the most important stone used in ancient Egypt. Limestone is a sedimentary rock composed of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) in its pure form (3 on the Mohs Scale of Hardness); however, it almost never occurs in that form but is usually of varied composition, most often combined with magnesium carbonate (MgCO3, magnesite) to form dolomite (CaMg[CO3]2; 3.5–4 on the Mohs Scale of Hardness), as well as other minerals. These substances cause a variation in the texture and hardness, so depending on the composition, the hardness varies between 3 and 5 on the Mohs Scale. As a sedimentary rock, limestone is produced either by organic or inorganic processes, and it is often a highly fossiliferous rock (composed of the calcium carbonate shells of mollusks and other marine animals).

From the earliest dynasties, limestone was widely utilized, owing to its widespread occurrence in and around the Nile Valley and the surrounding deserts. Ease of quarrying and carving, the ability of harder forms to accept a polish, and its structural strength allowed it to be used for the construction of large buildings—pyramids and temples. The world's first large-scale structures, the Old Kingdom pyramid complex of Djoser, was constructed entirely of limestone. Limestone continued to be the preferred stone into the early New Kingdom, when it was gradually replaced by sandstone (Clark and Engelbach 1930, pp. 12f). Present-day experiments have demonstrated that Egyptian workers could easily quarry and sculpt limestone with copper tools, whereas hard stones, such as granite, basalt, or quartzite required working with stone tools. [See STONEWORKING.]

Numerous quarries were operated within the Mokattum Formation (a Middle Eocene limestone deposit), with important sites at Giza, Saqqara, and Illahun (on the Nile's western bank); Gebel Mokattam near the Citadel in Cairo; Gebel Tura near Tura village; and Gebel Hof near el-Masara village. Other major sources are within the Samalut Formation (Middle Eocene), the Minia Formation (late Lower Eocene to early Middle Eocene), and the Drunka Formation (Lower Eocene). Some limestones are coarse grained and are used mainly as core materials in structures; others, notably the dense variety of the Mokattum Formation, known as “Tura” Limestone, was the preferred finishing stone and facing for the Old Kingdom pyramids. Limestone was so easily obtained that it became almost the only stone for buildings other than temples—used in constructing elite homes and palaces.

Limestone statues of all sizes were commonly sculpted, since fine-grained, dense varieties are easily carved, to allow fine detailing. Examples include the famous Old Kingdom seated statue of Djoser, as well as Rahotep and his wife Nofret, Nakhtmin's wife, and the New Kingdom bust of an unnamed queen of Ramesses II. For statuary, a pure, nearly white, dense limestone was generally selected; sometimes it was finished with a medium-to-high polish, whereas at other times it was smoothed and painted. The most famous painted limestone sculpture must certainly be the New Kingdom painted head of Queen Nefertiti, found at Akhetaten (Tell el-Amarna).

Innumerable votive stelae were carved in limestone, the only stone easily obtained that would allow precise carving of hieroglyphs and highly detailed funerary scenes. Probably for the same reasons, limestone was chosen in New Kingdom wall facings—for example, the great processional scenes in the Luxor Temple and the sculpted relief scenes in the Saqqara tombs of Maya and Horemheb.

Limestone is known from Egyptian written sources under a number of names: ʿyn, ἰnr-n-ʿἰn, ἰnr-ḥḏ, ἰnr-ḥḏ-nfr, and ἰnr-ḥḏ-nfr-n-ʿin.

See also CALCITE.


  • Clarke, Somers, and R. Engelbach. Ancient Egyptian Construction and Architecture. London, 1930, repr. New York, 1990.
  • Erman, Adolf, and Hermann Grapow. Wöterbuch der Aegyptischen Sprache. 6 vols. Berlin, 1982.
  • Harrell, James A. “An Inventory of Ancient Egyptian Quarries.” Newsletter of the American Research Center in Egypt 146 (1989), 1–7 (plus cover photo).
  • Lesko, Leonard H., and Barbara Switalski, eds. A Dictionary of Late Egyptian. 4 vols. Berkeley, 1982.
  • Russman, Edna R. Egyptian Sculpture—Cairo and Luxor. Austin, 1989.
  • Schulz, Regine, and Matthias Seidel. Egypt—The World of the Pharaohs. Cologne, 1998.

Clair R. Ossian