Rock mass quality and preliminary analysis of the stability of ancient rock-cut Theban tombs at Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna, Egypt

  • Martin ZieglerEmail author
  • Rachael Colldeweih
  • Andrea Wolter
  • Andrea Loprieno-Gnirs
Original Paper


The ancient Theban tombs at the hillside cemetery of Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna (SAQ), west of Luxor, Egypt, were excavated mainly in the Thebes Limestone Formation and show varying degrees of damage of rock pillars and ceilings. In order to understand the rock mass behaviour in selected tombs and its impact on past failures and current stability, we carried out geological mapping and rock mass quality assessments. Our work provides a geological map and geotechnical evaluation of the rock mass of these SAQ tombs and their surroundings. We mapped and described rock fractures in situ and with remote sensing data, and estimated the rock mass quality of the different members within the Thebes Limestone Formation using the Rock Mass Rating (RMR) and Geological Strength Index (GSI) systems. In addition, we conducted a rock pillar analysis. Analyses and mapping were supported by new high-resolution terrain models computed from ground-based and aerial photogrammetry and from terrestrial laser scanning. Our analyses show that the tombs at SAQ have been cut into poor to very good quality rock masses. Rock failures of ceilings and pillars were frequently facilitated by local, unfavourably oriented persistent discontinuities, such as tension cracks and faults. Other failures were related to the disintegration of nodular limestone into individual nodules upon weathering. Our data suggest that, in 18th Dynasty monumental tomb construction, low-strength rock masses rarely resulted in modifications of the planned tomb design in order to minimise the risk of rock falls and collapses.


Geotechnical assessment Rock mass rating Rock pillar stability Remote sensing Tomb construction 



The authors are very grateful to the Permanent Committee of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo and to its Secretary General Dr. Moustafa Waziri, to Dr. Mohammad Ismail, former Director of the Department of Foreign Missions, and to the former and current directors of the Luxor and Qurna Inspectorates, Dr. Mohammad Abd el-Aziz and Mr. Fathy Yaseen, and their staff for approving and supporting our field research in Western Thebes from fall 2015 to spring 2018. Mr. Mahmoud Ibrahim kindly assisted the administrative planning of our field seasons, Raīs Abd el-Hamid Osman gave technical and logistic support in the field.

We are also thankful to Dr. K. Powroznik, who provided aerial images, using the camera-equipped helikite of the “Life Histories of Theban Tombs” (LHTT) project, as well as to Prof. Andreas Wieser, chair of the Institute of Geodesy and Photogrammetry (ETH Zurich) and his staff and students for the acquisition and processing of TLS point clouds (P. Theiler, E. Friedli, D. Steinmann, M. Martinoni, L. Kaiser, K. Henggeler, A. Baumann, C. Zhou) and for the generation of TLS-based 3D models (E. Friedli, Z. Gojcic). We are grateful for the discussions with Prof. Florian Amann (RWTH Aachen) during our first field campaign. Dr. Hossam Abdelhameed (Tanta University) kindly provided the XRD analysis of the rock samples. The comments from two anonymous reviewers helped improve our manuscript. Dr. Xavier Droux (Lincoln College, Oxford) proofread the manuscript. Finally, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) is acknowledged for its generous investment in the overarching project, “Life Histories of Theban Tombs” under grant number 162967.

Supplementary material

10064_2019_1507_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (85 kb)
ESM 1 Record of dimensions, failure condition and rock mass rating parameters for all analysed pillars. The pillar condition classes are given according to Esterhuizen et al. (2005), and the joint roughness and weathering are given according to Barton and Bandis (1990). Bold font indicates values taken from photogrammetric models, while regular font indicates the range determined from the pillar window survey. For pillars with non-square footprints (*), the larger pillar widths are displayed. Values given in brackets indicate the estimated original pillar height and width to height (W/H) ratio. (PDF 85.4 kb)
10064_2019_1507_Fig14_ESM.png (997 kb)

ak Horizontal cross-sections by Kampp (1996) through pillared tomb halls analysed in this study for pillar quality. The given pillar numbers correspond to the pillar numbers in Appendix 1. Our focus was on completed pillars in closed halls, with one exception, the portico pillars of K76. (PNG 997 kb)

10064_2019_1507_MOESM2_ESM.tif (13.4 mb)
High resolution image (TIF 13766 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Earth SciencesETH ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of Ancient CivilizationsUniversity of BaselBaselSwitzerland

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