Testing Ancient Egyptian Granite-Working Methods in Aswan, Upper Egypt

By Stocks, Denys A. | Antiquity, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Testing Ancient Egyptian Granite-Working Methods in Aswan, Upper Egypt


Stocks, Denys A., Antiquity


The shaping of igneous stones by ancient Egyptian artisans into building blocks, statuary, sarcophagi and obelisks, many of them decorated with deeply cut hieroglyphs and reliefs, has engendered an admiration for such highly skilled work in hard stone. Rose granite (hardness Mohs 7), in use for all of these objects, was obtained from Aswan, Upper Egypt. This coarse-grained stone is composed mainly of quartz, mica and pinkish feldspar, the latter mineral being slightly softer than the quartz and widely distributed within the stone's matrix.

Three important techniques for working the granite were sawing, tubular drilling and relief cutting. The copper stone-cutting saw was employed for shaping hard stone blocks and sarcophagi (e.g. the basalt paving blocks at the Great Pyramid, Giza). The copper stone-cutting tubular drill (Stocks 1993: figure 1a) hollowed stone vessels (e.g. a porphyry vessel, Cairo Museum JE18758) and the interiors of stone sarcophagi (e.g. Khufu's granite sarcophagus at Giza). The cutting of stone is exemplified by the hieroglyphs incised into a rose granite column, British Museum EA1123.

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In March 1999, an opportunity arose to saw, drill and cut the granite at a quarry located in Aswan. I received the able assistance of several Egyptian quarry workers to operate a reconstructed 1.8-m long copper saw and a reconstructed 8-cm diameter copper drill-tube, which I had taken to Egypt with a large driving bow. These sawing and drilling experiments were undertaken to test two theoretical propositions, first suggested by me (Stocks 1986a: 28, top and bottom illustrations), that two- and three-worker teams were required to drive large ancient saws and tubular drills respectively. I believe that these Aswan tests on the rose granite are the first to be carried out with reconstructed tools driven by teams of Egyptian stoneworkers.

There is archaeological evidence that ancient copper saws and tubular drills were used with sand abrasive from the Third Dynasty (Petrie 1883: 174-5; Reisner 1931: 180; Lucas & Harris 1962: 74). Each Aswan tool used sand as the cutting abrasive.

The experimental cutting of a hieroglyph into a granite block in Aswan, with flint chisels and punches, allowed comparisons with the flint tools used in the Manchester tests, and elsewhere (Zuber 1956: 180, figures 18-20; Stocks 1986b: 27-9; 1988: II, 262-4, plate XXIV, b), and also with similar tools made from Egyptian chert (Mohs 7), a flint-like stone also thought to have been in use for cutting stones in ancient times.

The Aswan sawing experiments

The unused 1.8-m long copper saw blade, stood on its edge, measured 15 cm in depth, 6 mm in thickness and weighed 14.5 kg. Before my arrival in Aswan, the quarry workers had mistakenly fitted a heavy wooden frame to this saw blade, as well as notching it numerous times along the cutting edge with an electric abrasive wheel. Nevertheless, for comparison with a completely flat edge acting on dry sand abrasive, it was decided to test the notched edge with very wet, fluid sand along a granite block's width of 75 cm, its surface initially pounded flat along the line of sawing.

Two workers pushed and pulled the saw from opposite sides of the block. The blade rocked from side to side during each forward and backward movement, creating a V-shaped slot. At a depth of 8 cm, the V's cross-sectional shape measured 2.5 cm at the top and 6 mm at the bottom. This V-shaped slot is similar to two partially sawn slots seen in Djedefre's IVth Dynasty rose granite sarcophagus in the Cairo Museum (JE54938). The bottoms of these slots are laterally rounded, a further consequence of the rocking action of the ancient saw blade, which itself would have assumed a laterally rounded shape along its cutting edge. These phenomena also occurred in the dry sand sawing experiment.

Parallel, rough-edged striations of varying depths and widths, similar to those seen in ancient stone objects (e. …

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