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Antiquity Vol 75 No 287 March 2001 (pp.33-4)

Survey and excavation at the Gebel el-Asr gneiss and quartz quarries in Lower Nubia (1997-2000)

Ian Shaw, Elizabeth Bloxam, Judith Bunbury, Richard Lee, Angus Graham & Deborah Darnell

In 1932, when a British military vehicle was caught in a sandstorm about 65 km northwest of Abu Simbel, Colonel Hatton and Spinks Pasha stumbled upon the most remote stone quarries of Predynastic and early Pharaonic times the Gebel el-Asr Gneiss Quarries.

This area was the source of anorthosite gneiss (used primarily for Predynastic and Early Dynastic funerary vessels) and the gabbro or diorite gneiss from which many royal statues were carved. Reginald Engelbach, escavating in 1933 and 1938 (Engelbach 1938; Murray 1939), discovered a number of Old and Middle Kingdom stelae, including a basalt slab inscribed with the cartouche of Khufu (Cheops), set up between a pair of gneiss slabs on a substantial dry-stone platform.

The Gebel el-Asr Project was set up to examine hard-stone quarrying at the very limits of the early Egyptians' logistical, technological and organizational skills, in the Old and Middle Kingdoms (c. 2686-1650 BC). This region is under threat from a new road to Gebel Uweinat and from an on-going hydrological project stretching westwards from Wadi Tushka (which could obliterate the site entirely). An emergency conference at Abu Simbel in 1998 asked for the quarries, and the nearby Neolithic site of Nabta Playa, to be given special protected status. The Gebel el-Asr Project is therefore very much a rescue operation.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Map of Egypt and Nubia.
Figure 2
Figure 2: One of the gneiss statues of the 4th-Dynasty ruler Khafra (c. 2558-2532 BC) from his Valley Temple at Giza. (Photo I. Shaw, courtesy of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.)

In 1999 and 2000 we studied part of the quarry-workers' operational centre at 'Quartz Ridge' (Shaw 2000; Shaw & Bloxam 1999). Finds included Early Dynastic period to Middle Kingdom ceramics, a fragment of a 5th-Dynasty stone stele bearing the Horus name and cartouche of Nyuserra (a king not previously attested at the site), 22 intact 12th-Dynasty pottery flat-bottomed storage jars (average capacity 76·5 l) and two smaller intact Middle Kingdom vessels, many bearing pre-firing pot-marks inside rims and post-firing numbers incised on shoulders. Vessels of this type, probably produced in the Memphis-Faiyum region (Arnold 1988), were particularly suited to the transportation and long-term storage of dry substances such as grain.

In 2000, we discovered and partially excavated a new area of Old Kingdom (perhaps even Early Dynastic) settlement at the southern end of the region, roughly midway between the Khufu Stele Quarry and ramp LR1, containing bread-moulds and ash indicating the baking of loaves. We also uncovered two enigmatic semi-subterranean structures, one located close to the Quartz Ridge settlement, containing a 4th-Dynasty spouted pottery vessel, the other midway between the newly discovered settlement and ramp LR1.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Reginald Engelbach and the 'Khufu Stele', at the time of its discovery (Cairo JE68752) at Gebel el-Asr. (Photo courtesy of J. Wand-Tetley.)
Figure 4
Figure 4: The 12th-Dynasty storage jars as excavated in situ at the Quartz Ridge settlement in April 1999. (Photo I. Shaw.)

At the Stele Ridge quartz/carnelian mines (at the northeastern end of the region) we located a new sandstone stele of Amenemhat II, showing the king making offerings to Hathor, with several horizontal lines of hieroglyphic inscription below. During the 1990s both the remains at Stele Ridge and the area of Old Kingdom settlement discovered in April 2000 were badly affected by the new road to Gebel Uweinat. This serves as a clear warning of potential damage if the Gebel el-Asr site as a whole is not provided with some kind of genuine protection from the on-going Tushka hydrological developments.

We are grateful to the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities (particular Ali al-Asfar and Mustafa Hassan) for permission to work at the site, and invaluable assistance and advice throughout our work. We would like to thank the el-Alsson School in Cairo for loaning numerous essential items of equipment (and bravely sending six Egyptian schoolchildren to help out on the dig). The Project has been funded by the Wainwright Fund, the British Academy, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust and the Society of Antiquaries.


  • ARNOLD, D. 1988. The South Cemeteries of Lisht I: The Pyramid of Senusret I.   New York (NY): Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • ENGELBACH, R. 1938. The quarries of the Western Nubian Desert and the ancient road to Tushka.   Annales du Service des Antiquités de l'Egypte 38: 369-90.
  • MURRAY, G.W. 1939. The road to Chephren's quarries.   The Geographical Journal 94: 97-114.
  • SHAW, I. 2000. Khafra's quarries in the Sahara.   Egyptian Archaeology: Bulletin of the Egypt Exploration Society 16 (2000): 28-30.
  • SHAW, I. & E. BLOXAM. 1999. Survey and excavation at the ancient pharaonic gneiss quarrying site of Gebel el-Asr, Lower Nubia.   Sudan and Nubia: SARS Bulletin 3: 13-20.
Figure 5
Figure 5: 'Loading Ramp 1' near the Khufu Stele Quarry. (Photo I. Shaw.)

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