(Image: Thomas Hoang, Pixabay)
(Last modified April 10, 2001)
Limestone is a sedimentary rock consisting chiefly of the mineral calcite (calcium carbonate, CaCO3, Mh. 3), but can also contain other constituents such as quartz, chert, clay, iron oxides, organics, and dolomite. Limestone is the most widely distributed of the carbonate rocks in the Earth’s crust, and is the consolidated equivalent of calcareous mud, calcareous sand, and/or shell fragments. They can also form by precipitation of calcite grains from solution, producing rocks like travertine.
In Egypt limestone occurs extensively in the 500 mile stretch of hills located in the Nile valley (Mokattam, Samalut, Minia, and Drunka Formations) from Cairo to Esna (see map). It also occurs sporadically in the Nile valley from Esna to Aswan, in the Suez region, and near Alexandria (Alexandria Formation). The limestone deposits in Egypt vary considerably in their quality and rock hardness ranging from high-quality massive limestone to low-quality fossiliferious interbedded limestones. The Nile valley limestones are generally fine-grain to coarse-grained mudstones, wackestones, packstones, and grainstones. These deposits often contain fossils of nummulitids, echinoids, and pelecypods. They were deposited in an ancient sea and are of Lower Eocene to Middle Eocene in age (54-35 mya). The Alexandria deposits are of Pleistocene age (2 mya -8 kya). Extensive quarrying was carried out in the Nile valley and Alexandria deposits by the ancient Egyptians. There are many important quarry sites within the limestone formations of the Nile valley that have been used by the ancient Egyptians during their history. Photos of polished rock slabs obtained from various limestone quarry sites used by the ancient Egyptians can be seen at the Ancient Egyptian Quarries website sections #1-88.
Limestone was used in ancient Egyptians as a building material up until the 19th dynasty where it was replaced to large degree by the use of sandstone (Lucas and Harris, 1962). It was used in the form of cut blocks mainly for the construction of tombs and temples, and hills of limestone were excavated to produce chambers for tombs as well. Limestone was one of the first materials use by the ancient Egyptians for carving of objects other than tools and weapons. Because it is a soft stone and often of a fine grain texture it lends itself well to carving and other lapidary techniques, especially in its more indurated form. From Neolithic times onward limestone was used in the manufacturing of vases, bowls, statuary, etc.. A number of high quality limestones exist in Egypt and occur in a variety of colours, such as black (Eastern Desert, Cairo-Suez region), yellow (Qift region), and pink (Western Desert).
Lucas, A. & Harris, J.R. (1962) Ancient Egyptian materials and industries. E. Arnold, London, 523 p.
Links to examples of limestone usage
Early Dynastic period “schist” cup with pink limestone base, from the tomb of Queen Her-nit (height: 18 cm, diameter: 8 cm; Egyptian Museum, Cairo). Note: the purplish colouration would suggest that the “schist” is a metamudstone.
c) Statues, statuettes, and busts
Old Kingdom period (5th Dynasty) painted limestone statue of a scribe (height: 49 cm; Egyptian Museum, Cairo).
Old Kingdom period (5th Dynasty) painted limestone statue of Ni-ka-re, his wife, and their daughter from the reign of Nuiserre or later (height: 57 cm, width: 22.5 cm, depth: 32.5 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Old Kingdom period (5th Dynasty) painted limestone stattuette of a butcher (knife restored) from probably the reign of Niuserre (height: 37 cm, width: 14.2 cm, depth: 38 cm; Oriental Institute, University of Chicago).
Old Kingdom period (6th Dynasty) painted limestone statue of Atjema in standing position (height: 91 cm; Egyptian Museum, Cairo).
Old Kingdom period (late 3rd Dynasty) painted limestone bas-relief block with the figure of Aa-akhti (height: 184 cm, width: 83 cm, depth 18 cm; Musée du Louvre, Paris).
Old Kingdom period (early 6th Dynasty) painted limestone still life bas-relief of offerings for the deceased (height: 48 cm, width: 38.5 cm; The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit).
f) Misc. objects
New Kingdom period (20th Dynasty) painted limestone ostracon representing a preliminary draft sketch of a tomb layout from the Valley of the Kings (Semitic Museum, Cambridge, MA).
g) building material