Flint is a hard stone, made from the silica shells of marine animals (Aston et al 2000:28). In an Egyptian context ‘flint’ and ‘chert’ are often used interchangeably with the delineation between the two being down to the colour, with chert being more brown and flint being more grey (Aston et al 2000:28). For simplicity, this article will use the term flint. Flint’s use in tools and weapons dates to the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods in Egypt, and its use continued well into the Dynastic period, with excavations showing royal tombs of the 18th to 20th Dynasties were created using flint hammerstones and chisels (Aston et al 2000:28-29)
Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin (Ogden 2000:153). It began to be used in the late Predynastic period, and its use continued into the Dynastic period before it was eventually replaced with iron and steel (Arnold 1991:257). Odler (2016) also argues that arsenic copper was used exclusively in the Old Kingdom. Molten copper and copper alloy can be poured into moulds to rapidly create tools and weapons. Both bronze and copper will work harden, and require hammering to create the most durable cutting edges on tools and weapons (Davies & Laboury 2020:117).
Whilst entire books have been produced on Egyptian copper and copper alloy tools (Odler 2016; Petrie 1917), there is very little material published on flint chisels, however Stocks (2003:81-95) does discuss their use for carving larger hieroglyphs (Stocks 2003:87) and their use for working hard stones such as granite (Arnold 1991:264; Stocks 2003:82) which could not have been worked using bronze.
To test the efficacy of chisels made from both materials for small detailed work, a bronze and a flint chisel were created by the author and used to create a limestone replica of an Ancient Egyptian New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069 BCE) based on Manchester Museum 4906 (Figure 1).
The flint chisel was created using traditional methods, by taking a small bifacially flaked flint blade and mounting it into a wooden handle which was bound together using natural cordage and sealed with a beeswax and carbon adhesive (in an approximate 50:50 ratio). The cutting edge of the flint chisel was 13 mm wide with a 0.7 mm edge.
The bronze chisel was formed by cold-forging a 5mm bronze rod with a modern steel hammer and anvil which was then friction-mounted into an oak (Quercus robur) handle. The cold working caused the material to work harden, and the edge was given additional hammer hardening. The edge was hand-beveled and sharpened using a modern diamond file to produce a sharp cutting edge. The cutting edge of the bronze chisel was 5.9 mm wide with an edge of under 0.1 mm.
Hieroglyphs (Figure 2), representing Ptah-hearer-of-prayers (ptH sDm-nH<w>) between two ears and a lower register representing Made by Matt (ir n mAt),were laid out on two 95 x 75 x 5 mm sections of limestone using pencil. These two different stelae were then carved created, one with each chisel.
Both chisels were driven with a flat river pebble, using their thin edge to follow the pencil guidelines.
The flint chisel (Figure 3) did not suffer any damage and did not need its edge sharpening and removed limestone with ease. This replicates the results found by Stocks (2003:83) The only issue which affected the performance of the chisel was due to its manufacture; the blade was far too short and this inhibited the ability to see the lines clearly and the cord and beeswax wrapped caused fouling at lower angles, which forced the chisel to be used in higher angles compounding the obstruction of the guidelines.
The bronze chisel (Figure 4) was initially sharper than the flint and cut cleaner lines in a faster time. However, it very quickly dulled, and its thin edge began to roll – especially on the corners of the blade. To be effective the chisel required constant maintenance. The long neck of the chisel allowed it to be used at a variety of angles and gave a clear unobstructed view of the guidelines.
Both materials can be used to produce detailed carvings (Figure 5), however the flint chisel demonstrated advantages over the bronze chisel.
Whilst flint is a brittle material, using it as a hammer stone driven chisel did not cause any issues or affect its edge or integrity.
Flint was always present for use in tool making, even when access to metal tools was temporarily restricted (Stocks 2003:82). The microliths required for the chisels can be created very quickly and easily, and spoil from other flint knapping could be recycled into chisel blades – making them extremely time and labour efficient to create.
The bronze chisel performed significantly worse in the test than the flint chisel, with its edge blunting and curling very quickly. The edge curling of bronze chisels has been observed by masons studying the dressing of pyramid casings, and it’s estimated that a dedicated chisel sharpener was required for every 100 workmen (Lehner 2008:211). It is less critical for a fine edge when dressing a pyramid’s casing stones than it is for fine carving tasks, where it is extremely impractical to be constantly swapping or sharpening chisels.
When the performance of flint versus bronze for cutting small lines and performing detailed work, it appears that flint holds the advantage; it is an abundant resource and so cheap and easy to produce flint chisel blades, flint does not deform or break during carving use, and it is capable of working hard materials. It therefore seems likely that flint chisels played a much more significant role in Ancient Egyptian stone working than is typically discussed.
Arnold, D., 2008. Building in Egypt. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Aston, B., Harrell, J. and Shaw, I. (2000). Stone, in P. Nicholson and I. Shaw (eds.) Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, pp. 5–77. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Davies, V. and Laboury, D. (2020). The Oxford handbook of Egyptian epigraphy and palaeography. Oxford University Press.
Lehner, M. (2008). The complete pyramids. London: Thames & Hudson.
Odler, M. (2016). Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools. Archaeopress Archaeology.
Ogden, J. (2000). Metals, in P. Nicholson and I. Shaw (eds.) Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, pp. 148–176. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Petrie, W. (1917). Tools and Weapons. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt College, University College.
Stocks, D. (2003). Experiments in Egyptian archaeology; Stoneworking technology in ancient Egypt. London: Routledge.