In ancient Egypt, stone was used for building purposes as well as for utilitarian and revered objects; almost all kinds of available stone were used, both hard and soft. The relative hardness of stone can be described and compared to the Hardness Scale of Minerals devised by Friederich Mohs (1773–1839). Mohs arranged them in ten ascending degrees, from the softest (1, talc) to the hardest (10, diamond), with the rest listed between (2, gypsum; 3, calcite; 4, fluorite; 5, apatite; 6, orthoclase; 7, quartz; 8, topaz; and 9, corundum).

Two important tools for working hard stone (rwdt) were the tubular drill and the straight-edged saw, both of copper (bἰʒ) in use with a quartz sand (šʿy) abrasive. Before c.3500 BCE, some stones were drilled by the common marsh reed (Phragmites communis), rotated by a bow with dry quartz sand, but after that date, the Naqada II (c.3500–3150 BCE) stoneworker (ḥm-ἰnr) copied the reed's tubular shape in copper and, later in dynastic times, in bronze. The reed effectively drilled hard limestone (ἰnr ḥḏ; Mohs 3–5), calcite (often mistermed “Egyptian alabaster” or “alabaster,” šs; Mohs 3–4), and marble (Mohs 3–5). Although pure calcite and pure limestone (both calcium carbonate) are usually of Mohs 3 hardness, variations in composition and/or mineral inclusions cause some varieties (particularly limestone which is usually combined with magnesium carbonate) to be harder—ranging between Mohs 3 and 5; modern-day drilling and cutting tests indicate this range for Egyptian calcite, limestone, and marble. Holes in harder stone—such as basalt (bh̭nw; Mohs 7–8)—were made in ancient times by grinding with handheld borers of sandstone or borers of other stone material used with a quartz sand abrasive, continually twisted clockwise and counterclockwise. Perforations for stone beads were often made by similarly twisting borers of flint (ds) back and forth. [See CALCITE and LIMESTONE.]

The copper tube (which in use leaves a removable core) was sometimes driven by a bow, its string twisted around a tightly fitted wooden shaft and its top end rotated in a stone bearing-cap. For example, the perforated lug handles on Naqada II hard-stone vessels show striated tapered holes, typical of this drilling technique. Bow-driven copper tubes of 110 millimeters (6 royal fingers or 4.25 inches) in diameter were used to drill rows of adjacent touching holes in cutting out the center of Khufu's (Cheops') granite (mʒṯ) sarcophagus that is still inside the Great Pyramid at Giza. As long ago as 1883, W. M. Flinders Petrie discussed the dimensions of tubular-shaped holes and saw cuts in his The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh.

Copper tubes varied from approximately 6 to 125 millimeters (0.25 to 5 inches) in diameter, with wall thicknesses of 1 to 5 millimeters (less than one-quarter inch), similar to saw-blade thicknesses. Small diameter, thinwalled tubes were created from beaten sheet copper, while large diameter, thick-walled tubes were probably cast in vertical sand molds. The weighted, straight-edged stone-cutting saw, cast horizontally (up to 2.5 meters [8 feet] in length with a thickness of about 5 millimeters), was employed to cut hard-stone architectural blocks and to roughly shape sculpture, beginning in the first dynasty (c.3050–2850 BCE). From the third dynasty onward (2687–2632 BCE), it was used to cut calcite and harder stone sarcophagi to size.

Present-day tests on granite, limestone, and calcite by drilling and sawing resulted in ratios of the weight of copper worn off the tools to the weight of the abraded stone removed—these were 1:0.9, 1:8, and 1:12, respectively; the usual consumption of sand and the amount of time for drilling or sawing 1 cubic centimeter of those stones were 250, 50, and 45 grams and 40, 5, and 2 minutes. That data allowed for some calculation of the approximate sand and copper consumption, as well as the manufacturing time, for a specific artifact. For example, the sawing, drilling, and finishing of Khufu's granite sarcophagus required about 37 metric tons (tonnes) of sand, 430 kilograms of copper, and 21 months of man-hour time to make. The finely ground resulting waste powders contained minute quartz, stone, and copper particles, quite dangerous to health (causing silicosis). In present-day tests, limestone and calcite powders were used to make faience cores, and granite powders created blue glazes that were similar to some ancient faience (tḥnt). The waste powders were also probably used to make a paste for drilling varieties of quartz (Mohs 7)—agate, amethyst, carnelian—and other stones for beads with a pointed, bow-driven copper drill. However, eighteenth and nineteenth dynasty (c. 1569–1201 BCE) bead drillers at Thebes, Upper Egypt, each spun up to five bronze drills simultaneously with one bow. Present-day experiments confirmed the feasibility of that mass-production technique.


Stone Working. Figure 1. Mallet used in stoneworking, from Deir el-Bahri. (University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia. Object # E 2434).

Vessels of breccia, diorite, basalt, porphyry, schist, and serpentine were made in large number in Naqada II times, because of the introduction of a combined drilling and boring tool; the vessels were always shaped before they were hollowed. Representations from dynastic times depicted a stone-weighted wooden shaft, angled at the top for a handle. The shaft was crafted from a forked branch, with its main stem cut away above the fork. A copper tube was forceably fitted onto the end of the shaft; the tool was moved back and forth, clockwise and counterclockwise, by wrist action. Several ever-widening tubes were worked at the same spot, to weaken the central mass safely, although in a large vessel adjacent holes were drilled around the mouth's perimeter to create the perforation effect. For a bulbous vessel, a forked shaft lashed to the main shaft drove a series of ever-larger figure eight-shaped stone borers, which widened the original drill hole. Vessels of gypsum (Mohs 2) were bored out by crescent-shaped flints that were on forked shafts, as were inverted, truncated-cone borers that shaped such gypsum vessels' mouths. Domestic trading in, for example, stone vessels, palettes, and flint knives, increased from Naqada II to Naqada III (c. 3200–3050 BCE). In particular, Upper and Lower Egyptian Predynastic and later dynastic stone vessels were valuable trade objects, used in exchange for essential foreign raw materials, such as cedar wood from Lebanon.


Stone Working. Figure 2. Test bas relief in soft limestone, made by mallet-driven copper chisels. The edges were scrapped by flint tools. (Courtesy Denys A. Stocks)

Most stone types, including soft limestone and hard sandstone for building were quarried using picks and axes of granite, quartzite, chert, and flint. Very hard stone, however, such as granite, was detached by pounding with handheld dolerite balls. Conversely, the curved parts of sculptures were gently bruised into shape with hafted stone mauls. Limestone tomb walls were shaped and smoothed with flint and metal chisels and adzes; flat-tapered copper and/or bronze chisels fashioned soft limestone building blocks after their rough shaping by stone tools. Present-day tests revealed that the copper or bronze chisel (mḏʒt) and adze (msḫtyw) were only effective for cutting the softer stones (Mohs 3 and 2)—limestone, red sandstone, and gypsum —and so bas-reliefs and incised hieroglyphs in all other stones, including true calcite (a mineral with hexagonal crystallization), were necessarily worked by disposable (throw-away) flint tools. (Flint, although hard [Mohs 7], is brittle; it chips or flakes along a grain or cleavage line.) The shaping of hard-stone artifacts, such as vessels, and the cutting of hieroglyphs, was accomplished by driving rudimentary flint punches and chisels into the stone, thus chipping away small pieces . The tools suffered gradual destruction.

Occasionally, the hieroglyphs in harder stone were made smooth with stone grinders; but the hieroglyphs in softer stones, such as calcite and schist, were frequently scraped to a sharp edge with flint tools. After grinding, stone surfaces were polished with waste-drilling powders; flat surfaces were tested by three equal-length wooden rods. Two of the rods were joined by a length of string attached at the top of each. These were stood apart on the surface, with the string pulled taut. The third rod, held against the string and shifted along the surface, would then indicate high spots needing further work (marked by a finger coated in red ocher).

Stoneworkers lived in communities near the sites of royal building and manufacture, for example, at Illahun in the Faiyum, Deir el-Medina at Thebes, and at Tell el-Amarna and Giza. Others toiled in palace, house, and temple workshops.


Stone Working. Figure 3. The bilateral sign nb cut into granite by test flint punches and chisels. The sign was polished by sandstone grinders and drilling powders of the waste material.



  • Arnold, Dieter. Building in Egypt: Pharaonic Stone Masonry. New York, 1991. Discusses, in depth, all types of building in stone and the associated methods of stoneworking; there are extensive references.
  • Lucas, Alfred. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries. 4th rev. ed. by J. R. Harris. London, 1962. Offers a comprehensive appraisal of materials, including stone, worked by ancient Egyptians. A revised edition is presently in preparation.
  • Petrie, W. M. Flinders. The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh. London, 1883.
  • Petrie, W. M. Flinders. Tools and Weapons. London, 1917. Describes and illustrates a large number of Egyptian tools, many of them excavated by Petrie.
  • Stocks, Denys A. “Ancient Factory Mass-Production Techniques: Indications of Large-Scale Stone Bead Manufacture during the Egyptian New Kingdom Period.” Antiquity 63 (1989), 526–531. Describes the epigraphic evidence for ancient multiple-bead drilling and presents the results of tests on reconstructed tools.
  • Stocks, Denys A. “Making Stone Vessels in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.” Antiquity 67 (1993), 596–603. Gives the connections between stone vessel manufacture in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, in addition to a comprehensive description of Egyptian stone vessel production methods and tools.
  • Stocks, Denys A. “Technology and the Reed.” Manchester Archaeological Bulletin 8 (1993), 58–68. Discusses the drilling capabilities of reed tubes, their adaptation and use as blowpipes and bellows equipment, and as a design pattern for the duplication of stonecutting tubes manufactured in copper and bronze. (Available directly from the Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Manchester, United Kingdom.)
  • Stocks, Denys A. “Derivation of Ancient Egyptian Faience Core and Glaze Materials.” Antiquity 71 (1997), 179–182. Explains the possible use of waste powders, obtained from drilling and sawing stone with copper tools and sand, for making ancient faience cores and blue glazes.

Denys A. Stocks