Building Materials of the Pyramids Builders

About Egyptian Pyramids

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston



A quarry pit dug long ago in Egypt



Many of the pyramids were built with a number of different stone materials. Most of the material used was fairly rough, low grade limestone used to build the pyramid core, while fine white limestone was often employed for the outer casing as well as to cover interior walls, though pink granite was also often used on inner walls. Basalt or alabaster was not uncommon for floors, particularly in the mortuary temples and as was mudbricks to build walls within the temples (though often as not they had limestone walls).


Egypt is a country rich in stone and was sometimes even referred to as the "state of stone". In particular, Egypt has a great quantity of limestone formation, which the Egyptians called "white stone", because during the Cretaceous period Egypt was covered with seawater. The country is also rich in sandstone, but it was never really used much until the New Kingdom.


Limestone seems to have first been employed in the area of Saqqara, where it is of poor quality but layered in regular, strong formations as much as half a meter thick. This limestone is coarse grained with yellow to greenish gray shading. The layers are separated from each other by thin layers of clay and the coloration may vary according to layer. It could often be quarried very near the building sites, and quarries have been found at Saqqara, Giza, Dahshur and other locations.


In order to quarry this stone, the blocks were marked out with just enough space in between each to allow for a small passageway for the workers to cut the blocks. The workmen would use a number of different tools to cut the blocks, including copper pickaxes and chisels, granite hammers, dolerite and other hard stone tools.


The finer, white limestone employed in the pyramids and mortuary temples was not as easy to quarry, and had to be found further from the building site. One of the man sources for this limestone was the Muqattam hills on the west bank of the Nile near modern Tura and Maasara. This stone laid buried further from the surface, so tunnels had to be dug in order to reach the actual stone quarry. Sometimes these deposits were as deep as fifty meters, and huge caverns had to be built to reach the quarry. Generally, large chunks of stone were removed, and then finely cut into blocks. The blocks were then moved to the building site on large wooden sledges pulled by oxen. The path they took would be prepared with a mud layer from the Nile in order to facilitate the moving.


Pink granite, basalt and alabaster were used much more sparingly. Most of this material was moved from various locations in southern Egypt by barges on the Nile. Pink granite probably most often came from the quarries around Aswan.



An Ostracon (simple depiction on rock) recording the cutting of stone

Left: A stone worker in the quarries



Basalt, on the other hand was not as far away. Only recently have we discovered that most of the basalt used in pyramid construction came from an Oligocene flow located at the northern edge of the Fayoum Depression (Oasis). Here, we find the worlds oldest paved road, which led to the shores of what once was a lake. During the Nile inundation each year, this lake made a connection to the Nile, so at that time, the basalt was moved across the lake and into the Nile for transport.


Alabaster is quarried from either open pits or underground. In open pits, veins of Alabaster are found 12 to 20 feet below the surface under a layer of shale which can be two or three feet deep. The rocks have an average height of 16-20 inches and a diameter of two to three feet. Much of the alabaster used in the pyramids probably came from Hatnub, a large quarry near Amarna north of modern Luxor.


However, it should be pointed out that by even the end of the Old Kingdom, there were hundreds of various types of quarries scattered across the western and eastern deserts, the Sinai and southern Palestine.



A depiction of workers in a quarry

Workers Making Mudbricks



Mudbricks, of course were made throughout Egypt and were a common building material everywhere, in common homes and palaces and probably many city buildings. The better mudbricks were fired, or "burnt" in an oven, though it was not uncommon for mudbick not to be fired, and so not as durable. Unfortunately, most structures built of mudbrick have not weathered the ravages of time well. They were built using wooden forms and Nile mud mixed with various fillers.


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Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2
Pyramids, The Verner, Miroslav 1997 Grove Press ISBN 0-8021-1703-1
Life of the Ancient Egyptians Strouhal, Eugen 1992 University of Oklahoma Press ISBN 0-8061-2475-x