Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Silsila from a topographer’s perspective

Blog entry by

Dr. John Ward

As some of you may already know, I spent the last 3 weeks not only working with the topographic material on site, but also tried juggling with the last remaining chapters of my forthcoming book. Thankfully, the book has been sent in for the editors to work with, which now gives me the opportunity to write a small blog entry on the current topographic recording on site.

During the first three weeks of this our second season at Silsila, I completed the first phase of the topographic visual survey. This entailed three hills that rise above and beyond the Main Quarry where we worked last year, as well as the Situla Quarry, Graveyard Quarry and Naos Quarry (all our personal and thus unofficial quarry labels). These four named quarries have been the focus of both Adrienne and Maria as they continue to record and document the inscriptions, quarry marks and other graffiti that line and mark the quarry faces.

Starting with the area that I refer to as ‘Situla Hill’, which rises to the south of the Main Quarry and contains within its upper section the Situla Quarry (hence its name), I first began by observing the block-storage that is located at the summit of the hill as it meets the ancient pathway/trade route that runs from the north to the south of the mountain. Since there are various block-storages in this area, I numbered this particular block-store ‘1’. Already during our last season it had become apparent that I had to separate the stores to correspond not only with the respective hills, but also their respective quarries. Recording the block-storage and its immediate surroundings was a labor intensive task, especially as I was situated on top of the mountain without the otherwise optional shade of the quarry faces or the benefit on being on the level ground. Each morning I had to climb up and down the hills, focusing my attention to the details, some that are sometimes hidden within the eroded and occasionally interfered landscape.

Similar to ‘Situla Hill’ the other explored and recorded hills were (nick-) named after their respective quarries and landscape features; thus, we have Graveyard Hill and Pigment pit Hill. In-between these three hills I also had the pleasure of recording the valleys or ‘wadis’ as we know them here in Egypt. Corresponding with the hills’ names, these wadis were divided into manageable workloads:

1: Situla Hill

2: Block Store 1

3: Situla Quarry (Upper Section)

4: Situla Wadi

5: Graveyard Hill

6: Block Store 2

7: Graveyard Quarry (Upper Section)

8: Graveyard Wadi

9: Block Store 3

10: Block Store 4

11: Pigment Pit Hill

12: Block Store 5

Now, within these 12 sections there were various areas that had received specific interference, either contemporary with the quarries or at a later date. This plateau landscape was mainly made up of the blackish, loose top-stone (a familiar sight for anyone who walked in any of the mountainous areas across Egypt) interspersed with heaps of spoil that once came out of the below situated quarries. There at the plateau I numbered and recorded the numerous minor surface quarries; areas where the ancients had taken advantage of exposed sandstone outcrops. These were usually quarried in an ad-hoc manner, but the ancients effectively removed any and all useful stone from its protruding location.

Amongst these open surfaced quarries and the pathways that meander throughout the hills, I also recorded the innumerable amount of what I first thought were ‘camel troughs’, but later turned out to be pigment pits; these are strewn all over Silsila landscape. The ancients had obviously taken advantage of the upper natural veins of the surface, which provided them with a white substance that as yet I have to identify (possibly chalk, lime, or in fact a dioxide, similar to titanium). After conducting a few on site archaeological experiments using the white powder on the surface, I was able to determine that its application to a sound surface was an effective pigment that completely whitened the surface. If it was mixed with a little bit of water it became more paste-like and not as easy to apply to a surface, similar to a plaster for instance. So, finding the white pigment clearly solved my previous conundrum over these pits that litter the landscape.

Overall the topographical visual survey has highlighted many manmade features that have been installed to benefit the extraction of stone and their subsequent removal from site, which I am sure we will publish in due course. The relationship between the three hills and the surrounding quarries was a delight to understand and evaluate. Equally it is great how one is able in essence to understand the various periods of quarrying just by reading the landscape, explaining how the work was carried out and how overlapping work periods have affected the obvious landmarks that we see today; each detail, each element provide us with a tangible timeline of events.

Unfortunately, I still have no main shelters or an infrastructure to present to you that would suggest permanent habitation or a community living and thriving above the quarries. Thus, the quest for that particular question still remains. Hopefully I will be able to bring you something in the near future.

Thank you


ps. images will follow during the weekend... 

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