Gebel el-Asr

The project consists of a survey and excavation at the Gebel el-Asr gneiss quarries and chalcedony mines, Lower Nubia.

About the Project

Since 1997, this ongoing University of Liverpool project, a joint British-Norwegian-Egyptian geoarchaeological expedition, has been undertaking fieldwork on a region of ancient gneiss and chalcedony quarrying at Gebel el-Asr, 70km northwest of Abu Simbel. The site is frequently referred to elsewhere as the ‘Chephren diorite quarries’ since it has long been recognised as the source of the blue-grey banded metamorphic rock from which at least six life-size seated statues of the 4th-Dynasty pharaoh Chephren (2520-2494 BC) were carved. The best-preserved of these figures is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (JE10062).


Our overall aims are to gain a better understanding of the logistics of quarrying and the living conditions of Old and Middle Kingdom Egyptian quarry-workers working in Lower Nubia, at the very edges of Egyptian-controlled territory in the 3rd and early 2nd millennia BC.


Between 1997 and 2013, with the permission of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), our joint project, organised by the University of Liverpool and the Geological Survey of Norway, Trondheim, undertook six seasons of survey and excavation at the Gebel el-Asr quarries, as well as two study seasons (2004 and 2008) analysing finds from the site stored in the Aswan, Elephantine and Kom Ombo magazines. Our expedition was the first archaeological study of the region since 1938 (apart from a primarily geological survey of the area undertaken in 1990, for which see Harrell, J.A. and V.M. Brown (1994) ‘Chephren's quarry in the Nubian Desert of Egypt’, Nubica, 3/1: 43-57) and it forms part of the international ‘Quarryscapes Project’ funded by the European Union.


For the financial aspects of the project we are extremely grateful to the following institutions:

We are grateful to the following members of the team and SCA colleagues during the 1997-2012 seasons:

  • Elizabeth Bloxam
  • Judith Bunbury
  • Alan Clapham
  • Deborah Darnell
  • Angus Graham
  • Mustafa Hassan
  • Tom Heldal
  • Salima Ikram
  • Richard Jones
  • Amir Kamal
  • Adel el-Kelany
  • Richard Lee
  • Hannah Pethen
  • Abdou Salem
  • Ashraf el-Senussi
  • Louise Simson
  • Per Storemyr.

Cultural heritage at Gebel el-Asr: modern threats to the site

The Gebel el-Asr archaeological remains were once safeguarded by their extreme desert location but they are now almost engulfed by modern activity, lying as they do in the path of the billion-dollar South Valley Development Project. This hydrological scheme, which has been gradually transforming the landscape of Wadi Tushka since the late 1990s, is intended to bring water from Lake Nasser via the Sheikh Zayed Canal to four larger canal branches (although, at the time of writing, significant work on the project seems to have halted, at least temporarily).

One of these new canals is only 200 metres from a set of ancient quarries discovered in 2002 (the so-called ‘Pounder Quarries’), while the other engineering works have already destroyed some of the archaeological remains documented by Engelbach and Murray in the 1930s. In June 2002, a report was submitted to the SCA concerning the threat to the ancient quarries, and, thanks to the rapid and effective responses of Dr Zahi Hawass and his colleagues at the SCA, a significant section of the Gebel el-Asr region was designated as a protected area.

The most important long-term aim of our Gebel el-Asr fieldwork has been to produce thematic maps and a geo-referenced database of the archaeological sites that can be used by the cultural heritage authorities, land-use planners, and the South Valley Development Project. The maps were partly drawn directly in the field on a pocket computer connected to a hand-held GPS device, using ArcPad software, and partly compiled later from GPS point registrations of a variety of features. All the map themes and point registrations were finally transformed into a series of thematic maps, including area coverage of important ancient sites.


So far at Gebel el-Asr we have identified 624 small gneiss extraction sites, 41 larger quarries, and 166 ancient infrastructure sites (comprising such features as settlements, camps, shelters, work areas, wells and ramps). The archaeological zone as a whole covers an area of about 60 square kilometres, concentrated primarily in three large areas (the Northern, Central and Southern Quarries) and two small quarries (the Northern Marginal Quarries and Chisel Quarry). These five quarry areas are characterised by variations in rock type as well as production features. It seems that most of the quarries have been exploited for vessels, probably through a considerable period of time (from the Late Neolithic Period to the end of the 5th Dynasty), a time-span of perhaps more than a thousand years.

Stone vessels are the earliest objects of gneiss known; they first appear in Late Neolithic elite burials at nearby Nabta Playa as roughly-shaped objects with phallic-shaped handles (Schild and Wendorf, 2001: 16-17) although it is during the Early Dynastic period, between the 2nd and 3rd Dynasties, that consumption of the stone for vessels in many forms exploded, gradually tailing off by the 5th Dynasty (Aston 1994: 62-4, Bloxam 2003: 131-9). At Quartz Ridge and Chisel Quarry we found many semi-worked gneiss vessels. The 2nd Dynasty king Peribsen had a gneiss stele carved for his tomb at Abydos (British Museum EA35597). Statues of gneiss were produced during the Old Kingdom and 12th Dynasty, such as the figure of a god from Saqqara (Brooklyn 58.192), the dyad of King Sahura with a figure personifying the Coptos nome (New York, MMA 18.2.4) and the headless torso of a statue of King Senusret I, 12th Dynasty, c.1971–1926 BC (Berlin, ÄM 1205). The few surviving post-Middle Kingdom gneiss statues, such as a 19th-Dynasty block-statue from Heliopolis (Vienna ÄS64), may well have re-used earlier sculptures or blocks. Indeed the comparative dearth of gneiss sculpture surviving from the New Kingdom onwards suggests that the quarries probably ceased to be used by the end of the Middle Kingdom.

The Gebel el-Asr quarries can therefore be dated on the basis of two main criteria: first, fluctuations in the extent to which gneiss was used for vessels and/or statuary in different periods, and secondly study of the pottery from different sites within the region as a whole. The former indicates that the quarries were being exploited primarily for vessels in the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods, and mainly for royal statuary in the Old and Middle kingdoms. The surface pottery, on the other hand, suggests that the majority of the ancient quarrying activity and settlement dates to the Old and Middle kingdoms. The quarrying of royal statues and other major items, such as large vessels, is concentrated in the Central Quarries and the southern part of the Northern Quarries. This activity was probably the result of only a few campaigns, mainly in the 4th Dynasty, aimed at finding and roughing out suitable blocks for a limited number of sculptures.

Since virtually every single outcrop of the Chephren gneiss in the Gebel el-Asr region has been subject to quarrying, the overall distribution of quarries reflects the highly irregular outcrop pattern of the gneiss (see Aston et al. 2000: 32-4). All quarry areas, except the Central Quarries, display a variety of gneiss types, including quite significant volumes of the light coloured, speckled type, which was the most attractive variety for vessels. In the Central Quarries, however, most of the outcrops are of the banded anorthosite gneiss typically used for royal statues. It seems possible that there was a gradual southeastwards migration of the quarrying, with the later statue-quarrying campaigns being concentrated in the more or less ‘untouched’ central and eastern areas. Both the archaeological excavations and the survey data now confirm that fire setting was used on free-standing blocks in order to open potential cracks and flake off the weathered crust, leaving the sound and massive ‘core’ of the blocks for further treatment.

Stele Ridge – chalcedony quarrying at Gebel el-Asr

The site of Stele Ridge, over 13 km northeast of the nearest outcrop of gneiss is the most outlying locus of the Gebel el-Asr region, situated very close to the modern Gebel Uweinat tarmac road, about 70 km northwest of Abu Simbel. This site was discovered by the first proper expedition to the region by Colonel Hatton and Spinks Pasha, when they returned to the area with Reginald Engelbach in 1933 (see Engelbach 1938: 370).

Originally consisting of two adjacent groups of cairns (three in the northern section of the site, and five to the south), Stele Ridge was at first identified in 1933 as a mine of ‘amethyst or carnelian’, dating to the Middle Kingdom (Engelbach 1938: 370). However, when the site was further examined in 1938, Engelbach was unable to locate either amethyst or carnelian quarried sources, despite excavating what he describes as a ‘quarry face’ down to a depth of two metres (Engelbach 1938: 372). He does, however, mention ‘large quantities of strange multi-coloured quartz, scattered over the area’, some of which are still visible at the site, and these have now been identified as translucent microcrystalline forms of quartz or chalcedony, one variant of which is carnelian. This site therefore seems to have been a major 12th Dynasty source of carnelian.

The 2004 season included a GPS survey of the Stele Ridge chalcedony workings. Surface pottery associated with the mines dates predominantly to the Middle Kingdom period with the exception of a Roman Period amphora handle found close to the Stele Ridge cairns. Two excavations were undertaken, one of which revealed the actual mine workings, approximately 1.5 m deep into the subsurface granite. The artefacts associated with the latter included a large diorite pounder and a sherd from a Middle Kingdom pottery vessel. The 2004 survey also revealed a low dry-stone wall forming an oval structure with a length of around 3 m, containing sherds from 12th Dynasty storage vessels. The purpose of this structure is unknown, but it is so far the only indication of non-ritual construction (perhaps for habitation or storage) at Stele Ridge.

Future developments

Now that the work at Gebel el-Asr is in the process of being prepared for publication, we are analysing the data with a view to answering a variety of questions:

  • What can the settlement at Gebel el-Asr tell us about the early Egyptian quarry-workers’ origins, ethnicity, living conditions and diet?
  • What can the pottery tell us about the specific dates when stone was being quarried?
  • Were the edifices currently identified as ‘loading ramps’ actually used for such a purpose? If so, how did they work?
  • What kind of ‘vehicle’ were the stones being loaded on to (a sled? a cart? a boat/barge dragged across desert from the seasonally flooding Wadi Tushka?)?
  • Can we still locate the 80 km road between the quarries and the Nile (the longest surviving quarry road in the ancient world)?

The results of the Gebel el-Asr project have so far been published as brief articles in Egyptian Archaeology and Sudan and Nubia, but we are currently writing a monograph on the quarries.

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