To appreciate quarry and mining operations in Egypt, one must understand that without them, there would be no great Pyramids and there would be no grand temples. In fact, there would also be little in the way of glorious jewelry, exquisite statuary, or gilded furniture from ancient Egypt. To a very large extent, what we know of ancient Egypt was built from quarry and mining operations. Today, tourists would not be visiting Egypt were it not for the hard, backbreaking work of the quarrymen so many thousands of years ago.
The ancient Egyptians, as far back as prehistory, had a big appetite for various materials, particularly limestone, which was used in huge quantities. However, they also certainly quarried red, gray, and black granite from Aswan, alabaster, diorite, marble, serpentine, purple porphyry, black slate from Wadi Rahanu, basalt, and dolomite. They also mined for metals, such as copper and gold, though silver was usually imported, and iron deposits were not exploited probably until the Late Period. There was also mining for precious stones, such as emeralds, malachite (sehmet, turquoise (mafaket), carnelian, amethyst, and other gemstones. Mining for minerals included salt (sodium chloride), Natron, a variant of normal cooking salt, alum, a mineral used for dying cloth, and Galena, a lead sulfide used in cosmetics. Finally, one of the most overlooked quarry and mining operations in Egypt was simply Nile Mud, used for pottery making and for making bricks that were used in most common building applications.
Stone from the Nile Valley was quarried by those living in Egypt at least as early as 40,000 years ago when the Middle Palaeolithic inhabitants of Middle Egypt were quarrying and working cobbles of chert along the limestone terraces on either side of the Nile. These earliest Palaeolithic chert quarries consisted of pits and trenches for surface extraction, but there are Upper Palaeolithic quarries at nazlet khater 4, on the western bank of the Nile about midway between Asyut and Sohag, that include vertical shafts and subterranean galleries, which in fact foreshadow quarrying methods during the pharaonic period. When the Nazlet Khater 4 site was excavated there, a number of tools were unearthed. These included hammerstones used for the roughest stages of quarrying as well as several picks used for finer work. The picks were carved from the horns of gazelles and hartebeest.
The prehistoric Egyptians also exploited the minerals in the cliffs and deserts on either side of the Nile Valley, and in the Sinai. In fact, Archaeologists believe that the very earliest known settlers in the Sinai, arriving about 8,000 years ago, were miners, drawn by the region’s copper and turquoise deposits. Some of the earliest known items of jewelry, dated to the prehistoric period, are made from Eastern Desert carnelian and sard. Copper slag is also known from the vicinity of the predynastic mines at Bir Nasib in southern Sinai, and turquoise miners probably exploited the nearby region of Serabit el-Khadim in the Chalcolithic period.
Of course, these prehistoric quarry and mining operations in Egypt were relatively small in comparison with the massive royal expeditions that were sent out to the Sinai and to Nubia during the first two dynasties, and downright tiny compared to later expeditions that might include almost twenty thousand men. Some of the notable stone quarries during the Pharaonic Period include Gebel es-Silsila for sandstone, Tura and Ma’sara for fine white limestone, Qua el-Kebir for very hard limestone, Gebel el-Asr for Diorite, Hatnub and Wadi el-Garawi (near Helwan) for Egyptian alabaster (calcite), Gebel Qatrani for basalt, various types of granite from Wadi Hammamat, and several quarries around Aswan for pink granite. In fact, there were very extensive quarry and mining operations in Egypt in and around Aswan, which became even more notable in later times. During the Roman period, the quarries there continued unabated, and columns carved from Aswan granite are found in quantity around the shores of the Mediterranean. It is, in fact, one of the “big three” decorative rocks of the Roman world, on par with granite violet from the Troad and Cipoillino from Greece.
Various metals were mined in Egypt, perhaps most notably gold, copper, and later, iron. There were many gold mines around Egypt and in Nubia. Notable, perhaps, are Wadi Hammamat and Bir Umm Fawakhir (actually in Wadi Hammamat, which was still in use at the end of the 20th century), along with Wadi Sid, Wadi Abbed, Wadi el-Hudi, Wadi Allaqi, Buhen Semma, the al-Ela1qi Valley and about 20 kilometers west of Mons Caludianu, Abu Zawal. Copper mines include those at Timna and Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai, and in the Eastern Desert, Wadi Araba, Wadi Sitra, the Hamash area, and Buhen and Wadi Dara. There were iron mines at Wadi Dib, Wadi Hammamat, and sites near Aswan.
Of course, the Egyptians also mined different gemstones, such as amethyst at Wadi el-Hudi and Gebel el-Asr, and turquoise at Wadi Mughara and Serabit el-Khadim. Egypt is where the world’s first emerald mine is located, in the mountain valley of Wadi Sikait in the Eastern Desert. It was mined as early as the Ptolemaic period. The Romans later referred to emeralds as Smaragdus and named the Sikait region Mons Smaragdus, or Emerald Mountain. Another site was Wadi Gamal, near Marsa Alam, which later earned the name Cleopatra’s Emerald Mine.
Other mining and or quarry operations in Egypt included, for Quartz, Gebel el-Asr, Gebel Dukhan, and Gebel Fatira (the latter two of which became Mons Porphyrites and Mons Claudianus in later times, Gebel el-Asr for gneiss, an alum from the Dakhla and Kharga Oasis in the Western desert, slate from Wadi Hammamat and black slate from Wadi Rahanu. Minerals such as Natron were obviously mined as Wadi Natrun, while galena used in makeup was mined at Gebel el-Zeit and Geble Rasas, and porphyry was mined at Gebel Dukhan and Gebel Fatira (Mons Porphyrites and Mons Claudianus), as well as other nearby mines.
This is truly only a partial list of quarrying and mining sites in Egypt, and even of materials that were extracted. For example, the Egyptians mined a number of other semi-precious stones such as Lapis and Carnelian, and Egyptian jasper.
The Archaeology of Quarries and Mines.
Some of the inscriptions and graffiti associated with these mining and processing sites provide information on the dates of the expeditions, lists of various types of workmen, and in rare instances, even detailed narrative accounts of specific expeditions. Considerable archaeological and textual information has survived concerning mining expeditions in pursuit of building stone, copper, gold, turquoise, malachite, and a variety of other gemstones.
Obviously, during the Pharaonic Period, quarrying and mining were of prime importance to the prosperity and stability of Egypt’s economy, though they attracted little attention prior to the 1980s from archaeologists. Since then, a number of archaeologists have begun to study them, with approaches ranging from the scientific provenancing of stones and metals to the experimental replication of technology employed in extracting and working with the various materials.
The granite quarries at Aswan, which were first exploited at least as early as the beginning of Pharaonic times, are still in use today. Therefore a great deal of evidence concerning the ancient extraction and working of this extremely hard stone derives from extensive archaeological remains to the southeast of the modern city. It is estimated, based on surviving buildings and other monuments, that during the Old Kingdom some 45,000 cubic meters of stone were removed from these quarries. Most of that would have largely comprised the prying up of loose boulders scattered across its surface, but by the New Kingdom, the largest quantities of granite were being quarried.
The monument known as the Unfinished Obelisk is a useful piece of evidence for the quarrying and working techniques of the New Kingdom when large numbers of obelisks were carved for the temples at Thebes and elsewhere. It dates to the 18th Dynasty and measures nearly 42 meters in length. It derives its name from the fact that it was abandoned, no doubt reluctantly, at an advanced stage in the process of extraction, due to faults in the stone.
Work on this monument indicates that the laborers first removed the weathered upper layers of the granite, and then excavated a trench, marking out the shape of the obelisk, which was still attached to the bedrock. The .75 meter wide trench was divided into a number of .6 meter wide working areas, marked out by vertical red lines down the side of the trench, which might well have contained as many as fifty workmen around the obelisk at any one time. Here, the marks made by the quarry overseers still exist on the trench faces, indicating that the depth of each trench was periodically measured by lowering a cubit rod into it and marking the top of the rod with a triangle. Once the trench had reached the necessary depth, the workers would gradually undercut the block, a process that was just beginning in the case of the Unfinished Obelisk. Finally, to move the quarried obelisk during quarry and mining operations in Egypt, it would have had to be pushed out horizontally, a considerably easier task than attempting to pull it vertically, upward out of the hole.
Various quarrying and mining sites dating to different periods and in differing geographical locations evidence the ancient Egyptians’ skills of adaptation in different contests and circumstances. There was considerable flexibility in their procurement of stone and metals. Some ancient workers’ settlements were substantial towns or villages, such as those near Aswan. At these sites, only minimal accommodation was required, since they were so near permanent towns. Sites situated in more remote locations have settlements that were much more developed, including some such as Serabit el-Khadim, that even went as far as having temples built for the workers.
One of the first quarry sites to be studied in any detail was the Old Kingdom one where relatively soft gypsum was mined at Umm el-Sawwan, near the northern edge of the Fayoum region. It was surveyed and excavated in 1928 by Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Dorothea Gardner. Here, the workers had been housed in a large, sprawling settlement of at least 250 small stone-built structures. Considerable evidence was found indicating that the flint tools for quarrying, as well as some other items, were produced locally. Also, some of the gypsums appears to have been carved into small funerary items for private tombs, but large amounts were probably also ground into mortar for large-scale state-sponsored building projects at Saqqara, which in only about 20 kilometers to the northeast. In the same way, Egyptian alabaster, calcite, was quarried at Hatnub and Wadi Gerrawi not only for small vessels, statuettes, and offering tables but also for royal purposes, such as colossal statuary and architectural elements.
Georges Castel and Georges Soukiassian, during the early 1980s, studied the site of Gebel el-Zeit galena, where the lead ore was mined. It is located on the Gulf of Suez, about 50 kilometers to the south of Ras Gharib. These mines date to the Middle Kingdom and to the Ramessid Period and incorporate hundreds of shafts and about thirty gallery mines. The site contained numerous dry-stone shelters, votive structures, and even a small sanctuary, evidently dating from the Middle Kingdom to the 19th Dynasty. There are no large-scale commemorative inscriptions or carvings at Gebel el-Zeit, but the sanctuary contained a cache of votive objects, including small stone and faience portable stelae, some of which bear depictions of kings making offerings to “Horus Master of the Deserts”. and “Hathor Mistress of Galena”, which seems to indicate at least a degree of official involvement in the galena operation. One stela was dedicated by Minemhat, a 17th Dynasty governor of the Coptos nome, traditionally the center for quarrying and mining in the Eastern Desert. Gebel el-Zeit would have been the northernmost outpost for expeditions sponsored by 17th Dynasty kings, whose power base was at Thebes.
There is still some doubt as to when and where the glass was invented. The tradition passed on by Pliny locates the event on the Phoenician coast, in modem Lebanon, where there later grew one of the most important glass-making centres. In Egypt, the first glass we know of, as a component of faience ware, dates from as far back as the eneolithic Badarian culture at the turn of the 5th and 4th millennia BC. Glass is produced from a mixture of silica-sand, lime and soda, coloured with the copper ore malachite and fused at a high temperature.
In the oldest Egyptian faience ware, a skin of this substance was applied to a core made of silica-sand and clay, or of the stone steatite. This was used at first only for beads, but later on for amulets, shawabtis (the little figurines of the attendants of the deceased), other figures and inlays (shapes inserted into the sides of vessels, wooden objects, or into plaster). Particularly in the Middle and New Kingdoms a faience glaze was often applied to complete vessels and statuettes.
Pure glass as a separate material came later, in predynastic times with quarry and mining operations in Egypt, in the form of translucent beads. In the Old and Middle Kingdoms glass jewellery, amulets, little animal figures, mosaic stones, and similar things made their appearance.
Not till the reign of Tuthmosis I in the New Kingdom, however, is there any record of glass vessels being made. The innovation was probably due to Egyptian expansion in the Middle East. There Egyptian soldiers and administrators would have come across advanced centres of glass manufacture and brought back local craftsmen, probably as slaves. This view is reinforced by the fact that production of glass vessels started in Egypt as a royal monopoly serving the court, top dignitaries, and the high priesthood. Such 18th-dynasty workshops as having been discovered were very close to royal palaces, such as that of Amenophis III at Malqata or Akhenaten’s residential quarter in Akhetaten. Further 19th-dynasty factories have been found at Lisht, Menshiya, and possibly Gurob.
Unlike those of other crafts, portrayals of glass production are conspicuously missing from drawings and reliefs. (Alleged illustrations of glass-making that have been reproduced from time to time are in fact metal foundries.) This was no doubt because of the royal monopoly. Since the aristocracy owned no glass workshops, the subject did not feature in their tombs, and in New Kingdom royal tombs non-religious scenes were very rare. The methods of glass manufacture would thus have remained a mystery but for archaeological research and the extant glass vessels themselves.
The glass factory found at Lisht yielded fragments of crucibles, conical clay stands for holding the crucibles during fusing, pieces of slag from the ovens, samples of the pigments added to the glass, little discs with well-worn edges used for finishing the surfaces, over to glass rods of various colors, pieces of unfinished faience ware and nearly 200 sherds of glass vessels. There are traces on the inside of some vessels of a clay-and-sand core, revealing the technology used.
Manufacture proceeded as follows. The raw glass was heated in pans up to 750’C and then again in crucibles to as high as 1000C. A clay-and-sand core was made in the shape of the cavity of the intended vessel, covered with cloth, and stuck onto a metal rod. This was plunged into the molten mass and given several quick twists to spread the glass evenly over it. (This did not always work out, as we can see from the uneven thickness of some vessels.)
If decoration was required, one or more thin colored rods were wound spirally over the glass while it was still soft. Before these rods hardened they were moved up and down with metal pins to produce waves, garlands, arches, and leaf or feather patterns. Sometimes a comb was drawn across the rods, producing a series of vertical ribs. The whole job was then reheated and rolled over a smooth stone block to produce an even surface. Finally, the edge and foot could be pulled out and handles fused on. Once the object was cold, the core had to be scraped out.
Ancient Egyptian glass was usually tinted with pigments added to the raw glass. A milky-white color was produced with tin or lead oxide, yellow with antimony and lead, or ferrous compounds, red or orange with oxides of copper, violet with manganese salts, greenish blue (in imitation of the prized turquoise) with copper or iron compounds, dark blue (in imitation of lapis lazuli) with cobalt compounds and black with a larger proportion of copper and manganese, or with ferric compounds. The finished artifacts – little bottles, vases, goblets, and bowls – were chiefly destined to hold cosmetics and fragrant unguents in the boudoirs of queens and high-born ladies.
The decline of royal power after the end of the New Kingdom put a stop to glass production for a time. Not till the Graeco-Roman Period did new Egyptian glass centres arise in the Hellenistic cities of Alexandria and Naucratis. These enjoyed close links with centres in Asia Minor and their extant Greek-style products show that they followed the international market of their day. Around the beginning of the Christian era molded glass bowls appear, and another innovation was millefiori glass made from variously colored glass rods fused together.
The revolutionary invention of glass-blowing took place, probably in Syria, during the 1st century BC, though the technique did not reach Alexandria until the latter half of the following century. As a rule clear glass was used, either of the natural greenish hue or with additives to make it colorless. It was cut with a copper wheel and ground with emery powder. The new discovery increased production many-fold and glass then ceased to be either a rarity or an upper-class prerogative.
What the social status of glass-makers may have been we can only speculate. It was a highly artistic craft and gifted individuals had a chance to become acknowledged masters. Though the glass-factory employees appear originally to have been slaves, and for the most part foreigners, skillful workers were probably freed at an early stage and imparted their secrets to Egyptian colleagues among the royal artisans.
The work was doubtless strenuous and damaging to the health of its practitioners. The intense heat produced by fusing glass on open fires could injure the body-fluid management; the cornea and retina of the eye suffered from the glare, and skin burns were no rarity. Glass-blowing exerted a back-pressure on the lungs that could lead to emphysema and circulatory trouble at an early age, shortening a worker’s life considerably.