Egyptian Alabaster

Stonework was one of the earliest industries in ancient Egypt. A natural wealth of decorative stone was first exploited during the Pre-Dynastic period (4,000 BC) and various quarry sites yielded basalt, breccia, granite, porphyry, limestone and alabaster. Two ancient alabaster quarry sites have been identified, one at Wadi Gera and the other near Helena and in an area south of Mania. While Egyptian alabaster, geologically known as Calcium carbonate, was worked from the Pre-Dynastic time on, it was most popular during the New Kingdom. The use of alabaster in Egypt dates well back into the Pharaonic period of Egyptian history, and it is evident when one visits the temples, tombs and museums in Egypt.

The original alabaster was a form of Calcite, a translucent variety of gypsum. On the hardness scale of 1 to 10, the alabaster would stand at only 2 to 2.5 soft enough to scratch with a fingernail. Because of the low hardness, it is very easy to carve and polish, but it is also easily weathered, especially in wet conditions. Because of its softness, therefore, alabaster is often carved for statuary and other decorative purposes. Ancient pharaohs used alabaster for many purposes, including household items, ritual objects, and for a number of different funerary purposes such as sarcophaguses and canopic equipments.

The Working of hard stone reached its height during the third and fourth dynasties (2600 – 2400 BC). The early vessels were of simple but elegant shape, often with flat broad rims and small lug handles for suspension. The ancient artisans demonstrated their mastery of this medium as they shaped hard stone as if it were clay, producing a diversity of finely crafted vessels. There have been no intact stone drilling tools recovered from ancient Egypt, although part of a stone worker toll kit survived. Decorative tomb paintings showing daily life scenes have been the best source of information as to how stone pots were carved.