Building a pyramid

Elizabeth Bloxam of University College London wrote: “Research into the technologies used to extract and transport stone and semi-precious stone from quarries and mines is still an underdeveloped field of study in Egyptology, despite the large-scale use of these materials in antiquity. Ancient quarry and mining sites are the “forgotten” archaeological sites, even though they can comprise material culture such as roads, settlements, epigraphic data, and often spectacular partly finished monumental objects. Moreover, ancient production sites can enhance our understanding of the lives of the non-elite in antiquity, in particular the social organizations of raw material procurement, an aspect that still remains poorly understood. As some of the most endangered archaeological sites in Egypt, ancient production sites are under enormous threat from modern quarrying, urban development, and other mega-projects. Hence, in more recent years, there has been some urgency in documenting these little known fragile cultural landscapes. Incorporating fresh data from recent archaeological and geological surveys of some key ancient quarries and mines, the intention of this article is to review the current status of our knowledge of raw material extraction in antiquity—with a focus on the Pharaonic period—from perspectives such as extraction technologies, logistics, and the social context [Source:Elizabeth Bloxam, University College London, UK, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“Ancient quarrying and mining sites often present extensive cultural landscapes comprising a range of material culture; however, their research potential is still not fully recognized. Current research is re- shaping ideas about these poorly understood activities, for instance, the major use of stone tools and fire in extracting hard stones, transmission of stone-working technologies across often deep time depths, and the role of skilled kin-groups as a social construct rather than large unskilled labor forces. Although questions of chronology of extraction techniques, methods, and development of theoretical approaches to interpretation are still in their early stages, with a continued emphasis on archaeological and geological survey of these sites, the potential exists to further address some of these important questions.”

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Discovering Egypt; BBC History: Egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt; Egypt’s Golden Empire; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt; Ancient Egypt Magazine; Egypt Exploration Society ; Amarna Project; Egyptian Study Society, Denver; The Ancient Egypt Site; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East; Egyptology Resources

Materials That Were Quarries and Mined in Ancient Egypt

Elizabeth Bloxam of University College London wrote: “Stone. Rocks quarried and crafted in antiquity are usually placed into two broad categories as either “hard” stones or “soft” stones. “Hard” stones are usually igneous rocks such as basalt, granite, diorite, granodiorite, dolerite, and porphyritic rocks, but can also include metamorphic rocks such as gneisses, metagabbro, serpentinite, and sedimentary rocks such as silicified sandstone (often termed “quartzite”) and chert. Key hard stone sources exploited during the Pharaonic period are the deposits of granite and granodiorite in Aswan, silicified sandstone at Gebel el-Ahmar near Cairo and on the west bank at Aswan, basalt in the Northern Fayum at Widan el-Faras, and “Chephren gneiss” from Gebel el-Asr (“Chephren’s Quarry”) in Lower Nubia. The greatest range of other hard stone deposits are located in the Eastern Desert. [Source: Elizabeth Bloxam, University College London, UK, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

diorite statue of Khafre

““Soft” stones usually refer to sedimentary rocks such as sandstone, limestone, gypsum, and travertine. All these rocks occur in a range of geographical locations throughout Egypt, with limestone, sandstone, and travertine deposits largely situated inside the Nile valley between Cairo in the north and Esna in the south. Key soft stone deposits exploited during antiquity occur at Hatnub (travertine), in the region of the Muqattam hills near Cairo (limestone), and between Aswan and Edfu at Gebel el-Silsila. The exception to these Nile valley locations are sources of gypsum that occur most densely in the Northern Fayum.

“In general terms during the Pharaonic period, the greatest use of hard stones occurred between the Predynastic (late 4th millennium B.C.) into the mid Old Kingdom (mid 3rd millennium B.C.). Stone vessels, life-sized statuary, and elements in monumental architecture were key uses of the largest range of hard stones, peaking between the 4th and 5th Dynasties. Aswan red granite and basalt were the most extensively exploited hard stones utilized in architectural elements of the Old Kingdom pyramid complexes at Giza and Abusir. The utilitarian use of largely hard stones for tools, grinding equipment, and other domestic purposes was constant throughout antiquity. Soft stones such as sandstone and limestone were used almost continuously in the construction of monumental buildings from the Early Dynastic into the Roman Period. Travertine was also an important soft stone exploited in antiquity, particularly for stone vessels and also monumental architecture.

“Gemstones. Gemstones such as amazonite, amethyst, jasper, garnet, turquoise, peridot, emerald, and carnelian were all mined in Egypt during antiquity, largely for jewelry. The main geographical locations of some of the most important gemstone mines are in the Eastern Desert, such as Wadi Sikait (emerald), the Gebels Migif and Hafafit (amazonit), and Wadi el-Hudi (amethyst). Stele Ridge in Lower Nubia in the environs of Gebel el-Asr (“Chephren’s Quarry”) is the only known source of carnelian, and the Sinai has concentrations of turquoise and copper mines, the most well known being at Serabit el-Khadim. All these sources were exploited in antiquity, although the explosion in gemstone mining is most associated with the Middle Kingdom.”

Soft Stone and Hard Quarrying in Ancient Egypt

Greg Dawson of Minnesota State University, Mankato wrote: “Limestone was quarried one of two ways it was either obtained from the surface rock, or else they tunneled and found the rock they needed. It is known that they possessed excellent copper tools such as saws and chisels which were capable of cutting any kind of limestone. Chisels and wedges were the tools of choice, the chisels were used for cutting the rock away from the sides, and the wedges were then used to detach the base for the block. In tunnel quarrying a shaft was cut between the roof and the rock to be detached, this was done to allow a man to get behind the rock by chipping at it vertically. On two sides two other men made splits down the two sides so that they could remove it from where it was. Wedges were then inserted into the holes that were made and driven down in to achieve a split in the rock, wet wooden wedges were also used in this procedure because they would swell up when the got wet and would crack the rock that way. This put them in a very tight spot to work. [Source: Greg Dawson, Minnesota State University, Mankato, +]

“In surface quarrying the same exact method was used except that they had more of an advantage because it gave them more room to move around, but the rock that they got from open mine quarrying was not as fine a grade of limestone as the kind that they could find buried in the earth. +\

“Quarrying of the harder stones such as granite was a more labor intensive task, they had to use a hard greenish stone called dolerite, and pounded around the base of the stone to try to detach it from its base. In order to get to the higher quality rock they would light fires on the granite to get it to a certain temperature. Cold water would then be thrown on it to cool it fast this would cause the outer layers to crack and fall off leaving the harder rock from the inside for them to use. +\

Quarrying Technology and Tools in Ancient Egypt

Stone working tools

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “Throughout the Dynastic Period until near the end of the Late Period, building stones were quarried with copper (and later bronze) chisels and picks. The chisels were hammered with wooden mallets and the metal pick heads were hafted on wooden handles. It is probable that chert (or flint) pick heads were also used, as these are harder, although more brittle, than the metal tools, but so far there is little archaeological evidence for this. Implements of copper and the harder bronze were tough enough to work the softer stones, but were quickly blunted and abraded. They were entirely unsuited for the harder crystalline, dolomitic, and silicified limestones and well- cemented sandstones, and for such materials

Building stones were typically extracted from the quarries as rectangular blocks. Vertical trenches were first cut along the back and two lateral sides of an intended block, and then the block’s open front face was undercut to complete the separation from bedrock. In a final step, using the same tools, the now loose block was often dressed (trimmed) to adjust its size and shape. This basic approach to quarrying remained unchanged from the Old Kingdom down to Roman times. During the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, however, hammered iron wedges set in lines of pre-cut wedge-shaped holes were sometimes used to split limestone and sandstone, especially the harder varieties. The extracted stone blocks were transported from the quarries and to the construction sites on sledges during the Dynastic Period and on wagons thereafter. Transport by boat was also common when the construction sites were distant from the quarries.

“There were two quarrying innovations introduced early in the New Kingdom. The first of these, dating to the Amarna Period, was the extraction of limestone and sandstone blocks with standardized dimensions that were small enough for one workman to carry. These are the so-called talatat blocks, which measure about 52 centimeters (one cubit) by 26 centimeters (a half-cubit) by 26 cm. Unique to these blocks was a new method for detaching them from the bedrock. A series of closely spaced, roughly cylindrical, horizontal holes were cut underneath the block from front to back. The partitions between these holes would have been progressively cut away, leaving some in place for support, until the block was free. A second advance, first appearing during the reign of Amenhotep III, was in the limestone and, at Gebel el-Silsila, sandstone galleries, where annotated lines were painted on ceilings to mark the quarrying progress. Numerous quarries have these markings, but the best example is at el- Dibabiya. Quarrying of talatat blocks ceased by the end of the 18th Dynasty, but the marking of gallery ceilings continued into the Late Period.”

Analysis of Ancient Egyptian Stone Extraction Technologies

Elizabeth Bloxam of University College London wrote: “Most of the hard and soft stone sources known in Egypt were exploited to varying degrees and purposes since prehistory into at least the Roman Period. The nature of the deposit, in terms of its physical properties, was a key factor in how the rocks were extracted. Although later quarrying is always destroying evidence of the earliest extraction techniques, it is generally agreed that the earliest hard stone quarrying in the Predynastic for ornamental objects, such as stone vessels, utilized more easily accessible boulders or “blocky” remains of hard stones. It was not until the quest for hard stones used in monumental architecture and life-size statuary that it became necessary to target bedrock. [Source: Elizabeth Bloxam, University College London, UK, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

wooden butterfly braces used in working stone

“There is still considerable debate about the technologies of both hard and soft stone extraction, in particular the extent to which metal tools were used. Given the constant re-use of metal, there is an obvious bias in the archaeological record, because such material in the form of tools is rarely found in production sites. Stone tools are without exception the most common implements found in production sites. Yet in accordance with Arnold and also from subsequent studies, there is generally an undervaluing of the role that stone tools did actually play in both the extraction and dressing of stone blocks, even after the introduction of metal technologies . Moreover, in the hard stone granite and silicified sandstone quarries in Aswan and the gneiss quarries at Gebel el-Asr (“Chephren’s Quarry”), fresh evidence suggests that stone tools in combination with fire were key technologies used in ornamental stone production from the Old Kingdom into at least the Ptolemaic Period. Similarly, the use of fire-setting to extract graywacke in the Wadi Hammamat has recently been discovered by the author. Charcoal, burnt flakes of stone, and often fired mud-bricks are key remains left by this process in primary extraction and also in secondary production for channeling, trimming, and shaping blocks. Pounding with stone tools to further flatten and smooth surfaces is also attested by the clearly visible marks left by these tools on partially worked objects found in the quarries.

“Although it is extremely difficult to determine when fire-setting was gradually phased out as a technology in hard stone quarrying, the current view is that with the introduction of iron technology by the Ptolemaic Period, the “wedging” technique took precedence. Typified by the distinctive “trapezoidal” wedge holes left on quarry faces, these have been subject to intense scrutiny, in terms of technology as well as establishing chronologies of quarrying. Metal tools such as picks and chisels seem to have been employed in some part of the process of cutting the wedge holes, given the distinctive marks left by these tools on quarry faces; yet controversy still remains as to whether wood or metal wedges were employed to finally split the stone.

carving and shaping building stones

“The use of metal in the extraction of soft stones is also problematic; the suggestion from studies of the Gebel el-Silsila sandstone quarries is that “softer copper chisels” were utilized during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, with “harder bronze chisels” coming into use by the New Kingdom. The blocks were then believed to have been levered out using wooden beams. Fresh arguments have suggested that the use of pointed picks and axes has been largely overlooked, and similar to hard stone quarrying, stone tools may have had a greater use in the dressing and quarrying of soft stones with metal chisels employed only for special purposes. In addition, recent research undertaken at the Wadi el-Nakhla limestone gallery quarries near Deir el-Bersha, particularly those of the Late Period, has revealed grids of red ocher lines on the roof that presumably had some practical purpose in designating work areas for the quarriers.

“It is important to remember that similar to hard stone quarrying, geological awareness was key in determining the best method of extraction. With this aspect in mind, it has to be noted that in the well-preserved Old Kingdom gypsum quarries at Umm el-Sawan, the combination of locally acquired fossilized wood, minimally worked into rod-shaped pieces, found associated with stone hammers largely of chert occurs in significant quantities to suggest their wholesale use as tools.

“Finishing of objects in the quarries seems to be dependent upon how far the stone had to travel to the Nile. At the Aswan granite quarries, which lie directly on the Nile, objects seem to have been almost completed in the quarries. The famous “unfinished obelisk” and New Kingdom Osiride statue, which still lie attached to the bedrock, are such examples. In quarries outside of the Nile valley, evidence from discarded objects suggests that they were only partially completed to form rough outlines of their intended final form, probably to reduce the transport weight.”

Quarrying Ornamental Stones in Ancient Egypt

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 ]

“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.”

Quarries of Tourah (1878)

Mining Gemstones in Ancient Egypt

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, ]

“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.”

Elizabeth Bloxam of University College London wrote: “Gemstone mines in Egypt, similar to quarries, are under pressure from modern mining. Due to almost continuous mining of some key resources, their preservation, in terms of identifying the earliest phases of mining, is largely poor. Moreover, given the large quantities of epigraphic data found in mining contexts, such as standing stelae, votive objects, and a temple to Hathor at Serabit el- Khadim, past research has largely focused on documenting these aspects of the material culture, rather than the mines themselves. Although our knowledge of gemstone extraction techniques in the Pharaonic period is limited, the main corpus of objects remaining in such sites are stone tools, which once again suggests the important role they played in separating gemstones from ore bearing rocks. [Source: Elizabeth Bloxam, University College London, UK, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“The carnelian mines at Stele Ridge in the environs of Gebel el-Asr (“Chephren’s Quarry”) in Lower Nubia present one of the few well preserved Pharaonic gemstone mining sites, largely of the Middle Kingdom. The mines are extremely hard to visualize due to them being sub-surface extractions characterized on the surface as circular, oval, and longitudinal subterranean trenches surrounded by spoil heaps. These shallow subterranean extractions, often only a meter in depth, were extensively exploited to access the stone that occurs in cracks between granite outcrops. Stone tools seem to have been the main implements used to separate the gemstone from the ore, given the absence of marks made by metal. Pounders found inside an excavated mine and in surrounding areas suggest that the method of mining was by pounding of the granite to release the gemstone.

“Stone tool assemblages made up of flint scrapers, hand axes, and pounders comprise the largest corpus of mining tools found at the Serabit el-Khadim turquoise and copper mines. Yet it is interesting to note, given that these mines were intensively exploited between the Middle and New Kingdom, that these assemblages show little variation from those found in earlier nearby Chalcolithic sites, implying no demonstrable transformation between Early Dynastic Period and Middle Kingdom mining techniques. Despite the problems in assessing transformations in mining technologies, it is suggested that the Middle Kingdom mines are more represented by horizontal tunneling and mines in the New Kingdom by the creation of large galleries with deep hollows made in the surfaces.”

transporting stone blocks

Logistics of Stone Transport in Ancient Egypt

Elizabeth Bloxam of University College London wrote: “Transport infrastructure in quarries can vary according to the nature of the ground surface—and steep descents—over which the stone had to travel on its journey to the Nile. The importance of water in the transport process of large objects was clearly vital, the termini of most quarry roads linking in some way to the Nile or its nearest tributaries. New Kingdom quarry roads associated with the transport of large ornamental objects from the silicified sandstone quarries at Gebel Gulab on the west bank at Aswan are some of the most extensive and best preserved in Egypt . These networks comprise secondary paved roads that lead directly into New Kingdom quarries from where large objects were extracted. The roads all converge onto a central artery, which traverses Gebel Gulab and then changes character into more ramp-like structures to ease passage of the stone down towards the Nile. [Source: Elizabeth Bloxam, University College London, UK, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“The world’s oldest paved quarry road connects the Old Kingdom basalt quarries of Widan el-Faras with the shores of ancient Lake Moeris at Qasr el-Sagha in the Northern Fayum. Constructed from local sandstone, limestone, basalt, and fossilized wood, the terminus of the 11 kilometers road at a quay utilized the waters of Lake Moeris during high Nile floods. Although determining the levels of the Nile flood during the Old Kingdom still remains controversial, there is indirect evidence to make a correlation between high Nile floods and the transport of basalt on a large scale to the pyramids on the Giza plateau at this time.

“Due to the lack of archaeological evidence in relation to vehicles associated with the movement of stone, there still remains the archaeological problem as to what type of vehicle was used in the overland transportation of stone. In general, there has been a tendency to rely on the iconographic record to explain these practices, these suggesting the use of low-lying sledges. The Middle Kingdom Djehutihotep transport scene as well as a New Kingdom (18th Dynasty) depiction found in the Tura limestone quarries of a sledge conveying a block of stone drawn by oxen are often referred to. To what extent rollers were used under the sledges is still a matter of debate, although the use of unfixed rollers with sledges to move heavy weights over large distances has been proven impractical.

“Of the quarry roads described above, there are no wear marks, fixed tracks, or other indicators as to how the stone was moved over them. However, rare vehicle tracks associated with several loading ramps at Gebel el-Asr (“Chephren’s Quarry,” Old Kingdom) have certainly suggested that other types of conveyance, other than low-lying sledges, were used to transport stone from this quarry to the Nile. In essence, it seems as if adaptation to local geomorphological conditions was key, and ways to minimize overland transportation were clearly sought. Recent research in the Aswan granite quarries has indicated that the construction of canals into the “unfinished obelisk quarry” was clearly to avoid any overland movement of these objects.

a vision of Israeli slaves in Egypt produced in 1878

Social Context of Quarrying and Mining in Ancient Egypt

Elizabeth Bloxam of University College London wrote: “Assessing the social context of quarry and mining expeditions in the Pharaonic period in terms of numbers involved and hierarchies has been difficult to determine, given that associated settlement evidence is scant. Even in quarries outside of the Nile valley, such as Gebel el-Asr (“Chephren’s Quarry”), Widan el-Faras, and Umm el-Sawan, only small ephemeral camps characterized by low-level dry-stone walls and the use of natural rock overhangs have provided any evidence of habitation. Ceramics are also minimal in these and other quarry sites; hence, estimating the numbers of people involved in these activities is problematic and why there has been a reliance on textual sources. However, even taking into account poor preservation, recent findings cannot attest to quarry labor forces being over a maximum of 200 individuals, thus largely contradicting the Wadi Hammamat quarry inscriptions, which list expeditions into the tens of thousands. [Source: Elizabeth Bloxam, University College London, UK, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2010, ]

“In terms of provisioning of the labor force in quarries remote from permanent settlements and crucial access to water, evidence from excavation of two small camps and several wells at Gebel el-Asr (“Chephren’s Quarry”) in the Western Desert has given us some decisive insights. Constituting dwellings for no more than 25 people, one-third of each camp was devoted to food production, in particular bread making. In addition to consumption of local fish, birds, and mammals, access to water was relatively easy from shallow wells only up to one meter in depth. The shallowness of the wells has provided important insights into the climatic conditions that prevailed during the Old Kingdom exploitation, indicating seasonally wetter periods far removed from what we see today.

“Grappling with the archaeological problems of fragmentary data, particularly in terms of understanding the social organization of resource exploitation in the Pharaonic era, it has been important to reassess our ideas about the make up of quarry and mining labor forces from concepts in other areas of the social sciences. In particular cross-cultural comparison, anthropology, social archaeology, and landscape archaeology have provided useful models through which production data can be reinterpreted. Developing such methodologies is important if we are to understand the social context behind these activities, away from largely unreliable explanations via just a few written sources. Recent research is now widening the gap between the textual version of practice vis-à-vis the archaeological record.

“It has recently been argued that small groups of specialists, rather than large detachments of unskilled workers, made up quarrying and mining labor forces. These groups, loosely structured around kinship ties, might explain the general observation of undeniably skilled practice and transmission of specific extraction technologies over many generations.”

Building Stones in Ancient Egypt

unfinished stones for Menkaure's pyramid

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “The building stones of ancient Egypt are those relatively soft, plentiful rocks used to construct most temples, pyramids, and mastaba tombs. They were also employed for the interior passages, burialchambers, and outer casings of mud-brick pyramids and mastabas. Similarly, building stones were used in other mud-brick structures of ancient Egypt wherever extra strength was needed, such as bases for wood pillars, and lintels, thresholds, and jambs for doors. Limestone and sandstone were the principal building stones employed by the Egyptians, while anhydrite and gypsum were also used along the Red Sea coast. A total of 128 ancient quarries for building stones are known (89 for limestone, 36 for sandstone, and three for gypsum), but there are probably many others still undiscovered or destroyed by modern quarrying. [Source: James Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, Environmental Sciences, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“The building stones of ancient Egypt are those relatively soft, plentiful rocks used to construct most Dynastic temples, pyramids, and mastaba tombs. For the pyramids and mastabas made largely of sun-dried mud- brick, building stones were still employed for the interior passages, burial chambers, and outer casings. Similarly, building stones were used in other mud-brick structures of ancient Egypt (e.g., royal palaces, fortresses, storehouses, workshops, and common dwellings) wherever extra strength was needed, such as bases for wood pillars, and lintels, thresholds, and jambs for doors, but also occasionally for columns. Ptolemaic and Roman cities along the Mediterranean coast, Alexandria chief among them, followed the building norms of the rest of the Greco- Roman world, and so used stone not only for temples but also for palaces, villas, civic buildings, and other structures. Limestone and sandstone were the principal building stones used by the Egyptians. These are sedimentary rocks, the limestone consisting largely of calcite (CaCO3) and the sandstone composed of sand grains of mostly quartz (SiO2) but also feldspar and other minerals. The Egyptian names for limestone were jnr HD nfr n ajn and jnr HD nfr n r-Aw, both translating as “fine white stone of Tura-Masara” (ajn and r-Aw referring, respectively, to the cave-like quarry openings and the nearby geothermal springs at Helwan). Sandstone was called jnr HD nfr n rwDt, or occasionally jnr HD mnx n rwDt, both meaning “fine, or excellent, light-colored hard stone.” Although usually translated as “white,” here HD probably has a more general meaning of “light colored.” Sandstone is not normally considered a hard rock (rwDt), but it is often harder than limestone. In the above names, the nfr (fine) or HD or even both were sometimes omitted, and in the term for sandstone the n was later dropped.

“From Early Dynastic times onward, limestone was the construction material of choice for temples, pyramids, and mastabas wherever limestone bedrock occurred—that is, along the Mediterranean coast and in the Nile Valley from Cairo in the north to Esna in the south. Where sandstone bedrock was present in the Nile Valley, from Esna south into Sudan, this was the only building stone employed, but sandstone was also commonly imported into the southern portion of the limestone region from the Middle Kingdom onward. The first large-scale use of sandstone occurred in the Edfu region where it was employed for interior pavement and wall veneer in Early Dynastic tombs at Hierakonpolis and for a small 3rd Dynasty pyramid at Naga el- Goneima, about 5 kilometers southwest of the Edfu temple. Apart from this pyramid, the earliest use of sandstone in monumental architecture was for some Middle Kingdom temples in the Theban region (e.g., the Mentuhotep I mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri and the Senusret I shrine at Karnak). From the beginning of the New Kingdom onward, with the notable exception of Queen Hatshepsut’s limestone mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, most Theban temples were built either largely or entirely of sandstone. Further into the limestone region, sandstone was also used for the Ptolemaic and Roman Hathor temple at Dendara, portions of the Sety I and Ramesses II temples at Abydos, and the 18th Dynasty Aten temple at el-Amarna. The preference for sandstone over limestone as a building material coincided with the transfer of religious and political authority from Memphis in Lower Egypt to Thebes in the 18th Dynasty. The Egyptians also recognized at this time that sandstone was superior to limestone in terms of the strength and size of blocks obtainable, and this permitted the construction of larger temples with longer architraves.

“The Serabit el-Khadim temple in the Sinai is of sandstone, and temples in the Western Desert oases were built of either limestone (Fayum and Siwa) or sandstone (Bahriya, Fayum, Kharga, and Dakhla), depending on the local bedrock. In the Eastern Desert, limestone was used for the facing on the Old Kingdom flood-control dam in Wadi Garawi near Helwan (the “Sadd el-Kafara”; Fahlbusch 2004), and sandstone was the building material for numerous Ptolemaic and Roman road stations. Both types of bedrock in the Nile Valley and western oases hosted rock-cut shrines and especially tombs, and these are the sources of many of the relief scenes now in museum and private collections. Limestone and sandstone were additionally employed for statuary and other non-architectural applications when harder and more attractive ornamental stones were either unaffordable or unavailable. In such cases, the otherwise drab- looking building stones were usually painted in bright colors. Conversely, structures built of limestone and sandstone often included some ornamental stones, most notably granite and granodiorite from Aswan, as well as silicified sandstone, but also basalt and travertine in the Old Kingdom.”

Building Stone Quarries in Ancient Egypt

stones in the great columns of the Hypostyle Hall in Karnak Temple

There are 128 known building-stone quarries of ancient Egypt, including 89 for limestone, 36 for sandstone, and three for gypsum, one of the latter also supplying anhydrite. Most of the quarries are still either largely or entirely intact. James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “From descriptions of the quarry and the stone found there “it can be seen that the character of limestone or sandstone from a given quarry will vary according to the formation supplying it. Because of their great value in cement production, far more geological information has been published on the limestone formations than on those of sandstone or gypsum, and this difference is reflected in the level of detail in the formation descriptions. The geologic ages of sedimentary rock layers (and consequently also formations) decrease from south to north in the Nile Valley due to their northerly inclination, and this means that quarry-stone characteristics also change in a downriver direction. With rare exception, it is not yet possible to identify by analytical means the specific quarry supplying a given building- stone sample, but the formation and, hence, general location in the Nile Valley can usually be established by petrographic microscopy. Although the list of known ancient quarries is long, it is still far from complete. There are undoubtedly many more quarries awaiting discovery, as well as others that are forever lost because they have been destroyed through urban growth, modern quarrying, or natural erosion and weathering. Modern quarrying of limestone for the cement industry and sandstone for rough construction blocks is responsible for most of the destruction. Although not destroyed, numerous sandstone quarries are no longer accessible because they are now under Lake Nasser. [Source: James Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, Environmental Sciences, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“The building stones used at ancient construction sites usually came from nearby quarries. This has been convincingly demonstrated by Klemm and Klemm for the Memphite necropolis, although few actual limestone quarries are known for this region (others are probably buried under wind-blown sand or obscured by weathering of exposed outcrops). A good example of one of the known quarries is beside the 4th Dynasty Khafra pyramid at Giza. Notable exceptions to the local derivation of building stones are the high-quality limestones from Tura and Masara and sandstone from Gebel el-Silsila. These quarries, which are among the largest in Egypt, provided large, fracture-free blocks of uniform color and texture, and these were employed at sites distant from the quarries. The Tura and Masara limestones, for example, were used extensively for the exterior casing on Old and Middle Kingdom pyramids and mastabas in the Memphite necropolis as well as for the linings of interior passages and burial chambers within these structures. It has been claimed that this limestone was carried as far as Upper Egypt for other construction applications but this is unconfirmed. The Gebel el-Silsila sandstone was the principal building material for temples the quarry. When there was no good source of local building stone, rock was usually brought from quarries upriver because it was easier to float a heavily loaded boat down the Nile than to sail it upriver against the current, even with a good northerly wind.

“Limestone from the ancient quarries was typically light gray on unweathered surfaces, but was also sometimes nearly white or pale yellowish to pinkish. The rock is relatively soft due to its abundant calcite and generally high porosity. The so-called “indurated” (i.e., more consolidated than normal) limestone owes its greater hardness to either more coarsely crystalline calcite (in crystalline limestone), or the presence of secondary dolomite (CaMg[CO3]2; in dolomitic limestone) or secondary quartz (SiO2; in silicified or cherty limestone). Non- carbonate components are often present in the limestones, especially quartz silt/sand and clay minerals, and these were deposited in the original lime sediment. The extensively recrystallized limestones, which megascopically resemble metamorphic marble, are considered ornamental stones as are some of the colored limestone varieties— dark gray to black bituminous limestone, buff limestone, and red-and-white limestone breccia.

“The quarried sandstone was usually light to medium brown in color with occasional yellowish, reddish, or purplish shadings. The hardness of the rock depends on the amount and type of cementing agent holding the sand grains together. The most common cements in Egyptian sandstones are quartz, iron oxides, calcite, and clay minerals (also referred to as “clay matrix”). The iron oxide is mainly yellowish to brownish goethite or limonite (nFeO[OH] or FeOOHnH2O, respectively) but also sometimes reddish hematite (Fe2O3). The clay is whitish in color and usually either illite (of variable composition but similar to muscovite mica, KAl2[AlSi3O10][OH]2), kaolinite (Al2Si2O5[OH]4), montmorillonite ([Na,Ca]0.3[Al, Mg]2Si4O10[OH]2nH2O), or a mixture of these. When these cements are sparse, the rock is friable (i.e., easily crumbled), and when abundant and filling all the intergranular pore spaces, the rock is well- indurated. The sandstones with abundant quartz cement are the hardest of all and are referred to as silicified sandstone, one of the main ornamental and utilitarian stones. Both limestone and sandstone (and other rock types as well) darken on weathered surfaces and where long exposed to the elements will develop a patina known as “desert varnish.” This has a variable composition but normally consists of iron and manganese oxides plus clay minerals. It thickens and darkens with age, eventually becoming nearly black, especially on sandstone.”

Quarrying Building Material in Ancient Egypt

Quarries in Giza

James Harrell of the University of Toledo wrote: “The quarrying of building stones in ancient Egypt was usually done in “opencut” (or “open-cast”) workings on the sides of hills and cliffs, but in some cases the workers followed desirable rock layers underground and in the process created cave- like “gallery” quarries. Unquarried rock pillars were left to support the roofs in the larger galleries but cave-ins have subsequently occurred at some of these sites. Galleries are relatively common for limestone and such excavations locally penetrate over 100 meters into hillsides. [Source: James Harrell, University of Toledo, OH, Environmental Sciences, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“A gallery that is part of the 18th Dynasty limestone quarry on Gebel Sheikh Said, now largely destroyed, is unique for the 1.6 by 0.5 meters temple plan painted on one of its bedrock pillars. Presumably the stone for the temple was to come from this quarry, but the plan does not correspond to any of the known limestone temples in Egypt. Many of the limestone galleries later became the sites of Coptic Christian hermitages and monasteries, with some of the latter still active today, such as, for example, at Deir el-Amir Tadros, Deir Abu Mina, Deir el-Aldra Maryam, and Deir el- Ganadla, all near Assiut. With the exception of the Gebel el-Silsila quarry, galleries were never cut in sandstone.

“The choice of quarry location would have been based on several factors, including the quality of the stone (appearance, soundness, and attainable block size), and proximity to the construction site or Nile River if water transport was needed. That quality was more important than ease of accessibility is evidenced by the many workings on hillsides and cliffs that are high above the more easily reached rock outcrops at lower elevations.

“Gypsum deposits in the form of veins within limestone and other sedimentary rocks are common throughout Egypt, and many of these occurrences were probably exploited during the Dynastic Period for gypsum plaster. Nowhere are these veins thicker or more numerous than in the Fayum’s Umm el- Sawan and Qasr el-Sagha quarries, the former being the source of gypsum used for Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom vessels, and both also supplying the raw material for ancient Egypt’s gypsum plaster. The anhydrite and gypsum along the Red Sea coast, in contrast, occur in bedded sedimentary formations and these would have been the source of gypsum plaster and building stones in the Ptolemaic and Roman settlements of this region. While there were probably many workings for these rocks, only one quarry is known. This is near Wadi el-Anba’ut and was primarily a source of ashlar blocks (both anhydrite and gypsum) for the nearby Roman port at Marsa Nakari.

Diodorus’s Description of Gold Mining in Egypt

Carol Meyer of the University of Chicago wrote:Diodorus is frequently cited as the only ancient account of Egyptian gold mining. He states he tried to check his sources, but he relied on Agatharcides' account from the 2nd century B.C. It is not clear whether either writer ever saw a gold mine; however, Diodorus wrote approximately half a millennium before the Byzantine/Coptic operations at Bir Umm Fawakhir. If nothing else, the political and economic situation had changed. Diodorus' kings and queens of Egypt (the last of whom was Cleopatra) had long been replaced by distant emperors in Rome or Constantinople, and Egypt had been reduced to a province. [Source: Carol Meyer, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, “Bir Umm Fawakhir: Insights into Ancient Egyptian Mining JOM 9:3 (1997), 64-68, JOM |]

golden cylinder seal of the Pharaoh of Djedkare Isesi

Diodorus wrote: "At the extremity of Egypt and in the contiguous territory of both Arabia and Ethiopia there lies a region which contains many large gold mines, where the gold is secured in great quantities with much suffering and at great expense. For the earth is naturally black and contains seams and veins of a marble which is unusually white and in brilliancy surpasses every- thing else which shines brightly by its nature, and here the overseers of the labour in the mines recover the gold with the aid of a multitude of workers. For the kings of Egypt gather together and condemn to the mining of the gold such as have been found guilty of some crime and captives of war, as well as those who have been accused unjustly and thrown into prison because of their anger, and not only such persons but occasionally all their relatives as well, by this means not only inflicting punishment upon those found guilty but also securing at the same time great revenues from their labours. And those who have been condemned in this way—and they are a great multitude and are all bound in chains—work at their task unceasingly both by day and throughout the entire night, enjoying no respite and being carefully cut off from any means of escape; since guards of foreign soldiers who speak a language different from theirs stand watch over them, so that not a man, either by conversation or by some contact of a friendly nature, is able to corrupt one of his keepers. [Source: Ancient Egyptian Gold Refining: A Reproduction of Early Techniques, J. H. F. Notton, Johnson Matthey & Co Limited, London, 1974]

“The gold bearing earth which is hardest they first burn with a hot fire, and when they have crumbled it in this way they continue the working of it by hand;and the soft rock'which can yield to moderate effort is crushed with a sledge by myriads of unfortunate wretches. And the entire operations are in charge of a skilled worker who distinguishes the stone and points it out to the labourers; and of those who are assigned to this unfortunate task the physically strongest break the quartz-rock with iron ham- mers, applying no skill to the task, but only force, and cutting tunnels through the stone, not in a straight line but wherever the seam of gleaming rock may lead. Now these men, working in darkness as they do because of the bending and winding of the passages, carry lamps bound on their foreheads; and since much of the time they change the position of their bodies to follow the particular character of the stone they throw the blocks, as they cut them out, on the ground; and at this task they labour without ceasing beneath the sternness and blows of an overseer.

"The boys there who have not yet come to maturity, entering through the tunnels into the galleries formed by the removal of the rock, laboriously gather up the rock as it is cast down piece by piece and carry it out into the open to the place outside the entrance. Then those who are above thirty years of age take this quarried stone from them and with iron pestles pound a specified amount of it in stone mortars, until they have worked it down to the size of a vetch. Thereupon the women and older men receive from them the rock of this size and cast it into mills of which a number stand there in a row, and taking their places in groups of two or three at the spoke or handle of each mill they grind it until they have worked down the amount given them until it has the consistency of the finest flour.

"In the last steps the skilled workmen receive the stone which has been ground to powder and take it off for its complete and final working; for they rub the marble which has been worked down upon a broad board which is slightly inclined, pouring water over it all the while; whereupon the earthy matter in it, melted away by the action of the water, runs down the in- clined board, while that which contains the gold remains on the wood because of its weight. And repeating this a number of times, they first of all rub it gently with their hands, and then lightly pressing it with sponges of loose texture they remove in this way whatever is porous and earthy, until there remains only the pure gold-dust.

"Then at last other skilled workmen take away what has been recovered and put it by fixed measure and weight into earthen jars, mixing with it a lump of lead proportionate to the mass, lumps of salt and a little tin, and adding thereto barley bran; thereupon they put on it a close- fitting lid, and smearing it over carefully with mud they bake it in a kiln for five successive days and as many nights; and at the end of this period, when they have let the jars cool off, of the other matter they find no remains in the jars, but the gold they recover in pure form, there being but little waste. This working of the gold, as it is carried on at the farthermost borders of Egypt, is effected through all the extensive labours here described; for Nature herself, in my opinion, makes it clear that whereas the production of gold is laborious, the guarding of it is difficult, the zest for it is very great, and that its use is halfway between pleasure and pain.”

Bir Umm Fawakhir Site: an Ancient Egyptian Gold-Mining Site

Bir Umm Fawakhir

Carol Meyer of the University of Chicago wrote: “Archaeological surveys at the site of Bir Umm Fawakhir in the central Eastern Desert of Egypt have clarified its role as a 5th-6th century gold-mining town. To date, 152 out of an estimated 216 buildings in the main settlement have been mapped in detail, eight outlying clusters of ruins have been identified, and four ancient mines have been inspected. In conjunction with Diodorus Siculus' first century B.C. account of Egyptian gold mining, the recent archaeological discoveries permit new insights into ancient Egyptian mining towns and techniques. Some evidence of activity at Bir Umm Fawakhir in earlier Roman, Ptolemaic, and pharaonic times has also been found.[Source: Carol Meyer, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago,“Bir Umm Fawakhir: Insights into Ancient Egyptian Mining JOM 9:3 (1997), 64-68, JOM |]

“Although many sources of gold have been suggested in the Byzantine era when Bir Umm Fawakhir was at its peak (confiscation from pagan temples; deposits in Turkey; or imports from East Africa, the Sudan, sub-Saharan Africa, or the Caucasus), Egypt has never been mentioned. This is a little surprising as Egypt was famous throughout antiquity as a gold source. |

“The Bir Umm Fawakhir site, surveyed by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in 1992, 1993, and 1996, is the first entire ancient Egyptian gold-mining community to be studied archaeologically. Located in the central Eastern Desert of Egypt, Bir Umm Fawakhir was long believed to be a Roman caravan station serving traffic traveling from the Nile to Red Sea but was actually a 5th-6th century Byzantine/Coptic gold-mining town. The sprawling settlement is estimated to have housed slightly more than 1,000 people who worked the mines riddling the mountainsides and reduced and washed the ore. Although direct textual evidence is lacking, it seems probable that in light of the compelling need for gold, the imperial governors of the Thebaid (Upper Egypt) and their bureaucracies were concerned with the mines at Bir Umm Fawakhir, their product, and their support. Also, it is difficult to see who, apart from the government, could have recruited and routinely supplied so many workers in so remote a region. |

“The site can offer a great deal of information about ancient mining. First, it is an opportunity to study an entire mining community without excavation. Second, it is a remarkably complete community, even without such features as central administrative buildings or churches. Not only houses and outbuildings survive, but also streets, paths, roads, cemeteries, wells, guardposts, and mines and quarries. It is the first time an ancient Egyptian gold-mining site has been archaeologically studied.” |

Bir Umm Fawakhir Site

Bir Umm Fawakhir location

Carol Meyer of the University of Chicago wrote: “Bir Umm Fawakhir lies in the rugged Precambrian mountains of the central Eastern Desert and is almost exactly halfway between the Nile and the Red Sea. The site is approximately 65 kilometers (two and a half to three days by camel) from Quft (ancient Coptos). This route, which is the shortest from the Nile to the Red Sea, has been in use for at least 5,000 years and follows a series of wadis (dry canyons) cutting through the mountains. The most famous ancient site enroute is the Wadi Hammamat, which was the source of a fine-grained dark graywacke that was highly prized in pharaonic times for statues, sarcophagi, and the like. [Source: Carol Meyer, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, “Bir Umm Fawakhir: Insights into Ancient Egyptian Mining JOM 9:3 (1997), 64-68, JOM |]

“Bir Umm Fawakhir, about 5 kilometers northeast, lies in a different geological zone. The Fawakhir granite is a stock intruded into the older Precambrian rocks. As no agriculture has ever succeeded in this hyperarid desert, the only resources are mineral, namely, gold, granite, and water. The granite was quarried to no great extent in the Roman period, but it also acts as an aquifer, carrying water in tiny cracks until it is stopped by the dense ultramafic rocks to the west.3 Wells have always been dug there. Most importantly, however, the quartz veins injected into the granite are auriferous, particularly towards the edge of the stock. (Many other minerals occur as well, including pyrite, chalcopyrite, and hematite, which stains the quartz reddish.) |

“Estimates of the gold yield vary widely.4,5 What is consistent among these analyses, however, is the conclusion that the yield at Bir Umm Fawakhir is very low compared to the older mines about 4 kilometers southeast in the Wadi el-Sid. The latter were probably worked out well before the Coptic/Byzantine period. The combination of the paucity of rich ore sources as well as the urgent need for gold in the 5th and 6th centuries probably explains why the low-yield mines at Bir Umm Fawakhir were worked and why virtually nothing has happened at the site since.” |

Bir Umm Fawakhir Settlement

Carol Meyer of the University of Chicago wrote: “The main settlement at Bir Umm Fawakhir is not visible from the road, but after turning the spur of a hill, a visitor can walk the length of the Coptic/Byzantine town for about half a kilometer . The ruins lie in a long, narrow wadi, the steep sides of which enclose the town like a wall, while the sandy bottom serves as the main street.[Source: Carol Meyer, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, “Bir Umm Fawakhir: Insights into Ancient Egyptian Mining JOM 9:3 (1997), 64-68, JOM |]

Bir Umm Fawakhir Settlement

“Researchers have mapped, in detail, 152 out of an estimated 216 buildings so far. Individual houses are laid out on both sides of the street, and many are still a meter or more in height. Doors, stone benches, and wall niches for storage are also preserved in many cases. The basic pattern is a two-or three-room house, but several houses are often joined into larger agglomerated units. The largest building mapped so far is Building 106, which has 22 rooms. |

At Bir Umm Fawakhir's main settlement, the plaza area is surrounded by buildings 92, 100, 101, 102, 99, 97, and part of 93. Granite Quarry 2 lies at the foot of the hill on the left. The main street runs northwest toward the modern road and settlement. The Roman watch tower is on the mountain top at the far upper right. Scattered around the houses are a number of one-room outbuildings: a smaller, rounded type and a larger, rectangular kind. Without excavation, it cannot be determined whether the outbuildings were used for kitchens, workshops, animals, storage, latrines, or something else. |

“Several cemetery areas have also been identified on the ridges around the town. The graves are simple cists built of granite slabs or natural clefts in the granite with cairns piled on top. All of the graves found so far are small and thoroughly looted, but the pottery scattered around them indicates that they are of the same period as the main settlement. |

“Apart from the sherds, which are thick on the ground and used as the primary dating evidence,2,3,6 surface finds are sparse. In particular, no written evidence has yet been recovered from the site aside from the dipinti, which are dockets painted in red on the shoulders of wine jars. Written in a cursive Greek hand and highly fragmentary, the dipinti have so far yielded little information beyond showing the presence of an imported luxury (i.e., wine) at a remote site. |

“With the potential exception of two possible community bake ovens, all of the buildings mapped so far appear to be domestic. Crosses and other Coptic symbols indicate that the population was Christian, but no church has been located. Likewise, no administrative buildings, storehouses, or workshops have been found, although there is some reason to believe they existed closer to the modern road, where the wadi wash is heaviest. |

“Particularly striking is the lack of any formal defenses, which is surprising for a gold-producing site in a desert where security was often a concern. Only a couple of guardposts have been found on high ridges overlooking the site. The more prominent guardpost lacks any formal structures beyond a few rough walls for shade or windbreaks. It is marked by ancient graffiti scratched on granite boulders and commands a view of all three roads leading to the wells, many of the mines, and much of the settlement.” |

“In addition to the detailed mapping of the main settlement, the researchers have also begun a walking survey of the immediate vicinity. Eight outlying clusters of ruins of the same date as the main settlement have been identified, and more may exist. The outlying sites range in size from a few huts to more than 60 buildings in one site (Outlier 6). Outlier 2, on the Roman road between the wells and granite quarry 1, is particularly well preserved. One house may still stand to its original height of about 2 m, and two houses have silos associated with them. The silos, built of cobbles and thick mud plaster, are of particular interest because such features have not been detected elsewhere on the site and because their association with individual houses does not suggest central control of grain rations.” |

Earliest Activity at Bir Umm Fawakhir Site

Carol Meyer of the University of Chicago wrote: “Exploitation of the Eastern Desert extends far back into prehistory, but at Bir Umm Fawakhir, good evidence goes back only to the late New Kingdom period (ca. 1307-1070 B.C.). Middle Kingdom, Old Kingdom, and Predynastic (roughly 3200-ca. 1783 B.C.) inscriptions are present in the Wadi Hammamat, but not at Bir Umm Fawakhir or in the Wadi el-Sid. [Source: Carol Meyer, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, “Bir Umm Fawakhir: Insights into Ancient Egyptian Mining JOM 9:3 (1997), 64-68, JOM |]

Mine opening at Bir Umm Fawakhir

“Roman activity is attested, though it is less extensive than when the entire site of Bir Umm Fawakhir was considered 1st-2nd century A.D. The small granite quarries were probably Roman undertakings, although possibly only exploratory. There is a small amount of Roman pottery in Quarry 2 with quarrying marks identical to those at a known major granite quarry at Mons Claudianus. A couple of partly quarried blocks have been incorporated in 5th-6th century houses, and the Romans had an unexcelled passion for handsome and exotic stones. The Roman period ostraca (letters and messages written on potsherds) reported as coming from Bir Umm Fawakhir pertain to military activity10 and probably came from the vicinity of the modern mines in the Wadi el-Sid. |

“The modern mines, operated in the 1940s and 1950s, were probably the focus of most of the ancient efforts as well. Tailings there yielded a handful of sherds of Roman, possibly Ptolemaic (334-64 B.C.), and Late Period (26th Dynasty, 664-535 B.C.) dates. |

“The 1996 survey located the remains of late New Kingdom activity near the Wadi el-Sid mines. The Turin Papyrus, dateable to the reign of Ramses IV of the 20th Dynasty (ca. 1163-1156 B.C.), can reasonably be read as a map to the stone quarries in the Wadi Hammamat. The papyrus also shows a well with "a Mountain of Gold" and a "Mountain of Silver" just beyond.11 |

“Thus, while the map indicates that pharaonic mines ought to exist in the vicinity of Bir Umm Fawakhir, the survey has only recently been able to document them. Some very large (ca. 8 meters square) and heavy slabs with shallow depressions on the top, unlike the smaller and deeper Bir Umm Fawakhir grinding stones, may represent pharaonic or Ptolemaic ore reduction activities, but all stones found so far have been pushed out of any sort of context by modern road building. "In the last steps the skilled workmen receive the stone which has been ground to powder;...they rub [it] upon a broad board which is slightly inclined, pouring water over it all the while; whereupon the earthy matter in it, melted away by the action of the water, runs down the board, while that which contains the gold remains on the wood because of its weight. And repeating this a number of times, they first of all rub it gently with their hands, and then lightly pressing it with sponges of loose texture they remove...whatever is porous and earthy, until there remains only the pure gold-dust." The accounts of 19th century travelers do mention gold-washing tables at Bir Umm Fawakhir, but they have probably been destroyed by modern mining activity. It is unlikely that final refining was carried out on site. It seems more reasonable that the washed gold dust was then transported to the valley, where fuel was more abundant.” |

Mines and Mining at Bir Umm Fawakhir Site

Carol Meyer of the University of Chicago wrote: “The largest mine at Bir Umm Fawakhir inspected in 1996 runs about 100 meters horizontally into the mountain and is roughly two meters high. It has two short side galleries, an air shaft, and oblong holes pounded in the rock at the working faces. It shows no signs of fire-setting; there is neither charcoal nor ash, and none of the splintered-out niches characteristic of fire-setting. The granite is jointed, fissured, and rotten in places. This is especially true of the third and fourth mines inspected. The workings are primarily an open-cast trench running diagonally up a granite hill. In two places, however, they dive underground to follow the quartz veinlets. Here, the granite crumbles underfoot. Thus, there seems to have been no need for fire-setting; the quartz is tough, but the surrounding rock can be splintered away. [Source: Carol Meyer, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, “Bir Umm Fawakhir: Insights into Ancient Egyptian Mining JOM 9:3 (1997), 64-68, JOM |] “The ancient miners used two techniques: open-cast trenches following the quartz veins from the surface and shafts sunk horizontally or diagonally into the mountainsides. A number of the shafts had stone walls reinforcing the entrances or platforms at the edge, presumably to aid in raising and lowering men, boys, baskets, tools, and ore. In January 1996, the researchers inspected four of the mine shafts in order to determine the mining techniques used and to check the evidence from Bir Umm Fawakhir against the 1st century B.C. account of Diodorus Siculus.

“The first stage of mining that Diodorus describes is fire-setting, which is used to shatter the rock. "The gold-bearing earth which is hardest they first burn with a hot fire, and when they have crumbled it...they continue the working of it by hand; and the soft rock which can yield to moderate effort is crushed with a sledge by myriads of unfortunate wretches. And the entire operations are in charge of a skilled worker who distinguishes the stone and points it out to the labourers;...the physically strongest break the quartz-rock with iron hammers, applying no skill to the task, but only force." |

“Diodorus also discusses how the stone is quarried. "The boys there who have not yet come to maturity, entering through the tunnels into the galleries formed by the removal of the rock, laboriously gather up the rock...piece by piece and carry it out into the open to the place outside the entrance. Then those who are above thirty years of age take this quarried stone from them and with iron pestles pound a specified amount of it in stone mortars, until they have worked it down to the size of a vetch." |

“Iron tools, or metal of any sort, have not yet been found at Bir Umm Fawakhir. However, metal and wood are so precious in the desert that they would have been the first things removed. Mortars, in the sense of deep basins for pounding, are also not common at Bir Umm Fawakhir. Those that have been recovered are limestone, which is unsuitable for crushing quartz. On the other hand, hundreds of crushing stones have been found on the site. They are made of rough blocks of basalt, granite, or porphyritic granite with smooth upper surfaces that measure about 20 centimeters x 20 centimeters square, with a depression pecked in the middle. Almost all of the crushing stones were found in secondary context or loose on the surface, but one is still in situ at the mouth of the fourth mine inspected, with fist-sized and smaller chunks of quartz scattered around it. It seems then, that the ore, mined in virtual darkness, was immediately reduced at the mouth of the mine, and the pieces worth the considerable effort of further reduction were picked out. |

“Diodorus continues with the next stage of ore working. "Thereupon the women and older men receive from them the rock of this size and cast it into mills of which a number stand there in a row, and taking their places in groups of two or three at the spoke or handle of each mill they grind it until they have worked [it] the consistency of the finest flour."|

“The evidence compiled from the Bir Umm Fawakhir survey supports Diodorus' account. Both the upper and lower stones of numerous rotary querns or millstones have been found on site . Rotary mills are considered to have been a late Ptolemaic or Roman introduction; the earlier millstones were flat or concave.8,9 Not yet explained, however, are the saddle querns, which are grinding stones of granite or porphyritic granite that measure about 80 centimeters long and have a shallow dished-out depression. These were presumably worked with oblong upper handstones. It is unknown, however, whether the grinding stones were used at an intermediate stage of grinding (e.g., coarse versus fine), used for something else (e.g., wheat flour), or were earlier in date.” |

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Bir Umm Fawakhir images, Carol Meyer, Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato,; Mark Millmore,; 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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