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, and since then I am stationed in Egypt.

Since 2012 I am the mission director of the Gebel el Silsila Epigraphic Survey Project with an international team aiming to document all archaeological records visible to the naked eye.


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 (10)
Book chapters (7)
Conference contributions (3)
Reviews (1)
Articles in specialist publications and popular press (5)

Research portal (Lund University)


Other tasks and qualifications

Conference presentations (selection of most recent and upcoming):

“Mason or priest? A comparison between Graeco-Roman signs on magical amulets and symbols in Egyptian quarries”, Budapest 2012.

“Pseudo script in Gebel el Silsila – preliminary results of the epigraphic survey 2012”, CRE XIV Cambridge 2013.
“Gebel el Silsila – a visual fieldreport”, UNESCO/Nubian Museum, Aswan 2013.

“Pictorial representations at Gebel el Silsila – a 10 000 year long repertoire”, Italian days in Aswan 2013 (UNESCO organized conference).

“Quarry Marks in Gebel el Silsila – signifiers of men and gods alike?”, DECODING SIGNS OF IDENTITY: Egyptian workmen’s marks in archaeological, historical, comparative and theoretical perspective, Leiden 2013.

(lecture) ‘A visual field report from Gebel el Silsila’, NVIC Nederlands-Vlaams Instituut in Cairo, November 2013.

“Multicultural commemorations: An epigraphic journey from Prehistoric rock art to Napoleonic signatures at Gebel el Silsila”, CRE XV London 2014.

“Gebel el Silsila: scientific work, site management and current threats”, The Southern Gate of Egypt, March 2014 (UNESCO organized conference).

"Gebel el Silsila – an introduction to the site, its challenges, archaeology and management", SSEA’s annual symposium, Poster, 13-16 November 2014.

“Early Emperors at Gebel el Silsila (Upper Egypt) – quarry activity and workers’ graffiti”, invited lecture to be given at UCL in February 2015.

“From Epipalaeolithic petroglyphs to Roman graffiti: Stylistic variability of anthropomorphs at Gebel el Silsila (Upper Egypt)”, International Conference "What Ever Happened to the People? Humans and Anthropomorphs in the Rock Art of Northern Africa" (Brussels, 17-19 September 2015)

“Stylistic variability of Prehistoric Rock Art at Gebel el Silsila (Upper Egypt)”, IFRAO (Spain, August-September 2015)

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