When diorite is gneiss; Products of the Gebel el-Asr quarries

Gebel el-Asr does not appear to be a typical Egyptian archaeological site. There are no pyramids (not even small mudbrick ones), no temples and no large structures. You could easily drive past it without noticing, but you will certainly have seen its products in museums and on television programmes. Gebel el-Asr is the only quarry in Egypt that produced three varieties of metamorphic gneiss, prized by the Egyptians from the Predynastic to the Middle Kingdom for the manufacture of stone vessels and statuary. The most recognisable product of the quarry, the gneiss statue of Khafre from his valley temple (shown in the photo below), even has its own Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khafre_Enthroned.

Sellicks_Khafregneiss-Cairo_crop Petrie_gneissbowl_CC-A_SA-NC

The Gebel el-Asr gneiss was originally described as ‘diorite’ by Egyptologists, but modern analyses of the stone have identified it as a form of gneiss. Geologists have divided the Gebel el-Asr gneiss into three slightly different forms, but as this differentiation is based on the proportions of different minerals within the stone, the material can be difficult to identify without detailed geological knowledge. As a result, there is considerable variability in the labelling of Gebel el-Asr gneiss objects and it is sometimes difficult to know if a specified object is actually made of the stone. Some artefacts are still labelled ‘diorite’ or ‘Chephren diorite’, while others are described as ‘gneiss’ or ‘Chephren gneiss’.  Specific labels such as ‘anorthosite gneiss’ or ‘diorite gneiss’ also occur.

Diorite gneiss and gabbro gneiss

Gneissic diorite, and gneissic gabbro are the most difficult to differentiate as they appear very similar, both have a banded appearance, are darker in colour and can only be differentiated geologically by the proportion of feldspars within them. They were favoured for the maufacture of statuary, including the famous statue of Khafre, but stone vessels were also produced. The early dynastic stone vessel shown above is UC6186 from the collection of the Petrie Museum (http://petriecat.museums.ucl.ac.uk/).

Anorthosite gneiss

Gneissic anorthosite, the third variety of stone from Gebel el-Asr is easier to differentiate from the others as it has a lighter hue. It was commonly used for stone vessels, although the head of an anorthosite gneiss statue of Khafre is  also known and is located in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim (Inv. 2666/1). A partly damaged anorthosite gneiss stone vessel from the Petrie Museum with the serekh of King Khaba (UC 15800)is shown below. Weights in several varieties of gneiss are also known.


Although the darkness and banding of any given Gebel el-Asr gneiss object may provide an indication of whether it is likely to be anorthosite gneiss or diorite/gabbro gneiss, the issue may become confused where artefacts contain transitions from one type of gneiss to another. Ultimately the only sure method of determining the precise type of stone is examination by a geologist with a hand lens or microscope. Where the precise type is uncertain and in the absence of detailed geological analysis, it is generally best to refer to all products as ‘Gebel el-Asr gneiss’ or ‘Khafre gneiss’, following the suggestion of Rosemarie and Dietrich Klemm in their geological discussion of Egyptian stones and quarries Stones and Quarries of Ancient Egypt.


A description of the gneiss, references and further information can be found in Aston, B. G. Harrell, J. and Shaw, I. 2001. “Stone”. In: P. Nicholson and I. Shaw (eds.) Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technologies. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 5 – 77.

A more detailed geological discussion can be found in the excellent guide to the geology of all Egyptian stones and quarries by Rosemarie and Dietrich Klemm Stones and Quarries of Ancient Egypt published by British Museum Press (2007).

An article concerning the geological research done in 1990  is Harrell, J. A. and Brown, V. M. 1994 “Chephren’s Quarry in the Nubian Desert of Egypt” Nubica 3.1: 43 – 57.  James Harrell also has details and images of the gneiss on his website http://www.eeescience.utoledo.edu/Faculty/Harrell/Egypt/Quarries/Hardst_Quar.html.

For more information about Egyptian stone vessels see Aston, B. G. 1994. Ancient Egyptian Stone Vessels: Materials and Forms. Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altägyptens 5. Heidelberger Oreintverlag: Heidelberg.

Image credits:

Statue of Khafre from the Cairo Museum, with permission from Richard Sellicks.

Gneiss bowls UC 6186 and UC 15800 from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL, on a Creative Commons  Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license


Gebel el-Asr quarries: Discovery and excavation

The Gebel el-Asr quarry is an almost invisible site in the south-west of Egypt, located some 65km north-west of Abu Simbel. It is also known as Chephren’s Quarry and Chephren Diorite Quarry after the famous statue of Khafre, which is now in the Cairo Museum and was carved from stone quarried at the site. This famous statue is shown in the photo below.  Before the construction of Lake Nasser, the quarry was sometimes known as Tushka Quarry, after the terminus of the 80km ancient quarry road leading from the site to the Nile.

Sellicks_Khafregneiss-Cairo_crop    GebelAsr_location_map

The Gebel el-Asr quarries were rediscovered in 1932 by a British Military car patrol vehicle that strayed from its intended route during a sandstorm. Two archaeological expeditions travelled to the site in 1933 and 1938. They confirmed that the site was the source of the stone for the already famous statues of Khafre, recorded the location of the remains and removed the inscribed artefacts.  The same expedition excavated a loading ramp, where large blocks were lifted onto sleds or other forms of transport for transfer to the Nile, and recorded the longest surviving Pharaonic quarry road, the 80km ancient road between Gebel el-Asr and the Nile.

Geological investigations were undertaken in 1990, and in 1997 the Gebel el-Asr Project began survey and excavation of loci across the site, in an effort to document and excavate the remains before any further destruction could occur. The site had been badly damaged due to the nearby reclamation and hydrological works associated with the Tushka Project, and continuing development made survey and excavation a priority.

Gebel el-Asr Project studied an Old and Middle Kingdom operational centre at Quartz Ridge, excavated two stone built loading ramps and an area of Old Kingdom settlement in the south of the quarrying region. The ancient quarry road from Gebel el-Asr to Tushka was also surveyed and two Old Kingdom camps were excavated along this road. Crucially, the Gebel el-Asr Project team were able to bring the importance of the site to the attention of the then Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA) and obtain SCA protection for the surviving sections. Government protection should ensure some level of preservation of the site, although it can be difficult to police such a large area, particularly when it is located at such a considerable distance from nearby settlements.

The early 21st century has also seen further investigation into the inscriptions from the site, particularly the Middle Kingdom stelae from the carnelian mine at Stelae Ridge. These are currently being translated by a team from Yale, who recently published an assemblage of stelae from one of the cairn-shrines at Stelae Ridge. My own PhD research concerns the physical, archaeological and landscape context of the Middle Kingdom cairn-shrines at Stelae Ridge, and I will be sharing selected elements of that work on this blog over the next few months.


The 1930s expeditions were reported by Engelbach in Annales du Service des antiquités de l’Egypte (ASAE); Engelbach, R. 1933. “The Quarries of the Western Nubian Desert: A Preliminary Report” ASAE 33: 65 – 74; Engelbach, R. 1939. “The Quarries of the Western Nubian Desert and the Ancient Road to Tushka” ASAE 39: 369 – 390.

The results of the geological expeidtion in 1989 are presented in Harrell, J. A. and Brown, V. M. 1994 “Chephren’s Quarry in the Nubian Desert of Egypt” Nubica 3.1: 43 – 57. Additional information concerning the Gebel el-Asr stone varieties, as well as other stones used in ancient Egypt, can be found on James Harrell’s website http://www.eeescience.utoledo.edu/Faculty/Harrell/Egypt/AGRG_Home.html.

The interim results of the Gebel el-Asr Project are presented by the Project director Dr Ian Shaw and colleagues in Shaw, I. Bloxam, E. Heldal, T. and Storemyr, P. 2010. Quarrying and Landscape at Gebel el-Asr in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. In: F. Raffaele, M. Nuzzolo and I. Incordino (eds.) Recent Discoveries and Latest Researches in Egyptology: Proceedings of the First Neapolitan Congress of Egyptology, Naples, June 18–20 2008. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz-Verlag. 293–312.

For the stelae of Sabastet from Cairn VIII at Stelae Ridge see Darnell and Manassa. 2013. A Trustworthy Seal-Bearer on a Mission: The Monuments of Sabastet from the Khephren Diorite Quarries. In: H. Fischer-Elfert and R. B. Parkinson (eds.) Studies on the Middle Kingdom in memory of Detlef Franke. Philippika Marburger altertumskundliche Abhandlungen 41. Harrassowitz Verlag: Wiesbaden. 55-92.

Image credits:

Statue of Khafre in the Cairo Museum, reproduced with the permission of Richard Sellicks.

Map of Egypt, made in Quantum GIS (www.QGIS.org) using data from Natural Earth (http://www.naturalearthdata.com)