New discovery in Aswan reveals health of Gebel Al-Silsila inhabitants in ancient times
New tombs discovered at Gebel Al-Silsila area in Aswan continue to change perceptions of the nature and role of this ancient Egyptian quarry
On the northern side of Gebel Al-Silsila in Aswan, the Egyptian-Swedish archaeological mission from Lund University has stumbled upon another group of rock-hewn tombs from the reign of New Kingdom pharoahs Amenhotep II and Thutmose III.
Announced by Mahmoud Afifi, head of Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Department at the Ministry of Antiquities, the Swedish mission, led by Maria Nilsson and John Ward, in 2015 discovered a series of rock-hewn tombs located in the north of Gebel Al-Silsila's east bank, in the area immediately to the north of the famous stele of King Amenhotep IV and stretching westwards to the Nile.
"While the tombs had been described by previous visitors to the site, no comprehensive survey, nor any proper archaeological work, had been conducted until 2015," Nilsson said, adding that during the initial survey, 43 tombs were identified, and five tombs were chosen to be cleared of sand and a damaging layer of salt, in order to study their state of conservation.
Returning to the site eight months later, Nilsson continued, the work proved successful as both external and interior walls, and to some extent also the ceiling, stabilised by exposing them to the sun, drying out prior dampness.
In the initial clearing process the team was successful in identifying various architectural markers, including two rock-cut chambers, external courtyards, and dressed portcullis – slot-cuts into the door jambs by the entry to the tombs, into which a stone slab would have been placed to seal the door after burial.
During this season, Nilsson said, the team discovered another 12 rock cut tombs as well as three crypts cut into the rock, two niches possibly used for offerings, one tomb containing multiple animal burials, and three individual infant burials, along with other associated material.
The majority of the tombs excavated so far – with the main exception of two infant burials – had been plundered in antiquity and left neglected without further disturbance, covered by up to three metres of Nile silt, blown in sand, and fallen quarry spoil and debris.
"These readily identifiable stratifications have given a wealth of information with regards not only to the manner in which the spoil and silt have been deposited, but also provided a rudimentary chronological overview for the area," said Ward. He explained that the individual tombs excavated so far this season reveal multiple burials within the same chamber or crypt. A fact that suggests the tombs could belong to a complete family, and individuals of varying ages and sex.
"In addition, the newly discovered infant burials present another aspect to the cemetery, clearly indicating family life at Al-Silsila," Ward pointed out. He added that three different styles of burials have been documented so far, including a rock-hewn crypt, a shallow grave covered with stone, and one infant wrapped in textile placed within a wooden coffin. Two of the three children were placed secreted within the overhangs of the natural sandstone bluffs. They were placed on their side, oriented in either a north-south direction, face towards the east, or alternatively a east-west direction, and facing north. Amulets depicting the figure of the god Bes, necklaces, ceramic vessels, worked flint and coloured pebbles were also found within the graves.
Among the animal burials are a single chamber room with a crypt containing a dozen sheep and goats as well as a couple of Nile perch. An almost complete adult crocodile was also discovered resting on the floor in the courtyard immediately outside tomb number ST27. The crocodile was oriented in a north-south direction, with the head pointing to the north.
Nasr Salama, director general of Aswan Antiquities, told Ahram Online that the archaeological material produced from the newly discovered tombs and burials chronologically correlate with those excavated previously, so far limited to the reigns of Thutmose III and Amenhotep II.
In addition to the tombs themselves, he said, the excavation revealed finely dressed sandstone sarcophagi, sculptured and occasionally painted pottery coffins, painted cartonnage, textile and organic wrapping, ceramic vessels and plates, as well as an array of jewellery, amulets and scarabs.
Nilsson explained that the vast amount of human remains so far recovered from the necropolis indicates that the individuals were generally healthy. At this time, very little evidence of malnutrition or infection have been noticed. Fractures of the long bones and increased muscle attachments amongst the skeletal remains indicate occupational hazards and an extremely labour intensive environment.
Furthermore, she pointed out, many of the injuries appear to be in an advanced stage of healing, suggesting effective medical care.
"The new finds add exciting new components to the necropolis, changing yet again the perceived function and apparent appearance of the site of Gebel Al-Silsila," Afifi told Ahram Online, adding that the team looks forward to increasing their understanding of the overall function and role of the area during the New Kingdom.
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