Survey and Excavation at the Gebel El-Asr Gneiss and Quartz Quarries in Lower Nubia (1997-2000)

By Shaw, Ian; Bloxam, Elizabeth et al. | Antiquity, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Survey and Excavation at the Gebel El-Asr Gneiss and Quartz Quarries in Lower Nubia (1997-2000)


Shaw, Ian, Bloxam, Elizabeth, Bunbury, Judith, Lee, Richard, Graham, Angus, Darnell, Deborah, Antiquity


In 1932, when a British military vehicle was caught in a sandstorm about 65 km northwest of Abu Simbel, Colonel Hatton and Spinks Pasha stumbled upon the most remote stone quarries of Predynastic and early Pharaonic times -- the Gebel el-Asr Gneiss Quarries.

This area was the source of anorthosite gneiss (used primarily for Predynastic and Early Dynastic funerary vessels) and the gabbro or diorite gneiss from which many royal statues were carved. Reginald Engelbach, escavating in 1933 and 1938 (Engelbach 1938; Murray 1939), discovered a number of Old and Middle Kingdom stelae, including a basalt slab inscribed with the cartouche of Khufil (Cheops), set up between a pair of gneiss slabs on a substantial dry-stone platform.

The Gebel el-Asr Project was set up to examine hard-stone quarrying at the very limits of the early Egyptians' logistical, technological and organizational skills, in the Old and Middle Kingdoms (c. 2686-1650 BC). This region is under threat from a new road to Gebel Uweinat and from an on-going hydrological project stretching westwards from Wadi Tushka (which could obliterate the site entirely). An emergency conference at Abu Simbel in 1998 asked for the quarries, and the nearby Neolithic site of Nabta Playa, to be given special protected status. The Gebel el-Asr Project is therefore very much a rescue operation.

In 1999 and 2000 we studied part of the quarry-workers' operational centre at `Quartz Ridge' (Shaw 2000; Shaw & Bloxam 1999). Finds included Early Dynastic period to Middle Kingdom ceramics, a fragment of a 5th-Dynasty stone stele bearing the Horus name and cartouche of Nyuserra (a king not previously attested at the site), 22 intact 12th-Dynasty pottery flat bottomed storage jars (average capacity 76.5 l) and two smaller intact Middle Kingdom vessels, many bearing pre-firing pot-marks inside rims and post-firing numbers incised on shoulders. Vessels of this type, probably produced in the Memphis-Faiyum region (Arnold 1988), were particularly suited to the transportation and long-term storage of dry substances such as grain.

We also excavated two stone-built `loading ramps' (LR1 and LR2) at the southern end of the Gebel el-Asr region, both measuring approximately 9 m long, 5 m wide and 1.2 m high at the front. Pairs of track-ways in front of each of the ramps gradually sloped up to the ancient ground-surface, presumably produced by the runners of sledges onto which the blocks of gneiss were loaded.

In 2000, we discovered and partially excavated a new area of Old Kingdom (perhaps even Early Dynastic) settlement at the southern end of the region, roughly midway between the Khufu Stele Quarry and ramp LR1, containing bread-moulds and ash indicating the baking of loaves. We also uncovered two enigmatic semi-subterranean structures, one located close to the Quartz Ridge settlement, containing a 4th-Dynasty spouted pottery vessel, the other midway between the newly discovered settlement and ramp LR1. …

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