Pharaonic Quarrying and Mining: Settlement and Procurement in Egypt's Marginal Regions

By Shaw, Ian | Antiquity, March 1994 | Go to article overview

Pharaonic Quarrying and Mining: Settlement and Procurement in Egypt's Marginal Regions


Shaw, Ian, Antiquity


Across the rocky landscapes of Egypt lies evidence for pharaonic quarrying and mining; fresh fieldwork at neglected sites, such as the Hatnub travertine quarries and the Wadi el-Hudi amethyst mines, now tells us more. The surviving remains of quarrying and mining settlements suggest subtle adaptations in versatile response to changing economic and geographical parameters.

Introduction

Although much research has been devoted to the monuments and funerary equipment of pharaonic Egypt, little attention has been paid to the procurement of the raw materials essential to these two aspects of the culture. This situation is by no means peculiar to Egyptological work -- a recent review of the archaeology of stone-working suggested, 'our information on the activities at quarries and workshops ranks among the most abysmal' (Ericson & Purdy 1984: 8). In Egypt, the lack of archaeological fieldwork relating to quarrying and mining contrasts sharply with the abundance of surviving ancient texts commemorating these two activities (Couyat & Montet 1912-13; Anthes 1928; Gardiner et al. 1955; Sadek 1980-85; Seyfried 1981).

Many pharaonic procurement sites have been investigated only by epigraphers recording the inscriptions and graffiti carved into the quarry-walls. The archaeological remains have received scant attention from Egyptologists over the last hundred years, although Petrie & Currelly (1906), Clarke & Engelbach (1930) and Caton-Thompson & Gardner (1934) are notable exceptions. Unlike many more permanent settlements in the Nile Valley itself, the surface remains of quarrying and mining sites are often well-preserved in situ; there are therefore invaluable (and still relatively unexploited) opportunities to examine the horizontal patterning of mineral procurement and processing.

Since the 1970s a few projects have begun to explore the full archaeological potential of Egyptian quarries and mines (Dreyer & Jaritz 1983; Shaw 1986; Rothenberg 1988; Castel & Soukiassian 1989; Harrell 1989; Arnold 1991; Shaw & Jameson 1993). Others have concentrated on scientific provenancing of the minerals used in monumental structures, statuary and funerary equipment (Klemm & Klemm 1979; 1981; 1984; Bowman et al. 1984; Greene 1989; Middleton & Bradley 1989) or the study of pharaonic stone-working and masonry techniques, often using experimental methods (Stocks 1986; 1989; 1993; Moores 1991; Isler 1992).

Pharaonic quarrying and mining sites are scattered across the Western Desert, the Eastern Desert, the Sinai peninsula and southern Palestine, typically incorporating settlements of varying size and permanence, as well as debris relating to the exploitation of the materials concerned. This body of data deserves to be examined methodically, for the use of stone and metal lay close to the heart of the economy of pharaonic Egypt.

Mineral resources, power and social change

A number of prehistorians have argued that the control of mineral resources was crucial to the emergence of the Egyptian state, with early Upper Egyptian 'proto-states' such as Naqada and Hierakonpolis apparently gaining prosperity through their grip over the gold from the wadis of the Eastern Desert (Hoffman 1979: 339; Trigger 1983: 39-40; Rice 1990: 34-6). The fluctuating scale of stone-quarrying in the Old Kingdom (c. 2649-2134 BC) acts as a barometer of royal power and perhaps also of social cohesion (Kemp 1983: 86-9; Lehner 1985: 109-10). There are even some Egyptian rulers, such as the 11th-dynasty pharaoh Nebtawyre Mentuhotep IV (c. 1998-1991 BC), whose names would barely have survived if it were not for the inscriptions commemorating their quarrying or mining expeditions.

TABLE 1. Principal phases of exploitation at the major pharaonic mines and
quarries.

site                            period of exploitation
                                OK   FIP   MK   SIP   NK   LP   PT   R

Aswan (granite)                 *     *    *     *    *    *    *    *
Aswan (sandstone)               *     *    *     *    *    *    *    *
Gebel el-Ahmar (sandstone)      *     *    *     *    *
Gebelein (limestone)                                  *    *    *    *
Gebel Qatrani (basalt)          *     *    *               *? … 

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