Gabal Al-Silsila in Aswan is well known as an ancient Egyptian quarry where stones were cut to build temples, shrines and tombs. However, new discoveries by a Swedish archaeological mission on its northern side have now changed previous theories of how it operated.
“Gabal Al-Silsila was actually a major hub of commerce, worship and possibly political activities,” John Ward, assistant director of the mission, said. He added that the new discoveries had also revealed the health of the area’s inhabitants.
Two weeks ago, an Egyptian-Swedish archaeological mission from Lund University in Sweden stumbled upon a group of 12 rock-hewn tombs from the reign of New Kingdom pharaohs Amenhotep II and Thutmose III, 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 materials.
Maria Nilsson, head of the mission, said that the majority of the tombs excavated so far, with the main exception of the two infant burials, had been plundered in antiquity and left without further disturbance covered by up to three metres of Nile silt, sand, and fallen quarry spoil and debris.
“These readily identifiable stratifications have given us 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,” Nilsson said.
She explained that the individual tombs excavated so far had revealed multiple burials within the same chamber or crypt. This suggests the tombs could have belonged 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,” Nilsson pointed out. She added that three different styles of burials had 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 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 an 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 is a single chamber 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 ST27. The crocodile was oriented in a north-south direction, with the head pointing north.
Nasr Salama, director-general of Aswan Antiquities, explained that the archaeological material produced from the newly discovered tombs and burials chronologically correlated 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 had 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.
Ward explained that the vast amount of human remains so far recovered from the necropolis indicated that the individuals were generally healthy. At this time, very little evidence of malnutrition or infection had been noticed. Fractures of the long bones and increased muscle attachments amongst the skeletal remains indicated occupational hazards and an extremely labour intensive environment, he said.
Furthermore, many of the injuries appeared 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 Gabal Al-Silsila,” Nilsson said, adding that the team was looking forward to increasing its understanding of the overall function and role of the area during the New Kingdom.
In 2015, excavation and cleaning work at Gabal Al-Silsila started, and a series of rock-hewn tombs was discovered in the north side in the area immediately to the north of the famous stele of 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 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 had proved successful as both the external and interior walls, and to some extent the ceilings, had stabilised by exposing them to the sun, drying out prior dampness.
In the initial clearing process the team had been successful in identifying various architectural markers, including two rock-cut chambers, external courtyards, and a dressed portcullis – slot-cuts in the door jambs by the entry to the tombs, into which a stone slab would have been placed to seal the door after burial.