Encounters with Ancient Egyptians

The 2012 excavations at the funerary cult enclosure of king Khasekhemwy, the Shunet el-Zebib, are part of the project’s comprehensive program of excavation at the monument, undertaken in tandem with our architectural conservation efforts.  The excavations have two basic aims:  (1) to elucidate the original patterns of use of the monument in Dynasty 2 (ca. 2700 BCE) and its subsequent history, and (2) to expose presently buried parts of the architecture such that the entirety of each wall can be documented and its condition assessed in terms of possible conservation needs.  Although the Shuneh, as a standing monument, has long been noted and discussed by scholars and visitors to the site, for many years much about its original purpose, as well as about how it was reinterpreted and reused in later times, remained a mystery.  The work undertaken by the IFA’s Abydos project is transforming our understanding of the enclosure and its place in the long history of the site.

General view of the royal cultic enclosure of king Khasekhemwy, the Shunet el-Zebib, seen from the south in 2009, prior to the start of excavation of the great south dune, which is visible at right. Photo by Greg Maka for the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.

Excavation this season is focused primarily on the southern end of the Shuneh, where, given the prevailing north wind, a huge sand dune accumulated that filled the south corridor between the main enclosure wall and the outer perimeter wall, enveloped most of the perimeter wall, and extended for some distance toward the south.  This great dune has been excavated during the last several field seasons and have proven to be a quite ancient feature.  It appears to have begun to accumulate very shortly after the original construction of the monument, and the sand continued to do so for some centuries, until it reached a state of relative equilibrium below the wall tops.  This great dune seems to have been too intimidating to early excavators at the site, who do not appear to have disturbed it.  Excavations in recent years have demonstrated that the dune has sealed within it important and relatively pristine evidence for important aspects of the history of the monument and Abydos more broadly.

At the start of excavation in 2009 the south dune stood more than 5 meters high. Photo by Greg Maka for the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.

After the end of the reign of Khasekhemwy, when later kings shifted their place of burial to the north, near the capital of Memphis, the area of the low desert at the edge of the Nile Valley where the kings of Dynasties 1 and 2 had constructed their monumental cultic enclosures appears to have been protected, perhaps even sacred, space.  While life in the nearby town continued uninterrupted, and extensive cemeteries serving the town’s population developed both to the north and south, the area of the enclosures themselves appears to have been assiduously avoided for around 700 years.  No tombs or other structures were built there, no burials were made, and the area may have been considered sacrosanct because of its early exclusive use by Egypt’s first kings.  Eventually, around 2000 BCE in the early Middle Kingdom, after a period of significant political change known as the First Intermediate Period, the area of the enclosures saw the first intrusions in the construction of tombs, accompanying offering chapels, and simple interments in the desert sands.  In fact, very quickly this part of Abydos became the main cemetery at the site and was filled with funerary constructions, which frequently were built on or cut into the buried remains of the early royal monuments.  The enclosure of king Khasekhemwy still stood, however, and it continued to be respected in the way the entire area had been previously.  Tombs were built and burials made up to the exterior sides of its walls, but they did not intrude upon the interior, a pattern that continued for another 1000 years.

2012 represents the fourth field season of work on the dune, and the level by the excavation as shown here is just above the original Dynasty 2 floor. Photo by Greg Maka for the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.

This season’s excavations have shown that the great south dune preserved clear evidence of this important phase in the history of the monument.  In the lower part of the dune along the exterior side of the outer perimeter wall of the monument the excavation team found the remains of a number of wooden coffins that contain the burials of ancient residents of Abydos.  They had been carried to the site and placed into pits dug into the dune along the wall.  Several date from the Middle Kingdom, the initial period of post-royal use of the area, while others are somewhat later.

Excavation supervisor and IFA PhD student of Egyptian art and archaeology Tara Prakash drawing the side of the remains of a wooden coffin. Photo by Greg Maka for the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.

In general the condition of wooden coffins at Abydos is rather poor.  Over time, insects consumed the wood, reducing it to a sandy material called frass that retains the shape of the original coffins but with very little wood remaining.  Any painted surfaces survive only as thin paint layers attached essentially to nothing but sand.  Considerable conservation effort is often required to consolidate the coffins and burials long enough for the archaeologists to define and document them.

Excavation supervisor and IFA alumna Dr. Deborah Vischak (right) and conservator Lucy Skinner cleaning a Middle Kingdom burial. The wooden coffin, originally rectangular, was poorly constructed of a number of separate panels tied together, which, under the weight of enveloping sand, have shifted, giving it an unusual bent shape. Photo by Gus Gusciora for the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.

Excavation supervisor and IFA PhD student of Egyptian art and archaeology Patrick Salland examines a painted anthropoid coffin with Abydos Field Director Dr. Matthew Adams and Senior Conservator and IFA Conservation Center alumna Hiroko Kariya. Photo by Greg Maka for the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.

Khasekhemwy’s monument did not stand in the desert in isolation.  It was part of an evolving broader context, in which the king’s monument eventually became a part of a ritual landscape in which ordinary Egyptians could, and did, choose the ground around it as their place of burial.  In excavating here, we cannot help but encounter the material remains of these ancient people and ponder how they thought of this place and their connection to it.

Matthew Adams, Field Director


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