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More Ancient Stoneworking Technology....Page 19

Hard Facts - Lathe Turned Stone Housewares

Lathe, machine tool that shapes metal, wood, or other material by rapidly turning it against a stationary cutting device. The material to be shaped on a lathe is called the workpiece.

Click and drag photo to resize. Script from The Java Script Source

Lathes are one of the oldest and most important of machine tools. Lathes can shape, drill, bore, grind, and perform other operations. Woodworking lathes were used as early as the Middle Ages (from about the 5th century to the 15th century). These lathes were usually powered by using a treadle, a foot-powered lever that, when pushed down, drove a mechanism that turned the lathe.

By the 16th century lathes were powered continuously by hand cranks or waterpower, and were equipped with a cutting-tool holder that enabled more precise shaping of the workpiece.

As the Industrial Revolution began in England during the 17th century, lathes were developed that could shape a metal workpiece. The 18th-century development of the heavy industrial metal-cutting lathe made possible precision manufacture, interchangeability of parts, and mass production…Encarta

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"In the Cairo museum and in other museums around the world there are examples of stone ware that were found in and around the step pyramid at Saqqarra. Petrie also found pieces of similar stoneware at Giza.There are several special things about these bowls, vases and plates.

They show the unmistakable tool marks of a lathe manufactured item. This can easily be seen in the center of the open bowls or plates where the angle of the cut changes rapidly - leaving a clean, narrow and perfectly circular line made by the tip of the cutting tool.

These bowls and stone dishes/platters are some of the finest ever found, and they are from the earliest period of ancient Egyptian civilization. They are made from a variety of materials - from soft, such as alabaster, all the way up the hardness scale to very hard, such as granite.

Working with soft stone such as alabaster is relatively simple, compared to granite. Alabaster can be worked with primitive tools and abrasives. The elegant workings in granite are a different matter and indicate not only a consummate level of skill, but a different and perhaps more advanced technology.

Here is a quote from Petrie:

"...the lathe appears to have been as familiar an instrument in the fourth dynasty, as it is in the modern workshops."

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Stoneware such as this has not been found from any later era in Egyptian history - it seems that the skills necessary were lost.

Some delicate vases are made of very brittle stone such as schist (like a flint) and yet are finished, turned and polished, to a flawless paper thin edge - an extraordinary feat of craftsmanship.

At least one piece is so flawlessly turned that the entire bowl (about 9" in diameter, fully hollowed out including an undercut of the 3in opening in the top) balances perfectly (the top rests horizontally when the bowl is placed on a glass shelf) on a round tipped bottom no bigger than the size and shape of the tip of a hen's egg !

This requires that the entire bowl have a symmetrical wall thickness without any substantial error! (With a base area so tiny - less than .15 " sq - any asymmetry in a material as dense as granite would produce a lean in the balance of the finished piece.)

This kind of skill will raise the eyebrows of any machinist. To produce such a piece in clay would be very impressive. In granite it is incredible."

Source and additional information:
Copyright ©1997 R.F. McKenty. All rights Reserved.

See Also: Advanced Machining in Ancient Egypt, By Chris Dunn

Colossus of Ramesses II

The Colossus of Ramesses is an enormous statue carved in limestone. It is about 10m (33.8 ft) long, even though it has no feet, and is located near the village of Mit Rahina. A small museum has been built to house this magnificent piece. The fallen colossus was found near the south gate of the temple of Ptah, located about 30m from the huge limestone statue of Ramesses. Some of the original colors are still partly preserved.

This piece was found in 1820 by an Italian traveler Giovanni Caviglia. Mohammad Ali donated the statue to the British Museum, but the task of moving the piece prevented the British from taking it to England. It is located in the archaeological zone of Memphis in the museum built to protect it.

The colossus is an incredible piece of work. Ramesses is portrayed in the prone position, but the piece is unfinished. How the piece was made often eludes most guests who visit the statue. One sculptor, Stuart M. Edelson, has worked with stone for over 20 years. He has made the following comment that helps detail what had to be done to make such a sculpture:

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"Anyone who has never carved stone might marvel most the quarrying of the many-ton block, and then at the task of roughly hewing it into shape, tasks which must have been gargantuan. Of course, this impressed me, but the drudgery of rough carving spoke to me of an effort that could have been achieved by any gang of workers sufficiently numerous, supervised, and driven. Persistence on this grand scale is not uncommon. The distinction of the Ramesses colossus lay elsewhere.

The essence of this great statue lies in the many square yards of carved surface. Faced with a task of such magnitude, a cold sweat would form on the brow of any modern worker in stone. I scrutinized a ten-foot-long portion of the royal leg. Along its entire length no flaw distracted from the grace and power of the sinewy, kingly stride, and I knew something of the difficulty with which such perfect surfaces could only be achieved.

Among the many problems presented by this stone, it likes to chip unpredictably to the terror of the sculptor who would shape it. The stone was familiar to me. I had worked on a small piece of similar but softer material the year before, and the twenty years' experience that went into my small sculpture provided an insight into the true greatness of the colossus before me.

I had spent countless hours vainly trying to grind out by machine the countless ripples that had formed in the carving process - on a much smaller expanse of softer stone. Only after much experimentation with various abrasives and finally with different rhythms of sanding was I able to produce the smooth surfaces essential to the overall impact of the work. Even on the small scale the effort involved was enormous.

When modern, mechanized marble yards cut, smooth and polish stone the size of the Ramesses, the shapes are either flat or they are featureless columns. It is done with power tools the size of houses and even then the work is painstaking, time-consuming and risky. Here, the ancients achieved perfection with hand-held stones and crushed abrasives applied to sticks. And the shapes wrought were the complex, subtle forms of the human anatomy.

How these master carvers achieved perfect surfaces on this scale with simple tools was beyond my comprehension. My own twenty years' experience provided no clue. But clearly this was not the work of slaves. This forty-foot length of stone could only have been brought to life through the sensitive hand and watchful eye of a master sculptor, and with a great deal of loving care.

Unlike so many works on a herculean scale, this Ramesses allowed for no imprecision in areas the sculptors knew could not be seen. The hidden places were equally finely finished. There were no technical concessions to the many near-insuperable problems that had to be faced. Looking at the supreme craftsmanship that went into the body's hidden recesses as well as its conspicuous visible areas, it was clear to me that all involved in making this image had the integrity and wisdom worthy of the god the great king was meant to represent."


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