Chapter 2 The Material

In: Greek Inscriptions on the East Bank
Maria Nilsson
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Adrienn Almásy-Martin
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John Ward
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Open Access

1 Introduction

Documents included in this book are part of a larger corpus, which comprises over 5000 graphic quarry marks1 and more than 800 Greek, Demotic, and Latin texts. Of these, 4200 documents are situated on the east bank, and include approximately 3600 symbolic quarry marks and over 600 textual graffiti (demotic, Greek, and Latin).2 (Later graffiti, including a very limited number of Coptic texts, were catalogued separately.) Greek, Demotic and Latin texts appear side by side and intermix with quarry marks. The corpus of Greek graffiti incorporates 193 texts divided over nine quarries and one rock art site/Roman station, to which can be added a few sites inscribed with single Greek letters (Figs. 3–4). The vast majority (149 texts/80 %) are located within the main quarry, Q34 (Chapter 5), with smaller concentrations within larger epigraphic contexts of quarries Q24 (Chapter 4), Q35 and Q37 (Chapter 6) (see Figure 5).

The texts were primarily produced with an iron chisel, with a tip approximately 6 mm wide. Several chisel tips/fragments of corresponding measures were found during the surveying and excavations. A limited number of texts were incised in naturally smooth or intentionally flattened surfaces. However, in general the texts were produced as engravings, superimposed over tool marks created during block extraction. The intersection of lines occasionally makes certain letters obscure and the reading difficult. In this case, the texts have been studied based on a combination of in situ documentation and post-processing of the images into inverted illustrations (negatives), as well as manipulation in the various colour algorithms of DStretch©, in order to allow an estimation of how the production developed, as the letters are always superimposed over the extraction marks. Overall, the texts are well preserved with very limited wear (erosion) and have clearly defined letter forms. Fragmentary texts were often damaged by fractures in the rock, or when a section detached from the cliff and fell on the ground. Poorly produced texts were generally shallowly scratched with what appears to be a sharp implement, randomly chosen, such as a flint or even a pottery sherd. These texts are often difficult to discern and occasionally illegible. A few texts were produced with a hammering technique.


Figure 3

Topographic map of the east bank marked with sites inscribed with Greek texts and/or singular letters

Drawing by Maria Nilsson

Figure 4

Spatial distribution of the Greek texts

Drawing by Maria Nilsson

Figure 5

Spatial distribution of Greek texts in accordance with locale

The vast majority of the texts are signatures (123 texts, 64 percent consisting of a name with or without patronymic filiation). Nine signatures are placed within a tabula ansata,3 and another six within an offering table,4 the significance of which is plausibly of a religious nature and likely intended to emphasise the role of the individual as a dedicator. This may also be true for several of the signatures in which the producer’s name is written in the genitive form.5 Other texts are situated next to one or several graphic marks, including offering tables (22 texts),6 ankh-signs (17 texts),7 harpoons (six texts),8 stone vessels (11 texts),9 a sandal (one example),10 which may also carry a religious connotation. As such, the texts may be understood as simplified adorations, and parallel with proskynemata—signatures preceded by the word τὸ προσκύνημα ‘adoration, act of worship’, ‘obeisance’, or ‘prostration’ (65 texts, 34 percent).11 Three texts fall under the category of dedications.12 Other graphic marks may contain references to the profession of the carver, including sailors (six texts mentioning boats)13 and a soldier (one example);14 or a religious association through the depiction of godlike characters (six examples).15 Fifteen texts are situated within the graphic context of a series of quarry marks.16 The remaining two percent of texts are illegible due to their fragmentary state of preservation. Overall, the texts are short and without any date or details of profession or religious role. Two examples of ancient erasure appear in Q34 (nos 112, 114), but in general incomplete readings result from erosion or natural factors (such as birds and bats).

A small number of texts are well executed by a skilled hand. These are found in the eastern and southern parts of Q34 (e.g. nos 37, 39, 109, 154, 155), in Q35 (nos 177, 178) and Q37 (nos 183 and 190). These are often longer and grammatically accurate, but aesthetically arranged letters can also be seen as an indication of an experienced writer. This is generally true for texts that list Latin names.

2 Palaeographic Commentary

The script includes monumental letterforms, but more often cursive forms (see Table 1). They generally follow the conventional Ionic script, although the lunate sigma form C consistently replaces the standard sigma Σ, and the monumental omega Ω is replaced by the rounded Ω. The monumental epsilon, Ε, is also used alongside the lunate form. Horizontal cross-strokes of epsiolon, eta, and theta are positioned at the mid-line. No. 39 exemplifies the application of standardised letterforms at Gebel el-Silsila:

Table 1

Paleographic overview of letterforms attested at Gebel el-Silsila east bank

Alpha appears in its monumental form (Α) alongside alphas with broken bar () and alphas with ascending diagonal bars (). Variants also occur with apices, or continuous strokes deriving from the broken bar or the hastae (, ). Beta occurs in its monumental form, as well as a square form (), which may be confused with the square form of theta. Epsilon appears in the standard, upright form, and as cursive or lunate (); the middle bar is occasionally detached. The already mentioned theta is primarily written in its monumental form, but also an alternative round form (☉) or squared (). Lambda is written in monumental and cursive/slightly splayed forms. The writing of mu varies between the monumental form with upright hastae and the cursive form with splayed hastae and a curved middle stroke. Both forms appear with apices at the top (also nu). Omicron is documented in its standard as well as its rectangular form (), and occasionally in superscript (º). The pi always has a complete right hasta and is occasionally splayed. The lunate sigma occurs as rounded and squared (). The horizontal bar of the tau is generally straight, although not always connected to the vertical line. The upper body of upsilon occurs with the traditional v-shaped form as well as a rounded u-shaped form. The circle of phi is generally placed centrally, but a high position also occurs. Psi is composed of either a curved or a square horizontal bar, sometimes shortened to a cruciform shape (+) and sometimes v-shaped. The omega occurs in the form Ω, as well as a cursive and square variant , sometimes splayed. The letters are arranged horizontally and, when in longer texts, there is no consideration of vertical symmetry. The palaeographical table displays the letters in accordance with their conventional (Ionian) form, the standard form applied at Gebel el-Silsila, and their local variations.

Several graffiti were poorly composed and/or contain graphical or grammatical errors. The most common mistake is the omission of one or several letters (e.g. no. 168: Πετεάρσνουφις).

Some examples include phonetic spellings of phi for psi, lambda for alpha, omega for omicron, or gamma for kappa (e.g. no. 100: ΤΩΠΡΟϹΓΥΝΗΜΑ). Rho is occasionally written in a reversed position, i.e. with the vertical bar drawn on the right side instead of the left. These types of mistakes or rather confusion between certain letters may indicate semi-illiteracy (see discussion below), local dialect, phonetic variants or simply the difficulty of carving on uneven surface.

It is possible that two inscriptions contain Egyptian words in Greek transcription, although the specific transcriptions are previously unattested. ϹΟΥ on nos 32–33 (line 6 and 2, respectively) may be the Greek rendering of the Egyptian noun sw, referring to the day in the dating. The writer of the texts was probably inexperienced and may have been unfamiliar with the Greek noun.17

As expected, there is generally no punctuation or interpunctuation applied in the current corpus. However, word spaces do occur, as for example in no. 11 where a lacuna separates the Latin name from the Greek repetition, or no. 18 in which a blank space separates the names of two brothers. There are also examples where the name is separated from the patronym (44 texts), or the proskynema from the dedicator (29 texts) by vertical division.

3 Onomastic and Prosopographic Commentary

The Greek text corpus from the east bank incorporates 303 names belonging to 277 individuals, with 26 cases of repetition (24 individuals). Seventeen Demotic names are included because they correspond to an adjacent Greek signature.18 One text (no. 11) is a bilingual combination of Latin and Greek, and the Latin name Faustus has been added to the corpus of Q34 as an addendum. Among the Greek texts, 168 persons are listed as the main active person, 30 as accompanying persons in a list of names (22 as the second person; five as the third; two as the fourth; and one as the fifth), 101 as the father, three as the son, and one as the grandfather. In other words, 198 individuals were described in a nominative role (or genitive if in a proskynema text). The more frequent names include Agathinos, Ammonios, Apollonios and Harbeschinis (all listed six times), and Harpaesis (five Greek examples). Most names are of Egyptian origin (154 names), but a significant number are Greek (97 names), including renderings of Latin names. One, Βαράθης, is the Greek rendering of an Aramaic name. The remaining majority of names cannot be classified by origin (see Fig. 6).


Figure 6

Geographic origin of the names

The names include 157 theophoric (and herophoric) names. The current corpus lists 45 theophoric names with references to 16 mythological figures, including Greek Apollon,19 Dionysos,20 and Heron,21 and Egyptian Anubis,22 Kollouthes/Kollanthes,23 Orses,24 Orsenouphis,25 Psais,26 Totoes/Tutu27 and six variants of Horus.28 Among the 109 derived theophoric names, references are made to 28 mythological figures and nine sacred animals. The more frequent divine associations are with Khnum (14 examples), Horus in various forms (11 examples), Isis (eight examples), Ammon (seven examples), Arensnouphis and Apollon (six examples each).29 References to sacred animals in names include dogs, eagles, falcons, ibises, lions, panthers and snakes. As expected, there are generally no evident connections between theophoric names and deities addressed in invocations and dedications (written or illustrated) at the site. However, names associated with Khnum are primarily situated within the southern part of Q34 (quarry faces F1, F2 and F3), which provided stone for the Temple of Khnum at Esna, and several names associated with Horus are situated in the northern part of Q34, from which stone was extracted for the Temple of Edfu.30 Lexican significations of non-theophoric names include “Wealth”, “Dragon”, and “The best”.31

Some names are previously unattested, or are hitherto unattested variants of a known name (no. 38 Παχίπως from Παχόμπως, no. 47 Πάνχεμις for Πάμπχημις no. 164: Ἡρσίεσις, from Ἁρσίησις). A few names are unique to Gebel el-Silsila (e.g. no. 24a: Φατρέχη(μις); no. 37: Παμπάνισκος). Some are probably hypocoristic forms of longer names or diminutives (e.g. no. 45: Πάμπως).

The producers’ names are occasionally written in the nominative following the expression of adoration, τὸ προσκύνημα. These texts are interpreted here as two phrases indicated by parentheses (e.g. no. 32: τὸ π{ο}ροσκύνημα Πτολλίον… ‘The proskynema (of) Ptolion…’) rather than as erroneously written in a possessive form.32 Cases in which the nominative is used instead of the grammatically correct genitive may be signs of unfamiliarity with the Greek declension. There are also examples of the writing of the patronym in the nominative, which obscures this second person’s role and makes it possible to read it as two individuals without filiation.

4 Dates, Professions, and Religious Functions

Nineteen texts (including no. 24b, which is Demotic) are dated. Occasionally the dating formula includes the word ‘Kaisaros’ (‘Year 40 of Caesar’)33referring to Augustus or the name of the emperor (‘Tiberius’, or ‘Claudius’).34 The remaining group lists only a date.35 Quarries Q34 and Q35 contain the highest number of dates.

Three texts list the profession of the dedicators: no. 53: σιτόμετρος, no. 47: ἀρχιτέκ[τ]ων, and no. 109: στρατιώτου. In addition, six texts attest a religious role or title of the individual, including no. 155: προστάτης Ἄμμωνος θεοῦ μεγίστου καὶ Ἀθηνᾶςθεᾶςμεγίστης⟩ the ‘leader/chief of Ammon, the greatest god and of Athena, the greatest goddess’. The same title, προστάτης, also occurs in nos 63, 88 and 141. This is a Greek equivalent of the demotic rd36 that often has a religious connotation, and is here associated with (the construction of) the temples for which the stone was extracted.37 It is hard to decide their role in the quarry but the famous ‘leader/chief of Isis’ in Koptos, Parthenios son of Paminis,38 also commemorated his work in a demotic inscription in Q37, a quarry which is dedicated to Isis. (This graffito will be published separately). Nos. 172 and 177 in Q35 refer to an ‘Engineer of Isis’, and the quarry contains one more reference to the goddess (while demotic texts include a reference to Min39). Isis is also mentioned as the goddess of the quarry in Q37, text no. 183. In addition to Ammon, Athena, and Isis, nos 57 and 154 include reference to Tyche, as the Shaï or divine ‘Fate’. Reference to Hathor and Horus is listed in the demotic part of nos 43 and 50 respectively.

5 General Commentary on the Chronology

The dates listed in the east bank corpus range from year 29 of Augustus and year 9 of Claudius, thereby presenting evidence for a time span of at least 50 years (2 BC–48 AD) of quarry activity (Table 2).40 However, the date listed in no. 7, “year 21” may refer to either Augustus or Tiberius, so a longer period of activity is also possible (i.e. 58 years).

The earlier dates are primarily situated in the eastern part (and southern corridor) of Q34, and correspond to extraction work for the Temple of Dendera.41 Quarrying during the reign of Augustus also took place in Q37, intended for the Temple of Isis and Min at Koptos.42

During the reign of Tiberius the work expanded the areas (re-)opened during Augustus’ rule, moving eastwards and southwards—deeper into the mountain in Q34, and plausibly breaking through the large quarry face that separated the northern partition from the southern. Concentrated quarrying activity took place in Q24, in which Greek and demotic texts, as well as archaeological artefacts, provide an eight-year temporal window between years 10 and 18 (AD 24–32). Stone from Q24 was transported to Medamoud for the construction of Tiberius’ gate.43 The continuation of work from Augustus to Tiberius is further documented in Q37, in which the bilingual text no. 187 lists the presence of a father and son, working between year 29 of Augustus to year 19 of Tiberius (2 BC–32 AD).44

Table 2

Dates listed in the texts



Converted date



Year 21

10/9 BC (if Augustus)

34/35 AD (if Tiberius)



Year 15

28/19 AD (if Tiberius)



Year 8, Shemu III, Day 26

18 July 22 AD (if Tiberius)



Year 30



Year 40

10/11 AD



Year 41

11/12 AD



Year 40

10/11 AD



Year 3

16/17 AD (if Tiberius)



Year 41, Phaophi 15

11 October 11 AD



Year 40

10/11 AD



Year 6 of Claudius

45/46 AD



Year 9 (of Claudius),

Mesore 1

23 July 49 AD



Year 6 of Claudius

45/46 AD



Year 8 of Claudius, Phaophi

Sept-Oct 47 AD



Year 8 (of Claudius)

47/48 AD



Year 8 (of Claudius),

19 Thoth

15 September 47 AD



Year 8 of Claudius, Thoth 19

15 September 47 AD



Year 17 of Tiberius, Thoth 19

14 September 30 AD



Year 29 Augustus–year 19 Tiberius (demotic)

2 BC–32 AD



Year 44 (of) Caesar, Thoth 20

17 September 14 AD


There are no references to Claudius (or later emperors) in Q34, from which we may assume that the quarry was considered exhausted. Instead, work focused on the small adjacent quarry Q35, in which all dates belong to this ruler. The dates represented on the western quarry face (C) are coeval with the texts on the opposite quarry face (E); thus it can be assumed that stone from both quarry faces was extracted simultaneously. Isis and Min are addressed as the resident deities, and stone was possibly extracted for the continuation of building activity at the Temple in Koptos, where Claudius erected a gate.45

The earliest inscriptions (nos 170 and 173) were written by the same person, Harbeschinis, son of Petephibis, and are situated at the same height (c. 6 m above the current ground) on the corresponding quarry faces C and E, with the later inscriptions placed on lower levels. Arguably, the matching inscriptions were carved before the removal of the floor in a staggered step system as part of the quarrying process.46 Three years later, Harbeschinis, son of Pakoibis inscribed the last dated Greek text in the quarry, within reach from the current ground level.

The chronological development, of course, is not only measureable through the dates provided in the texts. The progress of the work, as seen in Q35, can be detected through corresponding names (and/or images). In the south-eastern part of Q34, the name Andron appears thrice at a corresponding height: no. 60 on the northern quarry face F1, no. 65 on the eastern quarry face F2 and no. 131 on the southern quarry face F3 (Fig. 7).47 Nos 60 and 65 were likely written by the same hand, and while no. 131 was more shallowly incised and cannot be paleographically identified, their spatial correspondence argues in favour of their identification as the work of the same hand. A few meters below, nos 63 and 67 (quarry faces F1 and F2) refer to work carried out in the name of Ammon, and depictions of rams are present at F2 and F3 on the same horizontal level. For this, it can be presumed that the area of F1–3 was extracted methodically by the removal of horizontal floor levels, similar to Q35. Furthermore, no. 63 can be identified with the individual who wrote no. 155 on quarry face F5 (also with reference to Ammon), which can be dated to year 41 of Augustus based on its context. No. 155, however, is situated at a higher level. This indicates that the work progressed from the border to Partition C, with initial extraction of F1–3, followed by a westward movement towards the Nile (via quarry face F5) (see Figs. 25–26 in Chapter 5 for an overview map of Q34). The workers reached the current ground level during the early reign of Tiberius.

6 Abbreviations and Sigla

Traditionally, abbreviations are classified as words reduced to only a part of their letters (or replaced by a symbol). They appear with or without the presence of a distinguishing mark. For the current texts, the most common mark was a horizontal stroke placed above the abbreviated letters (e.g. no. 184: ΨΕΝ̅ for Ψένις⸍), or in some cases, behind (e.g. no. 125: Πτορθυοι — —). Once the horizontal stroke is placed below the text to indicate or correct a spelling mistake (no. 121). Numeral-letters in dating formulae in reference to a month-date are indicated with the traditional horizontal stroke (e.g. no. 178:  ηʹ Γλαύτιος Θὼθ ι̅θ).48 The year, ἔτους, is consistently abbreviated with the siglum . In no. 169 the contraction is indicated by a supralinear epsilon, and in no. 170 by the application of two vertical strokes.


Figure 7

Section overview of F1–3, marked with horizontally corresponding epigraphy

Photo and editing by Maria Nilsson

The subject-matter of abbreviations listed in the Gebel el-Silsila Greek corpus may be divided into three categories: deliberate ‘true’ contractions;49 abbreviations caused by the termination of space;50 and unintentional or unfinished texts.51 All abbreviations are created through suspension (the omission of ending letters). Abbreviations are habitually indicated by a mark and are situated within a textual context that includes an explanation of the applied convention (completion of the word/name). Nos 170 and 173: Ἁρβέ(σ)χι(νις) Πετεφί(βιος), for example, are clarified in their parallel text, no. 176 (Ἁρβέσχινις Πετεφίβις). Texts interrupted by the termination of space (and/or poor quality stone) are generally completed by superscripted letters (e.g. no. 138: Παοραῦτος; no. 169: ⸌πιφάνες). Partial letter repetitions are habitually completed by the complete word/name on a separate row (e.g. no. 1: Ἀπελλῶς | {Ἀπ}, no. 122: {Πετ} | Πετενεφώτης). Unfinished graffiti were often caused by an irregular surface or lack of sufficient space, making the completion of the text impossible. A poor surface is likely to be the reason why several texts include an unfinished or abbreviated first line, in which the scribe after recognising the difficulty of writing on the unsmoothed wall simply rewrote the name below on a smoother surface. In addition to contracted signatures and dates, the text producers at Gebel el-Silsila also applied abbreviations to the proskynemata.52 Abbreviations were often applied to save time and space.

7 Single Alphabetic Letters

The application of ‘extreme suspension’ of letters, in which all but the first letter are omitted, is generally unusual in traditional Greek abbreviations as its significance might be easily misunderstood.53 One-letter abbreviations are in many respects irrational unless the individuals communicated to had been initiated into the ciphered code. Naturally, the single letters may represent Greek numerals to mark the stone, but the distinct lack of letter combinations and their irregular positioning indicate a different purpose.54

Seven quarries are preserved with one or more singular letters (Q24, Q34, Q35, Q36, Q37, Q39 and Q46, see Fig. 3). In addition to letters incised into the vertical quarry face, several appear on detached blocks (intentionally quarried or fractured), as well as on smaller, flat plaque-like stones. Some occur as pot marks.55 A proportion of the Greek alphabet could be interpreted as single letters, including characteristic Α, Β, Ε, Η, Κ, Μ, Ν, Ξ, and C.

In addition to identified letterforms there are several marks that, although similar to Greek letters, may have been intended as something else (e.g. delta may represent a triangular mark, the gamma and lambda may represent angles, omicron is likely a simple circle, pi and tau may have acted as indication marks to guide the quarrymen). For example, one quarry mark, in its simplest form, appears similar to the uncial omega (Ω). However, developed morphemes of this sign show curvilinear or straight strokes extended from its central bar, similar to ropes, and its frequent positioning near a physical rope hole or graphic boats indicate that it was intended to signify a rope, similar to hieroglyph V59 (). Another dubious mark is the ‘lined circle’, which is a circle intersected by a vertical or horizontal bar, occasionally confused with the Greek letter theta.56 They appear frequently (c. 150 examples) in Q34, and are generally paired with a harpoon.57 The theta-like mark was likely inspired by the hieroglyphic sign N9 () psḏn/psḏn.wyt,58 and has been interpreted as a symbol of the new moon as well as Hathor of Dendera with a symbolic connotation of the sacred marriage (ἱερὸς γάμος) between Horus and Hathor.59

8 Monograms and Ligatures

To save space, or as a result of unintentional letter omission or similar, the text producer could sometimes combine two or three letters into a single graphic form, commonly known as ligatures. At Gebel el-Silsila these appear very rarely and those listed below are not so much ligatures as simply joint letters. In no. 13, the writer decided to add a date to his signature, which due to the limited space was condensed into the ligature of the sigla (ἔτους) and the following numbers. In no. 14 the first letter takes the form of a rounded alpha followed by a lacuna before its ending, which may represent another form of a ligature. No. 24a presents a ligature, in which the tau and rho are joined in the name Phatreche(mis). In no. 47 the initial three letters that form the name of the person as well as his grandfather (Ptollion) are joined by an upper horizontal line, perhaps the result of a stylistic preference rather than a lack of space (cf. nos 110, 116, 132). The abbreviation of the proskynema in no. 69 is indicated by an initiating ligature (τὸ πρ(οσκύνημα) Ἀννούφει Νο̣λ(…)). In no. 154 the writer accidentally omitted the nu, eta and alpha and to correct the mistake added the alpha superscript, while leaving the nu and eta in a ligatured form with the upsilon and mu (τὸ προσκύνημα⸍).

In addition to the (in general) unintentional assemblages of letters, quarries Q39 and Q46 preserve ligatures that combine the three letters alpha, rho and beta (Fig. 8). Another example was found in Q37 as a potmark (Fig. 9).60


Figure 8

Ligature inscription in Q46 that combine alpha (rho) and beta, possibly reading Harbeschinis. C. 14 cm wide

Photo by Maria Nilsson

Quarries Q35, Q36 and Q37 furthermore display a letter combination of eta and lambda (Fig. 10) but, without any clarifying context, their signification remains obscure. They might stand for ἦλ(θον) ‘I have come’ or ἦλ(θε) ‘he has come’, which are known from proskynemata.

A final group of abbreviations are monograms.61 Greek block monograms are considered the oldest form of monograms and were used for abbreviations on coins already during the Classical period, although they also appear later (between the 5th and 7th centuries AD) on other media.62 Block monograms are constructed around a central letter in ligature with other letters and generally contain the name, title or office of an individual or geographic location written in the genitive.63

Five monograms were recorded on the east bank and all are arranged in a block form constructed of two parallel vertical lines (hastae) with the termini curved outwards (Table 3).64 The body is bound together by either a horizontal or a diagonal stroke and form the central letters Ν, Η, Π/Μ, Μ, and Η respectively.65 Except for monogram no. 3, all were engraved with care and detail. Four monograms include an element of a central, superscript ΟΥ. Two monograms include another wavy superscript element of uncertain reading.66


Figure 9

Ligature inscription as a potmark recorded in Q37

Photo by Maria Nilsson

The monograms are not in a clear line of sight (rather the opposite) and three were carved on a surface facing the ground. This may indicate a private application. The signs are situated within an early Roman epigraphic and archaeological context in Q34 and Q35 without any archaeological indications of later activity. Monogram no. 1 is located next to a depiction of a falcon head, produced with a compatible implement and preserved with a similar patina. Monogram no. 5 is superimposed over a dipinto sketch, perhaps a man holding a harpoon/spear (Figs. 11a–e).67 However, since monograms of this type are primarily associated with the Byzantine period,68 later visitors passing by possibly produced the monograms.69


Figure 10

Quarry mark series in Q36, including a ligature combination of ε and λ

Photo by Maria Nilsson

Table 3








Carefully etched

Central block letter: Ν (or Λ)

Identified letters: ΑΟΥϹ (+Ι),

possibly Μ and Χ

Retrograde: ΝΕΛ

Superscripted: ΟΥ and unidentified sign


Q34.C boulder

Carefully etched

Central block letter: Η

Identified letters: ΗΡΟΥ (+Ι)

Retrograde: Ε

Possible name reading: Ἡριεύς


Q34.C boulder

Shallowly etched

Central block letter: Π or Μ

Possible letters: ΠΜΔΧΑΛΟ (+Ι),

possibly Ν and Η

Retrograde: ΕΡ


Q34.C boulder

Carefully etched

Central block letter: Μ

Identified letters: ΝΜΥΕΟΥϹ (+Ι),

possibly Α

Retrograde: ΕΛ

Superscripted: ΟΥ and unidentified sign



Carefully etched. Superimposes dipinti sketch

Central block letter: Η

Identified letters ΗΕΟΥ (+Ι)

Retrograde: C

Superscripted: ΟΥ


Figure 11a–e

(L–R) Original photo of monogram no. 5; photo in DStretch lre algorithm; line drawing; facsimile of superimposed dipinto

Photo, manipulation and facsimile by Maria Nilsson

9 The Quandary of Literacy

The presence of inscriptions within the quarries does not automatically indicate literacy of the workers. In fact, the material demonstrates that many individuals did not write their own dedications. Some proskynemata and clustered lists were written by the same hand, but contained different names (e.g. nos 100–102). Also, there are examples of texts attributed to the same individual, but whose name has been spelled in two variants (e.g. nos 63: Πετραόμνουφις Κτήσωνος and 155: Πετεάρσνουφις Κτήσωνος).

The occurrence of several misspelled and abbreviated adorations may reflect a practice of copying, and some producers’ literacy is likely to have been limited to the writing of their own name, i.e. functional literacy. As discussed by Thomas (2009), literacy should not be conceptualised as something that a person does or does not have, but rather that individuals may possess a range of different literacies. As further developed by Baird and Taylor, the definition of literacy could be reconsidered when incorporating images as part of semiological communication.70 This is especially true for the workers’ community at Gebel el-Silsila, which with its multicultural and multilingual combination of individuals incorporated linguistic and pictorial elements from the Graeco-Roman world as much as from the native Egyptian, including the hieroglyphic background. Indeed, quarry marks appear to convey meaning and could, by their pictorial form, indicate different levels of literacy through a symbolic language.

10 The Graffiti Dialogue

The incised messages communicated at Gebel el-Silsila, including texts written in Greek, demotic and Latin,71 as well as the pictorial and graphical quarry marks, were produced by private individuals, and therefore they should be considered informal (as opposed to official texts ordered by the state). Informal writing, regardless of the intention and care taken at the time of production, is categorised as graffiti (from the Italian verb to scratch), and is one of the most misconceived and demeaned groups of ancient communication due to constant comparisons with modern graffiti.72 The character of graffiti has historically been perceived as unsophisticated and ephemeral, because of this form of writing has remained in the shadow of monumental epigraphy.73 However, with an increased scholarly interest in ancient graffiti, it is clear that the material provides insights into diverse topics of daily life concerning people of various social standings.

Contextualising the Greek graffiti published here adds to the ongoing debate regarding literacy, the interactions between text and context (images as well as the natural and constructed landscape), and sheds light on personal devotion, belief systems and emotions, as well as the conception of memory-making space. These graffiti can certainly not be considered as ‘vandalism’ or acts of defacements,74 as the messages were incised in quarry surfaces after the completion of the work, and carved into a surface that was already marked by the tools that had extracted the blocks. For a similar reason, the texts cannot be categorised as graffiti based on a supposed appearance in ‘unexpected places where they do not obviously belong’.75 Instead, the large number of proskynema texts and references to resident deities demonstrate how the quarries were considered the raw and natural state of sanctuaries, albeit a hazardous workspace, in which dedications and protection formulae are to be expected. However, the definition of graffiti is contextual and for a site such as Gebel el-Silsila, where public monuments and official, state epigraphic documents are also preserved, texts and images produced by private individuals fall into the category of graffiti.

As mentioned above, the Greek texts represent one of three parts (Greek, demotic texts, and quarry marks), each of which will be dealt with in individual volumes. However, this separation does not reflect a lack of acknowledgement of their interconnected dialogue, especially when they are placed together in clusters. Greek texts that are situated within an immediate pictorial or demotic context are, therefore, represented in the facsimiles within such context.76 Often, the message communicated in the text is emphasised graphically, such as the depiction of a soldier next to no. 119, which may indicate the individual’s profession. Another more frequent feature is the presence of an offering table next to (or surrounding) a signature. This combination may define the text as a dedication despite the lack of a written proskynema.77

In many respects, the texts can be understood as physical, devotional acts and, together with the graphic context, the graffiti may be seen as a dialogue between the producer, the viewer(s), and the addressees (those adored) as an eternal repetition of the original act of performing the proskynema. Writing one’s name memorialises not only the individual’s physical (or symbolic) presence at a particular location but, by placing it within a cluster of others, the individual would be connected, and also be commemorated, as part of the larger community, allowing a broader cultural identity and social status, as well as creating a social memory.78

Through the extraction progress and continuous removal of the floor, the reachable levels continued to be lowered, such that the correspondence between graffiti cannot be matched by a correspondence in height.79 The individuals who incised their names or associated images into the quarry face simply, fully intended for their names to be preserved beyond the temporal span of their physical work there; they knew that the stone extraction was scheduled to progress vertically downwards, and expand into new areas. From this, we can interpret that their attestations were intended to remain indefinitely. Furthermore, the quarries did not receive a steady stream of visitors, but particular groups of society that somehow were relevant for the extraction work. In this respect, the readership is represented by fellow quarry ‘visitors’, sometimes family members (e.g. no. 187, which lists the continuous extraction work in Q37 for Isis, carried out by Peteharpokrates and his son, Kolluthes), through which the experience of memorialising one’s activity within the quarries is shared and re-experienced through the act of reception.80 The continued graffiti tradition, hence, constructed social memories of Gebel el-Silsila.

Through an analysis of the Greek texts, it can be established that at least part of the working community at Gebel el-Silsila possessed skills in writing and expressing their ideas through rupestral text production, although some were perhaps merely semi-literate. The community was made up of an amalgamation of individuals of different ethnicities, including Egyptians, Nubians, Greeks, and Romans. A certain level of multilingualism as well as multiculturalism existed, with at least a basic, shared religious understanding from the larger areas of the Mediterranean, Egypt and Nubia, based on which they were able to cross-reference the identities of divinities. Through the present corpus we also gain insights into the larger Egyptian religious belief system, as the quarries were considered the original dwellings of the same gods for whose temples the stone was extracted. Potentially corresponding identities, in which a name and patronymic at Gebel el-Silsila can be tentatively matched with a contemporaneous name listed elsewhere, may reveal a wider network. For example, no. 127 is a proskynema on behalf of Πετέχνουμις Ἁρπάησις, produced within a context that includes textual references to Ammon, as well as depictions of rams and lions/sphinxes (see Figs. 31–33 in Chapter 5).81 The same name, Petechnoumis, son of Harpaesis, was recorded in Akoris with an association with the Ammon temple in which the god takes the form of a lion.82 Although stone was primarily extracted from Partition F for the Temple of Khnum at Esna, given the continuous references to Ammon, and the potential identification of an individual who is listed at Akoris, we cannot exclude the possibility that Gebel el-Silsila acted as the source for this temple too. A positive match would, furthermore, allow a narrower temporal frame for the Akoris inscription.

To conclude: the corpus of Greek graffiti from Gebel el-Silsila is not limited to a prosopography, but also provides insights into the interactive communication among Greek, Latin and demotic texts, as well as with the graphic representations and their joint dialogue with the surrounded landscape. The ancient inscribers had (spare) time to produce these messages, and a considerably large group was produced with great care. The very rare occurrence of superimpositions indicates spatial awareness as well as a mutual respect among the graffiti producers, including perhaps the communicated message of addressing the gods. The Roman quarries at Gebel el-Silsila demonstrate a strong interest in (and perhaps a need for) the production of graffiti with an overall religious theme. Potential illiteracy (in Greek and/or demotic) did not limit the individuals from expressing themselves, as other options included the production of a graphic mark, or writing with the assistance of a colleague or friend. Writing on the quarry faces, and levels that subsequently would be out of reach for continuous attestations, points to a wish to preserve one’s commemoration, which may reflect the entire physical and symbolic act of adoration repeated through reception. For people who did not have access to the main temples, this was an opportunity to stand in an eternal connection with the favoured divinities and for their names to testify to their participation in building divine dwellings across Egypt.


For terminological considerations and motivation in favour of the generic term ‘quarry mark’ to encompass all non-textual, historical markings (disregarding prehistoric rock art) at Gebel el-Silsila simply because the marks, regardless of signification or type of execution, are all located within or adjacent to a quarry, see Nilsson (2015a: 87–88).


We use here the traditional term ‘graffiti’ instead of the nowadays popular ‘secondary epigraphical material’ cf. Ragazzoli et al. (2018: 10) to follow in the footsteps of researchers who previously worked on the site. See the discussion below.


Nos 57, 77–78, 80–83, 126, 140. The tabulae for nos 82–83 are indicated, not fully drawn.


Nos 138, 165–166, 184, 186, 189.


Nos 53, 99, 111, 120, 174 are here interpreted as proskynema texts.


Nos 60–62, 67, 89, 124, 135, 138, 151–154, 161, 165–166, 177, 179–180, 184–186, 189.


Nos 17, 60–62, 67, 71, 73–74, 89, 96, 99, 124, 135, 151–154.


Nos 21, 27, 35, 45, 47, 52.


Nos 60–62, 67, 89, 135, 150–154.


No. 193.


LSJ 1518. Twelve texts are proskynemata without an attached signature (nos 2, 56, 71, 72, 75, 86, 93, 94, 104, 130, 136, 137). Intriguingly, there are no Greek proskynema texts in Q24. See also Geraci (1971).


Nos 57, 155, 190.


Nos 1, 29, 52, 78, 90, 171.


No. 119.


Nos 33, 45, 67, 97, 150, 173.


Nos 35, 60–62, 67, 89, 124, 135, 151–155, 179, 185.


We are grateful to Luigi Prada for this suggestion. Cf. the Coptic ⲥⲟⲩ: Crum, Dict. 368a. Although this combination of dating is not attested to date, Egyptian texts written with Greek letters are well-known, cf. Quack (2017).


Thus, increasing the total number of names to 338.


No. 53.


No. 109.


No. 90.


Nos 69, 81.


No. 10.


Nos 19, 126.


Nos 99, 126, 163.


No. 47 (and demotic no. 63c).


Nos 110, 184, 185 (×2).


Nos 4, 15 (×2), 16, 25, 38, 48, 50, 52, 53, 54, 68, 91, 127, 128, 141, 164, 170, 171, 172, 173, 176, 177, 188, 190; including Harbeschinis, Harkinis, Harkoneisis, Harpaesis, Horus and Outeuris/Otehyris.


The full list includes in alphabetic order: Amenophis, Ammon, Anonymous deity, Anubis, Apollon, Arensnouphis, Asklepios, Demeter, Dionysos, Geb, Hakoes, Harpocrates, Harsomtus, Herakles, Hermes, Horus, Khnum, Khonsu, Isis, Min, Montu, Nephotes, (the) Ogdoad, Poeris, Sarapis, Thmesios, Thoth, Zeus.


Nilsson (2018a: 125–128 (Horus)); Nilsson and Ward (2017: 24 (Khnum)).


Nos 21, 35, 36 (Twin/the Twin); 79 (Wealth); 101, 105 (Dragon); 179 (The best).


This is not unique in Gebel el-Silsila: cf. Geraci (1971: 40–41).


Nos. 47 and 161.


Nos. 170, 173, 175, 178; 183, 184.


Nos. 7, 13, 24b, 27, 32, 33, 129, 154, 172, 176, 177.


CDD Letter R, 76–77.


Cf. Clarysse & Winnicki (1989: 46–47); Klotz (2009: 254).


Cf. Vleeming (2001: 171–203).


Nilsson & Almásy (2015: no. 1).


The demotic inscriptions extend the dates back to at least 7 BC (year 23 of Augustus) as listed in two round-topped stelae (inv. nos. GeSE.Q37N.F.In.2, In.5), which will be published separately.


Nilsson et al. (2019).


Nilsson (2020: 142 with table 2, 148); Nilsson & Almásy (2015: 97).


Nilsson (2020: 142 with table 2, 144).


The text is located in the main transportation corridor to the quarry, which was likely considered to be a safe place for an inscription without any risk of later quarry workers removing it by further extraction.


Nilsson & Almásy (2015: 97).


E.g. Harrell & Storemyr (2013: 33, fig. 23).


The texts are located along the same strata level, but the height above the current ground level varies (17–21 m) due to the buildup of spoil and fallen quarry debris below each individual quarry face.


Nos 154, 172, 177, 178, 183, 190; in nos 13 and 47 the year abbreviation is indicated.


Nos 12, 14, 24a, 54, 69, 73, 74, 125, 129, 170, 171, 173. No. 129 is interesting as it was first produced with abbreviations for the names, later completed (in haste or by a different hand) to separate the identical abbreviations into two different names.


Nos 1, 16, 22, 45, 59, 67, 77, 80, 88, 95, 115, 118, 122, 138, 157, 166, 169, 184. Although initially unintentional, these contractions are generally considered as true abbreviations, especially in texts that employ marks to indicate the abbreviation/mistake (e.g. no. 184). See Oikonomides (1940: 22).


Nos 4, 5, 6, 23, 31, 58, 64, 70, 98, 124, 143, 144, 152, 163. The abbreviation category of no. 58 is questionable as a superscript diagonal line over the two letters may be intended as an abbreviation mark. No. 70 is also questionable, and may be listed as a deliberate abbreviation indicated by the second letter, the same as was used to indicate the abbreviation of the proskynema. The letters PR, used to abbreviate the patronym, are repeated on the same quarry face, for which it is likely a true abbreviation.


Nos 56, 68, 69, 75, 86, 87, 93, 94, 104, 108, 124, 130, 136, 137, 179.


McLean (2014: 51).


There is no evident relation to letters documented in contemporaneous quarries elsewhere, and they are not organised like the Roman numerals found in, for example, Mons Claudianus, where they are suggested to represent control marks. See Peacock & Maxfield (1997: 216–232).


Pot marks will be treated in a separate publication.


Petrie (1888: 17); Jaritz (1980: 88 no A7); Depauw (2009: 101, second to last sign: “c: Greek letter theta (?).”). Legrain (1906: 18 and 20) included them in his “primitive group” and concludes that the mark is unlikely to represent the Greek theta, but without any explanation. Similarly, he does not explain why he separates circles with horizontal bars from those with vertical bars. See also Arnold (1990: 127 (N81.2)); Andrássy (2009a: 114 with fig. 2 (C.34, C34-2, L10, 4 Rt12, 4 Rt33); 2009b, 16 with Abb. 8 and with sign corpus on p. 47); Haring (2009: 165) with sign from O. Cairo JE 72490 (second sign from the bottom) from the time of Thutmose III–Amenhotep II.


Nilsson et al. (2019: 8).


WB 1, 559; CDD P (10:1), 164–165; Meeks (1980: 139, #77.1502; 1981: 144, #78.1529; 1982: 103, #79.1048); Wilson (1997: 373–374).


Nilsson et al. (2019: 13–14). For the festival see Edfou V, 124.8–12, 356.8–357.3, 394.12–14; Dend. VI, 158.4–7.


Cf. Graff. Silsile 62 (destroyed during the quarrying for Esna barrage in 1906–1909).


McLean (2014: 55).


E.g. Fink (1981: 75–86); Seibt (2016: 2–6). For Egyptian examples, see Fournet & Benázeth (2020: esp. 151, 153–155).


Feind (2010: 129).


Three examples are situated close together with a fourth nearby in Partition C of Q34. A fifth is situated in Q35.


The central letter of monogram no. 1 could be read as either a retrograde Ν or a Λ, but block form monograms generally center around the letters Α, Η, Θ, Μ, Ν, Π and Χ, for which a Ν is more likely. E.g. Feind (2010: 129).


If a Greek letter at all, it resembles xi (ξ).


Numerous anthropomorphic figures are depicted with harpoons primarily in Q34. See Nilsson et al. (2019: 144–146).


We are grateful to Jean-Luc Fournet for his commentaries on these monograms.


Although there is a distinct lack of archaeological and epigraphical evidence for any activity later than Emperor Claudius in the central parts of the east bank, the recent publication of a sija game board found near Q34 indicates at least sporadic visits. See de Voogt et al. (2020: 7 and 9, with Fig. 3).


Baird & Taylor (2011: 10).


The engraved texts of course also include the earlier hieratic and hieroglyphic.


E.g. Baird & Taylor (2011: 1); Wallace (2005: xxiv).


Baird & Taylor (2011: 5).


Cf. Fleming (2001: 30); Hoff (2006: 182).


E.g. Chaniotis (2011: 193–196).


However, with respect to the approximately 5000 quarry marks and 600 demotic texts that are still awaiting publication, a comprehensive discussion on their intercommunicative correspondence and their mutual dialogue with the landscape will be published in the forthcoming volume of quarry marks.


Nos 60, 63, 67, 124, 125, 130, 135, 138, 151–154, 161, 165, 166, 179, 180–181, 184, 185, 186, 189. An identical message was likely intended with names written in the genitive form.


Cf. Macdonald (2002); Taylor (2011: 95, 97).


See, for example, Mairs (2011) on the el Kanais graffiti.


E.g. Cattell & Climo (2002: 12–13).


Cf. Nilsson & Ward (2017: 23 and no. 5).


I. Akoris 78 (Lefebvre [1903: 355 no. 34]). Another possible identification of people active in Akoris is the individual listed in no. 17: Ἀπολλώνιος Ἑρμίας, who can be compared with the Apollonios, son of Hermias listed in I. Akoris 59 (Lefebvre [1903: 350 no. 15]) from year 11 (ruler unknown).

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