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Tombs of the South Asasif NecropolisNew Discoveries and Research 2012-2014$

Elena Pischikova

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9789774167249

Published to Cairo Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.5743/cairo/9789774167249.001.0001

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Material from a Possible Industrial Area in the Tomb of Karakhamun (TT 223)1

Material from a Possible Industrial Area in the Tomb of Karakhamun (TT 223)1

(p.315) 14 Material from a Possible Industrial Area in the Tomb of Karakhamun (TT 223)1
Tombs of the South Asasif Necropolis

Paul T. Nicholson

American University in Cairo Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers the possibility of faience production in the tomb of Karakhamun. The tomb of Karakhamun is comprised of a dromos, vestibule, solar court, two pillared halls, and an antechamber leading to the burial chamber itself. In the first of these pillared halls, excavations in 2009 revealed extensive areas of burning all around the courtyard and a concentration of concreted bones along the southern side of the courtyard. Analysis of the bones showed that they belong almost exclusively to cattle. Some of the animal bones are blue, often in quite intense shades. This is probably due to the natural effect of burning bones. The chapter asks whether the presence of calcined bones, slag, and occasional faience beads implies that some form of industrial activity had taken place at the site. It also describes the workshop of “Abud” Mohammed Hasan at Qurna.

Keywords:   faience, tomb of Karakhamun, pillared halls, burial chamber, burning, courtyard, animal bones, industrial activity, workshop, Abud Mohammed Hasan


The writer was invited to join the South Asasif Project during the summer 2014 season in order to investigate a mass of burned bones, which included amongst them some melted faience beads.2 It had been suggested that this material might be residue from a faience workshop built into the tomb courtyard at some time after its abandonment.

The tomb of Karakhamun (TT 223) comprises, from east to west, a dromos, vestibule, solar court, two pillared halls, and an antechamber leading to the burial chamber itself.3 In the first of these pillared halls, excavations in 2009 revealed extensive areas of burning all around the courtyard and a concentration of concreted bones along the southern side of the courtyard.

The Courtyard

Examination of the courtyard showed that the line of burning, which is very clear along the south wall and the east and west ends of the south side of the courtyard, is not at a consistent level, though it does appear to be continuous (fig. 14.1). In the southwest corner of the courtyard, where a Twenty-sixth Dynasty chapel is inserted, the line of burning is considerably higher than elsewhere, and in discussion with Dr. Pischikova it was noted that it is from this corner that the remains of a Persian period 'burial' were recovered. The burial, as found, comprised only linen fragments and was associated with many loose faience beads which may once have formed part of a bead net. The excavators had to sieve this area to recover them. No human remains were present and the layer was only a few centimeters thick.

Further to the east, the line of burning dips down to only a few centimeters above ground level, and in places the floor of the courtyard itself shows evidence of (p.316)

Material from a Possible Industrial Area in the Tomb of Karakhamun (TT 223)1

Fig. 14.1.Line of burning in the courtyard of TT223.

Photo PaulT. Nicholson

blackening. Burning is also apparent around the pillar bases and on the north side of the courtyard where the excavators believed that they may have found the remains of a kiln and an associated workshop room.

The ‘kiln,’ in fact, comprises only a few uncemented bricks which, though they may have served to border a hearth, cannot really be described as an industrial structure. They were located immediately in front of (south of) a small rock-cut chamber which was at first thought to be a workshop. The chamber is cut through the relief decoration of the tomb and so should post-date the construction of the tomb in the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. Because the bricks with their associated area of burning are immediately in front of the chamber it is unlikely that this served as workshop. The workers would be unable to easily enter or leave the chamber when a fire was made. The two features may therefore be unconnected with one another, or with industrial activity.

It is noteworthy that the mass of bones was mainly found on the south side of the courtyard and the ‘hearth’ feature on the north. If the hearth is in fact the source of the burned and cemented bones then they must regularly have been removed and dumped on the south side of the courtyard. However, there is no clear evidence linking the hearth with the bones. (p.317)

Material from a Possible Industrial Area in the Tomb of Karakhamun (TT 223)1

Fig. 14.2.Concreted mass 2-7-2009 IV 53. TT 223.

Photo Paul T. Nicholson

The Bone Masses

The bones have been examined by Dr. Salima Ikram and found to belong almost exclusively to cattle.4 The bones had been sampled and boxed, and may be summarized as follows.

Most concretions come from the level “50–100 centimeters above floor.” There are several large concretions of calcined animal bone cemented together with a thick black, vesicular slaggy material (fig. 14.2). The designation 50–100 centimeters from floor refers to its height above the original floor of this First Pillared Hall.

Examination of the concreted masses usually shows two distinct surfaces. The uppermost surface is usually matte and the slaggy material is not smooth. Rather, the surface of the slag is very pitted and there are extensive areas of white powdery material. When tested in the field, this material was found to be lime (CaCo3). The bone is not so clearly visible on this upper side of the preserved concretion.

However, the underside of the material very clearly demonstrates the mass of bones with, in the case of 'N.S2 June 28, 2009. 50–100 centimeters,’ fragments of long bone, vertebrae, and ribs all clearly visible and adhered together by the slaggy material which, viewed from this side, often forms smooth surfaces. Some of these (p.318) surfaces are glassy and show a dirty yellow–green or green–blue color. That this is the underside is clear from the fact that the slaggy material is flowing downward through the bones and forming drips between them.

The bones are heavily calcined from the heat, but it was not initially clear whether they were fresh when they were first exposed to heat or whether they were already defleshed and dry, having been stored or collected from the desert surface for use (but see below). What was apparent was that the underside does not have the slaggy material running right through it, there is just enough to cement the bones together.

The evidence strongly suggests that this material was not burned directly on the floor and against the walls of the courtyard. If it had been, one would expect the mass to have adhered to the walls and floor as similar vitreous deposits do when found in kilns or furnaces. The fact that this bone mass overlaid the ‘Persian burial’ but was not stuck to it suggests that the burial was not visible at the surface when the burning took place, but rather was covered by drifted sand. This view is supported by the line for burning now visible in the southwest corner, square S5, and also by the labeling of the bone which places it 50–100 centimeters above floor level. Such a position would make it higher than the burning lines which are around the courtyard, suggesting that the burning took place on a mound of sand which decreased in height toward the walls of the courtyard.

The corner, formed where a Twenty-sixth Dynasty chapel meets the south wall, and where the ‘Persian burial’ was located, was recleaned on August 25,2014. It was clear that there was no burning to the floor or lower wall in this area. The sooting line is about 42 centimeters above the level of the floor and continues at a similarly elevated level for approximately 5 meters.

In several areas—on the south wall near the southwest corner and on the west wall at the northwest corner—there are runs in the sooting as though some greasy material has been burned there. This may indicate that the bones were fresh, or it could be from the burning of some other resinous or fatty material in the courtyard. One possibility would be the burning of mummies or mummy cases. Further evidence for the fresh condition of the bones may come from context IV S2.3 (excavated June 29, 2009) which contained many long cattle bones which have twisted and split, as if burst (fig. 14.3). This suggests that they were still fresh when put into the fire.

It may be suggested that there were several episodes of burning. The general blackening around the lower walls of the courtyard may be from the burning of rubbish there and might not be associated with the bones at all. There are finds of dried leaves from the area of the ‘burial’ and the burning of such leaves may account for the burning line around the tomb. That the bones sat on a bed of sand is suggested by the fact that the slaggy material does not reach right through them and, more especially, by the fact that they did not adhere to the ‘Persian burial’ or, indeed, to the tomb walls. (p.319)

Material from a Possible Industrial Area in the Tomb of Karakhamun (TT 223)1

Fig. 14.3.Bones that were fresh when burnt. TT 223.

Photo Paul T. Nicholson

It may provisionally be suggested, therefore, that the mass of cemented animal bones is later than the Persian period burial and must therefore date to within the Twenty-seventh Dynasty or later. How much later cannot be said with any certainty. Nonetheless, other finds from the area around the burial include a piece of black painted wood from a coffin or box, several mud-seals, some inscribed fragments of a hard gray stone, and linen fragments as well as several small human bones covered in a thick layer of black resin, though these may not have belonged to the burial. It may reasonably be suggested that this is not an actual Persian burial, but rather a place where looters were stripping burials. The remains of a faience bead net were inconsequential and so were left along with bits of human bone, linen, mud seals, and so on. Sand then drifted over them before the layer of burned animal remains was deposited. That the bones are later than the Twenty-seventh Dynasty is apparent, but they could be significantly later.

Some of the animal bones are blue, often in quite intense shades. This is probably due to the natural effect of burning bones, possibly when fresh, but this phenomenon needs further investigation. There is nothing to suggest that the blue comes from the faience glaze itself. In fact, work by Pat Shipman et al,5 while stressing that bone color is an imprecise indicator of temperature, suggests that the color largely emerges in the range between 500–800°C.6

Suggested Interpretation

The First Pillared Hall of the tomb can be divided into three main sections: north, center, and south. The north wall has what was originally thought to be a kiln. How-ever, the plans suggest that this is in fact just a few bricks around an area of burning. It is a hearth at best and its position within the supposed industrial remains in the hall is uncertain. Relatively few burned and slagged bones seem to have been found in this area. The central aisle yielded most of the small pieces of bone with faience tubular beads adhering to them.

(p.320) The south side of the hall had the main concentration of burned and slagged bones, which, on the basis of the labels, were located from 20 centimeters to 1 meter above the level of the floor. Pischikova (personal communication) notes that they may have extended to floor level in places and this might be consistent with the burning of the floor from midway along the south wall and along the eastern and northern walls.

The southwest corner of the hall, as made by the angle of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty chapel, is perhaps the most informative. The Persian period ‘burial’ here did not comprise any actual bones, but rather fragments of linen and numerous beads. It may be that it was the remains of a robbed burial whose beaded net had been torn off and dumped. That it was possible for the excavators to recover the linen and the beads, which were loose, makes it clear that they were not in contact with the burning. It would appear that they were under a layer of drift sand which had built up in the corner. This might be consistent with a prevailing northerly wind. Other areas of the floor of the hall may also have had sand ranging in depth from under 1 cm to 40 cm; the latter being the level in the southwest corner.

That the burial is of the Persian period means that any industrial activity cannot have been any earlier than that date, but whether it was activity relating to the production of faience in ancient or relatively modern times is difficult to say. There is, however, an alternative interpretation: The burning around the hall may be due entirely to some industrial process or to occasional burning of rubbish.

Possible Industrial Activity?

The presence of calcined bones, slag, and occasional faience beads led the excavators to wonder if some form of industrial activity had taken place at the site. The calcining of the bones seems to be deliberate and not simply to result from a desire to prevent fresh bones from becoming malodorous and attracting vermin. It may therefore be that they were required for some industrial use, possibly glazing. However, the low number of melted faience beads could result from the intermixing of beads lying around in the tomb courtyard, following robbery, with the bones during burning.

It seems that a first stage in whatever activity or process took place was to take fresh animal bones, sometimes as complete long bones, and to burn them in order to calcine them. That they were fresh is suggested by the twisting and bursting of the bones, and perhaps by the greasy runs in the soot at some points along the walls. One might expect from the large quantity of material recovered that the fires were prolonged and intense, in which case more burning to the walls might be expected. However, the clean underside of many of the vitrified lumps might suggest that they sat on sand, from the drift or on some other material—perhaps the fuel—and that they were slightly away from the walls, perhaps only by a few centimeters, so that the sooting to the walls was not great.

This leaves the question of what makes up the vitrified material and how it was heated to become vitreous. According to Abud’ Mohammed Hasan, a maker of modern glazed scarabs whose workshop is at Qurna, the fuel traditionally used in (p.321) glazing was animal dung and it may be that this was used here. Some of the vitrified lumps preserve fibrous clusters of material which may be silica skeletons from dung.

The dung, or at least the silica in the plant material it contained, would contribute to the slag, as would the bones themselves, and any additional plant material that might have been used in fuelling. Lime is found in a number of areas amongst the burned bones and would also serve to flux the material.

Initially more difficult to explain is the coloration of some of the slag in pale greenish or yellowish hues. However, this probably results from iron in the materials themselves. It could also come from the practice attested by ‘Abud’ Mohammed Hasan of sprinkling salt water, sometimes mixed with copper, over the bones before their use in glazing. However, since these bones, on the south side, seem to have been in the process of being calcined, it is unlikely that this would be done beforehand. The apatite in the bones themselves may well be sufficient to give the glassy matrix, taking its color from the fuel.

Once calcined, it may be suggested that the bones were broken into smaller pieces. If they were to be used in glazing they might at this stage have been treated with salt-water and copper. They would then be heated, modern practice suggests on a metal sheet, with dung fuel piled around and over them. The items to be glazed would be sprinkled amongst the mixture as in the Gifts of the Nile film made to accompany the exhibition of the same name held in Providence, Rhode Island in 1998.7

However, those beads observed from the excavation which had become adhered to the bones were most clearly adhered with drips of very pale yellowish green glaze rather than the deep blue green of the beads. Fig. 13.4Figure 13.4 is an example from IV C3.1 (excavated June 30, 2009). It may be that this pale glaze is simply the result of the unintentional reaction between ash and the bones in burning for a non-industrial purpose, or it may suggest glazing of items of a different color.

The question remains as to why so much calcined bone was found, apparently unused for glazing, and why so little evidence of the actual glazing process is evident. It may be that the Pillared Hall was mainly used for calcining and that any actual glazing was done elsewhere. Such evidence as is present may be a sign of only sporadic glazing at the site. Whatever the case, the discarded bones suggest that the process was abandoned before all were used.

It is worth noting that there is a small kiln above the tomb on the north side some distance to the east. Based on its architecture, Dieter Eigner believes this to be a Roman lime kiln.8 It may be that it was used in faience production and that waste material was thrown into the Pillared Hall. However, if the calcining of the bones went on in the kiln, one would expect the dumping to be at the north rather than the south side of the tomb. If the calcining were done in the tomb and only the bone material used in a kiln for glazing, this might better explain the distribution of the material.

It is also worth noting that a house belonging to the Abd al-Rasul family was located above the tomb, and it is possible that any manufacture of faience beads (p.322)

Material from a Possible Industrial Area in the Tomb of Karakhamun (TT 223)1

Fig. 14.4.Faience on bone. TT 223.

Photo Paul T. Nicholson

may relate to their activities rather than to ancient manufacture. Whilst it can be suggested that the burning of the bones may be Twenty-seventh Dynasty or later, it may in fact be very much later.

Because the burning does not extend to the floor of the courtyard, and because the line of sooting is not extensive, one must consider the possibility that the bones were not burned in the tomb of Karakamun but were brought there from some distance. The presence of similar bones in the nearby tomb of Karabasken (TT391) would suggest either that the industry in which they were used was very extensive or – perhaps more likely – that at least one of the tombs served as convenient dumping area for bones burned for some other purpose. That purpose may in fact be ritual.

In discussion with Ikram the possibility that the burning of these bones relate to some aspect of ritual practice, perhaps during Ptolemaic times, at the Ramesseum has been considered. The proximity of the tombs to the Ramesseum site would make them suitable and convenient for dumping large quantities of bones.

Notes on a Contemporary Workshop

The workshop of Abud’ Mohammed Hasan at Qurna was visited by the expedition on August 25, 2014 in the hope of seeing how animal bones were used in the glazing process. Unfortunately, their use had been discontinued some ten to twenty years previously, and firing was now undertaken using a gas-fired kiln. Nonetheless, some useful information was gained.

(p.323) The workshop almost exclusively produces glazed scarabs. However, these are not actually made on site, but brought in from another workshop which we did not see. They are not made of faience paste, but of what the owner describes as talc, said to come from Shalateen on the border with Sudan.

The shaped pieces are nowadays glazed using commercially produced colors. The mixture was said to comprise 1 kg of khar, which is glaze material, 1 kg of ground glass, 0.5 kg of colorant, and 0.5 kg of salt mixed into 5 liters of water. However, the reliability of this information is questionable and we did not see the mixing taking place.

We were informed that, traditionally, bones would be bought from the butcher and calcined using animal dung fuel. However, with increasing agricultural mechanization there are fewer animals and so less available animal dung. In addition, the gas kiln allows a much greater volume of production, though it takes some twelve hours to fire rather than the two hours of the traditional method.

Once the bones were burned, they were sprinkled with salt solution. However, it was also stated that copper might be mixed with this and sprinkled on too. They would then be left to dry in the sun.

The artefacts for glazing would be mixed amongst the lumps of bone on a metal sheet and heated using dung from below the sheet and around the pile of objects. This was said to be the method for pieces glazed on only one surface. For fully glazed pieces, the glaze was said to be painted onto the pieces which were then stood on a bed of powdered bone as a nonstick agent.

Today, however, talc is used as the nonstick agent. A commercial refractory bat is used and dusted with talc, which is then pressed against it using a sack, thus leaving textile marks in the powder. Onto this are placed supports, again made from talc, and the scarabs put onto the bat. They are then taken to the kiln and another bat prepared which will sit on the talc supports above the first one, until the kiln is full.

The kiln is gas fired with one burner at the left, two on the right, and a fourth in the door. Firing lasts twelve hours and there is one day of cooling.


It cannot be said with any certainty that there was production of faience in the courtyard of tomb TT 223 during antiquity. It is clear that considerable quantities of animal bones were calcined and that these were generally fresh at the time of their burning, but the purpose of this is uncertain.

If the bones were used in the making of faience or glazed stone, then the glazing process does not appear to have taken place in the courtyard itself. It may have happened in the kiln located on the north side of the tomb or elsewhere. It is also possible that any glazing belongs to the nineteenth century AD, when the house belonged to the Abd al-Rasul family, who may well have been involved in the making of ‘antikas’ for sale to visitors, as were many of their contemporaries.

(p.324) Further research is necessary to determine other possible uses for calcined bone in traditional industries, as well as to more completely understand the traditional process of glazing faience or steatite scarabs used by the makers of fake antiquities. A part of this process was filmed by Dr. Florence Friedman's team when working on Gifts of the Nile, but as yet it has not proven possible to obtain any further details.

The possibility that the bones have no industrial purpose has been raised above and must be seriously considered. Because the burning in the tomb of Karakhamun is not extensive it may well be that it results from the burning of rubbish on top of the spread of previously burned bones. Such a process might lead to the sooting line around the walls of the First Pillared Hall and the release of some fatty material from the bones beneath. It has already been stated that the bones seem to have been burned on a sandy surface, rather than on the stone floor of the pillared hall. It might be suggested that they were burned on such a sandy surface at some distance from the tomb itself and later dumped there. The writer was not present during the excavation and so it is possible that some of the lumps were found with random orientations which would have made it clear that they were not in their original position but had been dropped into the tomb from above in a dumping operation.

This leaves the question of where the bones might originally have been burned. Salima Ikram (personal communication) suggests that this might have taken place at the Ramesseum during Ptolemaic times as part of a ritual. The very high percentage of cattle bones strongly suggests selection and the importance of cattle in funerary and other rituals may well support this interpretation. However, she has also noted that the unbroken nature of the bones is more typical of recent deposits than ancient ones and so may suggest a more modern origin. She has noted that the bones from the tomb of Karabasken (TT 391) do not appear to have been dumped there but may have been burned in situ. It is not possible to be sure of the situation in Karakamun.

The matter of the faience material adhering to the bones remains unanswered, however. The beads may have been accidentally incorporated amongst the burned bones,—perhaps from the use of old funerary material as fuel, or—perhaps less likely—they may have been incorporated secondarily when rubbish was being burned amongst them once they had been thrown into the tomb. The low number of faience beads tends to support the view that they are not associated with faience production but are a secondary or accidental phenomenon.

If the bones are indeed from rituals which took place away from the tombs themselves, as seems quite possible, the nature of the ritual is unknown and may hint at a hitherto unrecorded practice.


(1) I am grateful to Dr. Elena Pischikova and John Billman for their invitation to join the project in 2014, and for their hospitality during the work. Dr. Salima Ikram was kind enough to share her thoughts on the bones with me. I am grateful to ‘Abud’ Mohammed (p.325) Hasan and his family for the opportunity to visit their workshop at Qurna and for the information they provided which was ably translated by Abdelrazk Mohamed Ali.

(2) See Salima Ikram, “A Preliminary Note on the Faunal Remains from the South Asasif Conservation Project,” in Tombs of the South Asasif Necropolis, Thebes. Karakhamun (TT 223) and Karabasken (TT 391) in the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, edited by Elena Pischikova Elena Pischikova (Cairo and New York: The American Univeristy in Cairo Press, 2014), 263–68.

(3) Elena Pischikova, “The History of the South Asasif Necropolis and its Exploration,” in Pischikova, Tombs of the South Asasif Necropolis, fig. 3.4.

(5) P. Shipman G. Foster, and Margaret J. Schoeninger, “Burnt Bones and Teeth: An Exper-imental Study of Colour, Morphology, Crystal Structure and Shrinkage,” Journal of Archaeological Science 11, 4 (1984): 307–25.

(7) F.D. Friedman and M. Leveque (Producers), Gifts of the Nile (Video). Providence, RI: Rhode Island School of Design/National Endowment for the Humanities, 1998.

(8) Personal communication from Dr. Pischikova. Lime Kilns from Egypt are not well studied and the writer believes that the structure may have been intended for faience or pottery making, but more research is needed. (p.326)