Foreshadowing is not just for movies: A Turin papyrus and the shrines of Tutankhamun

Foreshadowing is a common trope in movies, where a seemingly irrelevant clue or allusion becomes highly relevant later in the narrative. When done tactlessly it can be annoying, for example when too obvious foreshadowing gives away the plot or hints at its resolution. Even when effective, it can seem over-coincidental. But real life is sometimes stranger than fiction, as when an article he wrote in 1917 foreshadowed Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

In 1917 Carter and Gardiner published a paper in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology on the Turin papyrus plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV (Turin Cat. 1885). This papyrus was first studied in 1867 by Lepsius, who correctly identified it as a plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV (KV2) in the Valley of the Kings, but as the tomb had yet to be fully excavated and recorded Lepsius had to work without recent measurements or records.

The main part of the ancient Egyptian plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV from Turin Papyrus Cat, 1885.
The ancient Egyptian plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV, Turin Museum Papyrus Cat. 1885. (Image from the Museo Egizio Turin, CC BY 2.0 IT)

Following Carter’s excavation and recording of KV2, Carter and Gardiner published a new treatment of the Turin papyrus, comparing its plan and notations to the excavated tomb and finding the plan of KV2 to be more accurate than expected.

Plan, section and axonometric view of KV2, the same tomb shown in Turin papyrus cat. 1885
Plan and section of KV2, the tomb of Ramesses IV, from the Theban Mapping Project website (https://thebanmappingproject.com/sites/default/files/plans/KV02_0.pdf)

During the course of the article Carter and Gardiner discuss the details of the plan, including the burial chamber, which is shown with six yellow rectangles around the sarcophagus.

Detail of the burial chamber of the tomb of Ramesses IV from the Turin Papyrus (Cat. 1885) showing six yellow rectangles around the sarcophagus.
The burial chamber of the tomb of Ramesses IV from Turin papyrus cat. 1885, showing the yellow rectangles around the sarcophagus in the centre bottom of the image. (Image from the Museo Egizio Turin, CC BY 2.0 IT).

These rectangles clearly confused Carter and Gardiner (1917, 133), who concluded that all but one of the rectangles were temporary steps put in to allow the mummy to be inserted into the sarcophagus. The second to outermost rectangle, which is shown as ‘yellow corner blocks, interconnected by read lines’ they suggest was a funeral canopy.

Five years’ later one of the authors of the article would finally resolve the question of the yellow rectangles, when Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62). Inside the burial chamber, Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus was surrounded four gilded wooden shrines, with a funerary canopy between the outermost and the second shrine, exactly as the Turin plan shows. The layout of these shrines was recently displayed to the public during the successful Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, where the position of the shrines was shown as four gold rectangles on the floor and ceiling of the exhibition room surrounding a representation of the Pharaoh’s mummy, adorned with some of his jewellery.

Image shows a dummy adorned with Tutankhamun's jewellery in a sarcophagus-like case. On the floor and ceiling four nested gold lines show the positions of the four nested golden shrines set around the sarcophagus in the burial chamber of Tutankhamun.
Image from the 2019-20 Exhibition Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, showing the layout of the shrines around the sarcophagus in the burial chamber. (Author photograph, taken in the Saatchi Gallery in 2019).

These golden shrines, recently in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square and shortly to go on display in the Grand Egyptian Museum, are truly impressive. Forming literal walls of gold, they also offered an additional surface for funerary imagery and underworld books, including the first examples of the Book of the Heavenly Cow.

Image of a golden shrine with a per-wer roof and cavetto cornice. The doors and walls of the shrine are decorated with funerary inscriptions.
The second shrine of Tutankhamun (Author photograph, taken in the Cairo Museum)
Image shows the rear interior wall of a golden shrine, with a large cow held up by various gods, with hieroglyphs above, seen past the vertical uprights of the shrine doors. The
The Book of the Heavenly Cow, from the rear, inside wall of the first (outermost) shrine of Tutankhamun (Author Photograph, taken in the Cairo Museum).

When Carter and Gardiner co-authored their article on Turin Papyrus 1885 they cannot have imagined that one of them would resolve the question of the yellow-rectangles in such a spectacular fashion within just a few years of publication. Sometimes foreshadowing in real life is stranger than fiction.


Carter, H. and A. H. Gardiner 1917, The Tomb of Ramesses IV and the Turin Plan of a Royal Tomb, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 4: 130–158.

Lepsius, R. 1867. Grundplan des Grabes König Ramses IV in einem Turiner Papyrus K. Berlin: Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Theban Mapping Project, Theban Mapping Project Website, <https://thebanmappingproject.com/&gt; accessed 15 April 2021.

Museo Egizio, Turin, Papyrus with the plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV on the front and some administrative texts on the reverse, Museo Egizio Collection <http://collezioni.museoegizio.it/it-IT/material/Cat_1885/&gt; accessed 15 April 2021.

A gneiss sphinx: Is the Hazor sphinx made from Gebel el-Asr gneiss?


In 2013 an Egyptian sphinx was discovered at the Biblical site of Hazor, in what is now northern Israel. It was inscribed with the name of Menkaure, fifth king of the IV Dynasty and owner of the third pyramid at Giza.

On reading the reports of the discovery I was drawn to the stone from which the sphinx was made. Careful examination of the published photographs of the artefact reveal that the sphinx was made of a stone comprising dark blue and black bands in a light off-white matrix. These colours and patterning are typical of Gebel el-Asr  gneiss; comparable examples of gneiss are featured in my earlier post ‘When diorite is gneiss’, have been published by James Harrell’s website, and examples are visible on the Petrie Museum website. Egyptian objects made from examples of similarly coloured gneiss are shown below. The intact bowl (UC17722) and the broken bowl with a cartouche of King Khaba (UC15800) both date to the III Dynasty, other fragments (e.g. UC72412) from the Petrie Museum date to the IV Dynasty and come from Giza.

Gneiss bowl in the Petrie Museum (UC17722)

Gneiss bowl in the Petrie Museum (UC15800).


Confirmation of the stone used to produce the sphinx must await  further analysis of the artefact, but it is well known that the Gebel el-Asr quarries were exploited during the Old Kingdom and particularly by the IV Dynasty pharaohs. Gneiss stone vessels have been found in royal tombs from the I Dynasty onwards.  A gneiss stela of the II Dynasty Pharaoh Peribsen was found at his tomb at Abydos and is now in the British Museum (EA35597). Gneiss floor tiles were employed in the III Dynasty Step Pyramid of Netjerikhet Djoser. During the IV Dynasty large statues were produced in gneiss, including the famous example from the funerary complex of Khafre that is now in the Cairo Museum and was featured in a previous blog on this site (http://wp.me/p4wCoi-1g) . There is also considerable evidence of Old Kingdom activity at Gebel el-Asr, including stelae left at the site by the expeditions (http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/Pre2003/ShawI/shawi.html).  Gneiss vessels were even found in the pyramid complex of Menkaure, the IV Dynasty Pharaoh, who also dedicated the sphinx found at Hazor.

The inscription and original location of the sphinx are also interesting. The excavators suggest that the Hazor sphinx was originally set up at Heliopolis (known as Iunu to the Egyptians), close to modern Cairo. They suggest it was later removed to Hazor in the second millenium BC by either the Canaanite Hyksos kings, who ruled the northern part of Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period; or the subsequent New Kingdom Pharaohs, who controlled much of Canaan.

Heliopolis was the associated with the cult of Ra, the sun god, who became increasingly important during the IV Dynasty. For the first time in Egyptian history, IV Dynasty Pharaohs had names incorporating the name of Ra. Djed-f-Ra, Kha-f-Ra and Men-Kau-Ra all had names compounded with Ra  and DjedefRa was the first to use the title ‘Son of Ra’, which was later employed by every pharaoh. The true pyramids of the IV Dynasty have also been associated with solar religion, and the succeeding V Dynasty took this a stage further with the creation of sun temples in addition to their pyramid complexes.

The increasing use of gneiss for statuary in the reign of Khafre, may reflect the same interest in solar religion. The excavators of Gebel el-Asr, Engelbach and later Harrell and Brown, noted that the gneiss had a distinctive blue glow in the sunlight. Harrell and Brown suggest that this luminosity made the stone particularly attractive to the Egyptians. Given that the Egyptians attributed divine powers to certain stones and equated them with various divinities, it would not be surprising if the luminosity of the gneiss acquired solar associations. This would make a gneiss sphinx a particularly apt gift for Menkaure to provide for the solar cult centre of Heliopolis at a time when solar theology was in the ascendant.

Offline References

For gneiss stone vessels in the Early Dynastic period and Old Kingdom generally see Aston, B. G. 1994. Ancient Egyptian Stone Vessels: Materials and Forms. Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altägyptens 5. Heidelberger Oreintverlag, Heidelberg.

For  specific reports of gneiss vesssels found in Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom tombs see Firth, C. M. and Quibell, J. E. 1935. Excavations at Saqqara: The Step Pyramid. Cairo, Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte; pages 140,  180 of Reisner, G. A. 1931. Mycerinus. Cambridge Massachusetts, Harvard University Press; and page 13 of Petrie, W. M. F. 1901. The Royal Tombs of the Earliest Dynasties Part II. London, Egypt Exploration Fund.

For the gneiss floor tiles in the Step Pyramid see pages 105, 127, 193-5 of Firth, C. M. and Quibell, J. E. 1935. Excavations at Saqqara: The Step Pyramid. Cairo: Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte.

For the archaeological evidence of Old Kingdom exploitation of Gebel el-Asr see 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; and the interim report on the Gebel el-Asr project work 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 geological investigation at Gebel el-Asr and the luminosity of the stone see Harrell, J. A. and Brown, V. M. 1994 “Chephren’s Quarry in the Nubian Desert of Egypt” Nubica 3.1: 43 – 57.
For the sun cult in general see Quirke, S. 2001. The Cult of Ra: Sun-worship in Ancient Egypt. Thames and Hudson.

For the names of the Pharaohs and their meanings see Quirke, S. 1990. Who were the Pharaohs? A History of their names with a list of cartouches. British Museum Press.

For the pyramids in general see Lehner, M. 1997. The Complete Pyramids. Thames and Hudson.

For the sun temples of Abusir see Bárta, M. Coppens, F.  and Krejčí, J. (eds), Abusir and Saqqara in the year 2010  Prague: Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. They are also covered briefly, with references, in Wilkinson, R. H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames and Hudson: London.

For the relationship between stones and divinities see Aufrère, S. 1991. L’Univers Minéral dans la Pensée Égyptienne. Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire: Cairo; Aufrère, S. 2001. “The Egyptian Temple – Substitute for the Mineral Universe.” In: W. V. Davies (ed.) Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press: London. 158 – 163. For a specific case concerning turquoise see Valbelle, D. and Bonnet, C. 1996. Le sanctuaire d’Hathor maîtresse de la turquoise. Paris: Picard Editeur. See also treatments of magic and ritual in ancient Egypt such as Pinch, G. 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press: London; Pinch, G. 2001. “Red Things: The Symbolism of Colour in Magic.” In: W. V. Davies (ed.) Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press: London; Wilkinson, R. H. 1994. Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art. Thames and Hudson: London.

Image credits

Gneiss objects from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL, on a Creative Commons  Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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

The cairns of the red mountain: Cairns and comparative anthropology

Cairns are a common enough feature of the Egyptian landscape, but one I find fascinating. They are apparently ordinary and innocuous, are easy to build and hard to date, and have recently been subject to the serious archaeological research they deserve (Riemer 2013).

So I was intrigued to meet some very familiar looking cairns while on holiday on Lanzarote, in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Africa and some c. 2600 miles from the Nile valley. Cairns in Egypt exhibit a variety of different forms, and several of these different types were visible on Lanzarote. The route up and around the crater of the Red Mountain, an extinct volcano west of Playa Blanca at the south end of the island, was marked by a series of rough cairns made by simply piling stones in a heap.

Rough cairns marking the route up the Red Mountain, Playa Blanca, Lanzarote (2016)

Some felt moved to mark their successful ascent of the extinct volcano by creating miniature piles of stones, and a vast array of similar stone piles were visible on the foreshore at Marina Rubicon, close to an area of former salt pans and derelict windmills. While the modern stone piles were probably engendered by the artistic impulses of the locals and the boredom of passing tourists, the accumulation of the features was very similar to the piles recorded at Egyptian sites and generally assumed to be of a ritual nature (see for example the upright stones at Gebel Tingar published in Storemyr et al.  2013).

Stones piled up vertically on the beach at Marina Rubicon, Playa Blanca, Lanzarote (2016).

Elsewhere in Lanzarote similar piles of vertical stones, arranged in lines, were used to mark field boundaries between vineyards or garden plots, much like simple navigational aids found along ancient desert roads in Egypt.

The explanation for these similarities is very simple, but their existence is thought-provoking. Like Egypt, Lanzarote is a place where there is very little wood (due to a lack of rainfall and high temperatures), but abundant small stones. Instead of building wooden markers and fences, it is far more efficient for people in both countries to use local stones to mark their property, their routes, their success and their artistry.

There may also be a common North African origin for the cairn-building activities in Egypt and Lanzarote, although it should be pointed out that there is no evidence of any direct connection between the Egyptians and the Canary Islands. The native inhabitants of the Canary Islands (commonly known as Guanches) are believed to have originated in North Africa, and their native language is similar to indigenous North African groups. Since the desert environment extends across much of North Africa, it would be logical for many North African groups to use cairns and other stone formations for various purposes. The ancestors of the Guanches are likely to have been part of this general ‘cairn culture’, just as the Egyptians were on the opposite side of the continent. It would be interesting to track the occurrence of cairns and stone piles around the Sahara, to see how common these forms are cross-culturally.

Cairn-building habits are convenient for the archaeologist, who benefits from surviving stone structures long after wood would have decayed in all but the best conditions. They can aid in the identification of routes and significant places, and they also demonstrate the continuity of human-nature. The tourists on the beach at Playa Blanca built additional stone piles to feel part of something that began before they arrived and will continue after they leave. It is likely that a similar motivation prompted those ancient Egyptians who contributed to the stone piles at Gebel Tingar, even if this was subsumed within more complex religious or ritual ideals.

The Lanzarote cairns also demonstrate a number of problems of cairn archaeology. The very simple forms used on Lanzarote are extremely similar to those used in Egypt, and probably elsewhere as well. If a modern cairn looks very similar to an ancient one, this makes any given structure difficult to date. It also raises questions of function. If the piles of stones on the beach at Playa Blanca are artistic, why should the structures at Gebel Tingar be ‘ritual’? How can we distinguish between the two? These are the questions I am trying to answer in my research on Egyptian cairns, cairn-culture and landscape archaeology.


Cairns feature regularly in papers in F. Förster, and H. Riemer, (eds.), 2013. Desert Road Archaeology in Ancient Egypt and Beyond, Africa Praehistorica 27, Köln, but see particularly H. Riemer, ‘Lessons in landscape learning: The dawn of long-distance travel and navigation in Egypt’s Western Desert from prehistoric to Old Kingdom times’ for cairns in navigation; and  Storemyr, P. Bloxam, E. Heldal, T. and Kelany, A. 2013. ‘Ancient desert and quarry roads on the west bank of the Nile in the First Cataract region’ and references therein for  collections of upright stones and stone piles as ritual structures at Gebel Tingar .

A brief description of the Guanches, their culture and the impact of colonisation is presented in J. L. Concepcion, 2014, The Guanches survivors and their descendants. 20th Edition.

Surveying in the Mansion of Gold; The Hatnub travertine (Egyptian Alabaster) quarries near Minya

The Hatnub travertine quarries comprise an area of the Eastern desert of Egypt, roughly 17km south-east of the famous site of Amarna. Since 2012 a joint mission from the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale and the University of Liverpool have been working in the largest quarry, Quarry P (below, looking west).P1060406

The primary aim of the Hatnub Epigraphic Project is the identification and recording of the hieroglyphic and hieratic inscriptions and graffiti in Quarry P, but also includes a total station survey of the inscriptions and graffiti and any other archaeological features our investigations may reveal.

Initially the total station survey used a local grid, with an origin at an arbitrarily located point given the designation 1000,1000,1000, but it subsequently proved possible to georeference the survey stations and data using a combination of satellite imagery (LC81760412013083LGN02) and existing site plans from the 1980s (Shaw 2010). This enabled me to give the total station survey points (called ‘Hatnub stations’ in the next image) real-world coordinates on the Universal Transverse Mercator Projection Zone 36 North, which covers Egypt. As a result I have been able to include the survey data in the site Geographic Information System together with other information from previous archaeological investigations and satelite imagery.

Although the visible inscriptions and graffiti in the quarry had previously been recorded and published (Anthes 1928; Blackden and Fraser 1892). The current project found several new inscriptions and graffiti and was also able to identify additional text belonging to inscriptions which had previously been published (Enmarch 2015).


The locations of both the known and new inscriptions and graffiti were recorded in three dimensions, to enable them to be plotted in both plan and elevation and provide a complete record of the written remains within the quarry.  As a result the most heavily surveyed areas are the locations where inscriptions and graffiti are located (Above, plan of the quarry in 2015); the north and south sides of the entrance passage, an area on the north side of the quarry wall known as ‘Cirque Nord’, a larger area of graffiti on the south side of the quarry wall, the ‘Cirque Sud’, and a large boulder on the path from the mouth of the entrance passage to the Cirque Sud. This large boulderP1060425 was particularly interesting. In addition to several carved inscriptions, it had also been decorated with small images of little seated men (Left). Resembling the ‘seated man’ determinative denoting an official in hieroglyphic writing, these images are small but largely devoid of any writing. In some rare cases they are accompanied by a name and/or title.   As a result of these features, this boulder has become known as ‘Little Man Wall’.

In addition to the inscriptions and graffiti, I also surveyed the rim and base of the quarry, and several features within it. This enabled me to determine that Quarry P is 50m wide, 75m long, 28m deep and has a 75m long entrance passage. Something of the scale of the quarry is visible in the first picture, taken from the eastern side, opposite the entrance passage. The small figures visible in the distance are the workmen, building retaining walls to keep the debris from falling back into the entrance passage. The distant blue shape on the horizon are the pickup trucks that transport us to the site.

In addition to the inscriptions, we have surveyed a number of other features around the quarry and particularly within the entrance passage. These  included a number of well-carved niches set into the walls, possibly for ritual or cultic purposes, smaller holes carved at various intervals along the walls of the entrance passage and a set of steps leading into the entrance passage.  In 2015 we began clearing the debris from the entrance passage, revealing several additional features, including a number of larger steps carved into the floor of the entrance passage, and some other features created to assist in the removal of larger stones from the quarry.


Anthes, R. 1928. Die Felsinschriften von Hatnub. Untersuchungen zur Geschichte und Altertumskunde Ägyptens 9. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs.

Blackden, M. W. and Fraser, G. W. 1892. Collection of Hieratic Graffiti from the Alabaster Quarry of Hat-nub. Private Collection.

Enmarch, R. Forthcoming in Autumn 2015 issue of Egyptian Archaeology 47. Magazine of the Egypt Exploration Society

LC81760412013083LGN02, Landsat 8 satellite image of the Hatnub area, taken in 2013. Landsat imagery is freely available from the  United States Geological Survey earthexplorer.

Shaw, I. 2010. Hatnub: Quarrying Travertine in Ancient Egypt. Egypt Exploration Society Excavation Memoir 88: London.

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)