lapidary in ancient egypt

Beautiful gemstone artefacts span the history of Ancient Egypt. However, surprisingly little is known of Egyptian lapidaries and their work.

Experiments by an engineer called Denys Stocks showed that the copper and bronze chisels of the time could only effectively cut soft stones without causing damage to the tool.

Gemstone material can also be damaged by pounding with hard rocks or meteoric iron, so it has been difficult for Egyptologists to work out how semi-precious stones (such as those found in the jewellery of Tutankhamun) were shaped.

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However, a discovery that an ancient lapidary wheel was first used in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) around 1750-1595 BC suggests the Ancient Egyptians may too have used lapidary wheels. I put some Egyptian objects under a microscope to try and find out.

Microscopic Examination of Egyptian Objects Under the microscope, stones shaped by hand look different to those shaped on a wheel. Hand abraded stone appears as a mass of lines of various thicknesses, some going in different directions, along with the presence of pits.

Wheel abraded stone appears as sharply defined, parallel lines in a single direction.
An amethyst cabochon from an Egyptian ring under a microscope showed characteristics of stone which had been abraded away by hand. These included a mass of lines of various thicknesses going in different directions, along with the presence of pits.

However, a lapis lazuli beetle from an Egyptian gold bracelet (shown above right) suggested a strong probability that the stone was worked against a wheel. Tool marks made by wheel and those made by saw (cut more deeply into the stone) can appear similar. However, the location of the marks
on the beetle’s domed and polished wing case and their feint appearance indicate wheel rather than saw markings.
Looking at the object under the microscope also revealed that the craftsman had not fully flattened off the beetle’s base – perhaps because it would be disguised by its adhesive/gold setting.

Examination of turquoise and lapis lazuli in an Egyptian bird pendant (shown below) indicates that the gemstone has been sawn to size. A wheel may have been employed in shaping the stone or used against the stone surface to make saw marks less visible.

The dates of this jewellery suggest a strong likelihood that a lapidary wheel was used by Ancient Egyptian craftsmen by at least around 1400-1308 BC. The wheel is likely to have been driven by a bow (ancient tomb paintings show jewellery workers using bow drills). The Ancient Egyptians had early knowledge of wheel technology and access to all the raw materials for making and operating lapidary wheels. These included beech and cork woods, copper, leather, cloth and beeswax. They also shared technologies with Mesopotamia at this time.
Abrasive grits such as sand and garnets
(plentiful in Egypt and harder than quartz) are well known as effective abrasives in modern lapidary. Other stones such as flint and agate are also likely to have been used for abrasive purposes.

Under the Microscope :
Further Observations
Looking at semi-precious stone objects under a microscope gives a fascinating insight into the work of Egyptian lapidaries.
A small carnelian cat forming part of a gold ring was shown to be at the high end of craftsmanship and highly polished.

Looking at the carnelian under a microscope shows that leather is likely to have been used in the polishing process and that the base has probably been worked on a flat lapping wheel. A hand tool has been used to carve the cat as well as an Egyptian sign (known as an ankh) under the base of the carnelian block on which the cat stands.
The carnelian in the area behind the cat’s front legs may have been drilled out with a bow drill and it is highly likely that a file has been used to work the area. The worker does not appear to have been able to reach inside the area to polish it.
Due to the high level of polish on objects such as this, modern lapidaries suggest that diamond as an abrasive formed part of the polishing process. However, there is a complete lack of evidence for precious gemstones (such as diamonds, rubies and sapphires) in Ancient Egypt at the time this jewellery was made.
The Ancient Egyptians traded with Afghanistan for lapis lazuli from the fourth millennium BC. However, trade between India and Afghanistan was known long before this (as far back as the sixth millennium BC).
It seems possible that India’s diamond bearing source rocks may have been obtained by panning rather than mining, so may have entered Egypt via the Afghanistan trading route. Ancient Egyptians seem to have preferred colour rather than ‘sparkle’ in their gemstone objects and their semi-precious stones were unfacetted. This may account for the absence of diamond objects in early Ancient Egypt and support a view by an Egyptologist called Flinders Petrie in 1884 that diamond was used as a tool rather than ornament.

Other Lapidary Tools
It is highly likely that Ancient Egyptian lapidaries adopted a system of sand panning, extracting minerals to create stone working abrasives. Early Egyptian stone working tools probably had multiple functions. A bow drill for instance, can be used for drilling, to hold stone whilst it is ground or to form part of a tool to hold a gemstone cutting wheel.
The bow can also be transformed into a saw by stringing copper wire across the bow, charging it with abrasive and working the tool back and forth against a gemstone. As well as the likelihood that a file was used in Egyptian lapidary, a flint point used with abrasive makes an effective tool for sketching designs on semi-precious material.

Acknowledgements: With special thanks to master gem cutters Debbie Goldsmith and Peter Martin. Thanks to the following for contributing to my research : Peter Hurst (North West lapidary and Mineral Society), Graham Scarr and Dave Black (Peak District Lapidary and Mineral Society), Martin Stolworthy (Norfolk Mineral and Lapidary Society), Tony Mitchell (Medway Fossil and Mineral Society) and David Whipp. Thanks also to Sidcup Lapidary and Mineral Society, Elsie Hansford, David Bryant, Egyptologist Suzanne Lax-Bojtos and the Department of Ancient Egypt and the Sudan at the British Museum.

About Andrea Whytock:
I am interested in ancient civilizations, minerals and gemstone working. The information in this article is taken from my Master’s Degree dissertation: ‘Getting Stoned in the New Kingdom: An Exploration of Ancient Egyptian Lapidary Practices’ which I completed in 2012.

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