Making Stone Vessels in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt

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How were the fine stone jars and vessels of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia made? An experimental test of materials and techniques explores the methods of early drilling.

Similarities between the Uruk and Jemdet Nasr periods of Mesopotamia (c. 3600--2900 BC) and the Gerzean and early dynastic periods of Egypt (c. 3500--2900 BC) include cylinder seals, the recessed panelled facade design in architecture, the use of pictographs, decorative art and the shapes of stone vessels. And craftsmen from Mesopotamia and Egypt necessarily developed similar tools and techniques for manufacturing stone vessels. In order to explore these similarities, I investigated the use of a specialized Egyptian tool in making a limestone vase.

It is generally thought that the cold beating, or forging, of truly smelted and cast copper into tools and other artefacts first occurred in Egypt around 3500 BC (Hoffman 1980: 207), castings being made in rudimentary open moulds at this period (Petrie 1917: 6). Coldforged, cast copper tools were also manufactured in Mesopotamia (Moorey 1985: 40--46). The technique of beating copper into sheets must have existed in both Egypt and Mesopotamia, where vessels of this metal were found at Ur by Sir Leonard Woolley (Woolley 1955: 30--31). Sheet copper is essential to the making of copper tubes, indispensable tools for drilling out stone vessels. It is likely that rolling copper sheet into tubes imitated nature's own architecure -- that of hollow reeds. The direct casting of copper into open, tubular-shaped moulds may also have been adopted by both civilizations.

Stone vessel manufacturing technology

In Mesopotamia, and Egypt, copper tubular drills were used for the initial hollowing of the interiors of vases and jars made from hard and soft stone (Woolley 1934: 380; Moorey 1985: 51; Reisner 1931: 180; Lucas 1962: 74). Striations are clearly visible on the inside walls of vessels, caused by the abrasive material employed with the drills. Although the stone-cutting, copper tubular drill has never been located, it would have been directly driven by a shaft of wood driven firmly into the top end (FIGURE 1a) and rotated by a bow-string (with the top of the shaft in a stone bearing-cap), or twisted clockwise, and anti-clockwise by wrist action. It is unlikely that shafts were rolled between the palms.

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Subsequently, Mesopotamian and Egyptian bulbous vessels -- those considerably wider inside than at the mouth -- were further hollowed by grinding with another tool, a stone borer of elongated form. The mid-point of its long axis was made to narrow equally from both sides. Seen from above, the borer assumes the shape of a figure-of-eight, enabling a forked shaft to engage with the waist. The top is normally flat, the bottom curved. In Egypt, this particular borer has been discovered at Hierakonpolis, a site associated with late predynastic and early dynastic stone vessel production (Quibell & Green 1902: plate LXII, 6) (FIGURE 1b); Mesopotamian figure-of-eight shaped stone borers were discovered by Woolley at Ur (Woolley 1955: 75, figure 15b) (FIGURE 1c). Circular borers were used to grind stone bowls whose interior was no wider than the mouth. A stone borer in the British Museum (BM 124498 from Ur), curved underneath and flat on top, has a piece cut out from each side of its upper surface, also for retaining a forked shaft. At Ur, stone borers were common in the Uruk and Jemdet Nasr periods, and Woolley thought that the constricted parts of these stone borers were engaged by a forked wooden shaft driven by a bow (Woolley 1955: 14) (FIGURE 2). Borers made from diorite are common to Mesopotamia and Egypt; other stones utilized in Egypt included chert, sandstone and limestone.

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Striations on Mesopotamian vessels, and the bottom surfaces of stone borers, are similar to striations seen on their Egyptian counterparts -- generally 0. …