Monday, April 21, 2014

Seven weeks in - Stela of Amenhotep IV, Easter daredevils and Sham el Nessim

A week has passed since we left London after a fruitful and interesting time at CRE XV – thank you again to the organizers for doing such a great job, to EES, Petrie Museum and its Friends, and to all the wonderful friends and colleagues that made the event so great!  

The CRE XV group at King's Collage, London. Photo from:

We returned to Silsila the day after our arrival back in Egypt and welcomed back to the site one of Silsila’s major devotees – Dr. Philip Martinez. We also welcomed to the team our two new inspectors, Mustafa and Sayed! The last week of work has included some daredevil moments as we had erected a monumental scaffolding system to reach the famous stela of Amenhotep IV on the East Bank. Without a proper ladder, safety measures were … well, let us say that we are all grateful for having survived the climbs up and down. 

Scaffolding comes up...

Almost done...

Certainly the sight and documentation of the stela was worth the trouble! With a clear due-north orientation and situated some 14 m above the current ground level, this piece has captured the interest of Amarna researchers and Akhenaten fans for generations, and thankfully it is one of few monuments that has been protected by any modern interference mainly due to its inaccessible location. However, as is the case with many pre-Amarna scenes of the Atenist ruler, the depictions of Amun, the king himself, and selected parts of the text have suffered from the doom of damnatio memoriae. Thankfully for us, some of the outlines of the previously deep carvings have survived the harsh treatment of atenists, and a full reconstruction will be possible due to our photographic documentation, acetate copies, and Dr. Martinez’ digital epigraphic skills.
Also, while being in this beautiful northern part of the site, it was natural to record in detail the gorgeous Predynastic rock art panels that are located nearby. Giraffes, hunter scenes, boats and other motifs that have captured the essence of our Predynastic ancestors’ everyday life, all came to life through the work of a good camera combined with acetate drawings!

John had his first view at the stela

and the team with the scaffolding workers

Our inspector Mustafa copying the lower hieroglyphic text

Maria climbing the scaffolding

and on top...

Another daredevil moment was experienced when John and I (Maria) finally suited up for the occasion of entering the not so famous bat-filled subterranean gallery on the East Bank. Several underground galleries (quarries) are preserved, some better than others, but this particular one has restrained most scholars from entering due to its enormous population of fruit-bats and smaller (regular) bats – and the smell that comes with such a populous, not to mention the possible risk of catching rabies. Well, indeed we dressed up for the occasion, not only to get the job done, but also in the colour of Easter as our suits were shiny chicken yellow. 

Dressed for Easter - or  prepared for bats?!

Fully suited and booted, and with respiratory aid and construction workers’ hats, we entered the cave of bats with great enthusiasm. In the extreme heat wave that we have experiences recently, you can all imagine what it was like to be trapped inside a rubber suit, needless to say a shower was welcome afterwards…Indeed it was worth our effort as a hieratic text emerged from the quarry walls, and which after some digital reconstruction (due to its poor state of preservation) may reveal the identity of responsible Pharaoh or vizier. Other than the text, well we learnt more in regards to the extraction methodology and got some more clues as to chronological issues that keep us busy in this respect.

Although difficult to photograph, notice the colony...

One flying friend

The last week has brought extreme temperatures to all Upper Egypt – naturally included Silsila – and with its strong wind and sense of being stuck inside a hot air dryer it has been somewhat difficult to concentrate (or to use the long-lens camera…). However, work must go on, and while the scaffolding came down on the East John and I moved into the Main Quarry of the West Bank in order to continue the study of quarry marks, extraction techniques, topographical features, and so on. While baking in the natural sauna (I know, I should be used to such as Scandinavian), some nice surprises revealed themselves to us, and it is with great excitement that we look forward to continue in this part in the following days.

Rock drawing

Documenting the quarrying technique

Southern side of the Main Quarry of the West Bank

Our last week of survey work at Silsila for this spring season are intended to be spent in the footsteps of the Prehistorics combined with a general topographic overview of the northern sections of the site, and with continuous recording, translations and understanding of dynastic textual graffiti. But for now – well today – the team takes a break from work in the field as Egypt and the Egyptian people celebrates Sham el Nassim.

Quarry Marks!


The Gebel el Silsila Survey Project team is honoured and delighted to express our deepest gratefulness to Jan & Bep Koek at the Mehen Study centre for ancient Egypt for their generous donation and support to the project! Thank you!

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Geology, quarrying techniques, lithics and rock art – week 5 at Gebel el Silsila

Another beautiful morning at Silsila
With time being short at present, this little update from Silsila will mainly consist of a photographic journal. Since our Sarah left and brought with her the desert sand to the UK, we have had the great pleasure of having Professor James Harrell with us on site. As always he provides us with great geological expertise, helping in the process of categorizing the various lithic materials used by our Prehistoric ancestors for tool making, and it goes without saying that we have had some wonderful hours of discussing quarrying techniques, transportation and the various elements that can help us in setting up a chronological system based on extraction methodology. Our hope for the future is for Jim to return and begin the (long) process of establishing the various geological aspects of Silsila, to figure out the various levels and orientations of the Nile (and its canals), and maybe learning more about the smaller geological differences that can aid us in confirming where the exact source was for the stone that now makes up some of Egypt’s most marvelous temples.

Jim, John and Mohammed discussing quarrying techniques;
with Bob, Shihad and Carter in the background

Jim and John looking closer at fossilized remains in the sandstone;
with our inspector Mohamed in the background

Fossilized wood

During our fifth week at Silsila, the rock art survey has continued and resulted in another couple of Prehistoric locations. More information was gained regarding the Middle Kingdom presence in the far south, and we were pleased to find another two cartouches belonging to the 12th dynasty (more on this eventually!). Lovely as it was, it was strange indeed to try to continue the recording process when the sky suddenly turned almost purple, once again being hit by a lightning and thunderstorm.

Carter remains happy regardless of the weather

For now, the Silsila team takes a break of one week in order to attend the upcoming event of CRE XV in London. The team will be represented by both John and Maria in accordance with the schedule embedded here. Once back from London the survey resumes for another two weeks; we hope you all join us (virtually) there and then!

Maria: ‘Multicultural commemorations: An epigraphic journey from Prehistoric rock art to Napoleonic signatures at Gebel el Silsila

Gebel el Silsila, with its series of cenotaphs, stelae, the speos of Horemheb and the grand sandstone quarries with majestic cathedral-like galleries on both sides of the Nile, has long attracted the attention of scholars, laymen and adventurers alike. Its quarry walls and cliff faces display with a great variety of graffiti ranging from Pharaonic hieroglyphic and hieratic texts to Ptolemaic and Roman demotic, Greek and Latin inscriptions; from stylistic Prehistoric rock art to elaborated figurative representations of later ancient periods: carved and painted commemorations that were recorded over a c. 15 000 year period by nomads, traders, workers, priests and rulers alike. This paper aims to present a visual and descriptive journey through a sandstone landscape bestrewn with pictorial and textual representations, opening with some of Egypt’s oldest illustrations and concluding with attestations of the more ‘modern’ records carved by scientists of the Napoleonic expedition, early explorers and adventurers; there between is presented a brief prosopography of workers and visitors that still today make their presence known in form of adoration and dedication texts once carved into the quarry faces after completing the season’s extraction work.

John, Sarah, Shihad and Mohamed discuss pottery while Jim views the landscape

John: ‘Mallets, Chisels, Sledges and Boats; The Art of Quarrying at Gebel el Silsila

This presentation will deal with the various extraction techniques and methods employed in the great sandstone quarries of Gebel el Silsila. Our time perspective ranges from the Middle Kingdom to the Graeco-Roman period as documented by the Gebel el Silsila Survey Project. We will explore the evolving technologies within the engineering processes, and pay particular attention to the trench styles and fracturing processes that were utilized to separate the pre-dressed blocks from their bedrock foundation. We will discuss the varied sizes of blocks and how these influenced the development of the individual quarries and subsequent transportation techniques, but also as part of chronological changes such as seen during Akhenaten. The preserved transportation devices at Silsila – from ramp systems, corridors, causeways and riverside quays – provide us with a series of windows into the ancients’ methodological work process and inform us of how the distribution of stone blocks played an integral role in the overall enlargement of the sandstone quarries. The material will be presented also in a more socio-anthropological perspective as we will consider the ancients’ greater understanding of the sandstone’s geological features in general and how this understanding led to an overall expansion of quarrying activity at Gebel el Silsila.

While Maria documents rock art, Shihad is kindly giving Carter some refreshing water

How can one do anything else than admire the beauty of a quarried gallery?

Our dear 'mascot' Carter

If the pottery expert leaves, then one has to take some photos when finding interesting sherds...

talking about quarrying techniques - which date would this be?!

some more modern graffiti

the beautiful landscape of Silsila

An Islamic game board still in use