The Lost Art of Egyptian Lithics

By Meagan Mangum

Introduction to Stone Tools (Lithics) 

Lithic artefactshave been widely neglected in Egyptology until fairly recently.1 The reason for this state of affairs has its roots in nineteenth-century practices, but there are two modern culprits to be aware of. Firstly, we tend to think of stone tools as obsolete in the face of the development of metallic ‘Ages’. Although they seem definitive, broad stroke categories of study, such as the ‘Bronze Age’ (roughly 3300-1200 BC), are rather less well defined on closer inspection than they initially appear.2 Secondly, compared to decorative ornaments, papyri, or monumental structures, lithics are, to be blunt, much less sexy. Yet, without lithics there would be no tools to carve the first delicate ornaments, to harvest the reeds or pulp the paper, nor understanding of the attributes of various geologic materials for monumental sculpture and architecture. The body of specialized knowledge represented by lithic technologies (and the generational communication of that knowledge) is but one of the aspects of ancient Egyptian communication which deserves further study. During their active use, the objects conveyed social status within both local and national spheres. This communication was accomplished by material type and origin, technique of manufacture, and purpose of use (where that can be discerned). This essay will attempt to relate a few basic observations that can be made by an archaeologist such as myself, who, while not being an Egyptologist, was trained in Southern California where lithic technology essentially was the technology until Western contact. The main aim of this paper, however, is to spark interest in the minds of burgeoning scholars, so that the lithics in the Eton Myers collection may receive the attention they so richly deserve.

Mines 

The majority of the lithics in the Eton Myers Collection are flint objects collected in the nineteenth century by Heywood Walter Seton-Karr (1859-1938).3 Seton-Karr ‘discovered’ extensive flint mines in the eastern desert of Egypt, near the Wadi el-Sheik district.4 Several of the objects in the Eton Myers collection are identified as having been found across the Nile, in the Fayum.5

Flint is widely available throughout Egypt, but the Wadi el-Sheik mines contain nodes of a very high quality compared to aboveground sources. Findings from the shafts and galleries have been carbon dated to c. 3,300 – 2,800BC, making these some of the oldest known underground flint mines in the world.6 Archaeological evidence shows that the mines were a major source of flint from the Pre-dynastic Period through to the New Kingdom, but were most heavily exploited during the Middle Kingdom (1980 – 1760 BC).7 Some sections of the galleries and tunnels have been cut using metal tools, showing a significant economic investment in these mines.8

Located at or near the mouth of the mines are heaps of debris, including limestone fragments from which the flint was extracted. Certain areas among the debris have been designated ‘workshops’ where the flint was initially processed, most likely by apprentices. Although the nodes of flint were not manufactured into finished products here, the piles of broken stone reveal a high level of organization.9 Each ‘workshop’ area was responsible for the manufacture of different stone blanks. In other words, the basic shaping done in each ‘workshop’ area shows that fresh nodes were selected for making specific tools (arrowheads, blades, knives, ritual implements, etc.) straight out of the mines, minimally shaped by type on site, and then taken to standard workshops in nearby settlements for finishing by master craftsmen.10 

Social Groups and Communication

This basic information gives modern investigators a wealth of informative data. It reveals details about spatial and social organization, technological advances, continuity and change through time. But this exhibition is about communication in the context of the ancient world, so what does this data reveal in that context? To some degree it illuminates an intricate relationship between at least three distinct social groups: miners, flint-knapping specialists, and an elite owner/consumer group.11

When the subsistence strategy was primarily of a hunter gatherer type, widespread knowledge of flint-knapping techniques for the manufacture of hunting weapons can be assumed. And while sedentary farmers of the Neolithic were reliant on lithic technology, the food surpluses they generated lead to a new type of economic organization with a concomitant increase in specialist manufacturing indicated by a decided shift in the tool repertoire. This point represents the birth of the separate social groups mentioned above. The time and effort expended digging deep into the earth to harvest preferred materials, and years needed to learn the art of tool making and fine working of an easy to shatter material would be justified economically by the growing demands of the nascent Egyptian state. 

These emerging social groups were integrated into the wider society and connected by common needs and cultural ideals. Miners retrieved high quality flint from beneath the earth. The nodules were divided by their suitability for a particularobject type and minimally shaped at the mouth of the mine. Next semi-worked items were delivered to masters craftsmen. Workshops then produced objects for a variety of uses and markets. The final shape was influenced by the consumer and society as a whole. Thus, the demand of the consumer was linked to idea of ‘what X looks like’ in that specific cultural time and place. Elite consumers acquired objects of beauty, display, ritual, etc., to assist in practices that ‘justify’ political power.12 Direct investment in the mining community is evidenced by the expenditure on metal tools, mentioned earlier. During the dynastic period Pharaohs were the sole ‘owner’ of mines this may indicate an interesting link between the elites and craftsmen.13

In this socioeconomic system, the role played by each group evokes the notion of distance. Ethnographic data has revealed that kinship groups often monopolize economic niches through craft specialisation. In these cases clan and/or tribal affiliation determines vocation and the special rites/rituals attached to technical knowledge.14 Separation between these groups would be evident in daily routines, training experiences, rituals and social foci.

Objects

There are far more objects in the Eton Myers collection than are included in this essay, and each deserves to be examined. It has been exceptionally difficult to select which items to include. Rather than discuss each one, I have chosen a few which best illustrate ancient forms of communication and/or point towards lines of future research.

Communicating Specialized Knowledge

The best way to illustrate the skill of the flint-knappers and miners of ancient Egypt is to examine the objects and their method of manufacture. There are numerous flint-knapping demonstrations available online, but two that are especially informative can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQ3ExnCv_dc&feature=relmfu and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sim6tAFqvvU. The instructors are careful to explain the calculations that go into each strike, the uses/purposes of different tools and the importance of geological knowledge.

1-ECM1145The Eton Myers collection contains an excellent ‘blade core’ (fig. 1).15 It was once a flint nodule, assessed and shaped as discussed above. Part of the process would include knocking off unsuitable angles, developing a ‘striking platform’, (which can be seen in the foreground of the image), and removing the ‘cortex’ or rough exterior of the node. At the workshop of the master craftsmen, long thin blades were removed in a circular pattern.16 These blades were quite sharp and could be used at this stage, but were often retouched, indicating that there was an ideal shape and ‘look’ to the finished product. ECM4700 (fig. 2) is a uni-facial blade, meaning that it was only worked on one side. The ruffling along the edge shows that it was sharpened by removing tiny pieces. I chose to show this piece due to the unusual curvature of the body. Both removal of this shape from the core and retouching required significant skill because the arc is awkward to handle and could have easily been snapped during the process.

2-ECM4700Projectile points, such as arrow or spear heads, are demonstrative of the way in which basic principles of stone working evolved into complex educational systems. Even though the initial shaping process is quite similar to that discussed above, the following stages are much more complex and take years of experience to master. Projectile points must be sturdy, aerodynamic, and possess the culturally approved shape for their purpose. The final product was the outcome of innumerable generations and rooted in tradition. In this respect every object was a cumulative work. In another respect, projectile points were revolutionary, the advanced frontiers of technology. They slowly explained the physics of the surrounding world as new shapes and sizes were developed for specialized game, warfare and display. Technological innovations, socio-cultural changes, religious meaning and even simple fashions, shaped the body of knowledge being endowed.17 Communication of these principles to the next generation was a vitally important, but far from static operation. 

Beauty and Symbolism

The type of tools used by an individual will necessarily be associated with their status and social role. For example, a farmer’s needs differ from those of a member of the scribal elite. A foot soldier and a general may have similar equipment, but there will also be significant differences. An archer or infantryman does not need to be differentiated from his fellows in the way that a military leader does. Objects that are of rare, difficult to acquire and/or beautiful material and those that require the most expertise or longest amount of time to make will generally be the most ‘expensive’.18 Looking at the following items, we should bear these points in mind.

Letting Lithics Speak

3-ECM1218Lithics are largely discussed in terms of functionality, but they can also posses a certain beauty, as is exemplified by ECM1218 (fig. 3).19 The purpose of the long, delicate tangs of this type of arrowhead has been questioned, as they are likely to snap off after impact. This means that they are likely a single use item, but it also has implications for hunting and warfare. The shattered ends could embed in the flesh, doubling the damage to the target. But can more be read? Projectile points are all bi-facial objects, worked on both sides that must be roughly symmetrical. This creates a special challenge for this shape, as the wing-like tangs must remain in the same plane and have the same length and width, as the deep central hollow is created. Examining the body, we can see that it is covered with minute ‘scars’ or grooves where stone has been carefully taken off by pressure flaking. The extreme length of the tangs in relation to body size represents a time-consuming choice, rather than a necessity. The shape may then reflect a culturally important or aesthetically pleasing shape. A final factor to consider is colour. Recent research suggests that black flint is uncommon in the archaeological record, and that ‘the colours of black and white, but also multicoloured and green, were important to the ancient Egyptians’.20 Thus, it may be possible to argue that functional benefits (impact fracture) were entwined with prestige factors (time and material quality) and perhaps aesthetic qualities (colour and shaping details).

4-ECM1159The smallest object in the lithics collection is ECM1159 (fig. 4), which is 1cm wide by 2.8cm long (from point to tail).21 While the shape is a common form utilized from the First Dynasty through to the New Kingdom (c. 2900 – 1100BC),22 the material and minuscule size make it a spectacular piece. Flint can be translucent and luminous when polished, but this may be an instance where chalcedony or a uniquely coloured chert has been identified as flint.23 What this and several other pieces show is the variety of lustres/luminosity achieved by the Egyptian craftsmen.24 The ‘glow’ of a lithic tool added to its value,25 as can be seen in ancient textual references to flint as a prestige commodity.26 Possession of such a heavily modified, elegant projectile point should be viewed as an investment (of time, material, expertise) meant, in part, for personal display.27

Conclusion

Without further study the role played in Egyptian society by lithics, such as those found in the Eton Myers collection, cannot be fully explored. At this point there are few dates assigned to the objects, but it may be possible to assign more, given the recent growth of Egyptian lithic typologies. The provenance of the lithics in this collection are usually recorded as either Eastern Desert or Fayum, but a petrological analysis,28 could determine the original flint source, providing a greater understanding of organization and distribution patterns. One recent study suggests that there was an ideological orientation that associated all flint with the east, which itself was ‘associated with danger and difficulty, as well as solar creation, and is the birthplace of minerals’.29 It is my sincere hope that future researchers will either challenge or champion some portion of this essay, and thereby expand the realm of knowledge for Egyptian lithics. For, as we have seen, there are several lines of enquiry which could uncover ways in which Egyptians communicated to each other through stone tools. 

Endnotes

  1. Weisgerber 1987: 166. Egyptology is not alone in this respect. Nearly every sector of post-Neolithic Mediterranean archaeology can be accused of the same thing. Fortunately there has been a shift in the approach to archaeology in the last twenty years and now many previously neglected categories are helping to create a more inclusive view of the ancient world. Recent interest in ancient Egyptian settlements has been productive for the study of lithic technology. Well stratified sites have given us very good information about lithics.
  2. Bard 1999: 311, relates that farming implements were among the last items to be produced in metal. Common iron tools do not begin to appear regularly until fate the 7th century BC and the sickle blade is the final tool to be translated into a metallic medium during the 4th century BC.
  3. Bierbrier 1995.
  4. Seton-Karr 1898: 90; Barket & Yohe 2011: 27, ‘these impressive quarries extend for several kilometres in the northern portion of the wadi’ and provide a good exemplar for flint processing in the Egyptian Middle Kingdom.
  5. Several of the objects in the Eton Myers collection are identified as having been found in the Fayum. The archaeological location of these objects in the Fayum does not necessitate their origin or place of manufacture. An intensive study is needed to determine if these could be products of the Eastern dessert mines.
  6. Aston, Harrell, & Shaw 2000: 5, 28. 
  7. Weisgerber 1987: 169; Bard 1999: 311; Hornung, Krauss, & Warburton 2006: 490-495.
  8. Bard 1999: 311, Egypt is copper poor, and metals remained expensive and accessible only in the realm of the elite until well into the Iron Age.
  9. Barket & Yohe 2011: 27; Rosen 1996: 129-31.
  10. Bard 1999: 311; Pawlik 2005: 194-195, identifies the Pharaonic site Kom al-Ahmar (Red Hill) by Wadi el-Sheikh as a specialist village associated with the mines.
  11. Because of the quality of the flint and effort gone to procure it, the flint from this type of mine would not be of common usage. For everyday usage, local flint could be procured from riverbeds and above ground sources. For these reasons, and others discussed below, we may assume the consumer to be of an elite status.
  12. Graves-Brown 2010: 129, Flint can no longer be viewed as the material of poverty as recent research shows ‘the equation of flint with poverty may be questioned…as value is socially ascribed’. Access to raw materials and manufacture of tools may have been deliberately manipulated to artificially increase ‘effort expenditure and rarity’; Gero 1989: 94, 100–101 suggests the durability and ‘eternality’ of stone made flint ideal for encoding social messages.
  13. Weisgerber 1987: 169, finds little evidence that miners of Wadi el-Sheikh were a slave population.
  14. Babel 1997: 168, ‘technical, magical and religious spheres were closely connected with one another, and were handed down within specific social groups’.
  15. ECM1145 is listed as a ‘Discarded core of fawn coloured flint, with conchoidal fracture on one side which had made it useless for striking more blades’. It was donated by Seton-Karr, but the exact location of its discovery is unrecorded.
  16. This is far from the only pattern that flakes can be removed in and some flint nodes are never reduced to a core, but are worked directly into larger objects.
  17. Odell 1996: 225, ‘All lithics, but especially projectile points are shaped with great care and therefore the products of a multitude of manufacturing decisions and an impressive amount of human effort…[these decisions] can be directly translated into cultural information’.
  18. For an excellent overview of the specifics involved with the transmission of lithic production knowledge and its implications for cognitive archaeology see Babel 1997.
  19. ECM1218 is listed as ‘Hollow based and tanged arrow head of dark brown flint, carefully worked and with waxy polish’. Fagan 1996: 190; Hikade 2010: 7, this shape (the “Fayum point” )was common in the Fayum, from the Neolithic  (5300 BC) up until the time of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt (c. 3100 BC). 
  20. Graves-Brown 2010: 139-142. The multicoloured blade ECM4652, is an excellent example of an interesting interplay between colour patterns on a finished object.
  21. ECM1159 is listed as ‘Slender leaf shaped arrow head of honey coloured flint, squared shoulders, broad tang, finely worked’.   
  22. Graves-Brown 2010: 556-7; Hornung, Krauss, & Warburton 2006: 490-495.
  23. Aston, Harrell, & Shaw 2000: 6-8, flint and chert are often used interchangeably by archaeologists as they can be difficult to distinguish. Generally chert is lighter and more varied in colour.
  24. ECM1138, is a honey coloured flint with little reflectivity, but more lustrous than ECM4645. Projectile points ECM1152, ECM1179, ECM1218 and ‘fish shaped blade’ ECM4652 illustrate a variety of reflective properties. 
  25. Graves-Brown 2010: 142- 143, suggests that ‘luminosity is related [to] the notion of the multicoloured, as both may be considered dazzling’ and that polishing of lithics was especially prevalent in the Pre- and Early Dynastic periods. This theoretically links objects such as ECM4652 and ECM1159.
  26. Aston, Harrell, & Shaw 2000: 29.
  27. Gero: 1989, 93–94; Graves-Brown 2010: 152-156.
  28. Weisgerber 1987: 176, suggests that the lithics of each area are distinctive and easily differentiated from other regions. Considering the advancement of petrological fingerprinting and increasing knowledge of Egyptian lithics since the 1980s it is entirely feasible that such a study could be very successful. 
  29. Graves-Brown 2010: 148.

Bibliography

Aston, B. G., J. A., Harrell, I. Shaw, 2000. ‘Stone’ in P. Nicholson & I. Shaw (eds), Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, 5-77, Cambridge.

Babel, J. 1997. ‘Teaching Flint Knapping Skills in Neolithic Mining Societies’, In R. Schild & Z. Sulgostowska (eds), Man and Flint. Proceedings of the VIIth International Flint Symposium Warszawa - Ostrowiec Swietokrzyski 1995, 167–169, Warsaw.

Bard, K. A. (ed). 1999. Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, London; New York, NY.

Barket, T.M., R.M. Yohe, 2011. ‘A Technological Evaluation of the Flint Blade-Core

Reduction Sequence at Wadi El-Sheikh, Middle Egypt’, Lithic Technology 36, 27-38.

Bierbrier, M. 1995. Who Was Who in Egyptology. London.

Gero, J. M. 1989, 'Assessing Social Information in Material Objects: How Well do Lithics Measure Up?' in R. Torrence (ed), Time, Energy, and Stone Tools, 92-105, Cambridge.

Graves-Brown, C. A., 2010. The Ideological Significance of Flint in Dynastic Egypt

(Volume 1), Thesis Submitted to University College London for the Degree of

Doctor of Philosophy, Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

Hikade, T., 2010, ‘Stone Tool Production’, in W. Wendrich (ed), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles, CA. http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz0025h6kk

Nicholson, P., I. Shaw, (eds). 2000. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology. Cambridge.

Pawlik, A. F. 2005. ‘The Lithic Industry of the Pharaonic Site Kom al-Ahmar in Middle

Egypt and its Relationship to the Flint Mines of the Wadi al-Sheikh’, Stone Age - Mining Age – Der Anschnitt, Beiheft 19, 193- 209.

Rosen, S. A. 1996. 'The Decline and Fall of Flint', in G. H. Odell (ed), Stone Tools:

Theoretical Insights into Human Prehistory, 129-155. New York, NY.

Seton-Karr, H. W., 1898. ‘Discovery of the Lost Flint Mines of Egypt’, The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 27, 90-92.

Seton-Karr, H. W. 1906. Flint Implements of the Fayum, Egypt. Washington.

Weisgerber, W. 1987. ‘The Ancient Flint Mines at Wadi el-Sheikh (Egypt)’, in G. de

Sieveking and M. H. Newcomer (eds). The Human Uses of Flint and Chert: Flint Symposium, Brighton, 1983. Cambridg

 

If you have any feedback or would like to contact the writer of this contribution please email us and reference the author's name.