars. 1-3 andesite-dacite porphyry, var. 2 dolostone, var. 2 bituminous limestone, var. 2 recrystallized limestone, var. 3 granodiorite, vars. 1-2 metagabbro, vars. 1-3 quartz diorite, rhyolite porphyry, var. 2 serpentinite, vars. 1-2 tonalite gneiss, and trachyandesite porphyry). [Source: James A. Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Non-ornamental limestone and sandstone, ancient Egypt’s main building stones, were also employed for many of these same applications when the more costly ornamental stones were either unaffordable or unavailable. Other stones were sometimes used for small vessels and figurines, including agate, amazonite, amethyst, fluorite, hematite, jasper, lapis lazuli, obsidian, rock crystal, and silicified wood. These, however, are normally thought of as gemstones and are discussed in Harrell. Some applications derive more from a stone’s non-visual attributes. For example, granite (var. 1), granodiorite (var. 1), and silicified sandstone were widely employed for door lintels, jambs, and especially thresholds because of their great durability, and in these applications they may be viewed more as building than ornamental stones. Although silicified sandstone is one of the ornamental stones, it was also widely employed in utilitarian applications, especially for grinding stones. The most heavily utilized ornamental stones of the Dynastic Period are sometimes given the sobriquet “monumental” (as in, for example, Aswan’s “monumental granite”) because of their widespread use in temples and for colossal statues and obelisks. <>

“Dozens of ornamental stones from around the Mediterranean region were imported into Egypt during the Roman Period and used for statuary and especially architectural elements in villas, temples, and public buildings. Much of this material has been reused in Egypt’s medieval mosques and other Islamic monuments, where it was employed for floor tiles, wall veneer, columns, and other decorative applications. Some of it has also been reused in Coptic Christian churches. The imported stones are much less evident in Egypt’s heavily plundered, Roman-era archaeological sites, but among these perhaps the greatest quantity and variety of such stones is seen in Alexandria’s Kom el-Dikka.” <>

Quarrying Ornamental Stones in Ancient Egypt


Quarry chambers of Masara

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “The quarrying of ornamental stones was usually done in surface pits and trenches, and occasionally on loose boulders. In addition to such open-cut workings, some travertine quarries went underground and formed cave-like galleries. From Predynastic times into the Late Period, quarrying of hard stones (all igneous and most metamorphic rocks plus silicified sandstone) was done with stone tools. These tools, known as pounders or mauls, were hand-held, purpose-shaped pieces of exceptionally hard, tough rock, of which dolerite was the most popular variety . The pounders were used to knock off corners and edges of bedrock outcrops when only relatively small pieces were required, to hack out trenches and undercuts to isolate larger blocks from the bedrock, or to reduce and reshape loose boulders resting on the bedrock. Fire-setting was occasionally employed during the Dynastic Period to either induce fracturing in hardstones or weaken their surfaces prior to pounding with a stone tool. Where the ancient quarrymen could exploit natural fractures in the bedrock, metal gads and also possibly wedge- shaped rock splinters were hammered into the fractures to widen them. Stout wooden poles used as levers would have been employed to help detach blocks along fractures or cut trenches. [Source: James A. Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Stone pounders are known to have been used for rock gypsum and travertine, and probably were used for some of the other softer ornamental stones (i.e., colored limestones, marble, rock anhydrite, and steatite). All of these would also have been worked at times with the same metal tools employed for the similarly soft building stones (limestone and sandstone). Throughout the Dynastic Period until near the end of the Late Period, these tools were copper and later bronze chisels. Chert or flint (microcrystalline quartz) picks were probably also sometimes used. Although copper and the harder bronze were tough enough to work the softer stones, these tools were quickly blunted and abraded in the process. They were entirely unsuited for quarrying hardstones, and for these the stone tools were far superior. <>

“Certainly by the 30th Dynasty of the Late Period but possibly as early as the 26th Dynasty, the Egyptians used “iron” (actually low-grade steel) tools for quarrying, including hammers, chisels, picks, and wedges. When extracting blocks from bedrock or boulders, a line of wedge-shaped holes was first chiseled into the surface. Iron wedges were then inserted into the holes and these were hammered until the rock split along the line of holes. Thin pieces of iron called “feathers” may have been placed on each side of the wedges to increase the lateral, expansive force of the hammer blows. The iron-wedge technology improved through the Ptolemaic Period and reached its zenith in Roman times with little change to the present day. <>

“A fiction often repeated in the popular archaeological literature is that the wedge holes were cut for wood wedges which, when wetted, would expand and so split the rock. In reality, this cannot work for the sizes and shapes, spacings, and often inclined orientations of wedge holes found in ancient hardstone quarries. Another quarrying technology that became commonplace in Egypt beginning in the Ptolemaic Period is the “pointillé” technique, which is still in use today. This technique, like the use of iron wedges, is conventionally thought to have originated in the Greek Aegean region during the sixth century B.C., but there is new evidence in Wadi Hammamat’s metagraywacke quarry suggesting it was employed there as early as the Predynastic or Early Dynastic Periods. Whereas wedging is useful for rough splitting, lines of pointillé pits are employed for more precise, controlled separation. In this method, a straight line of small, shallow, closely spaced pits is chiseled across a rock surface. The quarryman then hammers a chisel back and forth along the line of pits until the rock splits. In the case of the early Wadi Hammamat workings, the chisel was apparently fashioned from metagraywacke. Fire-setting and levers continued to be used, but the levers were probably of iron as well as wood.” <>

Carving Ornamental Stones in Ancient Egypt


James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “The extracted rock masses were dressed (trimmed) in the quarries with the same tools used to remove them. A new stone-dressing technology was introduced by the Romans in the Wadi Umm Shegilat quarry for pegmatitic diorite (var. 1). Here they used a toothless iron saw blade along with the locally available quartz sand as the abrasive to cut the sides of rectangular blocks and the ends of column drums. Surprisingly, there is no evidence that this technology was employed in any other Roman quarry except for one at Felsberg in Germany. During all periods of Egyptian history, the quarry products were usually roughed out to something approaching their final form on site, and occasionally were carved to a nearly finished state. This not only reduced the weight of stone requiring transport, but also had the benefit of revealing any unacceptable flaws in the stone prior to its removal from the quarry. [Source: James A. Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Once the stone was taken to a Nile Valley workshop or construction site, it underwent additional dressing and carving followed by polishing. The same cutting tools used for quarrying were brought to bear, but in the Dynastic Period, especially during the Old Kingdom, copper or bronze saws and tube drills were also used. Quartz sand served as the abrasive for the softer copper and bronze tools, as it did later for the iron saws of the Romans. The principal application of the earlier saws was for cutting basalt paving stones in several of the Old Kingdom pyramid temples, with saw marks also seen on some of the hardstone sarcophagi of this period. <>

“The tube drills were used to cut recesses within blocks, including hollow interiors, sunken relief scenes, and hieroglyphic texts. Chert drill bits have been found in association with drilled rock gypsum and the much harder metagraywacke, and were surely used to drill other ornamental stones as suggested by the fact that hieroglyphs showing a hand drill with a stone bit were ideograms for “craft”. The effectiveness of chert tools (chisels, gravers, and especially drill bits) on granite has been experimentally demonstrated by Gorelick and Gwinnett and Stocks. Polishing was the final step in preparing an object carved from ornamental stone. Hand-held pieces of silicified sandstone (“rubbing stones”) are known to have been used for rough smoothing, but a fine- grained quartz sand paste applied with a piece of cloth or leather was almost certainly employed to produce the highly polished surfaces.” <>

Transporting Ornamental Stones in Ancient Egypt

“During the Dynastic Period, quarried pieces of stone too large to be carried on the backs of men or animals (mainly donkeys but also camels from perhaps the Late Period onward) would have been placed on wooden sledges, which were pulled by teams of either draft animals or men . Friction between the sledge and ground was sometimes reduced, as depicted in numerous tomb scenes, by pouring water on the ground in front of the sledge, but this would only work if the surface material had abundant hydrophilic clay. [Source: James A. Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“ It is not clear what, if any, aids were used when sledges were pulled over sandy or rocky ground. Lehner suggests that clay-rich material or “tafla” (either Nile mud or sedimentary shale) was applied to the surface of 4th-Dynasty construction roads and ramps at Giza, and it is known that closely spaced wood beams were laid crosswise on the 12th Dynasty construction roads at el-Lisht and el-Lahun. It is conceivable that such friction-reducing practices were used for sledges brought from quarries near the Nile Valley. It has also been suggested that sledges were sometimes pulled over wooden rollers, although this is unlikely as these would only be effective on ground that was hard, smooth, and relatively flat. Such ground conditions may have existed within some quarries and construction sites, but in most cases the sledges traveled over uneven rocky or soft sandy ground where the rollers would be ineffective. <>

“The best-attested means of preparing ground surfaces for sledges was the construction of quarry roads. Some were paved with a single course of dry-laid, unshaped, and loosely fitted pieces of locally available rocks, the most notable being the 12 kilometers-long road leading from the Old Kingdom basalt quarry at Widan el-Faras in the Fayum. A 20 kilometers-long network of paved and partially cleared roads of New Kingdom and Roman date is found in the silicified sandstone quarries near Aswan at Gebel Gulab and Gebel Tingar. Most of the Dynastic quarry roads were unpaved and consisted only of cleared tracks, where the coarser surface gravel was swept to the sides. Where these roads crossed steep declines or surface dips, their bases were built up (and often supported by stone revetments) to reduce and even out the gradients. An outstanding example of this kind of road leads from the travertine quarry at Hatnub to the Nile River near the modern village of el-Amarna. <>



“Although the Egyptians knew of the wheel from the earliest Dynastic times, they had no wheeled wagons until the early New Kingdom. It is not known if these were ever used to transport quarried stone, but it is unlikely because, without relatively broad roadways with firm, flat surfaces, the heavily laden wagons would either get stuck in the sand or break their wheels on the rocks. In Roman times, however, and possibly as early as the Ptolemaic Period, wagons pulled by draft animals were the primary means of land transport for quarried stone and other materials, and this method was made practical by an extensive, well-built network of roads (cleared, unpaved tracks) linking the Eastern Desert quarries with the Nile Valley.” <>

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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