Babies, Crocodiles Found in Vast 3,500-year-old Egyptian Necropolis

Archaeologists crack mystery of who's buried in Gebel el Silsila cemetery: Very well-off quarriers and their families.

Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
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The buried individuals were accompanied by private items such as drinking vessels, jewelry and amulets placed on the body that protected the deceased on the journey to the afterlife.
Items found with the dead in a burial niche, including amulets to protect them on their journey to the afterlife.Credit: Gebel el-Silsila Project

Archaeologists believe they have cracked a mystery bedeviling them since the discovery of a vast 3,500-year-old necropolis in ancient Egypt: who exactly is buried there. The discovery of rich grave offerings at Gebel el Silsila, including animals such as cats and crocodiles, shows that far from being menials or slaves quarrying sandstone for the pharaohs' grandiose construction projects, as thought: the miners may have worked hard, but were very well off. They also received effective medical care when they were injured, the state of the bones indicates.

The necropolis of Gebel el Silsila, then called Kheny, sits on the Nile River about 65 kilometers north of Aswan. Quarrying there ramped up during the early 18th Dynasty (c. 1543–1292 B.C.E.), especially during the reigns of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut and her successor, Thutmosis III. In fact, stones used to build the temples of Karnak and Luxor came from Kheny too.

Now the exploration of 12 newly uncovered tombs hewn out of the bedrock in the necropolis, three crypts, and a crypt with multiple animal burials discovered by a Swedish expedition directed by Maria Nilsson and John Ward, has brought fresh insight as to the miners' lives over three millennia ago.

Finding anything after all these thousands of years can't be taken for granted. Silsila has more then 55 tombs with 10-15 people buried in each, all dating to the 18th Dynasty. Unfortunately, most of graves had already been looted by grave robbers in antiquity.

At least the robbers tended to leave the bodies behind. This season's discoveries include two tombs with infants.

“So far we have recovered in excess of 80 individuals: men, women, children and infants,” Dr. Maria Nilsson, co-director of the excavations, told Haaretz. “The most pressing question was, who they were. Were they the quarrymen? Local officials? What was their relationship with the architects and nobles active in the area during this period buried in Thebes?” Now the archaeologists believe they know.

Judging by signs on male skeletons indicating that at least some engaged in heavy labor, Nilsson's conclusion is that they were probably quarrymen.

Warding off evil spirits

In true ancient style for the region, the deceased were interred with personal belongings. In some cases amulets were placed on the body for protection, to ward off evil spirits on the journey to the afterlife.

Their powers aside, the artifacts that accompanied them on their journey to the afterlife were fine stuff: clearly their status was beyond that of common slaves or conscripted workers, Nilsson explains.

Among the objects found were funeral pottery, fragments of painted cartonage, wood, and plaster, and thousands of beads, ranging from the basic tiny ceramic bead to luxurious faience.

Further attesting to the lofty status of the dead, for all their signs of hard labor – the archaeologists found beautifully crafted earrings, amulets, scarabs and pendants, Nilsson says. Ultimately, the findings indicate that quarrymen of ancient Egypt were of higher status than was previously thought.  She qualifies however that more material must be studied and analyzed before categorical conclusions can be drawn from the findings.

So far the archaeologists have documented three different styles of burial at the site, including a crypt (64 x 32 x 32 cm) cut into the rock, a shallow grave covered with stones, and one case of an infant shrouded in textile and placed within a wooden coffin.

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 dozen of the more then 55 tombs found have been excavated so far.
Like in the Valley of the Kings, the necropolis involves multiple entrances that link to multiple tombs, which in turn lead to crypts.Credit: Gebel el-Silsila Project

Architectural details, such as the portcullis closure to tombs, indicate not only that the tombs were intended for multiple usage: They also prevented predators from scavenging the bodies, and may have also preserved them against the rising waters of the Nile.

Not rarely, the ancients utilized natural features, for instance burying bodies in the geological fissures that crisscross the sand stone massif.

Two of the three childrens' bodies were placed on their sides and secreted within the overhangs of the natural sandstone bluffs. Burial gifts with them include amulets (including the figure of the lion-faced god Bes, protector of households), necklaces, ceramic vessels, worked flint and colored pebbles.

In addition to the tombs themselves, the excavation has revealed finely dressed sandstone sarcophagi, and sculptured and occasionally painted pottery coffins.

A crocodile's lot

Among the animal burials, one striking example was a single crypt containing a dozen sheep and goats, which show signs of head trauma that could have ensued from their sacrifice. Conclusions will take more analysis, Nilsson says.

Other animal remains include a couple of Nile perch (which could have come from the flooding of the Nile, though), a cat, and two crocodiles.

The almost-compete body of one crocodile, an adult, was discovered resting on the floor in the courtyard immediately outside another tomb. Whether it had been deposited as a grave offering or if it ended up there with the flooding cannot be said, at least at this point.

The almost complete skeleton of a crocodile was discovered outside one of the tombs at Gebel el Silsila, Egypt. How it ended up there is not known.
The almost complete skeleton of a crocodile was discovered outside one of the tombs at Gebel el Silsila, Egypt. How it ended up there is not known.Credit: Gebel el Silsila Project

“The crocodiles discovered so far in situ had no heads, but show no other signs of restraint or trauma," Nilsson adds.

As for the humans discovered at the necropolis, they seem to have been generally healthy, Nilsson says: little obvious evidence of malnutrition or infection has been discerned.

That said, fractures of the long bones and enhanced muscle attachments amongst the skeletal remains indicate occupational hazards and an extremely labor-intensive environment, which would fit the notion that they were quarrymen.

Many of the injuries appear to be in an advanced stage of healing, suggesting effective medical care.

Even before further analysis, it is now clear that ancient Kheny was much more than some corner of the ancient world where slaves would mine sandstone blocks. It was a wealthy, thriving community of families on the borders of Nubia, Nilsson concludes.