Egyptian Genius: Stoneworking for Eternity

Dr. Patrick Hunt, Lecturer in Humanities at Stanford University, was the speaker for the January meeting. Dr. Hunt, who holds a Ph.D. from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of London, specializes in stone research. His lecture was entitled, Egyptian Genius: Stone Working for Eternity.

Dr. Hunt opened his remarks by noting that he has worked on stone in Egypt ever since he began work on his doctoral dissertation. He acquainted his audience with the geology of the Great Rift, which runs through the Red Sea, Jordan and the Levant. He noted that this meeting of two continental plates has resulted in a great deal of geological activity for millions of years, and has been noted historically for millennia.

Dr. Hunt stated that everywhere there are plates meeting, much hard stone is found: stone which has been formed deep within the earth and thrust upward thorough geological activity. The result of this activity is the source of Egypt’s phenomenal wealth of hard stone. He noted that the Tigris and Euphrates valley has primarily alluvial stone, which is not suitable for monumental sculpture or architecture. Thus that area was better known for its clay work.

Since earliest times Egypt has been known for its work with stone. The Ancient Egyptian language has more words related to types of stone, stone working, and objects made of stone than any other ancient language.

Most ancient Egyptian quarries were in the Eastern Desert, between the Nile and the Red Sea, where there is ample material for working with all kinds of stone. Dr. Hunt noted that some stone horizons go back as far as the Chalcolithic period; monzonite, syenite and granite all come from this rift area and all come from deep magmatic layers. Additionally gold and gem-stones are formed in such layers of igneous rock. Graywacke used in much fine Egyptian sculpture, which is found at the Wadi Hammamat, and Porphyry from Mons Claudianus, which was much prized by the Romans, come from these igneous layers as well. Even in the Red Sea there are islands, one mentioned by Pliny, which is rich in the olive green gemstone, peridot. Truly, Egypt was the most gifted state in terms of stone resources of exceptionally fine quality in the ancient world.

The ancient Egyptians had an awareness of geo-logical strata in the Bronze Age, and probably well before that. Their understanding of geology was well ahead of other ancient cultures. Dr. Hunt believes that the ancient Egyptians had very early developed stone selection criteria, and used stone based on both empirical and experimental observation of its character. Ancient stone workers were skilled in selecting the stone that best suited the needs of their projects; they knew what worked best for specific uses. The ancient Egyptians were capable of working stone ranging from #1 to #9 on the 10-step, relativized Moh’s scale of hardness.

Sculpture required a stone that was stable, did not fracture easily, yet was workable. Limestone and stones harder than limestone were the most suitable. Dr. Hunt noted that the early Greeks learned much from Egypt. At first they couldn’t master anything but soft lime-stone, but eventually graduated to harder marble [about #4 on the Moh’s scale]. Jaromir Malek, of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, has noted that the Greek word “sphinx” probably evolved from the Egyptian words describing stone sculptures of the king - “living image” - sesh-shep + ankh.

The stone used by the ancient Egyptians includes:
a. Limestone - A stone which is very white when newly quarried, it weathers to a golden brown under constant sun. When Djoser’s funerary complex was built, it was a period in which ancient Egyptians were learning how to use stone architecturally. The finest limestone in Egypt comes from Tura, Beni Hassan and Ma’asa. Limestone is not as dense as some other stone, can be quarried longitudinally, and is workable so can be carved or decorated, thus is ideal for architectural uses as well as for sculpting. Limestone is #3 of 10 on the Moh’s scale of hardness.
b. Red Granite - A stone harder than steel, is #7 on the Moh’s scale, was used for sculpting, but was rarely used for architect-ural purposes due to the difficulty it presented in cutting it. It was quarried at Aswan, often for use in obelisks, some of which were more than 45 feet high.
c. Quartzite - Probably quarried at Gebelein, was used for carving the famous Colossi of Memnon. Quartzite is not particularly good for sculpting as it has too many intrusions, but is an exceptionally hard stone, registering 7.5 on the Moh’s scale of hardness.
d. Mud-stone - The material from which the Narmer Pallet is carved is not terribly hard to work but it does require bronze tools for working. Copper tools are too soft to work this stone.
e. Graywacke [Siltstone] - The lustrous deep gray stone from which the famous triads of Menkaure are carved, was known as Bekhen stone in ancient times. It is very durable and long lasting.
f. Alabaster [Calcite] - Has special qualities in that when carved thinly, light can pass through it. It would have been selected for its aesthetic qualities. The ancient source of alabaster was probably Hatnub.
g. Black Granite - Another very hard stone which was used for sculpting, but is not particularly good for architectural purposes as it is difficult to cut. The Rosetta Stone is carved on a slab of black granite, not basalt, as once thought.
h. Basalt -Was quarried near the Faiyum as well as other locations. A fine, black, stone, it was used for sculpting, as well as for some architectural functions.  The paving stones of the funerary temple adjacent to Khufu’s Great Pyramid are of basalt.
i. Gneiss - A metamorphosed granite, it was used for sculpting. Dr. Hunt screened a picture of a fine sphinx sculpture of Senusert III as an example of this beautiful stone.
j. Pudding Stone - Also called breccia, this stone was clearly selected for its aesthetic qualities.  Dr. Hunt screened a lovely sculpture of Taweret carved from this stone, which is in the collection of the British Museum.
k. Yellow and Red Jasper - A lustrous, fine grained stone, which is harder than #7 on the Moh’s scale, was used for exquisite sculptures, the most famous of which is perhaps the partial bust of Queen Tiye carved from Yellow Jasper.
l. Sandstone - Used predominately for architectural purposes, but for sculptures as well, particularly at El Amarna. Sandstone is not as workable as Limestone, but is more durable. One of the most famous busts of Queen Nefertiti is carved from durable sandstone.
m. Diorite - A stone from which many stone vessels were carved and exported in large quantities.   The Cretans were exceedingly fond of Diorite, and imported both finished vessels and raw stone. Vessels carved from Diorite are found in Egypt, dating from as early as 4,000BC.

William Flinders Petrie, as well as Carol Andrews at the British Museum, have both catalogued numerous precious and semi-precious, gem-stone amulets, finely carved, and with exceptional detail. They include a turtle carved from serpentine, a falcon carved from amethyst, and numerous amulets carved from carnelian, red jasper, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, turquoise mined on the Sinai peninsula, and several different green stones. Heart scarabs were always supposed to be made from green stone - jasper, felspar, diorite, malachite, and various jades were all put to use. It is clear that specific stones were chosen for amuletic purposes, and their color and properties played a role in their selection. Specific colors seem to have been reserved for specific types of amulets. Rock crystal, an exceptionally hard stone, was used to create eye lenses for statuary. The form is identical to the natural human lens form - convex on the outside; concave on the inside. These lenses were backed with copper and were so finely wrought that the sculpture in which they were affixed seem to follow the observer with its eyes.

How did the Egyptians cut and shape such hard stone? They had copper and bronze tools, but did not adopt the use of iron for tools until late - about the 8th century BCE. Even when they did, it was not suitable for working hard stone such as basalt. Dr. Hunt strongly believes that the ancient Egyptians used Emery to work hard stone. Emery is #9 on the Moh’s scale of hardness - harder than steel, and than any other stone save Diamond. It can cut, abrade and polish the hardest stone, such as granite and quartzite, both of which are harder than iron and bronze. Its name does appear in the Ptolemaic vocabulary.

Emery is massive corundum, an aluminum oxide often veined with magnetite. The ancient Greek word for emery was “smeris”. Emery is found only in the Cycladic islands of the Aegean Sea, principally on the island of Naxos. Motsouna, on the eastern coast of the island, was the port from which cargoes of Emery were exported. Professor Wolfgang Heimpel at UC Berkeley is the emeritus scholar who found literary references to emery at Ur III and then Mari at the end of the third  millennium BCE and beginning of second millennium BCE [c. 2000 BCE], probably traded from prior trade emporia near what later became ancient Ugarit [present-day coastal Syria] and well-connected to the Cycladic islands [Naxos] by Early and Middle Bronze Age Aegean trade. Dieter Arnold also postulates emery was used by the Egyptians but so far no emery, either  indigenous or Naxian, has been found in Egypt.

Dr. Hunt closed his lecture by reiterating that the ancient Egyptians were the best metallurgists and stone workers in the ancient world. He believes that they used emery as well as dolerite [for pounding] as their primary tools for cutting and smoothing hard stone. Nobody in the ancient world had so many uses for hard stone, and no others were so adept at its use. The ancient Egyptians were the genius stoneworkers of their world.

  • Nancy Corbin
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