THE BIG, THE BIZARRE AND THE BEAUTIFUL
Ancient Egypt|January / February 2021
John Wyatt, Maria Nilsson and John Ward present the last instalment of their report revealing the bird species discovered at ancient Gebel el-Silsila.
John Wyatt, Maria Nilsson and John Ward

A large range of desert birds and diurnal raptors were visitors to the ancient quarrying site of Gebel el-Silsila (as we have seen in AE120 and AE121), their presence captured as images in rock inscriptions. We end our current series with eight further fascinating images, highlighting their overall relevance.

Vultures

Quarry 37 on the East Bank of the Nile has been dated to the Early Roman Period (Augustus-Claudius) and is dedicated primarily to Isis and Amun-Min, its stone being destined for Koptos. One small depiction of a bird remains in the top right corner of an area which once held a now erased demotic stela (below, left and right). Close examination under magnification shows it has the heavy head, longish neck and hunched, semi-mantled wings of a vulture. Only four species of vulture – Egyptian, European Griffon, Lappet-faced and Lammergeier – have so far been positively identified as having occurred and bred in ancient Egypt. The first three were certainly mummified and depicted as hieroglyphs and/or deities. The fourth is only known from mummies.

The depiction now under consideration is almost certainly the European Griffon Vulture (opposite, top right), the same species as the Nekhbet vulture in the nebty name. It is too large and has the wrong shape to be the Egyptian Vulture (Gardiner’s G1 hieroglyph) while the head is too small for the Lappet-faced Vulture. The Cinereous or Black Vulture (now a winter visitor) and Ruppell’s (Griffon) Vulture (an occasional wanderer from the Sudan) might also have occurred in the past but this remains unproven.

Only goddesses were ever depicted as vultures, usually in their roles as the Eyes or Daughters of Ra. Isis was one such goddess; perhaps this mark confirms her as the prime dedicatee of this quarry. The symbol for the Eye of Ra appears elsewhere here (see top left) and in Quarry 36 on the West Bank to support this. Vultures are very maternal and their phenomenal eyesight is legendary.

An unusual portrayal of what could be a second vulture was also found in Quarry 36 (see inverted image right, second from top). It was on the pillar supporting the renowned capstone (next to the Ramesside Nile Stelae) along with visitors’ graffiti and the afore-mentioned sets of the Eye of Ra. It appears to show a running bird with partially raised wings, a long powerful neck, a very large head and powerful beak holding carrion. This image probably represents a Lappet-faced or Nubian Vulture (see centre right) which was the avian species most frequently used to depict the goddess Mut, the consort of Amun and mother of Khonsu. This Theban Triad had attracted considerable attention here during the New Kingdom. Here, however it is more likely an association with Isis.

A Swallow

Isis was sometimes also depicted as a swallow, as this was one of the forms she was reputed to have taken in her mythical search for the body of Osiris. It is not therefore surprising that a probable depiction has been found in Quarry 36 (see bottom right). The head of this bird is damaged but suggests that it was gently rounded with a small, pointed bill. The body is elongated, the legs towards the front, and the long tail very clearly forked. A Barn Swallow (top left) would have been the most likely identification but for the extremely thin, flexible and lengthy tail-streamers. A Wire-tailed Swallow (top right) is therefore marginally more likely, even though there is no other evidence that this species ever occurred in Egypt; it is however still extant in the Nile Valley in northern Sudan, not too far south of the modern border and so, being an intra-African migrant, could well have been seen in Egypt.

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