When Scientists Explored An African Quarry, They Dug Up A Lost Link To Egypt’s Greatest Pharoah

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Not far from the edges of the River Nile in Egypt, a team of excavators from Sweden’s Lund University are hard at work. The focus of their efforts is an old quarry dating back thousands of years – and it’s about to bear fruit. You see, the group are in the midst of uncovering something important. And though they don’t know it yet, their discovery seemingly has a connection to one of ancient Egypt’s most famous leaders.

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Tutankhamun was the pharaoh of ancient Egypt for roughly ten years from 1333 B.C. He ascended to the throne when he was around eight or nine, and so he didn’t make political decisions on his own. Instead, Tutankhamun had a number of important advisers who helped him out.

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Tutankhamun wasn’t particularly well regarded as a pharaoh during his reign, though paradoxically he became perhaps the best-known of all the ancient Egyptian leaders. This is largely down to his intact resting place – which was uncovered in 1922 by the British archeologist Howard Carter.

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Following the discovery, Tutankhamun’s tomb and the objects found within it went on to capture the public’s imagination. The pharaoh entered into popular imagination, and to this day he remains a source of great interest. As such, any new discoveries related to the figure are of tremendous value.

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Over at the ancient quarry in recent times, the Swedish archeological team’s discovery in 2019 couldn’t be directly traced to Tutankhamun himself. But it did appear to be linked with one of his close relatives. Furthermore, the find may also be able to shed some light on ancient Egypt and its people’s practises.

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The site in question is known as Gebel el-Silsila, and it’s located about 40 miles away from the Egyptian city of Aswan. Situated along the River Nile, Gebel el-Silsila was once a major quarrying site. And as we’ll soon discover, rock was extracted here from either side of the river for quite some time.

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Gebel el-Silsila initially became an important place for quarrying during the 18th Dynasty of ancient Egypt between around 1549 to 1292 B.C. At some point during this period, Egyptian construction workers started to make greater use of sandstone as opposed to limestone, and the former could be found at Gebel el-Silsila.

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Several buildings in prominent locations in ancient Egypt were assembled with stone extracted from the Gebel el-Silsila site. This rock was retrieved from the earth and fashioned into stone blocks known as talatats. These, in turn, were then used to construct a number of buildings.

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In fact, stone from Gebel el-Silsila is believed to have been used in the majority of ancient Egypt’s greatest temples. This includes constructions at Luxor, Karnak, Kom Ombo and Medinet Habu. And at the quarry itself, shrines have been found which had apparently been raised by the people running operations there.

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The main god of Gebel-Silsila is the crocodile deity Sobek – who was believed to control the waters. Also linked with the power of Egyptian leaders, military strength and fertility, Sobek was often depicted as having the body of a man and the head of a crocodile.

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Gebel el-Silsila spans over seven and a half square miles of space and is the focus of an archeological project which began in 2012. It is being conducted by Sweden’s Lund University and led by the archeologist Maria Nilsson and her husband John Ward, who is assistant-director.

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The archeological works at Gebel el-Silsila have shown that the site was once more than strictly a quarry. In fact, it seems that laborers also used to reside at the location along with their spouses and children. Furthermore, experts have come across tombs, sculptures and even the remains of people there.

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For instance, the team announced in December 2018 that they’d discovered a mass grave at Gebel el-Silsila. This had actually been found a couple of years beforehand, but it had taken all that time to excavate. After all, the underground site had contained a considerable amount of water.

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The archeological team had used pumps to remove the water from the tomb in order to access its contents. And once they had removed enough of the H20, the experts were then able to sift through the artifacts and bones using their hands.

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After the discovery of the remains, John Ward then spoke to Live Science about its significance. He said, “We’re actually sitting in this soup, so to speak, of human remains. You can’t see in the water at all, so everything is done by touch.”

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Two years prior, meanwhile, the team at Gebel El-Silsila had also made another impressive discovery. They came across a necropolis housing both adults and kids. And this, it seemed, was evidence that the site was actually once a place with a large population.

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A couple of months before this burial site had been announced, meanwhile, word of other discoveries drifted out from Gebel El-Silsila. This time, a number of sculptures depicting members of several important families had been found. There were six in total, and they were estimated to be around 3,500 years old.

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As we’ve seen, the Gebel El-Silsila site has, in archeological terms, been extremely fruitful during recent years. But perhaps the most significant find was announced in February 2019. At that point, the project team let the world know that they’d come across a very special type of sphinx.

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Generally speaking, a sphinx is a mythological beast with a lion’s body and a person’s head. They have been a feature of both ancient Greek and ancient Egyptian culture – though they are depicted differently. And perhaps the most famous surviving example is Egypt’s Great Sphinx of Giza.

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But this particular sphinx at Gebel El-Silsila was rather unusual. It had been found in a cavity of the quarry and was believed to have been left there during the Roman period. Around it, the experts also discovered hundreds of engraved stone pieces and a carving of a snake that once sat atop the sphinx.

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The sphinx’s head had apparently been poking slightly out of the ground for some time before the full thing could be revealed. In fact, getting down to the body of the carving was quite the feat; the excavators had needed to dig through huge amounts of debris to get to its bottom.

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The statue was about three and a half meters in height, so it’s no surprise that it took such an effort to reveal it all. But it wasn’t the size of the sphinx that struck experts as unique. Rather, it had everything to do with its top part. The more well-known sphinxes in the world tend to possess the head of a person. But this was a criosphinx – meaning that it had the head of a ram.

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Along with this main criosphinx carving, the archeologists also found a “baby sphinx.” This smaller artifact, it’s been posited, may have been a practise piece created by a trainee sculptor. The site was also covered in bits of metal and small remnants of stone – suggesting that it could have been a location for sculpting works.

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According to experts, the criosphinx was likely created during the reign of Tutankhamun’s grandfather: Amenhotep III. And mission director Maria Nilsson explained to Live Science that when the latter leader died, the sculptures that he’d ordered may have been discarded there.

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Though Tutankhamun may now be more recognized, his granddad Amenhotep III was believed to have been a more successful leader. As pharaoh for a time during the 14th century B.C., his rule took place at a time when ancient Egypt was at its peak of power and prosperity.

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Amenhotep III ruled over ancient Egypt for just a little under four decades, and a number of the civilization’s greatest buildings were constructed under his leadership. Furthermore, Amenhotep III’s armies were effective in protecting his realm and also expanding its boundaries to new locations.

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Then, following the death of Amenhotep III, his successor Amenhotep IV took over as pharaoh. Initially, things appeared to be carrying on as before, but after five years the new leader had a change of heart. He outlawed Egypt’s ancient religion and subsequently ordered the closure of temples. The leader also decided to rename himself Akhenaten.

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Akhenaten’s focus on the religion of his kingdom was to the detriment of other important interests, however. Both at home and abroad, Egypt began to lose its way. Money was lost and military might started to diminish; the prosperous days of ancient Egypt under Amenhotep III had now come to an end.

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Akhenaten eventually died, and his son, accordingly, became leader. This was Tutankhamun – who became pharaoh at the age of eight or nine. His rule was short-lived, however, as he himself passed away just a decade or so later. And though his reign didn’t achieve much, it did end up bringing back the old religion of Egypt and reopening the temples.

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Despite his comparatively unremarkable tenure, Tutankhamun is among the most well-known ancient Egyptian pharaohs today. In fact, this point was made rather concisely by one Jon Manchip, who was writing a foreword for the Howard Carter book The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun. In Manchip’s words, “The pharaoh who in life was one of the least esteemed of Egypt’s pharaohs has become in death the most renowned.”

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As we mentioned earlier, Tutankhamun’s remarkable legacy began after his tomb was discovered in 1922. This caused media outlets around the world to go wild, and it led to a rather outlandish rumor. Following the early passing of someone associated with the discovery, Lord Carnarvon, word began to spread that Tutankhamun’s resting place was cursed.

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In reality, most people involved in finding Tutankhamun’s tomb actually survived long after the discovery. Howard Carter himself is said to have referred to the notion of a curse as “tommy rot.” Nevertheless, there are still people today who believed in the theory.

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The fascination with Tutankhamun continues to this day, however, and  a number of his belongings have been brought around the world and exhibited. People in places like France, Japan and the United States have all had a chance to see these items over the decades. In fact, another tour began in 2019 and will conclude in Cairo three years later.

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If nothing else, this tour suggests that there remains a strong appetite among regular people to learn about Tutankhamun. And this is almost an entire century after his resting place was first uncovered. So, given that Amenhotep III was so closely related to the younger pharaoh, the new find at Gebel El-Silsila will perhaps excite many – given that it was seemingly created during the former’s time.

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The large criosphinx which was found at the quarry weighs more than 22,000 pounds, assistant mission director John Ward told Live Science. It also apparently shares a resemblance to other sculptures found at the Temple of Khonsu – which sits within a complex called Karnak near the Egyptian city of Luxor.

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Director of the Gebel el-Silsila excavation Maria Nillson told Live Science that they aren’t sure why the criosphinx was left deserted at the quarry site. There were signs of a little damage to the sculpture, but nothing apparently so serious as to warrant abandoning the work. So, another theory has been put forth that might explain things.

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Nilsson explained to the publication that sculpting works being undertaken when Amenhotep III was alive may have ceased upon his passing. In her words, “One of the aspects that we are considering is whether or not [the statue] was left because of the change in rulership.”

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Undoubtedly, the Gebel El-Silsila site still holds many secrets about ancient Egypt. And getting to the bottom of them might bring us that bit closer to better understanding this influential civilization. For example, learning about how they mined for stone could itself tell us something about the wider society as a whole.

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Archeological finds at Gebel El-Silsila might also shed light on religious customs and practises prevalent in ancient Egypt. Furthermore, something could potentially be learned about the politics and dominant ideologies of the time.

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Much more archeological work will need to occur, of course, before any solid conclusions can be drawn about some of ancient Egypt’s mysteries. But until then, work will continue. And given the astonishing discoveries already made at Gebel El-Silsila, we may still be up for further surprises in the future.

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