Tag Archives: experimental archaeology

The Use of Steatite in Ancient Egypt

A guest blog on the well-attested stone known as steatite from experimental technologist Matt Szafran…


Statuette of Neb-iu, the ‘spinning statue’. Photo: Paul Cliff.

Steatite, sometimes called ‘soapstone’, is a green/grey/brown coloured metamorphic rock made from talc-schist which will naturally darken as it oxidises. This colouration can cause steatite to sometimes be confused with serpentinite – a different and unrelated metamorphic rock with a hardness of Mohs 3-5, which is also used for statuary (such as the Manchester Museum’s world famous ‘Spinning Statue’ – accession number 9325 (left)). Steatite occurs in the Eastern Desert at sites such as Wadi Abu Qureya and immediately north and south of Wadi Barramiya. In its natural state steatite is a heavy rock and its high talc content makes it very soft – with a hardness of only Mohs 1. Bronze has a hardness of Mohs 3, horn and bone have a hardness of Mohs 2.5 and flint has a hardness of Mohs 7; meaning that steatite can very easily be worked with even the most basic of tools – often yielding very finely detailed results. Whilst it’s used in multiple cultures (up to and including modern times), in an Ancient Egyptian context steatite was used in both Predynastic and Dynastic periods but it does appear to be limited to smaller statues, shabtis, beads, amulets and seals. Whilst large sections of steatite could have been quarried, there are no extant examples of use for larger statuary or other larger carved objects.

In its raw state the softness of steatite make it extremely easily damaged, and simply wearing or using a carved object would damage the carved detail. Steatite has an interesting property, when it is fired it will convert from steatite into enstatite. Unlike steatite, enstatite has a hardness of Mohs 5.5 which is close to that of granite – making it extremely hard wearing and resistant to damage, whilst still retaining its carved detail. Steatite has also been glazed since the Predynastic era for objects such as beads and amulets. Glazing can be achieved in one of two ways; either the object can be buried in a glazing medium during firing (a process called cementation), or it can have a glaze applied to its surface prior to firing. These glazes would be very similar to Egyptian faience and be made from powdered quartz and copper (the latter providing the blue/green colour).

Firing at a temperature of ~950°C will cause steatite to dehydrate and crystallise into enstatite. Clay will begin its vitrification process ~800-900°C and firing will generally require temperatures in excess of 1100°C , therefore the steatite to enstatite conversion can be achieved using similar technology as is required for firing clay objects. A wood fuelled open fire can easily reach temperatures exceeding 1100°C, and can be used for firing ceramics and also for converting steatite to enstatite. However as this requires a large volume of fuel this is unlikely to have been the method used in Ancient Egypt, where wood has been a scarce resource in various periods. A kiln requires less wood to reach firing temperature than an open fire; however it still may not have been the fuel of choice. Ethnographic studies have shown that modern Egyptian and Sudanese cultures are using dung fuelled kilns for the firing of pottery. This is therefore likely to have been something which was undertaken in ancient times. Unlike wood an open dung fuelled fire will only reach a maximum of ~650°C and will not reach the temperature required for the steatite to enstatite conversion. Therefore if dung was used as a fuel it would require a kiln to reach the necessary temperature for conversion.

Perhaps the only factor which prevented the production of larger steatite objects in Ancient Egypt was simply a lack of available technology and materials to fire large objects and convert them into enstatite. An unfired statue would be vulnerable to damage and if left outside would be abraded very quickly by nothing more than the sand blown on the wind.

Certain descriptions of the use of fired steatite for statuary imply that it is a less expensive alternative for individuals who could not afford, or did not have access to, granite or the craftsmen to work it – as once these statues have been fired they would then have an appearance and feel similar to granite. Whilst this is likely the case for certain examples, it would be naive and cynical to assume that this was the only reason to choose steatite over an alternative material.


Shabti of Khaemwaset (UC 2311). Photo: Matt Szafran

The Petrie Museum holds an extremely finely carved shabti of Khaemwaset (UC2311). This shabti has intricately carved fabric folds of everyday wear (rather than the more typical wrapped ‘sah-iform’ shape commonly employed for shabtis), a beaded collar, the Sem-Priest side-lock hairstyle and hieroglyphic inscription. Prince Khaemwaset was the fourth son of Ramesses II, was the crown prince briefly between the 50th and 55th year of his father’s reign and High Priest of Ptah. He can therefore certainly be thought of as being an ‘elite’ who had access to the highest quality and ‘elite’ only materials (such as granite or basalt), and who had access to the best craftsmen and the wealth to commission them. Therefore the use of steatite for his shabti was a deliberate choice neither governed by affordability nor the lack of access to materials such as granite.

There is no simple answer as to why steatite is used as a sculpture medium, and any such statement should be treated with caution. It is highly likely that in some cases the use of steatite was indeed because the more ‘elite’ materials were unaffordable or unavailable, however in in other cases the choice to use steatite was very deliberately made because of the material’s ability to be intricately carved and fired to produce an object which could not be created in another medium.

Further Reading

Connor, S, Tavier, H and De Putter, T. ‘Put the Statues in the Oven: Preliminary Results of Research on Steatite Sculpture from the Late Middle Kingdom’. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 101 (2015).


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How to make a Coptic sock – II

A reflection on the production of our Coptic sock from experimental researcher Regina De Giovanni. 

In March 2012 I visited the Manchester Museum and was able to spend time with the Child’s Coptic Sock, which as off display at that time. I believed the sock to be knitted and made a knitting pattern and a pair of replica socks based on the ancient original.


Manchester Museum’s Coptic sock

I had all but forgotten about the project when in May of 2015 I received an email from Dr Giorgios Boudalis who works at The Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessalonica (Greece) who found me through the Manchester Egypt blog. He asked me to make a pair of socks for an exhibition in New York 2017 using the technique used in ‘Coptic Knitting: An Ancient Technique’ by Dorothy K. Burnham Textile History Volume 3, Issue 1 December 1972, 116-124. The technique in the article was also used for bookbinding Coptic Books which is his area of interest.

Inspired by this request I visited the Whitworth Gallery and spent time with Curator Frances Pritchard looking at samples of Coptic Sock broken parts to observe any damage which might give clues to their construction. I brought premade squares made in both Tarim stitch and knitted stocking stitch which I cut roughly to compare the damage. The experiment was inconclusive as the damage on both squares looked similar to the pieces. We noted that the originals were made in fine 3 ply yarn which would rule out the “spin as you go” method which would create the yarn by twisting fleece with the needle as the work progressed.

toes made separately and then joined

Toes made separately

I also searched the Manchester Museum collection of needles and bodkins, while interesting were not suitable for the replication of the Tarim Stitch. I then discovered a demonstration of Tarim Stitch on You Tube which used a flat wooden needle. http://www.neulakintaat.fi/ (Finland). Eventually I sourced a fine wooden needle on Etsy from Belarus. The needle needed to be shortened and flattened before it met the needs of the project.

turning the heel

Turning the heel

Knitting is constructed with two rigid needles and a continuous length of yarn. Tarim stitch is worked with a short flat needle using an “arm’s length” of yarn at a time. Splicing the lengths of yarn together is fiddly and time consuming which makes the overall task slower than knitting.

Having conquered the stitch method of construction many questions are left. Where did the yarn originate from, it looks like wool though there seems little evidence of sheep farming in Egypt? What dyestuffs were used to generate the lovely bright colours? What were the needles made of wood, reeds, thorns or bone? What tool was used to cut the yarn?

complete tarim stitch sock

Complete tarim stitch sock

The project so far has been truly International via the magic of the Internet and thanks to the staff at Manchester Museum and Galleries for being so willing to give experimenters like myself access to their collections.

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Animal Mummies #6: Making experimental mummies in Manchester

Part of the research for the Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank project involves assessing whether it is possible to make modern experimental animal mummies in Manchester. Previous attempts at mummifying animals have used species not known from the votive mummy record and many have used techniques that are commonly witnessed in human mummies, rather than animals. This means that the experiments are not reliable indicators through which to investigate the mummification of votive animals.

Drs Lidija McKnight and Stephanie Atherton-Woolham making mummies in the lab

Drs Lidija McKnight and Stephanie Atherton-Woolham making mummies in the lab

The subjects for these experiments are a mixture of birds donated to the Natural History Museum in Tring, including Sparrowhawks, Kestrels and Buzzards. All of these species have been identified in mummies. Other candidates include rodents, passerines and snakes.

As no ‘recipe’ for votive animal mummification has been found from ancient Egypt, chemical analysis from samples has identified combinations of tree resins, beeswax and animal fat (Buckley et al. 2004; Brettell et al. forthcoming). This resinous substance is often visible on radiographs as a radiodense layer close to the animal body or as patches throughout the wrapping layers.

Radiographic analysis of animal mummies has shown that in many cases the internal organs remain in situ indicating that evisceration was not always practiced. Mummies which show no internal contents cannot be taken as evidence of evisceration, as the small body sizes and the effects of the desiccation process can mean that they are present, but not visible radiographically.  Only two mummies in the 330 studied so far for the project have revealed evidence for abdominal packing, showing that the organs were removed. It is likely that the quick process involved in votive mummy production meant that this time-consuming action was omitted. Whether the ancient Egyptians routinely used natron to preserve animal mummies is unknown so no natron was used in these experiments.

A molten emulsion of four parts pine resin to one part beeswax was made and was poured directly over the animal cadaver before being wrapped in linen strips. Dabs of the emulsion were used to stick down the ends of the linen as has been noted in the ancient examples.

A batch of experimental mummies

A batch of experimental mummies

Radiography plays a large part in the experimental process as it enables the animal to be assessed prior to mummification and then at regular intervals post-mummification to chart how successfully it is desiccating. The first mummy, a Sparrowhawk, is now nearly four years post-mummification and remains stable with no malodour. Radiography shows that the muscle mass has reduced and the abdominal contents have dried and shrunk away from the cavity walls. Studying the modern mummies in this way enables direct comparisons with the ancient mummies to be assessed.

One of the main concerns with using radiography to study mummies, is the difficulty with obtaining a positive identification, particularly in species where morphological differences are slight. To investigate this, six mummies have been made using ‘blind’ collections of disarticulated bird remains, selected by the NHM which have been mummified and will be used to assess how accurately species identifications can be made using radiography alone.

Experimental mummification has a vital role to play in the study of ancient Egyptian animal mummies. Using known species and ingredients, guided by our knowledge of the ancient practice obtained through radiographic investigation, the efficacy of the technique can be assessed. The climate in Manchester might be a lot colder and wetter than that of Egypt, but the mummies look remarkably similar!

A simulated micro-CT scanner interactive can be found in the new exhibition ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’.


Buckley, S. A., Clark, K.A. and Evershed, R.P. 2004. Complex organic chemical balms of Pharaonic animal mummies. Nature 431, pp. 294-299.

Bretell, R., Martin, W., Atherton-Woolham, S., Stern, B. and McKnight, L. forthcoming. ‘Unparalleled Opportunities’: Organic residue analysis of Egyptian votive mummies and their research potential. Studies in Conservation.



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Event: Ancient Egyptian woodworking 09/02/13

Woodworking_NebamunWorking with wood in Ancient Egypt: a practical demonstration

In conjunction with our ‘Collecting Trees’ project and as part of our ‘Discover Archaeology’ Big Saturday on February the 9th, the Museum is delighted to host Dr. Geoffrey Killen, an expert on ancient Egyptian woodworking, who will demonstrate ancient craft techniques – LIVE! Watch Geoff use replica ancient Egyptian tools to make furniture, the Egyptian way. There will also be a chance to see Egyptian wooden items normally kept in storage.




Ancient Egyptian Woodworking

Saturday 9th February

11:30am and 2:30pm

Manchester Museum



Filed under Egypt events, Egypt events at the Manchester Museum

Curator’s Diary 26/5/12: Making ancient Egyptian faience

Faience vessel

Faience kohl pot from Kahun. Middle Kingdom. Acc no. 164. © Paul Cliff

Yesterday, I joined a team from the Caer Alyn Archaeological Heritage Project (CAAHP) as they attempted to recreate the ancient Egyptian art of faience production. Faience is a glazed non-clay ceramic material, composed mainly of crushed quartz or sand, with small amounts of lime and either natron or plant ash. The characteristic blue colour of Egyptian faience comes from a copper compound added to this mixture. Once fired, a thick glaze forms on the surface.

At the Manchester Museum we have around 2500 objects made of Egyptian faience, including one of my favourites – a bright blue libation cup of Nesi-khonsu, from the Deir el-Bahri royal cache. The material was widely used for vessels, shabtis, jewellery and amulets throughout the pharaonic period. In creating our new Ancient Worlds galleries we want to explain how this very attractive material – called tjehenet or ‘dazzling’ by the ancient Egyptians – was made.


Alan with the kiln, ensuring airflow is at an optimum level

In January I met Alan Brown of Daresbury Laboratory, who told me about his work recreating ancient kilns and his interest in ancient Egypt. He planned to build a clay kiln in an attempt to replicate the firing conditions that produced faience in ancient Egypt. Alan kindly agreed to talk about his experiments on film, to appear in the ‘exploring objects’ space of the new galleries. All the proceedings were filmed by the Museum’s media technician Luke Lovelock, and clips of the experiment will appear in the new galleries, with longer videos online.

Filming the kiln in action

This exciting case of experimental archaeology took place in a field just outside Wrexham in North Wales. It was perhaps the best day of the year to undertake such work – beautiful weather, and sunshine that seemed almost Egyptian! We were very lucky to have the services of a skilled set of volunteers from the CAAHP who have worked with Alan on a number of recreations before – not least the impressive roundhouse, next to where we were filming.

Alan’s team had built a small clay kiln in the weeks leading up to the experiment. They began by fuelling the kiln with wood and straw – as, presumably, would have been done in ancient Egypt. Alan had promised that dried cow pats would also be used as fuel, but – fortunately, I thought – this touch, however authentic, wasn’t available. Alan had prepared a number of small faience samples, made with different mixtures, including clay, gum arabic, and natron – a compound commonly used in mummification and simulated with table salt and bicarbonate of soda.

Each of the samples were placed on top of pebbles inside a lidded, fired clay container – or saggar – to sit at the centre of the kiln. An electronic probe was placed beneath the saggar to measure what temperature was reached in this hottest part of the kiln. Once the fuel began burning, and with careful stoking and sustained bellowing of air inside, a temperature of around 900 degrees Celsius was reached remarkably quickly. Although this core temperate fluctuated, it remained at between 800 and 900 degrees for about one and a half hours – providing the conditions thought ideal for the compounds in the faience to produce a glaze.

Inside the kiln, once the lid had been removed from the saggar

Once the kiln had been allowed to cool off somewhat, around three hours after the firing process had begun, we gathered round for the lid of the saggar to be removed. There was a real sense of expectation to see if the experiment had been a success – had the faience mixture been dry enough? Had the temperature been right? Was there enough bellowing? The results were astonishing: most of Alan’s greyish samples had turned bright Egyptian blue. Although the material remained rather porous, and did not show the shiney glaze typical of pharaonic examples, the experiment was declared a success. Conditions not dissimilar to those used in ancient Egypt had produced a passable imitation of this popular material.

Success: the distinctive blue of Egyptian faience.

Alan and his colleagues hope to make the results of their experiments more widely available soon. You can find out more on their other projects here. Footage from the kiln can be seen when the new galleries open at the end of October.


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Curator’s Diary 22/3/12: Of sling shots and Coptic socks

Experimental archaeology seems to breed enthusiasm. And it is always rewarding to see this enthusiasm sparked between two people who have never met, but who discover a mutual interest an object in the collection. This was the case when, last week, David Colter and Regina Degiovanni met in the Museum.

Sling shot Acc. no. 103

Sling shot Acc. no. 103, with ‘shots’ which may or may not have been used with it.

A chance conversation with David in a pub had alerted me to his interest in a sling shot (Acc. No. 103) from Kahun currently on display in our temporary exhibition, ‘Unearthed’. A separate enquiry had come from Regina, a member of Merseyside and West Lancs Weaver Guild. She was interested in how both the sling and our famous Coptic sock (Acc. No. 983) – which she’d seen at our Gripping Yarns event– were crafted. Both, it turned out, had created their own replicas of the sling shot in an attempt to work out how it was made. They were delighted when, with the help of technician Mike, we opened the sling’s display case so that they could have a closer look at the object, and measure it accurately.

David explains to some visitors how the sling shot works.

David explains to some visitors how the sling shot works.

At the pub, David had set forth a very reasonable hypothesis on the sling’s use. He believes that it was not merely a toy, as it has been interpreted in the past: it is in fact capable of delivering a lethal blow from as far away as 200 yards. He observed that it would have been suited to hunting birds, and wondered if it might have been used near a lake or marsh. Of course the sling was found by Flinders Petrie at the workmen’s town of Kahun, which is situated near the Faiyum lake: the perfect environment to go on a bird hunting expedition!

David demonstrates the slingshot

David demonstrates the slingshot

Regina’s interest in our Coptic sock resulted in her spending the best part of two days with the object, observing it closely and working out how it was stitched, knitted and/or woven. The pattern, we decided, would make an interesting gift for sale in the Museum shop.

Both David and Regina have kindly agreed for the results of this experimental archaeology to be included in our display of ‘imitation’ objects in the new Ancient Worlds galleries. Find out about another slingshot from our archaeology collection here.

The Museum continues to be actively involved in experimental archaeology.

Regina with her very accurate replication of the pattern on our Coptic sock

Regina with her very accurate replication of the pattern on our Coptic sock


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