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Queen Tiys quarry seen from afar.

Ancient Quarries


The rock of the cliffs at Amarna and of the high desert behind is limestone that mostly lies in approximately horizontal beds. Much of it is closely fractured or contains hard nodules that make it unsuitable for quarrying. None the less, beds do exist where the rock is fairly fine grained and homogeneous. These were sought out and used in the Amarna Period to supply stone to the city. Quarrying continued in later periods, and is still pursued today.

The principal use of limestone at Amarna was as wall blocks in the temples and in parts of the palaces. The blocks were cut to a common size, one cubit (52 cm) long, so of a size that one man could just lift and put into place during building. The distinctive size of these blocks (relatively small for ancient Egypt) has given rise to an Arabic word for them, talatat-blocks (derived from the word for the numeral ‘three’, perhaps because they are roughly three hand-spans long). Even when a quarry contains no written evidence to date it, if large numbers of blocks of this uniform size have been removed (leaving tell-tale marks on the quarry faces) it is reasonable, in the area of Amarna at least, to date the quarry to the reign of Akhenaten. Limestone was also the material for column bases, door frames, door thresholds and certain small kinds of furniture.

The principal area of ancient quarrying at Amarna is on the desert plateau behind the North City. It is most easily reached via the wadi entrance that separates the North Tombs into two groups and then by following the floor of the side wadi (Wadi Zabeida) that runs north-westwards. At a distance of 2 km a headland juts out on the south side, and towards the top the rock has been extracted to leave two large adjacent caverns. When it was visited in 1892 by Flinders Petrie he found the name of Queen Tiy carved inside. The name was later cut out, but the quarry is still known as Queen Tiy’s. It is an example of a managed quarry from which many hundreds of blocks have been systematically removed. As a source of material of value it must have been counted amongst the assets of the estate of the king’s mother, Queen Tiy.

The entrance to Queen Tiy’s quarry
The entrance to Queen Tiy’s quarry

The interior of Queen Tiy’s quarry
The interior of Queen Tiy’s quarry

The surface of the flattish desert above and beyond Queen Tiy’s quarry, as far as the rim of the cliff, contains innumerable surface quarries large and small. The smallest are places where just a few blocks have been extracted. Sometimes a few have been left behind, the work of separation and extraction unfinished. The limestone when first exposed is quite soft and easily cut, although its surface hardens when weathered. Many of the small quarries are consistent with a policy by the state of demanding blocks from people but leaving it to them to organize the work themselves. It could be that the building of the Amarna temples and palaces relied in part upon a supply of blocks raised as a city-wide tax or obligation to deliver a certain quota (although this has to remain a conjecture on current evidence).

Aerial photograph of small surface quarries on the desert above Queen Tiy’s quarry. The red arrows mark the positions of two sets of shallow quarries
Aerial photograph of small surface quarries on the desert above Queen Tiy’s quarry. The red arrows mark the positions of two sets of shallow quarries

The smallest quarry of all: a single block partially separated from the parent rock waits to be removed
The smallest quarry of all: a single block partially separated from the parent rock waits to be removed

A circular column base has been outlined but then abandoned
A circular column base has been outlined but then abandoned

One way of splitting limestone blocks from a vertical quarry face was to drill a series of holes along the base line of the intended block
One way of splitting limestone blocks from a vertical quarry face was to drill a series of holes along the base line of the intended block

An extensive gallery quarry was developed along the very edge of the cliff overlooking the North City. From here blocks (and also column bases) were taken (by donkey?) along a narrow path above the precipice, eventually joining a steep descent to the desert floor below. Blocks from the quarries further behind were probably taken down the wadi system past Queen Tiy’s quarry.

View along the gallery quarry above the North City
View along the gallery quarry above the North City

A few small individual surface quarries of the Amarna Period occur elsewhere in the desert behind Amarna. Large managed quarries containing inscriptions of the period also exist to the north, in the cliffs behind Deir el-Bersha.

Limestone was also quarried from caverns not far from the northernmost boundary stela, X, in the place known as Sheikh Said. Some of the extraction might have been for talatat-blocks, but mostly it dates to a far later period, documented by rough painted texts on the ceiling that are written in Greek. It is to this much later activity that a well-known red-ink plan of a many-columned building belongs, painted on the side of a pillar supporting the roof.

An underground quarry near Sheikh Said, dating to much later than the Amarna Period
An underground quarry near Sheikh Said, dating to much later than the Amarna Period

View of the interior of one of the Sheikh Said quarries
View of the interior of one of the Sheikh Said quarries

As part of the geological history of the area, cavities and fissures developed in the limestone, to be filled with travertine (calcite), the semi-translucent stone popularly known as Egyptian alabaster. They were extensively quarried long before the Amarna Period, the area being known as Hatnub (‘gold mansion’). The largest of the old quarries, which provided blocks at the time of pyramid building in the Old Kingdom, lies further back in the desert, about 14 kms south-east of the South Tombs. The remains of the ancient quarry road, marked by a line of dark stones, runs across the low desert in the direction of the river in the southern part of Amarna

References

Harrell, J.A., 2001. Ancient quarries near Amarna. Egyptian Archaeology 19, 36–8.

Map of ancient quarries


Map of ancient quarries
click to enlarge

 


 
 

Website first posted September 2000; last updated October 2017 | enquiries concerning website: email bjk2@cam.ac.uk