Chephren's Quarry is situated in the easternmost part of the Sahara - covering nearly 100 km 2 of flat, hyper-arid desert, some 60 km west of Lake Nasser (River Nile) and the famous Abu Simbel temple in the extreme south of Egypt. In the 3 rd and 4 th millennium BC, the quarry was used for extraction of stone for now world-famous sculptures and thousands of smaller funerary objects, especially vessels.
Chephren's Quarry is situated within a complex of Precambrian, metamorphic igneous rocks, occurring as a "window" where younger rocks have been removed by erosion. The rock type subjected to quarrying is a light bluish, greyish to white gneiss with dark bands and spots - referred to as the "Chephren Gneiss". It is predominantly composed of plagioclase feldspar (light coloured) and amphibole (dark coloured). Chephren Gneiss occurs as large and small inclusions in granitic rocks, resulting in a highly irregular outcrop pattern, and causing a similarly uneven and scattered distribution of quarries. Almost all the outcrops of Chephren Gneiss have been exploited to some degree.
The quarrying of the Chephren Gneiss has uniformly targeted loose boulders of gneiss on the terrain surface, formed by in situ, spheroidal weathering over long periods of time. The gneiss boulders were worked with stone hammers and axes from local sources, and also fire-setting was partially applied in the rough shaping of blocks. Essentially, the quarrying process transformed the rounded boulders into heaps of waste-rock, most of them forming circular heaps around the space were the blocks were situated. In addition to the extraction sites themselves, the quarry landscape displays roads, ramps for loading blocks, shelters and small settlements, wells, cairns and other features related to the logistical side of quarrying and maintenance of the labour force. Of particular value for the interpretation of the individual quarries are semi-finished products, such as vessel-"blanks" and finely worked statue blocks.
Peak consumption in the Old Kingdom
Evidence from the consumption record suggests that the quarrying started as early as the Late Neolithic. However, evidence of consumption and from the archaeological record in the quarries, implies that exploitation peaked between the 3 rd and 4 th Dynasties of the Old Kingdom (c. 2650-2465 BC), for both vessels and statue blocks. Predominantly, the quarrying seems to have been organised as short-lived campaigns for specific purposes (i.e. Chephren statues), as there is no evidence of permanent settlements in the area, but whether or not there existed a more permanent vessel-production and trade of such remains unclear.
A unique quarry landscape at risk
The uniqueness of Chephren's Quarry is related to the fact that it presents one of the earliest evidence of prestigious stone acquisition from remote areas in Antiquity, and (until the last few years) is extremely well preserved. The site is very rich in archaeological information, and only a minor part of that has been excavated. As a physical landscape, the site may look "un-spectacular" at first sight, but when compiling the spatial distribution of quarries and ancient infrastructure, it reveals one of the supposedly largest industrial landscapes of Early Antiquity in the world. Unfortunately, the site is severely threatened by the Toshka land reclamation and irrigation project (under construction) and even though proper registration of the site has been done recently, its future as a unique quarry landscape remains unclear. In QuarryScapes, Chephren's Quarry will be used as a case study within Work-package 5 (Egypt risks and monitoring) and 7 (Quarry Landscape GIS), including the compilation of an extensive site map.
Text by Tom Heldal
The site is included in work-package 5 and 7
One of the famous life sized statue of King Chephren, made of Chephren Gneiss.
Shallow quarries in a flat desert landscape, typical of the Chephren's Quarry. Photo by Tom Heldal.