Egyptologists today correctly use the term calcite when referring to lithic materials that were historically called travertine, alabaster, Egyptian alabaster, or Oriental alabaster. Geologically, calcite is a mineral composed of hexagonal crystals of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). As used by geologists, the term alabaster refers to a fine-grained, massive variety of rock gypsum, consisting largely of the mineral gypsum (hydrous calcium sulfate, CaSO4 · 2H2O), which is a secondary mineral formed by the hydration of anhydrite (CaSO4) in a zone of weathering. Ironically, alabastrites was the original, ancient Greek and Latin name used for “Egyptian travertine” (a limestone), but that had been forgotten when alabaster acquired its modern definition in the 1500s. Another term sometimes used for Egyptian travertine is calcite-alabaster, which is both inappropriate and self-contradictory. Many Egyptologists now call travertine by the term calcite, to avoid confusion with the well-known and very different-looking Italian travertine, from Tivoli, Italy (the Romans' tivertino, the Latin word for “travertine”). From the Old Kingdom onward, the Egyptians called travertine šs, but during the Old Kingdom it was also occasionally referred to as biʒt. [See LIMESTONE.]
Egyptian travertine (calcite) occurs in two varieties: (1) a nonbanded to faintly banded, tan to brownish-yellow, coarse-grained, translucent form; and (2) the strikingly banded form with interlayering of the first-mentioned variety with a white, fine-grained, opaque form. With prolonged exposure to sunlight, the brown and yellow colors become white. An example of this weathering phenomenon may be seen at the Mosque of Muhammad Ali (built from 1824 to 1848 CE) in Cairo's Citadel. Both the interior and exterior surfaces of this building were clad with banded travertine (calcite), but now the outside surface has become nearly white whereas the inside surface is still brightly colored.
Travertine (calcite) occurs as fracture-and-cavity fillings in the limestone deposits that border the Nile Valley between Esna in the south and Cairo in the north, and nine ancient quarries are known for this rock. The locations, from south to north, and the dates for these sites are the following: one site near Wadi Asyut (New Kingdom); four sites near the Tell el-Amarna ruins at Hatnub (Old Kingdom through Roman period), both in and near Wadi el-Zebeida (Middle and New Kingdoms), and in Wadi Barshawi (possibly Middle Kingdom); one site at el-Qawatir near the city of el-Minya (possibly Old through New Kingdoms); one site in Wadi Umm Argub near the Wadis Muwathil and Sannur (Late period); one site in Wadi Araba near Wadi Askhar el-Qibli (Roman); and one site in Wadi el-Garawi near the city of Helwan (Old Kingdom). Banded travertine was obtained from all those quarries, but the nonbanded variety may have come only from Hatnub. (Hatnub is an ancient Egyptian word meaning “golden house,” and it may have been applied to that quarry because of the uniform golden-brown color of its rock.)
As a relatively soft mineral (number 3 on the Mohs Hardness Scale), calcite is easily worked with bronze, copper, and other metal or stone tools. Its translucency, pleasing colors, and ability to take a fine polish made it a popular decorative stone in Egypt from early dynastic times onward. Because of the difficulty of obtaining large pieces, it was mainly employed for small objects, such as statuettes, shawabtis, offering tables, vases, bowls, dishes, canopic jars, and unguent jars. The unguent jars are the alabastra of classical Greece, originally ceramic and only later carved from Egyptian travertine (calcite), hence the Greco-Roman name alabastrites for this rock.
Occasionally, calcite was used for paving stones and wall linings in temples as, for example, in the fourth dynasty valley temple of Khafre at Giza and the nineteenth dynasty sanctuary in the temple of Ramesses II at Abydos, respectively. Although large travertine (calcite) objects are less common than small ones, many are known; these include sarcophagi, life-size and colossal statues, naoi, embalming beds, whole shrines, and other objects. One mode of transport for such articles was shown in a detailed painting on the wall of the twelfth dynasty tomb of Djehutihotpe (or Thuthotpe) at Bersheh, where a colossal statue of that nobleman is pulled on a sledge by 172 men. Some notable examples of large objects are the following: (1) the sarcophagus of King Sety I from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes, now in Sir John Soane's Museum, London; (2) two huge blocks at Karnak temple in Luxor—one a Late period offering stand or kiosk foundation in the Great Court and the other, possibly, a statue pedestal of uncertain age in the Central Court; (3) the colossal statue of the god Sobek with the eighteenth dynasty King Amenhotpe III from Dahamsha, now in the Luxor Museum; (4) the colossal statue of King Sety I from Karnak temple, now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo; and (5) two bark shrines, one by the eighteenth dynasty kings Amenhotpe I/Thutmose I, and one by the twelfth dynasty king Senwosret I, now in the open-air museum at Karnak temple. Numerous other examples may be found in Alfred Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries (1962).
- Aston, Barbara G. Ancient Egyptian Stone Vessels: Materials and Forms. Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altägyptens, 5. Heidelberg, 1994. Discusses the use of travertine (calcite) for small vessels.
- Aston, Barbara G., James A. Harrell, and Ian M. E. Shaw. “Stone”. In Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technologies, edited by Ian M. E. Shaw and Paul T. Nicholson. London, 1999. Offers an up-to-date summary of the petrology, uses, and sources of travertine (calcite) in ancient Egypt.
- Harrell, James A. “Misuse of the Term ‘Alabaster’ in Egyptology.” Göttinger Miszellen 119 (1990), 37–42. Describes the nomenclatural problems related to travertine (calcite) and gives a detailed petrological description of the rock.
- Klemm, Rosmarie, and Dietrich D. Klemm. Steine und Steinbrüche im Alten Ägypten. Berlin, 1993. Presents the most complete description of Egyptian travertine quarries and, although written in German, is still useful for its maps and bibliography.
- Lucas, Alfred. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, 4th ed., rev. & ed. by J. R. Harris. London, 1962.
- Shaw, Ian M. E. “The 1986 Survey of Hatnub.” In Amarna Reports IV, edited by Barry J. Kemp, pp. 160–167. London, 1987. See also Shaw's 1986 paper in Amarna Reports III. These papers describe the results of recent archaeological work at Hatnub and provide references to earlier surveys.
James A. Harrell