Every person on Earth has felt the haunting call of ancient Egypt. That magnificent culture has been captured for the ages in her stone monuments and sculptures. What is so amazing about those artifacts is that they were made with Bronze Age tools. The pyramids, obelisks, temples, the massive, serene statues, the wall reliefs of the gods in all their glory and explained with beautifully cut hieroglyphs, were all done without the strength of steel. One must stand in awe of the Egyptian tool technology which developed their relatively soft copper and bronze tools to such a height of effectiveness. They were experts and really knew what they were doing.
Fortunately for us, the Egyptians buried many dignitaries with a good supply of stone carving tools for the deceased to use in the after life. They were made of wood, stone, copper, bronze, and much later, iron. Steel was yet a long way into the future.
The critical tool for producing hard metal is actually heat. Iron only becomes liquid at 1,538°C. The Egyptians were able to produce temperatures close to 1100°C, sufficient to melt copper, and also produce bronze, an alloy of copper and most often tin.
The relatively short period known as the Copper Age lasted from 4500 B.C. to 3500 B.C. It quickly became the Bronze Age, lasting from 4,000 B.C. to 1,200 B.C. The ages do overlap. Bronze is credited with helping Egypt to dominate the area militarily.
Metal iron was known, which came from meteorites, and could be softened by those temperatures, and then hammered into shape. But the heat to produce liquid iron was technologically beyond them. Hammered iron tools only appeared in the much later years of Egypt’s reign. In the earlier dynasties, iron was too rare to be used for tools.
The early Egyptian pharaohs referred to iron as “black copper from the sky.” King Tutankhamen was buried with his meteorite iron dagger placed against his breast as his most precious possession. Can you imagine it? All that gold and his prize was a small iron dagger.
Wood was incorporated into handles and holders for the metal components. It was also used for mallets for hitting chisels and also striking the stone to break it down.
Stone was the first “power tool” ever used by humans to manipulate their environment. Hammerstones and stone axes were not anything like what we use today. Hammerstones and axes were chosen for their hardness, and were chipped to a cutting edge. Often these stones were simply held in the hand. Diorite, the hardest stone, would have been used to work with granite. Stone tools were used for grinding, cutting and pounding. Sand was also used as a polishing agent, being scattered on the stone and then rubbed with a buffer to produce a smooth sheen.
Copper stone cutting tools could only have been used with the softest stone like fresh quarried limestone and marble. These included saws, coring drills, chisels and wedges. Drills were hollow tubes and powered by a bow drill – pure human power. Copper saws had very sharp teeth, even jewel tipped. The teeth were angled back toward the handle so the saw could only be operated by pulling it toward the user. Due to copper’s soft nature, edged tools would have to have been sharpened constantly.
The mastery of bronze was a huge leap forward. Now they had a metal that was harder than all the varieties of stone. One of the additives they used to turn copper into bronze was arsenic! You have to wonder about work related illness. Jewel points were used on fine cutting and shaping tools to produce the smooth, precision shapes we see in the reliefs and statues, like the giant statue of Akhenaten, created in 1350 BC.
How wonderful it would be to be able to go back in time and watch these stone artisans creating these magnificent artworks with their early tools. And how amazed would they be to know that thousands of years down through time the beauty of their creations would still be beloved the world over.