Archaeology Of The Ancient Egyptian Working Man: The Gebel el-Silsila Quarries
We know about their bosses, but who were the ordinary working people in ancient Egypt? The ongoing Silsila project is unearthing new data at the site of an ancient sandstone quarry.
by Nigel Fletcher-Jones
photography courtesy of the Gebel el-Silsila Project
In a previous article, I described how underlying geology influenced the monumental building style of ancient Egypt, and how limestone became the building material of choice in the north, and sandstone in the south.
As it naturally fractured into useable and easily worked blocks, limestone was, however, the building material of choice over the whole country for the first periods of ancient Egyptian history, and it was not until the 18th dynasty (approximately 1543-1292 BC) that a major shift occurred towards the quarrying of sandstone in the south. This shift was, at least in part, driven by the increasing difficulty of extracting limestone from long established quarries such as those at Gebelein.
Although Nubian sandstone was harder to work, its greater inherent strength allowed for more reliable large scale building—not least allowing the construction of the great portals that relied on massive sandstone architraves.
Although the quarries had been used periodically since the Middle Kingdom, by the reign of Hatshepsut (approximately 1479-1458 BC), the superior building qualities of sandstone led masons and architects increasingly to an area 65 kilometers north of Aswan—between Edfu and Kom Ombo—where bluffs of the hard rock sweep down on both sides of the Nile, producing the narrowest point anywhere along the great river.
To the ancient Egyptians this was Kheny, ‘Rowing Place’—known today as Gebel el-Silsila, ‘Mountain of the Chain’.
Over the centuries from the New Kingdom to the Greco-Roman period, Silsila became the largest sandstone quarry in Egypt, providing the building materials for major temples including Dendera, Luxor, Karnak, Esna, and Edfu. Perhaps as much as seven million tonnes of sandstone were quarried from the site during the Pharaonic period alone.
Surprisingly, given that this major ‘quarryscape’ has long been known, minor excavations having taken place in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and a mostly-unpublished Egypt Exploration Society survey having taken place between 1955 and 1982, it was not until 2012 that a major archaeological study of the area began under the auspices of Lund University and the supervision of the Aswan and Kom Ombo inspectorates.
And yet, perhaps, it is not too surprising, for what the Silsila project (under the direction of Dr. Maria Nilsson) is exploring is the lives of workers, not the lives of the pharaohs and priests who dominated Egyptology research for much of its history.
We have learned much, of course, from Deir el-Medina—the village within which lived the artisans who created the royal tombs of the Valley of the Kings—and from many papyri describing work processes, but at Silsila we are beginning to meet workers at the rock face.
These workers left their mark, quite literally, in the form of over five thousand quarry marks and pictorial graffiti found so far, and in several hundred hieroglyphic and hieratic inscriptions. In this, it is now evident, they were following in a carving tradition which extends back at Silsila to the epipalaeolithic (around 8,000 years ago), predynastic, and early dynastic periods.
Work on these quarry marks is ongoing, but already it is possible to discern that the marking systems changed over the centuries. There are also distinctions between those marks that identify workers or gangs, and those that may tell us something of the beliefs and superstitions of the men who worked in this most inhospitable of desert environments. (In addition to the quarrying activities, Kheny was—particularly during the 18th Dynasty—a cultic center associated with the Nile and its inundation, which must have been quite spectacular at these narrows.)
Other marks in the quarry face are beginning to reveal the work methods associated with extracting the blocks—these include rope holes, foot holes, and postholes that would have held the scaffolding and helped the workers to work the faces to a considerable height—the quarry contains faces as high as 40 meters.
Increasingly, it is possible to get a sense of such elements as the size of the blocks that were extracted, the types of tools used, and the directions in which the quarrymen attacked the rock face. Again, there is much more work to be done to understand the evolution of techniques, which currently appear to not only change from dynasty to dynasty, but sometimes from one pharaoh to the next!
Our understanding of the ‘industrial archaeology’ of Silsila is also being enhanced by locating other work areas: smithies, stone huts, ramps, shelters, and the road systems that led down to the Nile so that the blocks could be transported away during the annual inundation from the quarry harbor.
There are, however, significant limits to what we can currently infer about the workers themselves. Pottery finds together with the recently rediscovered Ramesside temple of Kheny—gives a sense of where the workers and their families may have lived and, perhaps, worshipped, but there are no documented papyri, or other administrative records, which can help us understand how daily life was organized, or, indeed, who the workers were.
Were they principally craftsmen or laborers? Were they free men, prisoners of war, or slaves? As yet, we do not know. However, the discovery, earlier this year, of an 18th-19th Dynasty necropolis of over forty tombs containing the partial remains of men, women, and children and their coffins, would seem to indicate the possibility that settlement at Silsila may have been of greater permanence than has been previously thought.
As is the way of the world, we know slightly more about the bosses.
The more distant big bosses are suitably recorded, naturally. The so-called ‘Speos of Horemheb’—itself probably a former gallery quarry—is well known, though emerging evidence (including an underlying scene of two obelisks on a barge which is similar to one at Hatshepsut’s temple in Deir el-Bahari) suggests that the temple predates Horemheb. Later pharaohs, including Ramses II and Ramses III, also added inscriptions to the temple, which was carved into the cliff face. A number of other kings are also recorded in a variety of stelae, or rock-cut commemorative inscriptions, on either side of the river.
Of more direct interest, in terms of the functioning of the quarry, are the thirty-two relatively modest rock-cut shrines which line the west bank of the Nile. Constructed for the high officials of the 18th Dynasty who were in charge of the site—many of whom are well known from other documents and monuments—the shrines share many characteristics in their architecture, decoration, and inscriptions, which give some indication of how the quarries were managed.
It seems that each new archaeological season’s work at Gebel el-Silsila produces new data concerning the lives of ordinary working people in ancient Egypt, and the organization of their work. The forthcoming season will see work continue in the necropolis and the rediscovered temple site, together with making the site safe for tourism, and protecting the discoveries.
I, for one, will be waiting to hear what fascinating discoveries the team will make this year.
(With special thanks to Dr. Maria Nilsson, and John Ward. More information about the Silsila project can be found here)