A large necropolis some 3,500 years old has been discovered at Gebel el Silsila in Egypt, a site known since antiquity for its sandstone quarries. The crypts seem to house well-to-do locals and officials, possibly crocodiles as well – and in contrast to earlier thinking that the place was "just" a quarry, it may be the resting place of extremely high-ranking officials as well. And possibly crocodiles too.
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The burial ground dates to the 18th Dynasty (1500 BCE – 1292 BCE) and was discovered by a team of Swedish and British archaeologists. Its sheer dimensions demonstrate the importance of the quarrying site, from which rock used in building the ancient Egyptian monuments had been extracted for thousands of years.
Quarrying at Gebel el Silsila ramped up during the early 18th Dynasty, especially during the reigns of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut and her successor, Thutmosis III. In fact, stones used for the construction of the temples of Karnak and Luxor came from this place.
The necropolis is south-east of the Temple of Sobek (the crocodile god) and north-west of the famous stela of Amenhotep IV on the East Bank. A vast number of tombs has been found, on which work has only just begun.
Like in the Valley of the Kings, the necropolis involves multiple entrances that link to multiple tombs, which in turn lead to crypts. Only a few of the dozens of tombs found have been excavated so far.
Generally, stairs cut into the rock descend to underground chambers, which are also hewn out of the stone. These in turn lead to crypts cut into the bedrock floors. The doorways to the chambers were equipped with heavy vertical closure devices – the tombs could be opened and closed from either side of the door.
Unfortunately, the five tombs excavated so far had all been looted during antiquity, and the archaeological layers became mixed up, says Maria Nilsson, co-director of the excavations and a researcher from Lund University in Sweden. The mess created by thieves was compounded by the annual flooding of the Nile, she adds.
While no interior or exterior decoration has been found so far, so the identity of the tombs' owners remains a mystery – but evidently, they were of high rank.
"The size and elaborate style of the tombs, including the rich variety of burial goods preserved, indicate that they were of a higher status than 'simple' workers," Nilsson says.
The tombs may "house" Egyptian officials and foremen who had been involved in quarrying operations at Gebel el Silesia. But many of the dead may rank a lot higher.
Other discoveries at Gebel el Silsila include obelisk ships (ships used to transport obelisks) and cenotaphs, which are monuments (or empty tombs) built to commemorate people whose remains lie elsewhere. The First Kingdom's high officials, viziers and architects of the pharaohs were buried in Thebes, but many had commemorating cenotaphs - false tombs - at Gebel el Silsila. Maybe some lie there too.
"Many seem to believe that Gebel el Silsila was simply a stone quarry, while it in fact contained so much more, including a thriving community,” said Nilsson and added “Again, this shows the importance of the site during this time,”
The burial goods include beads and amulets, mummy wrappings and fragments of detailed mud plaster, which could be an indication of decorated coffins. Yet again the findings hint that these tombs belonged to people of high social strata.
Beer jugs and Thutmose III
The finds at the Gebel el Silsila burial site indicate that the deceased were probably well-to-do locals from the town of Kheny. The finds of storage vessels, beer jugs, and a selection of votive vessels further support this theory.
Bones of men, women and children of all ages have been identified. Even crocodile scutes were found next to the human remains– though whether they been deposited as grave offerings with the dead, were buried themselves, or if they ended up there with the flooding together is difficult to tell.
An especially intriguing find was that of reversible seal ring bearing the cartouche of Pharaoh Thutmose III (Men-kheper-re), and a scarab also bearing the pharaohs name.
Although the stratigraphic contexts at the necropolis have been badly disturbed by the annual flooding of the river Nile, the site can be firmly dated thanks to these two items bearing Thutmose III's name, as well as ceramic materials identified as traditional funerary ware known from the 18-19th dynasties.
Thutmose III is regarded as one of the greatest pharaohs in the history of Egypt. He is credited with bringing the Egyptian Empire to its zenith. (Some believe he is the pharaoh associated with the Israelites' Exodus). Thutmose III launched several campaigns into Canaan during his reign, and may be most famous for his victory at the battle of Megiddo, where his forces defeated an army of 10,000 Canaanites.
Shrine to the afterlife
A small rock-cut shrine on the east bank of Gebel el Silsila, directly by the Temple of Sobek, includes two open chambers facing the river and an inner doorway crowned with a winged solar disc. Based on its position, the shrine may be connected with Egyptian beliefs of the dead being carried into the afterlife.
“We are currently studying the various aspects of the shrine and how it relates to the burials. Due to the annual flooding of the Nile, the shrine - which opens to the west - has seen considerable damage to its interior and exterior, and its archaeology cannot be firmly dated, since the Nile would have brought in material each year," Nielsson admits.
The expedition in Gebel el Silsila will continue exploring the necropolis and its relationship with the nearby Temple of Sobek, which is also still being explored. The team will also continue working on what is evidently an administration building dating to the period of Emperor Tiberius, and studying rock art graffiti dated rather later, mainly showing feet, boards game, and animals. Including crocodiles.