Metal Tools of the Pyramid Builders and other Craftsmen in the Old Kingdom

Martin Odler introduces his recent publication and points towards his current and future research

The Old Kingdom of Egypt (Dynasties 4–6, c. 2600–2180 BC) is famous as the period that saw the building of the largest Egyptian pyramids. Generally, it has been accepted that only humble remains of copper alloy tools are preserved from this era. What might be more surprising, is that there has been little analytical work of archaeometallurgy on the preserved metal objects from the Old Kingdom. My name is Martin Odler; I am working at the Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. Last November, Archaeopress published my book Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools, aiming to update the research on the metal tools of the pyramid builders and other craftsmen during the Old Kingdom.

My research was initiated by one of the largest Old Kingdom finds of copper alloy model tools in the tombs of the sons of Vizier Qar at Abusir South by a team from the Czech Institute of Egyptology, led by Miroslav Bárta, in early 2000s. The tools were from the Sixth Dynasty, reign of Pepy II, and altogether there were about 3 kilograms of copper found in the burial chambers. Copper tools became the topic of my M.A. thesis in 2009. After its defence, I received a grant from the Grant Agency of Charles University to study unpublished collections of copper alloy objects in the European museums and in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The monograph is a result of these research visits and also of the processing of the finds of copper alloy objects from Czech excavations at Abusir.

Old Kingdom copper metal tools as found in Tomb AS 27, early Sixth Dynasty. Photo by Květa Smoláriková, © Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

I have collected the textual, iconographic and palaeographic evidence. The evidence available to modern archaeologists is largely determined by preselection by the past culture, by conscious and unconscious rules that were applied to the creation and production of the sources. Everyone is aware of that, but in the case of the Old Kingdom, we have data that shows how much is missing from the evidence. Old Kingdom evidence shows in great detail the extent to which the range of artefacts available for study by archaeology today is influenced or even biased by a selection made by the past culture. Had it not been for the custom of depositing copper model tools in the burial equipment (and in the richest assemblages, there are altogether more than a thousand tools preserved), we would have almost nothing preserved from metal tools used in the era. Iconographic sources indicate the use of other metal artefacts that were not even fragmentarily preserved from the Old Kingdom (such as metal blades of weapons). Scattered finds from Old Kingdom settlements provide artefacts which were included neither in the burial equipment (or very rarely) nor in the iconography (e.g. needles). Harpoons and fish-hooks have their firm place in Old Kingdom iconography, yet their specimens in the Old Kingdom material culture are rather rare.

Abusir South, Tomb AS 27, complete model tool kit with model blades of chisels, adzes, axes and saws. Photo by Kamil Voděra, © Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

Furthermore, I have provided in the book updated definitions of tool classes and tool kits, together with the context of their use. They can be divided into artisan tool kit (comprising chisels, adzes, axes, saws and drills), cosmetic tool kit (razors, mirrors, tweezers, hair curlers, kohl-sticks and cosmetic spatulas), weaving tool kit (needles, awls and pins), leather-working tool kit (leather-cutting knife), hunting weapons and tools for food procurement (fish-hooks, harpoons, knives), and weapons as a separate category of metal blades (battle axes, arrowheads, spearheads, and daggers).

Besides rare specimens of full-size tools, scattered in the museum collections world-wide, the largest corpora of the material have been preserved in the form of model tools in the burial equipment of the Old Kingdom elite and were most probably symbols of their power to commission and fund craftwork. Metal tools occurred already in the Pre-dynastic Period, in the graves belonging probably to craftsmen and also in the rich graves of the supposed elite. It is hard to believe that kings and high officials spent their time in craftwork; already then, the tools were most likely to have been symbolical representation of the elite households, with craftsmen present in the households (and in the subsidiary graves) to wield those tools.

Tools in action, Abusir, Tomb of Ptahshepses, sculptors with adzes at work. Photo by Milan Zemina, © Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

I should dispel one of the most common misunderstandings. You may have read in many popular and semi-popular works that Old Kingdom Egyptians knew and used only tools made of pure copper. This is simply not true; they were using arsenical copper as the main practical alloy, typical for the whole Ancient Near East in the Early Bronze Age. For Egypt, this fact was proven already in 1976, in an article “Near eastern alloying and some textual evidence for the early use of arsenical copper” by E. R. Eaton and Hugh McKerrell. Already, in the Early Dynastic Period, Egyptians certainly knew bronze as the oldest securely-dated bronze objects, spouted jar and wash basin, have been found in the tomb of King Khasekhemwy, built and furnished at the end of Second Dynasty. To know more, we need to analyse more objects from secure archaeological contexts.

The long-standing division in the Egyptological literature between full-size tools and model tools is questioned. One of the most important arguments is that the traces of tools on objects are actually very close to the size of some bigger so-called “model tools”. The typology alone and use of the preserved textual and iconographic sources are not sufficient for the correct understanding of Old Kingdom material culture. Typological studies can be enriched by the use of morphometry, further vital knowledge can be provided by the archaeometallurgical study of the objects. Statistical studies of Old Kingdom material culture are only just beginning, with an exception of Old Kingdom pottery. Ceramic studies have thrived in recent decades and more Egyptologists than ever realize the importance of pottery for the reconstruction of the site histories.

The volume is completed by co-authored case studies and Archaeopress agreed to post all four on and Research Gate. The first one is a detailed archaeometallurgical study of selected Old Kingdom artefacts in the collection of the Egyptian Museum of Leipzig University in Germany (as a brief aside, the research was approved by the curator of the collection, Dietrich Raue, whose team recently discovered a Late Period colossus in the temple of Heliopolis). The research was in this case led by my colleague Jiří Kmošek, a specialist on Prehistoric metallurgy. One of the most interesting findings of the project is that Old Kingdom Egyptians did not rely on alloying properties of arsenic, but instead annealed and hammered the objects to create the desired shape and hardness of the object. Research goes on, we have submitted the samples for neutron activation and lead isotope analyses, and you can look forward to news about the origin of the alloys used for the production of Old Kingdom objects.

Full-size razor blade from the Old Kingdom Giza (ÄMUL 2131) with 6% of arsenic analysed by metallographic methods contained a two-phase structure of α copper and arsenic rich γ phase. Photos by Jiří Kmošek, Tereza Jamborová, © Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

The second case study is the first application ever of a method of geometric morphometry on a corpus of ancient Egyptian copper tools, in this case Old Kingdom adze blades. We have analysed the assemblage with a mathematician Ján Dupej. Morphometry proved my suspicion, already expressed elsewhere, that the size of the model tools is somehow connected to the specific parts of the sites and social status of the buried persons. The bigger the models are, the higher the status of the person. However, this rule is sometimes broken by less affluent officials and I think that those bigger models were probably “royal” gifts. Although uninscribed, they might have been perceived as status objects by the Old Kingdom Egyptians.

Two remaining case studies were written by my colleagues from the Czech Institute of Egyptology, Lucie Jirásková, about the stone vessel finds associated with copper model tools, and Katarína Arias Kytnarová, on the ceramic vessels in the same contexts. Old Kingdom tombs are frequently dated on the basis of iconographic and textual evidence. Yet the tomb decoration must have been planned and executed well in advance. The objects associated with burials might be in fact closer to the actual dating of the burials themselves, and this dating does not always match the tomb decoration. But this is also a task of future research, at the Czech concession in Abusir and elsewhere on Old Kingdom sites in Egypt.

Mean shapes of the adze blades from the Old Kingdom burial contexts, counted within categories of social status (defined by Veronika Dulíková). Dashed line marks mean shape of all Old Kingdom adze blades. Plotted by Ján Dupej, © Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

My book is only one of the steps leading to better knowledge of ancient Egyptian material culture. Already when submitting the final manuscript, I knew that the contents could not be called complete. In spring 2016, we excavated anonymous tomb AC 31 at Central/Royal Abusir, a tomb with rich remains of original Fifth Dynasty burial equipment, including copper model tools. The tomb provided us with incredibly detailed information on the late Fifth Dynasty burials of the elite, and we now know that it is one of the most important Czech discoveries at Abusir.

There are also some open questions, regarding which my book could be helpful for future research. If you would like to produce for yourself your own Old Kingdom artisan tool kit and do experimental work with it, the drawings of the tools are published. But, please, document it. Also the tool traces on the Old Kingdom objects need to be gathered in a more systematic way. My current research is focussed on the archaeological evaluation of the archaeometallurgical analyses of objects from the Egyptian Museum of Leipzig University (not only from the Old Kingdom). The first phase of the research was presented last year at 41st International Symposium on Archaeometry in Kalamata (Greece) and our poster received honourable mention from the Society for Archaeological Sciences in the R.E. Taylor Student Poster Award. Another project focused on the ancient Egyptian objects from the documented archaeological contexts in the collection of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, datable from the First Dynasty to the Second Intermediate Period. The results of both projects will be published this year and hopefully I will write about them more in a future post on the Archaeopress Blog.

9781784914424Martin Odler’s book, Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools, Archaeopress Egyptology 14, 2016, is available now in paperback (£45.00) or as a PDF eBook (£16 + VAT if applicable). The paperback edition will be available at the specially reduced price of £36 until 30/04/2017 at

Praise for Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools:

“In short: the authors have succeeded in presenting a reference and standard work, in which no one who is concerned with this period and this material should pass by; a work that will always be consulted with pleasure and joy.” – Robert Kuhn, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin ( (Translated from the German)

Sincerest thanks to Martin Odler for submitting this article for the Archaeopress Blog. If you would like to submit something for consideration to be published on the blog please contact Patrick Harris ( Articles on all aspects of archaeology will be considered. They should be approximately 2,000 words accompanied by up to five images.

Bearsden: the rediscovery and excavation of a Roman fort

David Breeze provides an introduction and detailed context for his new book ‘Bearsden: The Story of a Roman Fort’

27 August 1973 was the first day of a project which was to last for 43 years. On that day, I cut the first trench in an attempt to re-discover the Roman fort at Bearsden on the Antonine Wall. The fort had been recorded about 300 years ago, and planned 150 years back when it still lay in open countryside. But in the 19th century, the urban sprawl of Glasgow reached the hamlet of New Kilpatrick. When the railway station was built, it was named after the farm of Bearsden and this is now the name of the local authority area – and the Roman fort.

On that first day, we were successful. In fact, in the first season we met all our primary aims. To locate the fort and learn about its history were 2 of these, but in addition we discovered the fort’s bath-house, and started to reveal the environmental history of the area. What was planned as an exploratory investigation of 4 weeks extended to a 7-week excavation with significant media interest and many local visitors. The bath-house was put under a temporary cover which was not removed until 1979 when the examination of the building was completed and it was consolidated and put on public display.

The bath-house was formally opened to the public in 1982 by the then Minister responsible for Culture in Scotland, Allan Stewart. In the meantime, every season from 1973 to 1982 saw the digging team return to Bearsden to continue the examination of the site. By the end, we had examined half a hectare, mostly concentrated in the northern part of the site which was to be developed. The local authority which owned part of the southern half of the fort allowed us to excavate the gardens and flower beds of their house so that it was possible to create a coherent plan of the fort and its annexe as well as explore areas beyond the defences.

Above: Plan of the bath-house at floor level

The areas examined in the southern part of the fort were restricted, but there were also problems in the northern sector. Four late Victorian villas had removed evidence from their footprints. The creation of platforms for the houses had led to the importation of clay which had squeezed the Roman layers underneath. The trees were protected and this restricted where we could dig. Yet, gradually, piecemeal, the plan of the fort and annexe were created and the history of the site elucidated.

The first surprise was that the fort planned by William Roy in 1755 had been divided into 2 by its Roman builders. To the left of the enclosure lay the fort while to its right was a smaller annexe. The regimental bath-house and the latrine were placed within the annexe. The fort contained 2 stone granaries and several timber buildings. These included the headquarters, two barrack-blocks and three long narrow buildings of uncertain purpose.

The big surprise was that the plan of the fort had been changed during construction. It took us some time to realize this. The original fort covered the whole enclosure, but when only 4 buildings had been erected, or started, for some reason it was decided to divide the large fort into two, a fort and an annexe. The headquarters, which was probably the first building to have been erected, was not moved, but the single room of the bath-house which had been built was knocked down and a new bath-house built on a different alignment within the annexe. One stone granary had also been built, to the left of the headquarters.

The new smaller fort therefore contained a headquarters building placed, not in the centre of the fort, but to one side, and a granary. In the northern half of the fort were now built barrack-blocks and other timber buildings – and one stone granary. This was in a most unusual position, but this appears to have been the result of the change in plan. The granary should have stood in the centre of the fort next to its pair, but space had to be found for the commanding officer’s house, usually placed next to the headquarters, and this led to the second granary being placed in its unusual location.

As a result of these changes, the plan of the fort looked most strange. However, while preparing the plans for publication Dennis Gallagher realised that the fort was laid out to a grid based upon the Roman unit of measurement known as an actus, that is 120 feet square. The whole enclosure measured 5 by 4 actus. Half an actus in lay the rampart. The central east-west line ran along the road through the fort. What was also intriguing was that the revised plan for the fort appeared also to use the actus. All the timber buildings were about an actus long and the distance across 2 pairs of such buildings was half an actus.

This was interesting in itself, but the use of the same unit of measurement in the first fort and in its revised version indicates that both phases of activity were the work of the same team. An inscription demonstrated that these were soldiers from the Twentieth Legion.

The evidence for such a change in the building of a fort on the Antonine Wall has not been recorded elsewhere along the frontier. It adds another dimension to the complicated history of the building of the Wall.

Another aspect of life in the fort provided to be very interesting. So much of the 2 barrack-blocks had been excavated that it was possible to plot the distribution of pottery through the buildings. Nearly every room provided one or more fragments of mixing bowls, cooking pots and bowls and dishes. It would appear that the soldiers were preparing, cooking and eating their food in their barracks. As we found no plates, it seems that they ate the food out of the bowls or dishes, perhaps with their fingers. Other items lacking were cups and beakers: it is not clear what soldiers drank out of.

There was also a distinction between the rooms of the men and the quarters of the officers. The latter produced higher quality pottery such as imported samian ware.

Above: A mixing bowl stamped with the name Sarrius

Quantities of samian ware were also recovered from the bath-house. Here, the lack of mixing bowls suggests that food was not prepared in the building, but there were several bowls, including fragments of 8 samian bowls, but a fragment from just one cup. What is the implication? Did the soldiers drink wine from bowls? This is not impossible as one such bowl from elsewhere bears the message ‘drink from me’. Could they have held fruit and nuts? This is a reasonable possibility as fragments of both were found in the bath-house. Or, bearing in mind the distance to the latrine, did the bowls serve as chamber pots?

The latrine proved to be a rich source of information, or rather the adjacent ditch into which the sewage from the latrine had drained. The sewage told us a lot about the diet of the soldiers. Two types of wheat were found, emmer probably used for porridge, and spelt probably made into bread. Analysis of the residue in some cooking pots led to the identification of a third wheat, macaroni wheat. This, possibly imported from Spain, could have been used to make pasta or porridge or mixed with spelt to make brown bread. Barley was also found in the sewage, mixed with fragments of beetles. Whether the barley was contaminated and therefore dumped in the ditch, or whether both elements had passed through soldiers’ guts is hard to tell.

The sewage also contained locally gathered foods such as bilberry, blackberry, raspberry, and wild strawberry, hazel nuts, wild turnips, radishes, mallow, flax and celery. More exotic items were coriander, figs and opium poppy, probably imported from the continent. Olive oil and fish-based products came to Bearsden from Spain in large jars, while wine was imported from France. Among the less welcome imports were no less than 4 different types of grain beetles; it is a remarkable testimony to Roman transport arrangements that within a hundred years of the invasion of Britain in 43, grain beetles could have reached the north-west frontier of the empire.

Few bones survived at Bearsden owing to the acidity of the soil, but pig was certainly eaten. Yet, biochemical analysis of the sewage demonstrated that the diet was mainly plant based. The sewage provided evidence of an altogether different kind. It demonstrated that the soldiers suffered from both roundworm and whipworm and had fleas.

A Roman fort, practically any Roman fort, attracted women, merchants, publicans, priests and so on. We found little evidence for any of these, only potters. Three or 4 potters came to work at Bearsden. One was from the workshop of Sarrius who already manufactured pottery in two places in southern Britain. He appears to have come north with the army, or very soon afterwards, for part of one of his vessels was found in a primary level in the bath-house.

The fort at Bearsden did not have a long life. Built in or soon after 142, it lasted for about a generation. An inscription from Hadrian’s Wall dating to 158 points to the re-occupation of that frontier and the abandonment of the Antonine Wall. Two unworn coins of 154-5 suggest that Bearsden was abandoned soon after that date. The buildings were demolished and the rampart slighted when the army marched out and returned to Hadrian’s Wall. Some of their possessions were dumped in the fort ditch but the quality of the finds on the site suggests that they took all the better items with them.

The fort at Bearsden was built in an area of established pasture with some partially cleared woodland. Trees growing here included alder, hazel and willow; there was some oak and birch. Grasses, heather and rushes grew in cleared areas. The Romans used these local resources in the building of their fort: turf for the ramparts, wood for the buildings, rushes for the roofs, clay to plaster the walls of the buildings – and to make pottery – while further afield there was stone. When they left the site, nature took over, and this can be observed, for example, in the growth of aquatic species in the ditches. The denuded ramparts and the partially filled ditches were to survive another 1700 years before they succumbed to the ever-expanding suburbs of Glasgow.

Above: David Breeze at the launch of the excavation report, published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, held on 2 June 2016 at the Hunterian Museum of Glasgow University

The archaeological excavation had started in 1973 and was completed in 1982. By that time, analysis of the finds had begun. This was to continue through many years. It was not until after I had retired in 2009 that I was able to bring all together and finalise the report which was published in June 2016; in 4 months it had sold out. By that time, I had decided to write a ‘popular’ account of the site, describing how the excavation and post-excavation work was carried out and the report written, as well as not only discussing the discoveries made at the site but also placing the fort and its occupants in a wider context, and, finally, looking to the future because the completion and publication of the excavation report is rarely the end of the story. Already, the parasite eggs have been submitted to a laboratory for DNA analysis while colleagues write to inform me of new discoveries which are relevant to our findings at Bearsden. This is as it should be: research never stops.


David Breeze’s new book, ‘Bearsden: The Story of a Roman Fort’ is available now from Archaeopress and can be purchased in paperback for £20 and PDF eBook from £16.00 (+VAT if applicable)