Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Digital recording of and at Gebel el Silsila

One and a half year ago I was contacted by Maria who told me about Silsila and the projects that is running there. She asked me if I was interested in joining them and thereby bringing in the technology we are working with in the Humanities Laboratory at Lund University where I am working as a research engineer. This technology is focused on 3d data and we mainly apply it on archaeological research where we help to develop methods of using it in smart ways and incorporating it into the archaeological workflow. For that reason we are always interested in case studies, so Marias initial mail excited me. After a lot of planning, I and my colleague Giacomo Landeschi finally had the opportunity to visit the site and make a first study of it to find out if it is a site that would fit our line of research.

First fixed point established

The warmth that met us, not only temperature wise (having left a very cold Sweden behind us), but also from the very nice members of the team on site was a very good start. And I must say it only got better as the days passed. Gebel el Silsila is a really fascinating site and most of our techniques and methods could easily be used there. But for this first visit we decided only to bring a differential gps, since careful mapping of the site of course is a priority. During the week we managed to set up a number of fixed points to be used in the future either with the gps or a total station. We also mapped the perimeter of the main quarry and some other interesting details spread over some parts of the area. During the coming weeks we will post process the data and set up a basic 3d-GIS system that can be built on in the coming seasons.

Giacomo records a point at the top of the main quarry

We also work quite a lot with 3d-models in our lab and one technique for this that we used during the week is called structure from motion, in which a big amount of ordinary 2d photos is taken from a lot of different angels of an object and then processed in special software to create a 3d-model. You can see one such example here, where a 3d-model was made of a sphinx that is close to one of the quarries on the east side. It might take some time to load since it is rather big, even though its resolution is reduced quit a lot from the original 3d-model.
Since it is possible to move around the light source in most 3d visualizations systems, this technique also is good to apply to rock carvings or quarry marks. When the light hits the model of these from different angels, features in the carving can be more pronounced. One example of that is here (to move the light click on the light bulb to the left and then move the mouse over the model with the left mouse button pressed).

Photos been taken to make a 3d-model.

Silsila is definitely a site where we will like to do more work. We will be back next season and I already look forward to meeting Madame Silsila and also the wonderful team there again. I would like to thank Maria and John for their hospitality and generosity.

Stefan Lindgren

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sherdy Season

 “Wait a sec, I’ve got sherdy hands,” has been my favourite phrase this season. Occasionally, when John and Maria have been showing visitors around site, or just when it seemed a pity to disturb baby Freja’s slumbers, I have been called upon to be employed in a spot of babysitting. So, when Freja calls out, I’ve had to quickly dust the sherdiness from my hands before picking her up to soothe her. A new experience for me this season!

The rest of the time I’ve been working on the new inflow of ceramics from the different campsites around Silsila, and also working with John on how to plan and draw sections of the various dry stone walls we’ve been encountering. This season, we’ve focused more on the West Bank, including the infamous pottery hill, but also its sister sites Pottery Hill 2, Wadi Tean and Mo’s Tavern. Further North we have identified at least another 4 camps close to the New Kingdom quarries and cartouche of Tutankhamen, and I worked a bit on one of them Black Camp. On the East, we investigated some of the hut clusters above the main quarry. With each week, I’m adding to the site ceramic typology, which means that I can work even faster. I’m now starting to see the same types occurring again and again, which is brilliant as I can simply count the same types, record that I have for example, 4 rims type of 8.12 (which is a narrow necked direct rim storage jar in case you were interested).

What sort of things have we been encountering? Well, at Mo’s Tavern, which is across the Middle Kingdom road from Pottery Hill, we found some of our first complete pots, or at least complete profiles of vessels, including a rather fabulous 48cm diameter coil-built lid (Nile C GES14/MT/C5).

Large Lid reconstructed on my desk!

It took us 2 trips to find all the pieces scattered as they were down the hillside. The top of Mo’s Tavern is relatively sterile, with the remains of one hut and 2-3 possible hearths or beacons. It is likely that it was not in continuous use due to the infrequency of sherds, how little they had been moved or broken up, and the fact that most of the sherds uncovered were able to be fitted together cleanly. Most of the material from Mo’s Tavern, Pottery Hill, Wadi Tean and Pottery Hill 2 (all within a c200m radius) seem to be contemporary Early Roman (1-2nd Century AD). 

Maria and Reis Shihad collecting the remaining sherds of the lid that had fallen down from Mo's Tavern into Wadi Tean.

Some of the material from Pottery Hill may be a little later up to the time of Emperor Hadrian and comparable to the ceramics uncovered at the quarry site Mons Claudianus by Peacock and Tomber in the Eastern Desert. Pottery Hill is also interesting in that so far, no bread trays or cooking vessels have been uncovered there. The ceramic assemblage is in the main, amphorae, meat jars, storage vessels and water jars. All Roman period. The only finewares uncovered have been the Aswan-made Barbotine vessels, which are rich in Kaolinite and give a beautiful white appearance. So far we have no Samian or African Samian wares.

Aswani made Barbotine vessels from Pottery Hill. These could originally have been for drinking cups

The other campsites that we have been investigating include the huts above Corridor A in the main quarry. If you recall last season, we counted over 4000 surface body sherds in this very small 30m area. Here we are getting quite an interesting range of dating material (though mostly eating bowls and water jars) from the New Kingdom (18-20th dynasties 1550-1069 BC), then a jump to the Ptolemaic and Early Roman periods (323 BC - 117 AD). It seems that up on the escarpments above the working quarry faces, the quarrymen took their pack lunches to enjoy the view of the Nile and perhaps have a short nap in the huts in between shifts to get out of the hot sun.

A picture is starting to develop at Gebel Silsila that fits in quite nicely with the dates of the inscriptions with the last periods of occupation of the quarries, with the ceramics pushing back the dates a little. The latest dated Roman inscription names emperor Claudius (AD 41-54), whereas some of the pottery from Pottery Hill (e.g. the Barbotine) is perhaps a little later to the time of Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117). The Romans clearly spent quite a long time working at Silsila, as the various sandstone Roman temples testify to, but also to the great quantity of camps with lots of pottery dotted across Silsila. Next season, we plan to work quite solidly at Pottery Hill on the West Bank, which has c23 circular dry stone huts and a vast quantity of ceramics to be explored.

As always, Gebel Silsila is a remarkable place, with great beauty and wonders to behold across the whole site. There is so much to be learnt here about the everyday Egyptian, and I cannot wait to return to join with the team again. A small success, I managed to convince John to wash his feet and lucky socks!

     Sarah- @sherd_nerd

Sunday, November 16, 2014

2 weeks in photos

Sarah and Mohamed "enjoying" pottery hill

meanwhile at the "office"

Freja's enjoying the dahabeya

Mohamed Ibrahim, our inspector

TARA on visit



old fashioned surveying

Jumping into the Nile

Friends of Silsila

the MEHEN group on visit

Friends of the Petrie Museum and the Plymouth Egyptological society on visit

pointing at bushy tailed giraffes 

our one and only potnerd!

our Shihad


Moamen Saad documenting the Nile stelae

happy archaeology family

surveying workers' store rooms

the MEHEN group hearing the story of how John and Maria ended up at Silsila

Maria and baby Freja enjoying the company of MEHEN's founders!

Welcoming Visitors- TARA, MEHEN and Plymouth Egyptology Society

At Silsila, we are always so pleased when tourists’ boats moor up next to our Dahabeya and disembark with their guides to explore our fascinating site. There is so much to see on the West Bank including the Speos of Horemheb, Stele of Rameses III and Shoshenk, petroglyphs of bushy tailed giraffes and ostriches and lots of graffiti dating from the Predynastic through to the Modern day. All this is before you see the magnificent Roman quarries and the mini temples of Merenptah and Ramesses II just beyond them.   

This season, we have been delighted to welcome a great variety of special guests including David Coulson chair of The African Rock Art Association (TARA), and other members of the group. Naturally, they were particularly keen to view some of the rock art sites that Maria has been documenting and so I stayed on the boat with baby Freja to hone some of my babysitting skills while John and Maria brought the group to view some of the choicest Epi-Palaeolithic sites that we have at Silsila. TARA has been documenting the rock art of Africa for over 20 years and so they have brought us a great deal of interesting insights to understanding the different patterns and rock art styles that we are seeing at Silsila, including geometric patterns, bovids and humans.

Next, we were joined by the Plymouth Egyptology Society who was being guided by our good friend Lucia Gahlin, Chair of the Petrie Museum Friends. They arrived in the late afternoon at Silsila, so we had only a little time to show them what our site has to offer. The various graffiti and petroglyphs can be best seen at different times of the day, so with the increasing shadows, a new range of images are revealed. We enjoyed particularly spending time viewing the Roman quarries, and admired the East Bank that glowed orange with the setting sun.

We were thrilled to be able to welcome back MEHEN under the expert tutelage of Jan Koek and Huibert who had been touring the wadis of the West Bank of Luxor in search of graffiti. MEHEN spent an hour (!) enjoying the Speos of Horemheb before joining us for lunch. We then spent a happy couple of hours talking to the group about each of the special interests that we have on the West Bank site for this season (1) Rock Art Documentation (Maria) (2) Quarrying, Road Access and Transportation (John) and (3) Recording and planning the huts of Pottery Hill and its Surfaces Finds (Sarah). We then took the motor boat in order to visit the small temples of Merenptah and Ramesses II as we were a little short on time as there was so much to see and talk about.      

At Silsila, we are always very keen to welcome any interested visitors who wish to tour the West Bank with us. We plan soon to be able to receive a group of Egyptian tour guides to talk to them about the site, which is not generally very well known. We are currently designing a multilingual guidebook in order to increase understanding about Silsila and highlight the spots of interest, but also to indicate which areas should be avoided, both for safety and conservation reasons as much of the rock art in particular is under threat from trampling and wind erosion. If you or your group would be interested in visiting us while we are working, please do get in touch!

Twitter: @sherd_nerd  


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

10 days into the new season – a poetic captivation by our topographer

Although five months have elapsed, governments have fallen, whiles others have risen from their ashes, wars continue to be fought over mundane issues, geopolitical instability and economic pressures continue to rise; and on the positive side, the amazing arrival of our wonderful daughter Freja Elizabeth Hypatia Nilsson Ward; Silsila has remained the same! Her golden sands continue to migrate across her ancient landscape, the Nile continues to rise and fall with its somewhat automated seasonal change, and yet amongst this orchestrated symphony of harmony and balance the ‘Mother of Temples’ still captivates us as we walk once more along her well-trodden pathways.

We look forward to the arrival of new and old members of the team; Sarah Doherty returned once more to continue her ongoing documentation of pottery from various locations around the site. She is building a corpus of ceramic material and data, which will enable us all to reach a better understanding of the day-to-day living on site by its historical occupants.

Philippe Martinez once again leaves the comfort of France and his family to continue his recording of the Speos of Horemheb and other Egyptian epigraphy, bringing with him a wealth of experience and knowledge to the rest of the team.

Joining us for the first time this season is Moamen Saad, who conducts his doctoral work on the famous Nile stelae of the west bank. Not only will this grand undertaking serve his own needs, but it will also contribute towards the ongoing process of fully recording Silsila, and bring to our attention areas that are under direct threat environmentally and by other forces.

The digital recorders Stefan Lindgren and Giacomo Landeschi from Lund University also join the team for the first time this season in order to begin the lengthy process of digitally surveying both the west and east banks of Silsila.

We must also take this opportunity to extend our sincere gratitude to the Dash Foundation for their extremely generous donation of a Total Station to the Silsila Survey Project, which we hopefully will begin using in the spring season of 2015.

And of course our own Dr Maria Nilsson will continue her ongoing documentation of the symbols of Silsila along with her exhaustive cataloguing of the rock art sites, while continuing her role as the project manageress, and most importantly as a new mother to Freja, who also joins us this season, strapped to her mum as she meanders around the ancient quarried landscape of Silsila. I will also continue my topographical documentation of site as well as the various quarrying techniques employed within the ancient quarries, combined with my own special role as new father to Freja.

Overall this season is already proving to be as action-packed as previous seasons and we hope we will reveal yet more of Silsila’s hidden secrets and her role in Egypt’s enigmatic history.


[images to be uploaded shortly]

Friday, November 07, 2014

A new season!

The Gebel el Silsila Survey Team is back on site for yet another, hopefully, great season's work.

Work this season includes some new exciting features, such as 3D-scanning, GIS recording and the setting up of a proper archaeo-geographic gridwork for the first time, and of course the continuation of our previous recording including Sarah's pottery analysis, John's study into extraction methods and transportation, Maria's project on quarry marks and petroglyphs, Philippe's epigraphic work on Egyptological matters, as well as the documentation of prehistoric rock art sites and lithic industries. This season we are also delighted to have with us the splendid Egyptian scholar Moamen Saad, who is currently collating material for his doctoral thesis on the Nile Stelae here at Silsila. Of course, this season brings also another member; one who has become famous among most of you already - Lady Freja! She expresses her warmest gratefulness to her favorite friends of the Petrie Museum for bringing her some most wonderful gifts! We also give a warm welcome to Mohamed Ibrahim as our inspector!

Keeping this post short (another one will be posted by John tomorrow, giving you a description of our first week on site, including some prominent visits by TARA (Trust for African Rock Art) as well as Friends of the Petrie Museum and the Plymouth Egyptological group), we wish to welcome you once more to join us here virtually on our work at Silsila!

Monday, May 05, 2014

Season summary

Oh dear, how does one begin to summarize 2 months, almost 9 weeks, of survey work? This first half of the 2014 season’s fieldwork has brought an incredible amount of new material, knowledge and understanding of the site in general, and chronologically span over 10 000 years of history. Epigraphy, topography, ceramic analysis, geological (surface) analysis, lithic studies, rock art recording, ‘contemporary’ epigraphic documentation (early travellers, etc.), quarry marks, team marks, extraction techniques, transportation routes; these (along with many more) are all topics that have been incorporated into the larger umbrella of our comprehensive archaeological study of Gebel el Silsila this season.

Glorious equinox sunrise over the East Bank

We have reached a greater understanding as to the chronological development of the site, from its earliest visitors in the form of nomadic hunter-gather groups that temporary found shelter and hunting ground along Silsila’s shores and wadis, to the various quarrying expeditions that were sent out by this and that pharaoh for the building of  one or another sanctuary. Epigraphic, ceramic and archaeological material comes together and help us understand in greater detail the smaller differences of techniques used on site – this may not sound very interesting or important, but each one of these details aid us in pinpointing Silsila’s function and importance during antiquity.

One of many shrines at Silsila

In addition to the purely scientific work, we have enjoyed a peaceful and successful season filled with excitement and adventure! We have been visited by various friends and colleagues, individually and groups; each one of which have reminded us of how blessed we are to work in such a magical ancient site as Madam Silsila.

One of many quarry marks on the West Bank

So, how can we then summarize this spring season? Well, let us divide it into weeks and take you on a visual journey (like so often before).

Week 1:
During the first week we conducted a general visual overview of the site, walking through the landscape and reminding ourselves of the diversity of archaeological material presented. It feels good to start each season with a couple of days’ inspection in order to estimate current state of preservation, to see the material in new light, with new experience and with the stored knowledge and understanding from previous seasons. The light changes incredibly much from season to season, month to month, morning to night, so a revisit now and again to already recorded locations can be very fruitful. It is also a nice introduction for our new inspector (s), to get a quick and summarized insight into the site. This week we had the great pleasure of welcoming Dr. Sarah K. Doherty to the site, and efficient and driven as she is she jumped straight into the task of recording the pottery in our Main Quarry. Scott A. Roberts visited the site this week and provided the team with some professional photographs in preparation for a nice coffee table publication (!). The team was furthermore joined by three inspectors in training from Kom Ombo, and received during the season field experience necessary for their education.

Ahmed and John inspecting rock art, with Scotty capturing the moment from another angle

John describing the transportation of blocks within the northern corridor of Q37

Maria using a ladder to capture epigraphic material on higher grounds

Our visitor Scotty busy photographing

The arrival of a great Irish(wo)man

Inspector Mohamed

Week 2:
This week the team divided into a ceramic study group and a rock art documentation group. As Sarah continued working her way through the pottery of the Main Quarry she generously took the time to teach our visiting inspector students the various ins and outs of ceramic analysis. Meanwhile the rock art survey continued on the west bank, including a more comprehensive photographic documentation, production of acetate copies and hand drawn images, measurements, marking of GPS coordinates into the system, etc. The surface in and around the various rock art sites was studied, and in some cases revealed lithic material that may bring a better understanding in terms of chronology. The lithic work shop (surface scatter) that was discovered during our 2013 season was studied in more detail, and other than the vast amount of debetage (waste material/’left overs’), we were happy to record various cores, triangular geometrics and scrapers made of quartz, flint, volcanic stone and the odd silicified sandstone –used as tools or for tool making.   During our second week we were all taken by the beauty captured in a series of fossilized leaves and branches dating some 75 million (!) years back. The word of the day was ‘wow’ as we all painted an inner picture of what Silsila must have appeared as all these millions of years ago. Humbleness for sure!

Documentation of a Roman road

Sarah at her best!

assistant worker Salah having some time off for Shisha

Salah helping Maria in directing/reflecting light for rock art photography

Ahmed drawing the rock art by hand
Week 3:
The rock art survey continued on both sides of the Nile and the ceramic analysis moved from East to West to take a closer look at the various scattered layers on and around Pottery Hill. The aim was to begin the long process of setting up a stylistic database for the site, something that has never been done before. Those of you who have worked with pottery before know very well how long this process is and it goes without saying that Sarah’s job this season was only a beginning, but hey, one has to start somewhere!? Despite one or two curses of Roman pottery our honorable ceramic specialist seemed to have come to terms with the somewhat later material than the Old Kingdom material she had grown so fond of previously.

Lunch time on Pottery Hill
Understanding from the hat and scarves, March was rather chilly

Breakfast time on the motorboat

John trying to argue for his cause

During this week the Gebel el Silsila Survey Project team was honored to participate in the UNESCO organized conference ‘the southern gate of Egypt’ in Aswan where we presented the latest research from site.

The Silsila Team at the Aswan conference

Weeks 4-5:
Prof. James Harrell joined the team during week 4 and we spent some quality time studying and discussing the various extraction techniques and geological features of the site. The plan is for Jim to return to site and begin a larger geological study in 2015. As always, it is a true pleasure and delight to have him present!

One of Silsila's many strange but wonderful geological features

As we said our farewell to our Irish team member the focus turned towards the south where two rock inscription sites were documented in more detail. As reported previously we were pleased to find more evidence of Middle Kingdom activity in the area, represented in epigraphic material as well as in quarrying techniques. During a day with a heavy, but beautiful thunderstorm we recorded some 50 textual and pictorial inscriptions in this area with representations ranging from Predynastic pictographs to Roman game boards!

Quarrying (trench) detail

Week 7:
There was no fieldwork carried out during what should have been week 6 since we left Egypt for the UK to participate in the CRE XV conference in London. No rest for the wicked though, as we returned to Silsila the day after our return to Egypt, and we were joined by visiting Egyptologist Dr. Philippe Martinez. Philippe will join the team officially as a team member for the coming season and will be responsible for the recording of foremost hieroglyphic material. As reported in our last blog post, this week brought with it some proper daredevils as we had a 15 m scaffolding system erected in the northern-most part of Silsila East. Forget about western health and safety measures, this piece brought us an opportunity, not to mention experience and adventure, of a lifetime as we climbed the external ladder to record the stele of Amenhotep IV. At the same time, five Predynastic rock art panels were recorded and two Epipalaeolithic clusters of depictions were added to the forever growing list of Prehistoric material at Silsila. Then one shall not forget to mention the excitement (?!) of entering the bat-colonized subterranean quarry gallery that revealed one or another piece of interesting information. Dressed in chicken-yellow rubber clothes from top to toe, an internal sauna was to be expected, but hey, who said archaeology is an easy task?!

Weeks 8-9:
During our last week and a half we spent some quality time recording the epigraphic material in the Main Quarry of the West Bank, which also resulted in the production of a preliminary plan drawing of the quarry’s 50+ quarry faces. As this gigantic ‘hole’ in the mountain was created during various chronological phases it came as no surprise to discover texts and images ranging from the New Kingdom throughout to the Roman Period. Quarry marks, proper identity marks, labels of the quarry, names of individuals, and pictorial graffiti in various forms were all presented before our eyes.

the Main Quarry of the West Bank

Our last couple of days on site was spent recording the area commonly known as the ‘harbor’ at the West Bank, and it was during these days that we had the great pleasure of welcoming Mr. Francois Tonic and his tour group who defied the heat and visited the site one morning. We like to express our gratefulness for their support of our work and look forward to future visits!

'Harbor' Quarry with inspector Sayed acting providing scales

French group on a day's visit to Silsila

the same group invited to share drinks on the floating dig house

Then it was time to pack up, collecting one’s belongings from the floating dig house of two months, try to write up and summarize a report of what had been done and what results had been achieved, and try to return to a more normal office life where the first task would be to deal with the thousands and yet thousands of images that had been produced during the season.   As so often before, this season has brought us more questions, thankfully also many answers, but we count ourselves fortunate to be able to now gather our thoughts, review the material and prepare for the next season of work to come. Maybe we will manage to put another little blog post in here before the autumn season takes off, and either way, we hope to have you with us virtually along this exciting journey of surveying Madam Silsila!

Inspector Sayed giving scale to prepared blocks

Maria documenting epigraphic material and extraction layers

John, Philippe and assistant Mohamed having a closer look at one of the shrines

Philippe enjoying himself in the Speos

John with inspectors Sayed and Mostafa in one of the shrines

Thank you for all your support and encouragement this season, for your comments and for all the new contacts that we have made during this journey. In the not too far future we will present our new, proper website for you and with it the ‘Friends of Silsila’, which will enable various exciting features to the project!

first half of the season's team

second half

The team of spring 2014:

Stretching from March 1 to April 30 2014 the team for this season consisted of Mission Director Maria Nilsson, topographic recorder John Ward, ceramic specialist Sarah K. Doherty, geological specialist James A. Harrell, visiting Egyptologist Philippe Martinez and SCA inspectors Mr. Mohamed Hamdy, Mr. Ahmed Sayed, Mr. Mohamed Hassan, Mr. Mostafa Mohamed and Mr. Sayed Mahmoud. In addition three inspectors were trained in fieldwork, including Mr. Khalid Ahmed, Miss Walaa Ali and Miss Asmaa Mohamed.

one cannot forget to include Mr. Carter in the team of spring 2014

We owe our deepest gratitude to the members of the Permanent Committee for giving us permission to work at Silsila. Our gratefulness is directed also to the inspectorates of Kom Ombo, especially Ahmed Sayed and Mohamed Ngar, and Director Abd el Moniem Said, and equally to the General Directors of Aswan Mr. Fathy Abuzied, and to all the inspectors assigned to our project.


Lightning over Silsila

One of our symbolic protectors

one cannot forget our flying friends



Sometimes the desert present strange artifacts, such as plastic sunglasses' frames

and what a laugh we had...

no words needed

hiding from the smell of a dead animal

assisting the erection of the scaffolding from the top

John busy broadcasting for Intrepid Radio each Monday morning

migrating storks

visit from our Dutch friends 

more lightning

yet some more

rock art recording...