Egyptian Construction Technology

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Egyptian Construction Technology

Quarrying and Transporting Stone.

The ancient Egyptians are widely recognized as great engineers, but are also thought to be extremely conservative. There is a real contradiction in these two views. Part of the Egyptians' greatness included the ability to improvise solutions to technical problems. Innovations allowed the Egyptians to develop new quarrying tools and to increase the weight of stones they hauled over time. Large numbers of people had to be involved in quarrying and transporting stone, which was a dangerous endeavor. The description of a quarrying expedition in the inscription of Amenemhet from the reign of Mentuhotep III emphasizes this reality in that the leader counts among his major accomplishments the fact that the entire crew returned safely to Egypt. This success is associated with miracles, but clearly the Egyptians' careful study of the technical side of quarrying should receive much of the credit. For example, the Egyptians developed methods for quarrying both hard and soft stones.

Chisels and Axes.

There was a development in tools during the roughly 2,300 years from the Old Kingdom (2675–2170 b.c.e.) to the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 b.c.e.) as is evident in the different marks the chisels or axes left in different time periods. In the earlier period—the Old and Middle Kingdom—the marks are irregular lines that all curve in one direction. Rosemarie Klemm, a German geologist who extensively studied ancient Egyptian quarries, suggested that these lines are compatible with the soft copper chisels discovered by archaeologists in Egypt, but Dieter Arnold, the German archaeologist, posited that these lines were more likely the marks of stone axes or picks. Early in the New Kingdom the lines left by tools in quarries are longer than those lines made during the Old and Middle Kingdoms. These New Kingdom lines also alternate in direction in a type of herringbone pattern, unlike the earlier lines which all curve in the same direction. R. Klemm suggested these patterns match the harder bronze chisels which had already been in use in Egypt for other purposes since the Middle Kingdom (2008–1630 b.c.e.). Arnold again refuted Klemm's chisel theory and attributed the marks to stone picks or axes. In Ramesside times and later (1292–1075 b.c.e.), the lines left by the tools changed yet again, this time as closely set together lines, longer than the marks made in previous times but again all curving in the same direction. These lines suggested to Arnold the use of a pick-like instrument made of stone since the only bronze chisel in use during this time period was shaped like a bar. Marks that match the bar chisel are commonly found in rock-cut tombs; apparently the builders used the tool to cut a tunnel that they formed into a tomb, rather than to cut blocks for building. Arnold's suggestion would mean that only the tunneling tool is currently known from archaeological examples. The stone axe or pick that Arnold suggested as a quarrying tool has not yet been recognized in the archaeological record.

Transporting Building Materials.

The Egyptians transported stone through both human and animal power. A basic understanding of physics and balance allowed Egyptian workmen to lift and lower heavy loads using, in different periods, pulleys, wedges, ramps, and construction roads. The use of the shaduf in the Ramesside Period to raise water demonstrates that the Egyptians understood the basic physics of lifting heavy weights. Measuring from the beginning of Egyptian history through the New Kingdom, engineers moved increasingly larger stone loads through innovation. Many Egyptian relief sculptures depict men carrying sand, gravel, mud, bricks, timber, and even small stones over long distances from their source near the river to construction sites. Men carried bricks or single small blocks of stone on their shoulders or in slings attached to poles. In the tomb of Rekhmire (reign of Thutmose III, 1479–1425 b.c.e.) drawings depict workmen hauling three bricks on each side in carrying slings. Groups of men also carried bricks and stones in handbarrows with handles on four sides. The oldest known handbarrow dates to Dynasty 3 (2675–2625 b.c.e.). Donkeys still haul building materials in Egypt in the early twenty-first century, carrying up to 100 kilograms (220 pounds) for short distances.

Heavy Loads.

The Egyptians moved extremely heavy weights beginning as early as the reign of Khufu (2585–2560 b.c.e.) in the Old Kingdom. Some of the heaviest blocks moved by the Egyptians include stones from the Great Pyramid weighing up to sixty tons and spanning as much as eight meters (26 feet) in width. By the reign of Ramesses II (1279–1213 b.c.e.) the Egyptians regularly moved colossal statues weighing up to


introduction: Opening a quarry was an official event often commemorated with steles at the quarry. Leaders of quarrying expeditions were high officials who proudly left records of their accomplishments in long inscriptions. Amenemhet, one such official, led an expedition to the Wadi Hammamat during the reign of Mentuhotep III in 1957 b.c.e. and left the following record. Because he shares a name with the next king, Amenemhet I, many scholars have identified him with the first king of Dynasty 12. The section head within was not resident in the original document.

Year two, month two of the Inundation season, Day fifteen of the Horus Nebtawy, the Two Ladies, Nebtawy, the Horus of Gold, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Nebtawyre, the Son of Re, Mentuhotep, living forever. His Majesty commanded the erection of this stela for his father, (the god) Min, the Lord of the Hill Country in this noble, primeval mountain. (Min is) one who is foremost of place in the land of the Horizon Dwellers and the palace of the god. (He is) one who offers life in the sacred nest of Horus with which this god is content. (This mountain) is his pure place of enjoyment which is over the hill countries and god's country in order that his (Min's) soul might be satisfied. (Min is) one who is honored by gods, that being what the king who is on the Great Throne does. (The king) is one who is foremost of thrones and one who is enduring of monuments, a beneficent god, the lord of joy, one who is greatly feared and one who is great in love, one who is heir of Horus in his Two Lands, one whom Isis—the divine mother of Min and one great of magic—had reared for the kingship of Horus of the Two Banks, the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, living like Re forever. (He) says: I caused that Amenemhet—a nobleman, mayor, vizier, and one whom the king trusts—go forth together with an expedition of ten thousand men from the southern nomes of Upper Egypt and the frontier of Oxyrhynchus in order to bring to me a noble, costly, and pure stone which is in this mountain—whose excellence Min made—to be a sarcophagus, an eternal remembrance that will be a monument in the temples of Upper Egypt. (I sent him) just as a king sends the chief of the Two Lands in order to bring to him his desire from the hill country of Father Min. He made it as a monument for his father Min of Coptus, the lord of the hill country and chief of the tribesmen that he might make many great offerings, living like Re forever.

Day 27. The cover of this sarcophagus descended, a block of four cubits by eight cubits by two cubits (2.10 x 4.20 x 1.05 meters; 6.8 x 16.5 x 3.4 feet), that being what came form from the work. Three calves were slaughtered and goats were slaughtered and incense was burned. Now an expedition of three thousand sailors from the nomes of Lower Egypt followed it in peace to Egypt.

The Same Expedition: The Commander's Record

Nebtawyre, living forever, Regnal Year Two, Month Two of Inundation, Day Fifteen: A royal mission which the noble, count, mayor, vizier, judge, King's-confidant, Overseer of Works, Great One in his Office, Great One in his Nobility, Foremost one of Place in the House of His lord, Inspector of Magistrates, Chief of the Six Great Ones, Judge of Nobles and Commoners, Judge of Sun Folk, One to Whom the Great Ones Come Bowing and the Whole Land is Prone, One Whose Lord Promoted his Rank, One Who Enters His (the king's) Heart, Overseer of the Door of Upper Egypt, One Who Controlled for Him Millions of Commoners in order to do for him his heart's desire concerning his monuments which endure on earth, Great One of the King of Upper Egypt, Great One of the King of Lower Egypt, Controller of the Mansions of the Crown of Lower Egypt, Priest of Herakleopolis being the One who Stretches the Cord, One who Judges Without Partiality, Overseer of all Upper Egypt, One to Whom Everything is Reported, One Who Controls the Affairs of the Lord of the Two Lands, One Who Sets his Heart on a Royal Commission, Inspector of Inspectors, Controller of Overseers, Vizier of Horus in His Appearance, Amenemhet says: My Lord—may he live, prosper, be healthy—the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Nebtawyre sent me as a god sends his (own) limb in order to establish his monuments in this land. He chose me in front of his town while I was honored before his entourage. Now then, His Majesty commanded a procession to this noble foreign country, an expedition together with the best men of the whole land—stone masons, craftsmen, stone cutters, carvers, outline scribes, metal workers, goldsmiths, treasurers of the Palace of every department of the treasury, every rank of the palace being gathered under my control. I made the hill country as a river, the high valley as a water way. I brought a sarcophagus—an eternal remembrance, enduring forever—to him. Never did anything like it descend from the hill country since the time of the gods. The expedition returned without a loss, no man perished. The troops did not turn back. A donkey did not die. There was no deficiency of the craftsmen. I brought it about for the Majesty of the Lord as a Spirit, while Min acted for him, in as much as he loved him. And that his soul might endure on the Great Throne in the Kingship of Horus. What he did was a greater thing. I am his servant of his heart, one who did all which he praises every day.

Translated byEdwardBleiberg.

1,000 tons. In almost every period of Egyptian history, there is ample evidence that engineers devised methods of moving massive stones long distances. The gradual increase in the weight of construction-use stones from Khufu's time to Ramesses II's time suggests that Egyptian engineers continued to improve their methods for moving stone. Thus in the Middle Kingdom the engineers of Senwosret I (1919–1875 b.c.e.) and Amenemhet III (1818–1772 b.c.e.) devised methods of moving blocks twice as large as Khufu's Great Pyramid blocks. The kings of the early Eighteenth Dynasty (1539–1400 b.c.e.) moved blocks three times heavier than the blocks moved in the Middle Kingdom. Amenhotep III's (1390–1352 b.c.e.) engineers doubled the weight of construction-use blocks yet again over the earlier Eighteenth Dynasty, only to be topped by Ramesses II's engineers, who moved blocks thirty percent larger than those moved at the end of Dynasty Eighteen. Ramesses II's reign seems to mark the end of these gains. Yet kings of the Late Period such as Psamtik II (595–589 b.c.e.) and Amasis (570–526 b.c.e.) moved large-scale monuments weighing as much as 580 tons. The Roman historian Pliny (23–79 c.e.) provided the best description of the transporting of an ancient Egyptian obelisk. According to Pliny, workmen dug a canal from the river to the resting spot of the obelisk, actually tunneling under the obelisk, allowing the ends of it to rest on either bank of the canal. Two vessels traveled up the canal loaded with blocks of stone double the weight of the obelisk, causing the boats to submerge slightly. They then stopped under the obelisk and removed the stones from the boats. Free from the weight of the stones, the boats rose in the water until the obelisk balanced between them. Though long-distance hauling of heavy loads was primarily by boat, transportation from the quarry to the boat and from the boat to the building site forced the Egyptians to develop methods for overland hauling of heavy loads. A relief sculpture in the tomb of Djeheutyhotep dating to Dynasty Twelve (1938–1759 b.c.e.) at Bersheh in Middle Egypt depicts the Egyptians using rollers on skid poles and sledges as tools to enable very large numbers of men to pull the block or statue by ropes fastened around the stone. Liquid poured on the sand or on a construction road made the surface more slippery and allowed the sledge to move more easily.

Rollers on Skid Poles.

Egyptian rollers were made from sycamore, a locally grown tree. The archaeological examples that have been excavated are short, with rounded ends and approximately ten centimeters (3.9 inches) wide. The rollers work best on skid poles—a track made of parallel beams. The skid poles keep the rollers moving in the right direction. Such skid poles have been found at the entrances to pyramid corridors where builders used them to roll the closing block into position. For very heavy loads such as obelisks, whole tree trunks were used as rollers.


Sledges are known both from archaeological examples and from relief sculptures that show sledges transporting heavy stone columns and more frequently, funerary goods such as shrines and coffins. Of the examples of sledges found in archaeological contexts, the largest was found near the pyramid of Senwosret III at Dahshur. It is 4.2 meters long and 0.9 meters wide (13.7 by 2.95 feet). The runners are twelve by twenty centimeters (4.7 by 7.8 inches). Four cross beams connect the runners using tongue and groove construction to join them. In tongue and groove construction, all the beams have slotted holes where ropes were attached. A smaller sledge from the time of Senwosret I (1919–1875 b.c.e.), found at Lisht, measures 1.73 by 0.78 meters (5.6 by 2.5 feet). It only has two cross beams but also additional round poles mounted in front of one cross beam and behind the other cross beam. These poles were probably used to attach ropes. The relief representations of sledges show them transporting stone statues, coffins, canopic boxes, and shrines used in tombs. The scene from the causeway of Unas shows sledges transporting granite columns and architraves. These columns are known to be six meters (19.6 feet) long. Thus it seems likely that they were transported on sledges at least seven meters (22.9 feet) long. The most famous transport scene depicts a colossal alabaster statue of Djeheutyhotep on a sledge hauled by 172 men. The men are depicted in four different registers (divisions of the scene by a series of parallel lines), suggesting that they were divided into four columns of workers. Arnold estimated that the statue was seven meters (22.9 feet) high and weighed 58 tons. Another scene from the reign of Ahmose shows three bulls hauling a block that weighed about five tons on a sledge. Finally a scene depicting the transport of Hatshepsut's 320-ton obelisk found at her temple in Deir el Bahri shows a sledge that must have been 31 meters (101.7 feet) long, probably constructed from whole tree trunks. A sledge could not carry a heavy load over a soft surface such as sand, so the Egyptians prepared paths with limestone chip surfaces, possibly covered with mud. Many representations of sledges show a man pouring water on the road surface in front of the sledge. Henri Chevrier, the French archaeologist, conducted experiments on using an Egyptian sledge in modern times and showed that six men easily moved a 4.8-ton stone over a wet mud surface.


Ropes were essential for almost all construction operations, particularly for hauling stone blocks. Egyptian ropes were made of dom palmfibers, reed, flax grass, sparto grass, halfa grass, or papyrus. The largest archaeological examples of ropes were 20.3 centimeters in circumference and 6.35 centimeters in diameter (7.9 by 2.5 inches). Literary evidence suggests that ropes of 525 to 735 meters (1,722 to 2,411 feet) were manufactured in special cases to move especially heavy loads.


Dieter Arnold, Building in Egypt: Pharaonic Stone Masonry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997).



[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


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Egyptian Construction Technology

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