14 - 20 November 2002
Issue No.612
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Writing on the wall

Four hundred demotic graffiti have been discovered at the Abu Gamusa quarry in Minya. Nevine El-Aref describes their significance

While conducting a field work at the stone quarries in Wadi Nakhla in Deir Al-Barsha, a rich archaeological site in Minya governorate, the Belgian mission of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven last month finally reached the end of Abu Gamusa, probably the largest ancient underground quarry in Egypt. They were rewarded with a find of at least 400 demotic graffiti dating from the reign of Nectanebo I, founder of the XXX Dynasty in the 4th century BC, written on blocks of stone.

"It was an unexpected discovery," said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). He said that although the large quarries in Wadi-Nakhla had long been known, no serious investigation had been carried out there since early in the 20th century when the Belgian mission first planned to reconstruct the manner in which Egyptian limestone was quarried in ancient times for exploitation in building projects.

The early quarry research team carried out studies at the site under the direction of Mark Depauw and his colleagues. They discovered texts left behind by ancient quarrymen which revealed the organisation of the quarry teams under supervisors, and the length of time they worked.

"The number of graffifi now discovered has surpassed our previous expectations, and it is now certain that there must be several hundred more in the same area," Harco Willems, the mission's field director, said.

"In view of the enormous extent of the quarries, the period in which it was put to use was remarkably short," David Deoaetere, one of the team researchers, said. "In fact, the whole quarry seems to have been exploited only during the seven year period between the years six and 13 of Pharaoh Nectanebo's rule. Some texts make it clear that the stone was intended for the temple of the god Thoth in Ashmunein. In fact, Nectanebo undertook building activity in this temple on a truly massive scale," he added.

An historical inscription discovered in Al-Ashmuneinn in the 19th century states explicitly that Nectanebo instigated a massive building project in that temple in his eighth year. It specifies that the work measured 110 by 55 metres. Some portions of it were still standing when Napoleon's mission studied the monuments of the area at the end of the 18th century. Today, very little remains of the temple.

"The temple of the god Toth must have been the destination of the blocks of limestone quarried in the time of Nectanebo," Willems said. "True, not all the limestone quarries in the area date from his reign -- there is evidence of earlier and later quarry activity -- but clearly the bulk of the raw material was marked for that destination."

Among the most interesting results of the discovery are the quarry marks on the ceilings of some of the quarries that indicate the size of the blocks to be extracted. They are of small size, and this information -- along with the small size of some of the surviving blocks -- leaves little doubt that the Deir Al-Barsha quarries were also one of the sources for the so-called talatat, the distinctive limestone blocks used at the time of Pharaoh Akhenaten for the construction of his sun temples and palaces at Amarma in the 14th century BC.

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