The American Research Center in Eygpt

The Gebel el Silsila Survey Project: Two Seasons

The Gebel el Silsila Survey Project: Two Seasons

The Gebel el Silsila Survey Project: Two Seasons

Contributed by Maria Nilsson and John Ward, Lund University; ARCE Members

Inside the Speos of Horemheb. Photo: M. Nilsson.

Known to the ancients as Khenu, the ancient site of Gebel el Silsila is divided into east and west by the Nile at its narrowest point, and is foremost famous for its many New Kingdom stelai, cenotaphs and Speos of Horemheb. Located between Kom Ombo and Edfu, it features ancient Egypt's largest series of sandstone quarries running for approximately 2.5-3 km2 on both sides of the Nile, presenting evidence of extraction methods and transportation techniques, a wide variety of graffiti including hieroglyphic, hieratic, demotic, Greek and Latin inscriptions, petroglyphs and elaborated pictorial representations: carved and painted commemorations dating from Prehistory and throughout all subsequent ancient periods.

The site became an object of repetitive modern scientific pilgrimage when Napoleon’s researchers reached its shores, but except for minor excavations by G. Legrain and A. Sayce in the late 19th century the site has never been properly excavated. In the early 20th century it was made the responsibility of EES to record the ancient remains of the site; a task eventually begun by R. A. Caminos. Unfortunately, with his passing only one volume was completed, leaving large areas of research still unpublished. This is where the current survey project picked up, with a long-term goal to conduct a comprehensive archaeological survey including also the site’s less monumental features.

One of two unfinished criosphinxes on the east bank, with the naos of Amenhotep son of Hapu in the background. Photo: M. Nilsson.

The east bank was chosen as a starting point as it offers a unique insight into not just the practical work force engaged at the site, but also an in-depth view of the workers and their daily activities, including expressions of religious/superstitious beliefs. As these are mainly presented on the quarry faces, every inch of exposed surface should be explored. Every epigrapher knows that the game between light and shadow can cause problems when recording; some examples are so faint that even after various visits, inscriptions still evade the viewer until the sun reaches a certain point and finally illuminate a hidden inscription for a brief moment. Persistency, however, allowed the team to record almost 3000 quarry marks and some 500 textual inscriptions during the first season.

Series of Roman quarry marks - graffiti in the main quarry. Photo: M. Nilsson.

During the first season (2012) the epigraphic survey concentrated on documenting late Ptolemaic and early Roman quarry marks and inscriptions. The preliminary textual analysis indicates expressions of principally personal piety and adoration (proskynemata). A stylistic pattern emerged from the analysis of the quarry marks regarding their placement and character, and indicates a non-uniform application ranging from technical sketches, identity marks or symbols related with Graeco-Egyptian deities and some with apotropaic significance.

Additionally, an overall topographical survey of the east bank revealed 49 separate quarries, labelled in accordance with a numeral system from north to south – Q (quarry) 1-49, with focus 2012 on the main quarry (Q34). Due to its great size, this quarry was divided into seven partitions (A-G), each one recorded with its individual quarry faces. General plans were drawn of the quarry and the quarry faces, marked with all epigraphic and technical (extraction) details. General topographic results revealed 54 stone huts in Q34, divided in five sectors built on strategic locations on higher grounds overlooking the quarrying area and with a network of pathways connecting them.

The white stele, believed to belong to Amenhotep III-IV, outside one of the closed galleries. Photo: M. Nilsson.

Entering the second year the team resumed work on the east bank during a seven week spring season aiming to complete the documentation of the Ptolemaic and Roman quarries, to move on into the Ramesside quarries, and if time allowed it a peek also into the quarries of Amenhotep III-IV for preparatory reasons.

Amongst the graffiti recorded this season, two previously unpublished round-topped stelae stood out: located in Q37 they display in their upper partition the traditional winged solar disc, adorned with pendant uraei, and contain demotic texts written in white, conveying dedications to Isis and information about the work carried out during the time of an undefined Caesar. These inscriptions and their likes provide a personal insight into the daily work routine and transform the quarries from the purely practical origin of building materials (i.e. sandstone) to an environment in which a thriving community can be visualized.

Two ramps in the main quarry provide details about the development of quarrying and methods of transportation. Photo: M. Nilsson.

Another exciting aspect of the spring season was the topographic exploration of the Ramesside quarries. The landscape, which to the untrained eye looks no different in any given direction, holds certain characteristics that soon bring the site to life and paint a picture of events that occurred. These details describe the development from surface quarrying to extraction in closed galleries and yet again to open quarries, and explain the development from exploratory extraction to the cutting of causeways to facilitate the removal of blocks to the quays and awaiting barges. By studying the ancient pathways and causeways a chronologic progress appears, describing a working progress from north-east towards south-west. This is indicated by an extraction process that cuts deeper down into the mountain and that abruptly terminated any previous remains. A relative chronology emerges also from the various techniques presented on the quarry faces, measurable in tool marks, splitting techniques, postholes, foot-holes, rope-holes, etc. Information is found also in the trench-making (if any): aligned trenches and marking systems lay engraved and chiseled out of the living bedrock, providing a greater understanding into the development of how the blocks were removed in quantity and quality. Following fissures and anomalies in the stratification, it is evident that the quarrymen adapted and took full advantage of the natural landscape, and thereby increased their yield of stone in the process. Of course, all these details are combined with contextual archaeological material, and the placement and contents of the spoil heaps that now hide much of the ancient landscape.

As for most archaeological missions the last days on site resulted in some truly interesting findings, especially while sneak peeking into the quarries of Amenhotep III-IV. These will be studied in more detail during the autumn season, planned for September-October. In spite of the current political situation, the team feels secure to continue working in the more relaxed Upper Egypt, supported and encouraged by the kind and professional inspectorate of Kom Ombo.

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