Department of Archaeology and Ancient History

The Joint Faculties of Humanities and Theology | Lund University


Following the disputation on my doctoral thesis on Hellenistic Queen Arsinoë II's crown (iconographic study) at Gothenburg University in 2010 I now focus my research on the relatively new topic "pseudo script", primarily Ptolemaic and Roman quarry marks in Gebel el Silsila, Egypt.

In 2012 I was rewarded a post doctoral fellowship at Lund University, founded by the Swedish Research Council, followed by a Marie Curie Fellowship, with projects focusing on enigmatic quarry marks/non-textual marking systems.

Since 2012 I am the mission director of the Gebel el Silsila Project with a series of groundbreaking discoveries.


About the research

The main body of research is the unique corpus of early Roman Imperial quarry marks at the sandstone quarry of Gebel el Silsila (GeS) in Upper Egypt: vertical, work-completed quarry faces inscribed with over 5000 marks or symbols, a selection of which (based on the applicant’s ongoing study) represents contemporaneous deities and immediately associated, and occasionally syncretistic religious ideas and superstitions. However, a large body of quarry marks remains ambiguous and the symbolic code requires further study in order to comprehend/understand its complex messages. The project’s immediate aims, based on the already collated empirical data and achieved results, are to:

1) assess in more detail how the marks were used in the workmen’s community (within the quarries and at temple construction); 2) collect comparable data from other sandstone quarries in southern Egypt, and from temple architecture for which stone was extracted and transported from GeS; 3) explain in more detail the marks’ affinity with writing, i.e. associated, adjacent signatures and texts, 4) study the names and ethnicity of the workers in associated text graffiti at GeS (and if possible consider intertextual prosopographical identifications) relating to point 1, above.

The ultimate objective and synthesis of the project is to produce a case study that will enable the development of a (semiotic) phenomenological definition, a model, of a marking system and its significance and functions within a multi-cultural and religiously syncretistic society. Due to its interdisciplinary character, the results will enable comparable material for other marking systems (geographically and culturally).

(the current study is a continuation of the below summarized project)

For the first time in a comprehensive form, the project aims to document, categorise and analyse engraved marks (‘quarry marks’) in the ancient Egyptian quarry of Gebel el Silsila for the purpose of identifying who was responsible for making these stone cuttings and why. Although the traditional identification of these marks has always centred around masons or stone cutters, other options will also be explored, including a more religious or superstitious significance: this is expressed in the proposed project title ‘quarry marks, characters, codes and magic’. While these marks are commonly dismissed as (simple) masons’ marks, they have never been fully classified or studied, thus resulting in a possible misconception of their meaning and function. The marks are studied here according to an interdisciplinary approach, combining the concepts of classicism, Egyptology and art history with an iconographical and semantic analysis of form and appearance and an iconological, linguistic and hermeneutic analysis of meaning and function. The marks will be compared with contemporary characters on magical amulets and papyri, contemporary textual signs and with later masons’ marks as well as contextual material, such as Greek and demotic inscriptions and archaeological material in order to understand their function and meaning. A comprehensive database will be created.


Books (1)
Articles (11)
Book chapters (7)
Conference contributions (2)
Reviews (1)
Articles in specialist publications and popular press (5)

Research portal (Lund University)

Other tasks and qualifications

Conference presentations, invited speaker (selection):

“Quarry marks of Gebel el-Silsila: signification, function(s), andcorrespondence with temple marks”, international conference Stone canvas: towards a better integrationof ‘Rock Art’ and ‘Graffiti’ studies in Egypt and Sudan, IFAO, Cairo, Egypt(forthcoming 2019)

“Quarryscape Epigraphy: Public andprivate attestations at Gebel el-Silsila”, international conference Clamour from the Past: Graffiti, RockInscriptions and Secondary Epigraphy from Ancient Egypt, IFAO, Cairo, Egypt2019. Will result in a proceedings paper.

“From Prehistory to Petrie:introducing Gebel el-Silsila & its various visitors”, Gebel el-Silsila Study Day, Friends of the Petrie Museum, London,UK 2019.

“Messages from the Dead: funerarycustoms, child internments & a mass burial”, Gebel el-Silsila Study Day, Friends of the Petrie Museum, London,UK 2019.

“New Discoveries at Gebelel-Silsila”, Egyptian Embassy, Stockholm, Sweden, 2019.

“Ovan och under jord: nya upptäckter i Gebelel-Silsila”, Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm, Sweden, 2019.

” Millenier av konstnärliga uttryck:Hällristningar och klippinskrifter i Gebel el-Silsila, Egypten”, Crafoordska lunchföreläsningar,Stadsbiblioteket, Lund, Sweden 2019.

“Archaeological updates from thefield: Gebel el Silsila Project”, Friendsof Alexandria, Gothenburg, Sweden 2019 (previouslectures in 2018, 2014).

“Archaeological updates from thefield: Gebel el Silsila Project”, ISISEgyptological Society, Helsingborg, Sweden 2019 (previous lectures in 2014,2018).

“Arkeologiska expeditioner i egyptiska Gebelel-Silsila”, Explorers Club SWE, Åre,Sweden 2018.

“Introduction to the site” and“Roman activity”, Silsila Study Day,Leiden Rijksmuseum, Holland 2017.

“Gebel el-Silsila: introducing the site andthe archaeological project”, ArchaeologicalInstitute of America, Toledo, OH, USA 2017.

“Gebel el Silsila: en introduktion till denantika platsen & det fältarkeologiska projektet”, Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm, Sweden 2016.

“From Epipalaeolithic petroglyphs to Roman graffiti: Stylisticvariability of anthropomorphs at Gebel el Silsila (Upper Egypt)”, What EverHappened to the People? Humans and Anthropomorphs in the Rock Art of NorthernAfrica, Brussels, Belgium 2015. Resulted in a proceedings publication.

“Gebel el Silsila: en introduktion till denantika platsen & det fältarkeologiska projektet”,

Egyptological Society, University of Copenhagen, Denmark 2015.

“Introducing Gebel el Silsila”, Swedish Embassy, Cairo, Egypt 2015.

“Early Emperors at Gebel el Silsila(Upper Egypt) – quarry activity and workers’ graffiti”, King’s College London/UCL, London, UK 2015.

Gebel el Silsila: scientific work,site management and current threats”, The Southern Gate of Egypt, UNESCO/NubianMuseum organized conference, Aswan, Egypt 2014.

“Quarry Marks in Gebel el Silsila –signifiers of men and gods alike?”, international conference Decoding Signs of Identity: Egyptianworkmen’s marks in archaeological, historical, comparative and theoretical perspective,Leiden University (Egyptology), Leiden, Holland 2013. Resulted in apublication.

“Pictorial representations at Gebelel Silsila – a 10.000 year long repertoire”, Italian days in Aswan, UNESCO organized conference,Nubian Museum, Aswan, Egypt 2013. Resulted in a proceedings publication.

“A visual field report from Gebel elSilsila”, NVIC Nederlands-VlaamsInstituut, Cairo, Egypt 2013.


“As above, so below: new discoveries at Gebel el-Silsila”, Arkeologi för alla, Lund University, Sweden 2019.


“Gebel el-Silsila: en introduktion till detsvenska projektet i Egypten”, breakfast lecture at Gröna Hästen, Laholm, Sweden2019.

“Arkeologi och det svenska projektet i Egypten”,Laholms Parkskolan, Sweden 2019.

“Gebel el Silsila, the project and most recent discoveries”, Departmentof Education, Kom Ombo, Egypt, 2017

Specialistcommentator (recorded), National Geographic Museum exhibition “Queens of Egypt”

Appears on

NationalGeographic’s ‘Lost Treasures of Egypt:Warrior Queen

NationalGeographic’s ‘Lost tomb of Alexander thegreat

NationalGeographic’s ‘Egypt’s Treasure Guardians

TravelChannel’s ‘Expedition Unknown’:

UK Channel5 with Sir Tony Robinson, ‘Egyptian TombHunting’
Science Channel´s ‘Unearthed’ S02E09

and “Ramses’ buried treasures

SVT1: Landgång24/8 2017:

SVT2: Vetenskapensvärld 15/2 2016:

Maria Nilsson

Classical archaeology and ancient history
Department of Archaeology and Ancient History

Contact information

E-mail maria.nilssonklass.luse

Phone +46 73 338 25 52

Mobile +20  106 110 49 16

Visiting address Helgonavägen 3, Lund

Postal address Box 192, 221 00 Lund

Internal post code 30