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Antiquity Vol 77 No 296 June 2003

Surveying Ancient Raw Materials: The Egyptian Deserts Expedition

A. J. Shortland

The Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art (RLAHA) at the University of Oxford has several ongoing projects concerning the identification of the raw materials for the production of a number of ancient products, particularly glass and glazed ceramics. Part of this work is concentrated on Egypt and the Near East in the Late Bronze Age, a time when a series of technological innovations were made and long distance transport of both raw materials and finished objects was an important part of the ancient economy. Identifying raw materials therefore not only assists in our understanding of ancient technologies, but also in the wider exchange and trade patterns.

In order to carry out a larger analytical survey of possible raw materials, and hopefully to facilitate experimental investigations into ancient production methods, a team from RLAHA collaborated with members of the Egyptian Geological Survey (EGSMA) to visit many of the Egyptian sites where it is thought that raw materials were obtained. A lot of these sites lay in the Egyptian Deserts on either side of the Nile, and it was decided to visit these sites in a single field trip and include a number of other ancient sites of significance in ancient technological processes. This work was carried out in late summer 2002 and funded by the Royal Society and University of Oxford.

Figure 1 (Click to View)

Figure 1: Lake Zug, Wadi Natrun showing development and modern exploitation of evaporites.
Figure 2 (Click to View)

Figure 2: Yellow alum band in an ancient mine at Ain el Sabil, Dakhla Oasis

The first place of importance that was visited was the Wadi Natrun, a series of evaporitic lakes some 100km west of Cairo. These lakes are virtually dry in summer, leaving brilliant white evaporitic deposits often tinged pink by the presence of various microfauna in the waters. The deposits are now worked on a small scale for halite (Figure 1), but in antiquity were exploited for natron, which consists mostly of the sodium carbonate mineral trona. Natron had widespread uses in pharaohnic Egypt, including medicine and mummification (Lucas and Harris 1962). In the Roman period, it became a major component in Roman glassmaking, where it acted as a flux to lower the melting temperature of the silica component of the glass. Samples were taken of the evaporites to ascertain the extent that natron is still present in the lakes and the purity of the deposits.

The second major group of sites that were visited were the Dakhla and Kharga Oases (Figure 2) that lie in the heart of the Egyptian Western Desert and were exploited for alum (Figure 3) which was used in the dyeing of cloth. Rarely some of these alums are pinkish in colour from the presence of cobalt and these form the source of the cobalt colorant that was widely used in glass, glazes and on ceramic vessels in the New Kingdom (1550-1085BC) (Kaczmarczyk 1986). In cooperation with the Dakhla Oasis Project, samples of alum of many colours were collected and will be analysed. It is hoped that these will lead to a great understanding of the use of these alums and how the cobalt colorant came to be discovered and used.

Several other sites were also visited, including Malkata, the site of the earliest known glass workshops. Ancient mining was studied at Mons Porphyrites, in the Eastern Desert which was exploited in the Roman period for ornamental stone. Earlier mines were also seen at the site of Serabit el Khadim in Sinai, which was the major source of turquoise for Egypt and the Levant in the pharaohnic period. A temple to the goddess Hathor, "Lady of Turquoise" still lies above the mines (Figure 4). Modern mines on Sinai for the exploitation of glassmaking sand and manganese were also visited.

Figure 3 (Click to View)

Figure 3: Ancient mines and spoil heaps at Qasr Lebekha, Kharga Oasis.
Figure 4 (Click to View)

Figure 4: Stela at Serabit el Khadim, Sinai. (E-17).

With the kind permission of EGSMA, a total over 150 different samples were taken and shipped back to the UK for analysis and it is hoped that this results of this field trip will lead to further visits to Egypt and elsewhere to target specific localities in more detail.


We would like to thank The Dr Zenholm El Alfy of EGSMA for his great help in arranging the expedition, without which it would not have been possible. We would also like to thank Dr Colin Hope and the Dakhla Oasis project for their assistance in our work on alums from the Oases.


  • KACZMARCZYK, A. 1986. The source of cobalt in ancient Egyptian pigments, in M. J. Blackman (ed.), Proceedings of the 24th International Archaeometry Symposium: 369-376. Washington: Smithsonian.
  • LUCAS, A. & J. R. HARRIS. 1962. Ancient Egyptian materials and industries. London: E. Arnold

Shortland, RLAHA, 6 Keble Road, Oxford, OX1 3QJ

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