Mines and Quarries of Ancient Egypt Part II: Expeditions, Settlements, Tools and Transport

Mines and Quarries of Ancient Egypt Part II
Expeditions, Settlements, Tools and Transport

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Virginia Davis

Control and Organization of Expeditions

One important indication of the degree to which ancient Egyptians planned and organized their quarrying and mining expeditions has survived. Known as the Turin Mining papyrus, it contains the earliest surviving Egyptian map, and is an annotated record of an expedition to the mines and quarries of the Wadi Hammamat in the Eastern Desert during the mid 12th century BC. The area depicted in the map has been identified with the archaeological site at Bir Umm Fawakhir, where there are still extensive remains of a much latter Byzantine gold-mining settlement.

A map of Mines, Quarries and other Resources in Anceint Egypt

A map of Mines, Quarries and other Resources in Anceint Egypt

Throughout the Pharaonic Period, the procurement of stone and metals was an integral part of the social and economic relationship between the king and his high officials, as well as between the high officials and their subordinates. Since the products of mining and quarrying were the raw materials from which essential items of religious and funerary architecture and equipment were made, the large-scale quarrying of stone has been interpreted by many Egyptologists as a rough index of fluctuations in royal power and social stability during different periods.

Royal officials relied on the king to provide them with the necessary labor and raw materials for their own funerary equipment. A good example of this is the 6th Dynasty inscription of Weni at Abydos, which not only describes the quarrying expedition that he organized for the king but also mentions that the king presented him with a fine limestone sarcophagus from the quarries at Tura.

Though most major expeditions were apparently sent by kings or regional rulers, there is also good evidence that temples did so as well. Mineral deposits are in fact often listed among the assets of funerary estates or temples. So it comes as no surprise that an inscription on the walls of a rock-cut temple of the early 12th century BC in the Wadi Abbad, located in Upper Egypt, reports that the gold mines in the vicinity were owned by the temple of Seti I at Abydos. The text makes it clear that this endowment included not only the mineral rights but also the means to exploit them. It includes mention of a team of miners, their settlement and a well dug on the king's orders.

Archaeologists can frequently distinguish between low-level quarrying and mining operations by individuals and the higher level of organization and visibility associated with large-scale expeditions, such as those designed to acquire stone or metals for the king and his high officials. Some sites, such as Hatnub, Umm el-Sawwan and Gebel el-Zeit, reveal evidence that suggest that certain raw materials were the object of intermittent private exploitation throughout pharaonic times. They may have followed in the footsteps of the major state expeditions. Others sites, such as the amethyst mines at Wadi el-Hudi, were almost certainly worked only by royal expeditions. Which raw materials were subject to a royal monopoly is not clear, but the difficult and expensive logistics (and possible dangers) of many quarrying and mining expeditions would have prevented private individuals from undertaking them without royal support.

The effort of sending expeditions out to the remote mining areas in the deserts was based on the king's (or a local ruler's) capability to provide the necessary workforce, because the number of workers sent out on quarrying and mining expeditions was probably comparable to that of a military campaign. An inscription on the Wadi Hammamat quarries in the Eastern Desert describes the dispatching of an expedition of seventeen thousand workers in the thirty-eighth year of the reign of Senusret I during Egypt's 12th Dynasty. If these numbers are taken at face value, the scale of that expedition was comparable with the twenty thousand Egyptian troops who are said to have fought at the Battle of Qadesh during the reign of Ramesses II, many years later. And though not as dangerous perhaps as battle, mining was also an assignment where many lives were lost.

There is little surviving evidence, either textual or archaeological, of the extent to which the various expedition members were given training for their specific tasks. Many of the workers might have been pressed into duty by means of a corvee system similar to the way that workers were obtained for large scale state sponsored agricultural, hydraulic or architectural projects. Carved on the walls of quarries are sometimes detailed descriptions of personnel that often list the geographical origins of various groups of recruits. They would have made up the bulk of the workforce and engaged in such laborious non-skilled duties as digging and transportation. Some may also have provided military support for protection in dangerous locations. These manual laborers are often described as "stone-cutters," and two inscriptions in the Sinai mines record the presence of two hundred of them. Each mining or quarrying expedition must also have included at least a small group of professionals, who are every so often also referred to in the inscriptions. Men with titles such as "prospectors", the hieroglyphic determinative for which was a figure of a man holding a bag or stick, and "ikyw", which possibly refers to professional miners or quarrymen, might have been more permanent state employees. One prospector, a "reckoner of gold" called Thuthotep, left a graffito in the vicinity of the Abrak well, in the Nubian Eastern Desert, about 240 kilometers south of Aswan.

Some of the most detailed descriptions of expeditions have survived in the form of inscriptions at the Wadi el-Hudi amethyst mines, the Wadi Hammamat siltstone quarries and the Sinai copper, turquoise and malachite mines. They provide a good opportunity to study the composition of the mining workforces. During the Early Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom, quarry inscriptions tended to concentrate on the recitation of royal names and titles. We know that expedition during these times were often headed by a functionary entitled "the god's seal-bearer of the two great fleets", or simply "general", to whom other officials were subordinated with naval-style titles such as captain, ship's officer or overseer of quarry work. Skilled craftsmen, notably stone-breakers, were grouped into companies of a 100 and these into units of 10, five of whom formed a "side" like oarsmen. Even then, expeditions could include a large number of men. One sent to Hatnub was altogether 1,600 strong.

However, from the 6th Dynasty onward, the texts provided more of the names and titles of the actual leaders and members of the expedition. During most of the Phraonic Period, the overall controller of the expedition usually held the title of "God's Treasurer", although the less specific rank of "Commander of the Expedition (Army)" is also sometimes used. Indeed, however, large expeditions could also be led even by a Vizier, second only to the king or a high priest.

In one early 12th Dynasty inscription at Wadi el-Hudi, the lower ranks were clearly recruited mainly from local towns, some fourteen hundred of whom were supervised by about one hundred officials from the north. Similarly, the 11th Dynasty stela of Intef at Wadi el-Hudi describes the expedition members as "thousand after thousand" of local Nubians. A smaller number of workers were recorded at the Serabit el-Khadim turquoise mines, where the Middle Kingdom expeditions ranged from 168 to 734 men, usually accompanied by a similar number of donkeys. An average expedition consisted of approximately three hundred men and four hundred animals.

By the New Kingdom, Expeditions could be very large. An expedition to Wadi Hammamat during the reign of Ramesses IV to procure building blocks had an administrative staff of 170, 130 skilled stonemasons, 800 Asiatic enslaved prisoners, 2,000 temple bondsmen for transporting the blocks, 5,000 soldiers and 50 guards.

The names of about a tenth of the officials organizing quarrying and mining expeditions tend to be repeated over specific periods of time. From this, we can also collect a considerable amount of analysis regarding the changing ranks of officials. During the late 12th Dynasty reign of Amenemhet II, for example, most of the repetitions of names of high officials involved in expeditions to the Sinai take place within periods of less than ten years, and it is noticeable that the individuals have usually been promoted to some extent by the time their name reappears. Low ranking quarrying officials, consisting of doctors, foremen and workmen, were sent on a larger number of successive expeditions than their superiors. The lower ranking officials were also less likely to be promoted. Higher officials such as treasury representatives and scribes were less likely to return but more likely to have been promoted if they did. The continuous process of change in personnel, especially in the higher ranking jobs, must have been caused by the unpopularity of the task and the fact that the king may have been deliberately preventing any officials from gaining control of the quarries. The control over precious raw materials could be as powerful a tool for ambitious officials as it was for the king.

During Roman Times, we have a great deal of information from various gold mines. The work was done mainly by slaves who were either prisoners of war or convicts, but also paupers, often with their entire families. The foremen were astonishingly well informed about the directions of the gold-bearing quartz veins and only mined them as far as their gold content justified. The mining was done in galleries which were sometimes very wide, but sometimes so narrow that children had to bring out the broken rock. Women crushed the stone in mortars and grinders and then washed the gold out of the grit on basalt tables with grooved ceramic tops, or over stretches of sheepskins.

Mining Settlements

Three basic types of settlement housing were provided to the miners and quarriers during the pharaonic period. One type, found mostly during the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period, consisted of dense concentrations of drystone huts, often located on high ground and surrounded by an enclosure wall. Examples of this time include the turquoise miners' settlement at Wadi Mughara and the 11th Dynasty amethyst miners' settlement on a hilltop at Wadi el-Hudi in Lower Nubia.

A second type of community had substantial rectangular walls built of drystone or mud brick with varying degrees of fortification. There is also this type of settlement near the Wadi el-Hudi mines.

The third, and most frequent type of settlement consisted of wide, scattered rough stone shelters and wind breaks. These can be found at Hatnub, the gypsum quarries of Umm el-Sawwan and the galena mines of Gebel el-Zeit. Many quarries, such as those at Wadi Mughara, Wadi el-Hudi and Hatnub, comprised combinations of two or three of these settlement types. Changes in the types of settlements seem to correlate with the nature and date of the quarrying operation. At the Hatnub quarries, about 17 kilometers southeast of Tell el-Amarna, in the Eastern Desert, the Old and Middle Kingdom drystone shelters often comprised extensive, carefully constructed multi-roomed huts, which apparently housed many gangs of workmen. On the other hand, the New Kingdom encampment at Hatnub consisted mainly of one-room shelters, hastily and loosely assembled from large limestone slabs and boulders.Here, the state sponsored Old and Middle Kingdom expeditions left numerous inscription and graffiti in the quarries, but the New Kingdom workmen, who's settlement shows far fewer signs of bureaucratic or organizational backing from the local or national government, left only one inscription on the quarry walls.

Of course, the nature of quarrying and mining settlements can also be an indicator of the degree of threat, either real or perceived. The dispersed structures and lack of communal protective measures at Hatnub and Umm el-Sawwan suggest a relative lack of concern about attacks from the desert, whereas the Old Kingdom hilltop settlement at Wadi Mughara and the 12th Dynasty fortress at Wadi el-Hudi suggest that these locations were far less safe for the workers, at least during the Old and Middle Kingdoms.

There are also major variations in mining inscriptions between the Old and Middle Kingdoms in the Sinai region. During the Old Kingdom, inscriptions record the presence of naval personnel and lists of particular sets of troops. Such military references were far less common during the Middle Kingdom. We believe that the earliest expeditions into the Sinai were probably militarized, whereas during the Middle and New Kingdom, there was probably more peaceful cooperation with the non-Egyptian inhabitants of central and southern Sinai. Of course, another factor in the settlement types was the permanency of the work. Often, mines where gemstones or gold were extracted continuously over longer periods of time would have had more established communities than those where an expedition was mounted in order, for example, to quarry a specific obelisk.

Tools and Extraction

A flat, copper chisel used for stone work in Ancient Egypt

Quarrymen and masons, like other craftsmen, had to be content with a small selection of implements. The tools used by workmen in quarries and mines depended, of course, on the type of material being removed. The types of tools used for the quarrying of softer stones during the Pharaonic Period has not been definitively determined. However, judging by the marks on walls, some type of axe or pointed pick, perhaps made of a hard stone such as basalt or dolerite and weighing between one and three kilograms, was probably used in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. During the New Kingdom and later periods, the workmen employed pointed chisels that were hammered with a mallet. The very wide grooves on the surface of a few stone blocks suggest that a very large stone chisel was sometimes used. It is also possible that soft stone was sometimes cut with copper saws that had a toothed edge embedded with grains of sand during the forging.

Some Egyptologists have argued that most of the tool marks were made by soft copper chisels in the Old and Middle Kingdoms, and harder copper or bronze chisels were used from the New Kingdom onward. However, others have pointed out that harder alloys would have already been available during the Old Kingdom. Chisels that have survived at ancient construction sites usually have a broad, flat cutting edge rather than a point. Chret and flint tools were also used for stone working.

For hard stone, it was once thought that, due to the many surviving groups of rectangular wedge holes at Aswan, the process involved inserting wooden wedges into holes and then soaking them so that they expanded, levering the blocks away from the bedrock. However, more recently it has been pointed out that even wooden wedges soaked in water would generally not have been strong enough to break the granite, and also that no wedge holes have yet been securely dated to the Pharaonic Period. Iron wedges could have been used to extract hard stones from the Ptolemaic Period onward.

Various experimental studies and analysis of the quarries at Aswan suggest that the actual process of extraction in pharaonic times involved the excavation of opencast quarries, by means of hammerstones, gradually removing the desired stone from the surface and working downward. Once the chosen area of rock had been roughly evened out it was probably strewn with glowing charcoal embers and then cold water was quickly poured over, so that the surface of the stone disintegrated at this point, making the block easier to extract. The edges of the desired block were then traced out and the side faces cut down to the necessary depth. For smoothing the faces, an abrasive powder of crushed quartzite was used, with grains that were sharp-edged unlike the rounded ones of desert sand.

On the western bank near Aswan at Gebel Gulab, a quartzite quarry, a broken obelisk inscribed with the name of the 19th Dynasty king, Seti I survives in situ near the quarry face from which it was extracted. The nearby quarry face shows distinct signs of stone pounders. Pounder marks have also been found at Qua el-Kebir, in a limestone quarry of unusually dense and hard rock. Other evidence includes marks in the siltstone quarry at Wadi Hammamat, which may well date to Pharaonic Times.


Limestone relief in the tomb of Idut at Saqqara, dating to the 6th Dynasty, showing a sled transporting a statue being dragged

In ancient Egypt, there were titles, including a number of variations on, such as "Master of the Roads" and "Official of the Masters of the Road". These titles have been found in the Memphite necropolis and in the mining areas of the Wadi Hammamat and Wadi Abbad (Eastern Desert). They suggest that the coordination and maintenance of land routes through the desert was a high priority for the Egyptian administration. In fact, many archaeological traces of specially constructed roads have been found in the areas surrounding mines and quarries, as well as around major structures.

In the case of mineral resources that were exploited regularly over long periods of time, much time and energy was spent on the building of roads. The nature of each route was determined primarily by such factors as the bulk and quantities of the minerals, the nature of the topography and the materials locally available for road building.

Hence, the Old Kingdom quarries at Hatnub are linked with the Nile Valley by a drystone paved road stretching some 17 kilometers, with two small sections built up to a height of several meters to allow stone blocks to be dragged across deep wadis. Another road paved with slabs of sandstone and fossil (petrified) wood connects the Gebel Qatrani basalt quarries with the site of Qasr el-Sagha at the northern end of the Fayoum region, covering a distance of about 10 kilometers.

The longest known Egyptian quarry road is an 80 kilometer route in Lower Nubia, linking the diorite-gabbro and anorthosite gneiss quarries of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, near Gebel el-Asr, with the closest Nile embarkation point at Tushka (now covered by the waters of lake Nasser). However, as Reginald Engelbach found when he made a study of this ancient road, it was not paved, but was only a cleared track through the desert, with occasional scatterings of stone or pottery.

In many cases, however, and during the earliest of times, the problem of transporting rock or building blocks over land with a soft subsoil was solved by loading the material onto sledges and hauling these over paths paved with transverse logs lubricated with fine mud. The sledges were made of solid baulks of wood, with two runners turned up in front.

The method is vividly illustrated in the scene from the 12th Dynasty tomb of the provincial prince Djehutihotep at el-Bersha, showing his colossal statue on the move. The accompanying text states that the statue was carved by the scribe Sipa, son of Hennakhtankh, out of stone from Hatnub (hence, probably alabaster) and was 6.8 meters high. The statue, which has been estimated to have weighed about 60 tons, was dragged on its sledge with ropes by 172 men in four files. A man standing at the foot of the figure pours water onto the path in front of the sledge while others urge the team on. Three more men are bringing up fresh jugs of water and another three a large beam, perhaps used as a lever. We suspect that blocks used to build the great pyramids would have been transported in a similar manner.

A cargo boat with its sale furled carrying a huge block of stone from a limestone relief in the tomb of Ipi at Saqqara and dating to the 6th Dynasty

Long range hauling of blocks, statues, obelisks and other items was made via the Nile River. As the program of great stone building projects developed from the 3rd Dynasty on, regular Nile side shipyards arose. They employed carpenters and joiners specializing in shipbuilding. A wonderful view of the last stage in the journey of Queen Hatshepsut's obelisk the Aswan quarries to Thebes is preserved in the south section of the lower colonnade of the queen's temple at Deir el-Bahari. The two obelisks are lashed to their sledges, lying base to base on the largest of the ships, which is being drawn by a flotilla of rowing boats in three strings of nine, each manned by 30 to 32 oarsmen together with steersmen, soldiers, officers and a pilot.

In any case, the moving of material was one of the most difficult parts of quarrying stone. Extensive labor was always required, but one also wonders if animals were not used much more than we currently think.

Last Updated: June 22nd, 2011

See also:


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Ancient Egypt (Anatomy of a Civilization) Kemp, Barry J. 1989 Routledge ISBN 0-415-06346-9
Aswan Philae - Abu Simbel Magi, Giovanna 1995 Bonechi ISBN 88-7009-241-0
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt, A Hoath, Richard 2003 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 809 0
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Life of the Ancient Egyptians Strouhal, Eugen 1992 University of Oklahoma Press ISBN 0-8061-2475-x
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2
Western Desert of Egypt, The Vivian, Cassandra 2000 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 527 X