The Sirius Project

The Sirius Project
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Thursday, February 28, 2013

LETTERS FROM LUXOR – Limestone quarries at Thebes

Before presenting the topic of today's blog post, we must apologize for the too long gap between now and our last posting. We are hoping to keep the blog more active from now on and hope that you will join us on this, our continuous journey into ancient symbolism!

Today's post is about the Limestone quarries in the Theban Mountains, and we owe our gratefulness to The Egyptian Society of South African  for allowing us to post our quarterly articles in their magazine Shemu also here on the blog. For those of you, our readers, who are not familiar with the great work of TESSA, please find more info on their web page here or follow their updates, discussions and lecture announcements on their facebook group here.

Now, let us turn to the topic of the day!

TODAY’S letter takes us to a different part of the Theban mountains, to a series of ancient quarries located in the valley west of the Valley of the Kings, along the main trade route, with archaeological records dating from the reigns of Hatshepsut and Amenhotep III. These limestone quarries stretch out for approximately 500m in two smaller valleys and consist of both open quarry faces and closed galleries. The latter remind one of large cave systems with square pillars holding the stone ceiling. The extracted blocks of limestone provided building material for the terraced Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri. Hieratic inscriptions demonstrate that the quarries were in use also during the reign of Amenhotep III. The quarries are preserved with red painted markings documenting specific dates and include counting systems. The hieratic inscriptions are written with red ink, but they are faint in general and are continuously threatened by the accumulation of rubbish and modern graffiti. Fairly recently, in 2002, a Japanese team studied these hieratic inscriptions, and before them J Cerny and his team, but as often seen elsewhere, limited attention is given to the pictorial graffiti. Let us, therefore, have a closer look here.

Although very faded, one of the interesting graffiti depicts a hunting scene. Painted in red colour it shows
an anthropomorph (human-like figure) standing to the left, dressed in a kilt and holding a bow and arrow in his hands. A couple of very vague lines indicate a crown, hat or another alternative headdress on top of the figure’s head. Again very faded, the depicted figure in front/to the right of the anthropomorphic could very well have shown several animals at the time of making, but in its present preservation only four legs are clearly distinguished. The animal’s face is directed towards the anthropomorph, and thin, faded lines suggest large horns, but due to a discoloration in the stone it is difficult to determine any definite species.

Close by is another series of figures painted in red. These ones are somewhat better preserved compared to the previous example. Displayed in two rows, the upper row shows two animals, standing face to face. Purely from an artistic point of view it is impossible to determine whether the two head-stokes are supposed to represent ears or small horns. Both animals are depicted with a long tail. The lower row shows three figures. The figure to the very left is more likely to be interpreted as a stylized human figure facing right, being composed with a square body, above which a straight, protruding horizontal line forms the arms, with a semi-circle forming its head, and two vertical lines its feet. The second figure is a triangular-like composition consisting of two diagonal lines joined at the top, together forming the upper part of a triangle, and with an additional third vertical centred line above which is a circular object crowning the figure. However, the upper part of this figure is overlapped with the figure above, thus somewhat distorted in its pure shape. The more interesting figure among this series is the one to the very right: it depicts a man in a chariot drawn by a horse. This figure is somewhat smaller in proportion compared to the surrounding figures and is further differentiated in the amount of clear details: the wheel of the chariot is decorated with a cross pattern, the horse tail is curled as in movement, and the horseman is shown holding the reins with one hand while resting the other behind his back.

The series of figures mentioned above are all painted with a clear, bright red colour, located on open cliff faces, while those making up the hieratic texts and contextual pictorial graffiti are much darker, almost purple. This differentiation could suggest a different time period, but it is more likely to be a matter of environmental effect, such as being exposed to direct sun light, wind and water. What is important, though, is that they are just as significant as textual inscriptions, providing an insight into the life of the men who once occupied the area, whether as quarrymen, travellers, or temporary residents in the cave-like galleries. In addition to the pharaonic inscriptions these quarries present evidence of an early Christian activity based on the combination of pottery and pictorial graffiti. The latter include crosses and other traditional symbols – for example the Alpha and Omega, and faces of hermits – painted in red or white ink. These are found prominently inside the closed galleries, which would have provided a safe and protected place to rest or reside. Indeed, remnants of mud-bricks can be noticed in most galleries.

We have included some images also for those of you who share our love for, and interest in ancient quarrying, extraction techniques etc.

As always - thank you for following us!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

solar symbolism in Gebel el Silsila

Find our most recent article on solar symbolism in Gebel el Silsila in the archaeological magazine Ancient Planet Online (pp. 50-61):

A huge thank you to Ioannis Georgopoulos for all hard work in putting the magazine together!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Working with epigraphic material in Gebel el Silsila – Adrienn’s summary of the first season

The primary aim of the epigraphical work during the season 2012 - the survey of the main quarry of Silsila - has been accomplished and the inscriptions previously published by W. Spiegelberg and F. Preisigke have been localized and identified. As the first editor of the Demotic text, W. Spiegelberg never visited the site and used only the copies of G. Legrain, so one of our first steps in the recording process was to check and compare every inscription listed in the 1915 publication.

Some parts of W. Spiegelberg’s texts are not or only partly translated due to certain difficulties which G. Legrain must have encountered: many of the inscriptions are situated too high for the naked eye to record the details, and of course for copying by the help of acetate (transparent plastic paper), and the surface of the quarry walls consists almost everywhere of tool marks made by chisels used during the quarrying - naturally, this often makes the texts hardly visible.

These problems made also our work difficult and in many cases we could work with only a monocular/binoculars to create a preliminary drawing on site, which later is to be compared with, analysed and adjusted based on good quality photos (thanks to our good photographers), all of which help us to create a complete record and to translate the texts. For copying I sometimes used a ladder, and for taking photos Maria and John often climbed up on ledges and high ridges to be able to capture the highly situated texts and quarry marks (which were heroic deeds in certain cases). I am sure we will find during the analysis of the texts more interesting details and connections with other sites.

Besides checking and recopying the published texts we have found and recorded many unpublished inscriptions: more than half of them show no indication of having been discovered during the archaeological survey of G. Legrain, but others were not published by W. Spiegelberg in spite of being numbered or encircled by white chalk. These chalk-markings made us believe that G. Legrain probably planned to return to Silsila to complete the work.

If I must choose a favourite place in the main quarry I will choose Section D (south) with its corridor. The inscriptions of this section have a special interest. Some of them refer to a specific deity in adoration style, thus showing the religious importance of the site.

As most of the Demotic texts have a religious content (adorations) the epigraphical work of the site can contribute to the identification of role of the quarries in the religious life. Two types of divinities appear in these adorations: the main deities of the temples which were built by the stone blocks of Gebel Silsila (like Horus of Edfu, Isis, Khnum) and local protectors (like Pshaï/Psais, Min and Pachimesen - the protective daemon of the quarry). Revealing the identity of the local divinities will be an interesting aspect of the studying the texts and the role of the quarry.

written by A. Almasy, linguist and epigrapher specialising on demotic inscriptions

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Third week at Gebel el Silsila

clouds over Silsila West and moving birds returning to warmer climate for the winter

The third week of surveying Gebel el Silsila continued with new exiting results and discoveries! To start off with we were visited by a smaller company of storks, stopping by at Silsila over the week, and together with the already gorgeous scenery giving us a splendid view to gaze upon! We have come to accept the fact that this season will focus entirely on the main quarry (with a small addition of Q35 directly attached to the south), hoping to continue with the quarries around it next season.

During this third week John and I completed photographing every inch (!) of all individual quarry faces, providing us photographic material of 1) full overview images of Q35 – the main quarry, 2) overview images of the seven sections within Q35, 3) overview images of each individual quarry face, 4) detail photos of pictorial and textual inscriptions, 5) contextual overviews of graffiti placed in groups or series. Puh!

John busy drawing and adding measurements to the notes

Exposing a demotic inscription on one of the fallen stone blocks

We have measured every quarry face, every engraving within reach, every extracted stone block and fallen stone blocks presented with some form of graffiti. In addition, we have measured the outlines/incision of all graffiti (and the tool marks made during extraction) and when possible the size of the chisel head. The preliminary results are very interesting! So, a lot of measuring and photographing with other words...

a post hole on top of the quarry overlooking the main quarry

John making notes 


After completing the photographic records, we continued into phase 2, the topographical survey, which John is responsible for. Thus, each stone structure, including supporting walls, and pathway were photographed, drawn, measured and noted on the general topographical map. Material visible on the surface provided us important information as to the function of huts and structures in the various locations. Results of that in good time!

every inch needs investigation!

Meanwhile, Adrienn, who completed her copying of the demotic inscriptions, was given the task to copy (plastic sheet tracing) also Greek inscriptions within reach. This task was followed by a little move over to Q35, the quarry which we refer to as the Situla Quarry, again with the task of copying the inscriptions. The information from within this quarry is so exciting and will give an important update on our contemporary knowledge of the site - but for this you will have to wait for our publication ;-)

Since this was Adrienn’s last week, we thank her for her great contribution on site and now look forward working with the material together! On behalf of the (wink wink) "managing department" and the "topographic department" - hank you “Mrs Spiegelberg of the linguistic department”!

one happy epigrapher!

The survey has taken a few days break as John went off to America, giving me the opportunity of writing our preliminary report to the SCA. Tomorrow we head back out in field for a last few days before finishing off this amazing first season of surveying Gebel el Silsila!

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

first week at Silsila

overview Sections C and D in the main quarry

Ten days in on our epigraphic survey journey we could not have asked for more of Gebel el Silsila than has been presented to us so far! Among us, our great inspector and the helpful guardians Silsila is now referred to as the mother of the temples, and she has presented new material in form of not only a huge amount of quarry marks (of course), demotic and Greek inscriptions, but also a few hieroglyphic graffiti and insights into the day-to-day work of “her” visiting workers.

arriving at site, ready to unpack and set up camp tent 1

orientation from the guard house

first tent is being set up

second tent with all work material being transported the old fashion way - by donkey

one happy epigrapher - Adrienn\s first day at Silsila!

So far, we concentrate our work in the main quarry – the largest and central quarry at Silsila East, which has been divided into six sections following a clock-wise orientation. Thus, this main quarry now is labelled with the sub-titles Section A-F, starting and ending with its two corridors. 

epigraphic documentation - everything is to be recorded with camera and drawings on paper and plastic film if on accessible height

Last week’s work completed the epigraphic documentation of the northern corridor – Section A, the northern section – Section B, and work is currently conducted in Sections C and D, which are alternated based on the position of the sun: while photos in the shade can provide highlighting of certain elements, we do prefer when the quarry faces stand in full sun light, illuminating the details more clearly and creating a better contrast towards the diagonal tool marks that form the most common background for the inscriptions. 

epigraphic work requires some ladder climbing...

Work begins at 7 am each day - although we are up already at 4.30, to be picked up at 5.30, continuing all day through until 4-4.30 pm with rest for lunch and then back to a oh so needed nutritious refuel at the hotel we are staying. Unfortunately, we cannot stay on site as there is no access to electricity on the east bank – a problem that we hope to sort with time – so at the moment we travel some time each day from our hotel to the site – not to mention the 25 minutes walk each morning and afternoon to get to the main quarry... 

view from Silsila East

overlooking Silsila West

For John and myself there have been many highlights and we have been able to complete a comprehensive documentation of those quarry faces we had documented already during previous visits. For Adrienn, however, this mission is her first visit to the site, and it has struck her with quite a surprise, and to be able to work with such a great amount of previously unpublished material is a dream for any linguist who specialises in demotic inscriptions! Most scholars who have visited Silsila refer to the East as published by Spiegelberg, true of course, but this great demotic expert in fact did not visit the site in person, but based his translations of the text on the notes provided by Legrain. Legrain, who we believe planned to return to the site, was instead caught up with the cachet at Karnak, leaving the great material for us to work with now! 

Hopefully we will be able to provide updates more regularly from now on, with some personal notes from also John and Adrienn. Until then, we thank you for following us on our survey of Silsila!