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In 2019, Australian Museum curators published a research paper on a large collection of flint knives from a stone quarry at Wadi el-Sheikhin.

Discover the fascinating applications of these tools as part of daily life in ancient Egypt, through insights shared by Dr Stan Florek from the World Cultures Collection at the Australian Museum.

My name is Stan Florek. I work in the World Cultures Collection at the Australian Museum, looking after artefacts and objects. And in a collection we have sizable number of objects from ancient Egypt, including stone knives and the fragments from the quarry site, Wadi el-Sheikh in Egypt, dated to 3rd Millennium before common era. But they provide interesting insight to production and distribution of very common tools.

Flint knives were used for a variety of domestic jobs, so they were needed in every kitchen for chopping veggies and chopping fibre. They were also used in some other context that was more ceremonial, like circumcision. And interestingly, we have number of images from ancient Egypt showing how these knives were produced and how they were used.

So the small team, maybe two people with two donkeys, would go there for one or two days. They will quickly produce several hundreds of knives and then they loaded donkeys to the limit. Probably something like 70kg per animal, which is quite a lot and quickly get out of it. So that's why this workshop seemed to be result of very short activity in the quarry.

There are flint knives that are close to to be finished. So they give us pretty good idea how the finished product would look like. The reason that they were left in a workshop when they were produced is that they broke and so two halves were left behind because they were not useful anymore.

The Australian Museum have 48 broken pieces of of knives and some of them we were able to reconstruct and put them together. So this is nearly a complete knife and the knife is quite thin and relatively light and probably most of them were used without handle. Just held, probably in hand like this and cutting this way or that way and scraping. But they also, I would imagine, you can scrape some tissue from the inside of the skin as well as cut through the flesh, as well as using in a kitchen like chopping veggies. That was, or peeling veggies, that would be typical thing.

And our knives are not vastly different, they are just made from different material. They are more durable. They are probably thinner and sharper. This material from the quarry is interesting because it prompts us to study something that was overlooked for a long time. The good number of knives and cleavers are rarely found in the domestic context because by the nature of resharpening them, they would virtually vanish. They become like a little tiny slugs that no one would guess that initially there were knives of this kind.

Summary of Flint knives of Wadi el-Sheikh Research Paper

A stone quarry at Wadi el-Sheikh was an important source of flint in ancient Egypt. The extensive rocky outcrops run for nearly 50 km in the eastern desert, about 160 km south of Cairo. Archaeologists have examined it for over a century, conducting cursory research and reporting results in minor publications until more recent fieldwork research by the team from the University of Vienna (see reference below).

The site was known from the late 19th century, when an amateur British archaeologist Heywood Walter Seton-Karr (1859-1938) surveyed it and took a substantial sample of stone artefacts, from fifteen separate workshops in 1896–1897. He placed these samples in various museums across the world, including the Australian Museum (AM) and Museum Victoria (MV). Apart from the early, and unsystematic publication of the collection from the Liverpool Museum in 1900, this material remains virtually unknown. Our study of artefacts from two workshops is the only systematic analysis of a Seton-Karr collection to date.

Dr. Stan Florek in discussion
Dr. Stan Florek holding an ancient Egyptian flint knife from the Australian Museum's Ancient Egyptian Collection. Image: Natalia Mroz
© Yes

Both workshops were small circular areas, a few square metres, where flint was dug up from shallow pits and stone tools were produced, for a period of one or two days. Seton-Karr recognised them by a scatter of flaked blocks of flint, objects discarded due to faults in material or production error, and those broken in the last stage of manufacture. Most frequent were halves of flint knives as they were thin and prone to incidental damage.

Over time the flaked flint in the abandoned workshops developed desert varnish on their exposed surface – a dark red-brown or nearly black patina of oxidised iron and manganese, typical in desert environments. The underside of these artefacts showed light brown, yellowish or cream colour of the flint. The collector selected only larger flint pieces, that show definite “shape” and recognisable intention in their production, especially broken knives, cleavers, and picks used in digging, while ignoring a large amount of smaller and incidental byproducts in the form of chipped away flakes. Subsequently, some broken halves were joined together with an adhesive to show how the whole product would look. The fact that so many broken halves stayed side by side for several millennia attests to the archaeological integrity of the workshops – they were minimally disturbed by the subsequent works in the quarry.

The reconstructed knives in our samples are on average 22.5 cm long, 7.7 cm wide, and 1.5 cm thick; weight 290 grams. While in use, flint knives were re-sharpened by removing tiny flakes along the cutting edge with a hard timber or a bone stick. They would whittle away, in a metaphorical and actual sense and become unrecognisable thin blades, comparable in size to a Gillette razor blade. Hence knives are rarely found in household and workroom sites, although they would have been essential implements in home kitchens, in butchering animals, in craftwork involving fibre and woody matter, and in ritual contexts, including circumcision. Their limited serviceable life contributed to a high demand.

Ancient Egyptian flint knives from the Australian Museum Ancient Egypt Collection
Fint knives from the Australian Museum Ancient Egypt Collection. Image: Natalia Mroz
© Australian Museum

The number of halves of broken knives, 48 in the AM and 47 in the MV collections, allowed us to do statistical modelling which could estimate the scale of knife production and distribution in the 3rd millennium (chronology inferred from typology). If broken knives represent a hypothetical 10% of production “error”, the AM workshop would have supplied 657 (c. 190 kg) knives and the MV 531 (c. 153 kg) knives. This quantity would weigh about 150-190 kg and is close to the load limit for two donkeys per workshop. We calculated that 15 workshops examined by Seton-Karr would supply about 8,910 knives with a total weight of almost 2.6 tonnes. We hypothesize that each workshop resulted from the work of 2 or 3 artisans who produced the artefacts in two days and with two donkeys transported them back to a settlement or village. Ten such teams going every third week to the quarry, not an unrealistic assumption, would produce 89,100 knives, about 25.7 tonnes, annually, for households and the small artisans' needs.

In addition, a kind of pick-flint digging tool was recognised by Seton-Karr and others within the quarry and other sites in Egypt. The picks in our workshops were used to dig nodules or blocks of flint from underground shallows since those exposed on the surface and weathering were inferior for flaking. A systematic analysis of these tools is awaiting. The two workshops we studied included 33 picks and we attempted only a basic classification. However, we estimate that all material from 15 workshops of the Seton-Karr collection would contain up to 200 of these tools (in different museums). We hope our study will initiate methodical examination of these common, but poorly understood implements.

The work of the Vienna University team in other parts of the quarry shows the presence of substantial shafts and underground corridors, where large-scale and more organised extraction of flint took place. It is likely this large mining and production of flint tools provided a regular supply for major projects, such as building roads, temples, towns, and fortifications.

Dr. Stan Florek in the Australian Museum research library
Dr. Stan Florek in the Australian Museum research library. Image: Natalia Mroz
© Natalia Mroz, Australian Museum