Egyptian Lathe

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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.

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

"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."

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."[1]

[1] Sunship.com/Egypt, Copyright © 1997 R.F. McKenty. All rights Reserved.