Many different kinds of rock were quarried:
- Red, grey and black granite near Aswan,
- limestone near Memphis in the Muqattam
- sandstone in the Red Mountains and of
lesser quality in all the three southern nomes,
- alabaster - a few hours' walking from El
- diorite at a three days' march distance
west of Idahet in barren desert terrain, abandoned during the Middle
Kingdom, which even the Ramessides, with abundant slave labour
available, did not reactivate,
- the purple porphyry found only on Jabal
Abu Dukhan, important above all to the Roman emperors,
- black slate three days from Koptos in
Wadi Rohanu, where the workmen left inscriptions and reliefs,
- basalt and
Some of them, limestone
above all, were used in huge quantities. The Khufu pyramid alone contains
about 2.3 million blocks of limestone and granite, weighing up to 15
Yet, the quarries were not worked on a permanent basis.
Whenever the need for stone arose, the pharaohs would draft workmen and
send them by their thousands to the quarry.
Ramses IV gathered 9368 workers under the leadership of thirteen high
officials, among them the High Priest of Amen, his chief steward to get Bekhen
stone from Wadi Hammamat. Twenty army scribes, experienced men, served as
engineers and administrators. There were ninety-one soldiers responsible
for the chariots, fifty policemen, fifty scribes assigned various duties
and, perhaps somewhat strangely, two hundred fishermen. 5000 of the
expedition members belonged to the army, 2000 to the temples and 800 were
foreigners, Hapiru. 900 were officials of the central government, who
didn't accompany the expedition to the quarry itself, but stayed behind.
This whole mass of people was needed to enable the chief artisan, three
expert miners, 130 quarrymen and stone-cutters, two draftsmen and four
engravers to do their job, to haul the rocks to the river and
food-supplies and water to the quarry.
While they were on the job, food was scarce and water
scarcer, some bread and beer and water doled out carefully. The gods were
not forgotten and thanks were given to Min, Osiris and Horus.
Whenever possible rocks lying on the ground were used,
at first those close at hand. Later higher lying rocks were rolled
downhill, breaking often, until Meri, an overseer, had the idea to build a
sloping ramp on which the rocks could slide down. He was rewarded with ten
statues, each five cubits tall.
Year 19, under his majesty the king of
Upper and Lower Egypt NyMaatRe, son of Amenemhet, endowed with life,
permanence, power like Re.
Quarrying was very expensive, they therefore
planned the extraction of the stone as well as they could and - at least
at the limestone quarry of Qurna near Thebes during the reign of Amenhotep
III - kept a record of their progress by inscribing marks on the rockface
His majesty has ordered to bring him monuments from this august
mountain, from the west of the wadi. The stone was being carved from
this western mountain as it had been done before. These stones fell in
such a way that they broke and not a pebble was left. Then the overseer
of the works, herald of the audience hall, Meri says: One should make a
ramp to extract the rock.
Then the ramp was built, these monuments were carved just as he had
said. One had never acted so before.
Then he escorted ten statues of august [stone].
His team of quarrymen from the necropolis: twenty men. Workers: thirty
men. Many mariners: 2000 men.
The granite quarries at Aswan
with ancient tools was hard work. Even the relatively soft lime stone was
difficult to cut with Old Kingdom copper saws, and chisels and hard stone
like granite was worked with diabase - often called dolerite -
hammerstones. Holes were cut into the rock, wooden wedges driven into the
slots and moistened. The expanding wood cracked the rock. Doubt has been
cast on wood being strong enough for the purpose, but no alternative
theories for pharaonic stone extraction have been proposed.
The detached slabs were dragged to the riverside, loaded on barges, and
Only temples and tombs were built in lasting stone. Houses and even royal
palaces were constructed with adobe bricks and have largely disappeared.
But even stone structures have decayed or were used as quarries.
unfinished obelisk carved from the rock was not yet completely
detached when it cracked. This is always a risk when quarrying. As layers
are removed, the pressures on the freshly exposed rock change, different
parts expand at different rates, and the rock reacts by fissuring. When
these are more than micro fissures, the rock becomes useless.
One can still see the pits made by diabase hammer
stones, which were used to pulverize the granite in order to shape it. Wet
sand and sandstone were then used to burnish the surface. This obelisk, if
it had been successfully detached would have weighed more than a thousand
tons, three to six times as much as ordinary obelisks.
The quarrymen tried to salvage part of the obelisk by recutting it, but
abandoned the attempt.
From a tomb at Saqqara =>
Moistening the soil turned it into a
slippery surface, on which heavy smooth rocks or sledges could be dragged
with relative ease, once they had been set in motion. The pulling was
often done by people, though animals were employed at times:
......... The stone was dragged with oxen
which his m[ajesty] captured [in his] victories [among] the Fenkhu
18th dynasty quarry inscription
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Two, § 27
The detached blocks of stone and finished or
possibly just half-finished obelisks were moved to the near-by bank of the
Nile. Special barges were built to ship the 100 to 500 ton obelisks
I inspected the erection of two obelisks ......... built the august boat
of 120 cubits in its length, 40 cubits in its width, in order to
transport these obelisks. (They) came in peace, safety and prosperity,
and landed at Karnak ...... of the city. Its [track] was laid with every
The biography of Ineni (18th dynasty)
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 105
Questions have been raised as to how this
was achieved and no conclusive answer has been forthcoming yet. Attempts
at moving heavy loads by what are considered methods available to the
ancient Egyptians were at least partially successful at showing how it
could have been done. But the fact that scaled down versions, weighing
tens rather than hundreds of tons, were handled leaves doubts in one's
mind. Scaling up such methods is not always straightforward.
Moving a statue to a temple was a festive occasion with many spectators
lining the road. The statue was loaded unto a sled, and, if made of soft
alabaster for instance, carefully cushioned. The sled was pulled by four
ropes manned respectively by soldiers, servants of the temple, men coming
from the west and men coming from the east, while water bearers sprinkled
water in front of it.
Cutting and drilling
to W.M.Flinders Petrie the builders of the Gizeh pyramids had a
sophisticated set of tools at their disposal
They comprised bronze saws over eight
feet long, set with jewels, tubular drills similarly set with jewels,
and circular saws. These were employed on the granite work, and perhaps
saws of a less costly nature on the limestone The casing blocks were
dressed by very fine picking or adzing. The system of using true planes
smeared with ochre, for testing the work, shows with what nicety they
examined their work, and what care was taken to ensure its accuracy and
Petrie did not take into account that you do
not need a material harder than the one you are cutting. While today we
are using diamond studded saws and drill bits to work hard rock, sand used
as an abrasive which gets imbedded in soft copper tools, may be less
efficient but works as well. But not everybody is satisfied with this
theory. C.Dunn, relying on the work done by Petrie and his own expertise
as an engineer, thinks that any kind of copper is far too soft for dealing
with granite (which of course it is - on its own). He proposes that
The application of ultrasonic machining
is the only method that completely satisfies logic, from a technical
viewpoint, and explains all noted phenomena. Ultrasonic machining is the
oscillatory motion of a tool that chips away material, like a jackhammer
chipping away at a piece of concrete pavement, except much faster and
not as measurable in its reciprocation. The ultrasonic tool-bit,
vibrating at 19,000 to 25,000 cycles per second (Hertz) has found unique
application in the precision machining of odd-shaped holes in hard,
brittle material such as hardened steels, carbides, ceramics and
semiconductors. An abrasive slurry or paste is used to accelerate the
Unfortunately, the only tools ever found that
can be dated to the Old Kingdom, are a few copper chisels and hammerstones.
So apart from the tool marks left in the stone nothing factual even
remotely supports Dunn's theories; and these marks are explained by
orthodox Egyptology without recourse to energies or materials the
availability of which cannot be proven. If Old Kingdom Egyptians had
extraordinary tools and methods for working hard stone, this knowledge
(and with it every trace of the tools or power sources) was lost during
the turmoil of the First Intermediate Period.
The Egyptians went from copper to bronze and then - during the New Kingdom
and above all the Late Period - iron tools, inventing many of them by
themselves. Marks left on limestone by claw chisels, which had been
thought to be an invention of Greek masons working marble, were found in a
7th century tomb.