The Sirius Project

The Sirius Project
Logo design by Scotty Roberts

Thursday, February 28, 2013

LETTERS FROM LUXOR – Limestone quarries at Thebes

Before presenting the topic of today's blog post, we must apologize for the too long gap between now and our last posting. We are hoping to keep the blog more active from now on and hope that you will join us on this, our continuous journey into ancient symbolism!

Today's post is about the Limestone quarries in the Theban Mountains, and we owe our gratefulness to The Egyptian Society of South African  for allowing us to post our quarterly articles in their magazine Shemu also here on the blog. For those of you, our readers, who are not familiar with the great work of TESSA, please find more info on their web page here or follow their updates, discussions and lecture announcements on their facebook group here.

Now, let us turn to the topic of the day!

TODAY’S letter takes us to a different part of the Theban mountains, to a series of ancient quarries located in the valley west of the Valley of the Kings, along the main trade route, with archaeological records dating from the reigns of Hatshepsut and Amenhotep III. These limestone quarries stretch out for approximately 500m in two smaller valleys and consist of both open quarry faces and closed galleries. The latter remind one of large cave systems with square pillars holding the stone ceiling. The extracted blocks of limestone provided building material for the terraced Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri. Hieratic inscriptions demonstrate that the quarries were in use also during the reign of Amenhotep III. The quarries are preserved with red painted markings documenting specific dates and include counting systems. The hieratic inscriptions are written with red ink, but they are faint in general and are continuously threatened by the accumulation of rubbish and modern graffiti. Fairly recently, in 2002, a Japanese team studied these hieratic inscriptions, and before them J Cerny and his team, but as often seen elsewhere, limited attention is given to the pictorial graffiti. Let us, therefore, have a closer look here.

Although very faded, one of the interesting graffiti depicts a hunting scene. Painted in red colour it shows
an anthropomorph (human-like figure) standing to the left, dressed in a kilt and holding a bow and arrow in his hands. A couple of very vague lines indicate a crown, hat or another alternative headdress on top of the figure’s head. Again very faded, the depicted figure in front/to the right of the anthropomorphic could very well have shown several animals at the time of making, but in its present preservation only four legs are clearly distinguished. The animal’s face is directed towards the anthropomorph, and thin, faded lines suggest large horns, but due to a discoloration in the stone it is difficult to determine any definite species.

Close by is another series of figures painted in red. These ones are somewhat better preserved compared to the previous example. Displayed in two rows, the upper row shows two animals, standing face to face. Purely from an artistic point of view it is impossible to determine whether the two head-stokes are supposed to represent ears or small horns. Both animals are depicted with a long tail. The lower row shows three figures. The figure to the very left is more likely to be interpreted as a stylized human figure facing right, being composed with a square body, above which a straight, protruding horizontal line forms the arms, with a semi-circle forming its head, and two vertical lines its feet. The second figure is a triangular-like composition consisting of two diagonal lines joined at the top, together forming the upper part of a triangle, and with an additional third vertical centred line above which is a circular object crowning the figure. However, the upper part of this figure is overlapped with the figure above, thus somewhat distorted in its pure shape. The more interesting figure among this series is the one to the very right: it depicts a man in a chariot drawn by a horse. This figure is somewhat smaller in proportion compared to the surrounding figures and is further differentiated in the amount of clear details: the wheel of the chariot is decorated with a cross pattern, the horse tail is curled as in movement, and the horseman is shown holding the reins with one hand while resting the other behind his back.

The series of figures mentioned above are all painted with a clear, bright red colour, located on open cliff faces, while those making up the hieratic texts and contextual pictorial graffiti are much darker, almost purple. This differentiation could suggest a different time period, but it is more likely to be a matter of environmental effect, such as being exposed to direct sun light, wind and water. What is important, though, is that they are just as significant as textual inscriptions, providing an insight into the life of the men who once occupied the area, whether as quarrymen, travellers, or temporary residents in the cave-like galleries. In addition to the pharaonic inscriptions these quarries present evidence of an early Christian activity based on the combination of pottery and pictorial graffiti. The latter include crosses and other traditional symbols – for example the Alpha and Omega, and faces of hermits – painted in red or white ink. These are found prominently inside the closed galleries, which would have provided a safe and protected place to rest or reside. Indeed, remnants of mud-bricks can be noticed in most galleries.

We have included some images also for those of you who share our love for, and interest in ancient quarrying, extraction techniques etc.

As always - thank you for following us!