Being Human #3: Experimental Archaeology – Egyptian Stone-working

Today’s post is by Michelle from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are each bringing our own interests and insights into Manchester Museum and its collections.

For more about Egyptology, please visit the Curator’s blogEgypt at the Manchester Museum, and for archaeology visit Ancient Worlds.

Being Human # 3: Experimental Archaeology – Egyptian Stone-working

When asked to define what it is to be human, for most people the ability to use tools would almost certainly be among the criteria. That isn’t to say that the animal kingdom is not abundant with examples of creatures that have the ability to use and modify tools, however symbolic behaviour is a characteristic of humans, with stone tools being the first evidence of material expression.

Looking at the ancient world with modern eyes, there is something intrinsically ‘human’ about wanting to understand who our ancestors were, and to find traces of the human process in the production of material culture. The collection and study of antiquities has always entertained questions of who the people were who made and used them, and what were they used for, but more recently, additional to these has been the desire to know, how were they made? And this is the starting point for experimental archaeology.

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There is an element of unknowability about any ancient manufacturing process, and understanding how things have been made has prompted the relatively new discipline, over the last century and a half, of experimental archaeology – the practical application of known tools and techniques, and when they are not known, experimenting to try to replicate the manufacturing process that would result in the same finished object.

‘How long did it take to make it?’, is probably the most frequently asked question when visitors see, and are invited to touch, a huge, highly polished, stone bowl in the Ancient Worlds – Egyptian Worlds gallery at Manchester Museum – even more so when they find out that it’s around 5,000 years old!

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Vessel made of andesite porphyry (Manchester Museum No.: 1776)

So, what is it?

This vessel (No.: 1776) is made from andesite porphyry and was found in the ‘Main Deposit’ in Hierakonpolis (Kom el-Ahmar) in Upper Egypt. It was donated to Manchester Museum in 1898 by the Egyptian Research Account.

01HK map
Map showing Hierakonpolis. Available from: http://www.hierakonpolis-online.org/

This deposit was beneath the Temple of Nekhen (Temple of Hawks) and contained some of the most important historical objects relating to the formation of the Egyptian state. They are presumed all to be votive offerings, however the precise date of the deposit or deposits remains a matter of debate. Especially important for understanding the history of Early Egypt are the palette of King Narmer and some decorated ceremonial mace heads.

Ceremonial mace heads of King Scorpion and King Narmer from the ‘Main Deposit’, on display at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Who did it belong to? And what was it used for?

There are no apparent markings to indicate ownership on this huge bowl, however its scale and material suggest a ceremonial function; displaying the wealth, power, control of resources and craftsmanship available to the social elite, presumably of a ruler or king. Due to the uninscribed nature and its archaeological context including material from a considerable time span, it is from comparison and parallel that this vessel can be dated to the late Predynastic / Early Dynastic period, approximately 3200-3000 BC.

This was clearly an important object, and reflects the ‘no expense spared’ attitude in production of objects for the person who was at the pinnacle of the social pyramid. Looking at the stone itself puts the magnitude of this manufacturing process into perspective. On the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, with diamond being rated at 10 and talc at 1, porphyry is measured at 7, and was quarried in Egypt’s Eastern desert. A significant amount of work therefore was necessary both in the transportation of raw material and the subsequent stone-working.

But how did they make it?

It is very difficult to conjecture the types of stone-working technology that were available, due to the urban non-survival from this period. However, using comparable Mesopotamian archaeological evidence, including figure-of-eight borers common during the Uruk and Jemdet Nasr periods, Denys Stocks (Experiments in Egyptian Archaeology, 2003, pg. 141-2), one of the leading authorities on experimental Egyptian stone-working, suggests either a bow-drilling technique or weighted shaft process based on the appearance of later hieroglyph (Gardiner U25) representing ‘craft’, for the undercutting of bulbous vessels like Manchester’s No.: 1776.

Hieroglyphs U24 and U25 from Gardiner’s sign list evidencing possible stone-working techniques

Although the forked shafts to which these borers would have been attached, nor the tools that drove them, have been found in either Egypt or Mesopotamia, striations on the interior of vessels, consistent with this process, have been discovered at sites in both regions, including at Hierakonpolis.

Stocks_1
Stock’s figure-of-eight borer. Reproduced from ‘Experiments in Egyptian Archaeology’, available from: http://www.sci-lib.net/index.php?act=attach&type=post&id=14668

Denys Stocks conjectures some of the tools and processes used in creating vessel No.: 1776 as; stone hammers for the initial shaping, flint chisels for more precise shaping, copper drill-tubes for bow drilling with dry sand as the abrasive for both the lug handles and the interior, sandstone blocks for finishing the surface inside and out, and fine sand and mud for the highly polished finish.

And so to the million-dollar question;

How long did it take to make?

In the absence of a time-machine, this is a question for which we will never have an exact answer. However, this is when experimental archaeologists can really come into their own. No longer just a theory, this is about the practical application of those ideas – having a go, and seeing what happens! This is a process of trial and error, using every material and historical source available. It’s all about understanding the material and becoming familiar with the tools and techniques that would be available, and then being able to extrapolate the data for objects of different sizes. And even at its most accurate, this can only ever be a ‘best guess’.

In correspondence with Denys Stock, he concludes about this vessel, “My best estimate for manufacturing time is about 800 hours for shaping the exterior, drilling out the lugs, drilling and grinding the interior to shape, and polishing for both the exterior and interior surfaces. So about three months’ work completed by one stone vessel specialist.”

This object and its manufacture represents a huge investment of time and physical resource, in addition to the quarrying and transportation. It tells stories not only about the social hierarchy and management of resources, but also bringing the human connection to the physical work that went into this object. To touch this vessel – and it is so very touchable – allows the modern hand to occupy the same space as the hand of the craftsperson who shaped it more than 5,000 years ago.

Michelle Scott

For more about Egyptology, please visit the Curator’s blogEgypt at the Manchester Museum, and for archaeology visit Ancient Worlds.

Read more of the #BeingHuman series from the Visitor Team:
Being Human #1: Taung Child – The Missing Link
Being Human #2: Reconstructing identity – a new look at the ancient dead
Being Human #4: Signs and Symbols

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