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

Hazor_location_map

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.

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Gneiss bowl in the Petrie Museum (UC17722)
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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)

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.

Petrie_lightgneissbowl_CC-A_SA-NC

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.

References:

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.

References

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)