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QuarryScapes guide to ancient stone quarry landscapes


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Northern Faiyum Quarry landscape

Location map

The Northern Faiyum Desert borders the Faiyum Depression, located approximately 60 km south-west of Cairo in the Western Desert. The quarry landscape of the Northern Faiyum Desert comprises both the Umm es-Sawan gypsum quarries and Widan el-Faras basalt quarries, both exploited in the early 3 rd millennium BC.

Umm es-Sawan Gypsum Quarries

Fine-grained white gypsum or alabaster occurs as a dense network of 25-30 cm-thick sub-vertical cross-cutting veins and was exploited for small vessels, plaster and mortar between the 1 st and 4 th Dynasties (c. 2900 – 2465 BC). The quarries have only been described by Caton-Thompson and Gardner (1934), during their investigations of the Northern Faiyum Desert 70 years ago. The archaeological record comprises three workshop mounds, located approximately 200 m north of the quarries, containing gypsum debris, pottery in the form of beer jars, object ‘blanks' or partially worked vessels and hand-held stone axes. The stone tools are of particular interest as most are of stone not local to the area, in particular, dolerite and Chephren Gneiss sourced 1,000 km south in the Aswan region. Located on the plateau above the workshops is an area of 250 stone circles, thought to be the quarrymen's settlement, yet there is more evidence to suggest that places of habitation were in natural rock-shelters in the overhanging escarpment. QuarryScapes objectives are to document and survey the site in March 2006 as it is an integral part of the ancient quarry landscape of the Northern Faiyum Desert.

Widan el-Faras Basalt Quarries

The basalt quarries, 20 km south-west of Umm es-Sawan, are considered the source of stone used on the mortuary temple floors and walls of 4 th and 5 th Dynasty (c. 2575 – 2323 BC) pyramid complexes. The tholeiitic flood basalt consists of several individual lava flows, of early Oligocene age, that cap the Gebel Qatrani escarpment at approximately 300 m asl. Due to the highly fractured nature of the basalt, quarrying was primarily by levering of blocks to about a depth of 10 m into the upper layer of the flow, resulting in a series of shallow swales in the escarpment. Natural weathering and waste pushed down the escarpment presents a dramatic landscape of extensive dark scree slopes - Gebel Qatrani literally means ‘tar hills'. Non-local dolerite stone axes and pottery dating to the 4 th and 5 th Dynasty attest to predominant Old Kingdom quarrying, although exploitation also occurred in the Roman Period.

An encampment, comprising 5 basalt stone circles, is the only evidence of dwelling places for a small number of quarrymen. The 11 km quarry road, terminating at a quay on the extinct shores of ancient Lake Moeris at Qasr el-Sagha, is the oldest paved road in the world. Since the geological work of Harrell and Bown (1995), systematic archaeological and geological survey has been undertaken by Bloxam, Storemyr and Heldal (Bloxam and Storemyr 2002). The site is under acute threat from modern quarrying which is already destroying the Old Kingdom quarries; unchecked tourism and 4 WD vehicles damaging the ancient road; the encampment has lost much of its material culture. QuarryScapes aims to complete documentation in March 2006 of this vulnerable site for purposes of site management within the larger Northern Faiyum Desert - currently under consideration as a World Heritage Site.

Text by Elizabeth Bloxam

The site is included in work-package 5, 6 and 7


Shallow gypsum quarries at Um es-Sawan. Photo by Per Storemyr.


Spoil heap in front of a workshop for gypsum vessels, Um es-Sawan. Photo by Per Storemyr.


Basalt floor of the Khufu Mortuary Temple in front of the Great Pyramid, Giza. Photo by Tom Heldal.


View of the Widan el-Faras peaks from an Old Kingdom basalt quarry. Photo by Per Storemyr.


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December 2009
New book: a special volume with papers from the QuarryScapes project soon printed.
November 2008
Final workshop: the third QuarryScapes workshop was held in Aswan 12. - 15. October
June 2008
Final Reports: available for download
June 2008
More Palaeolithic quarries in Aswan Recent visits to the Aswan West Bank in Egypt have added new discoveries...

April 2008
QuarryScapes third workshop Aswan, October 12-15 2008

April 2008
Rescue of an obelisk top in Egypt Aswan, March 2008

December 2007
Second QuarryScapes Workshop 18-21 October 2007, Petra, Jordan

December 2007
Final Reports: Aswan West Bank Ancient Quarry Landscape

March 2007
New Aswan City: Rescue survey in progress

March 2007
QuarryScapes fieldwork in Egypt: The final season of survey at the Aswan silicified sandstone quarries revealed previously undocumented ancient paved roads

December 2006
Second Aswan field season The second QuarryScapes fieldwork season in Aswan took place through November 2006.

November 2006
First symposium
The first QuarryScapes symposium took place at Divan Talya hotel in Antalya (Turkey) 15-17 October 2006.
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Coordinator: NGU - Geological survey of Norway, Tom Heldal. Tlf: +47 73 90 40 00 . Partners. Layout: Lisa Løseth, NGU.