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The Archaeology of Individuals at Abydos, Egypt

What do the social histories of individuals contribute to writing the culture history of ancient Egypt? A key question in the study of Egypt, since it is the artifacts and inscriptions of particular ancient Egyptians that provide the most indigenous detail. A salient example of this phenomenon is the autobiography of the late Old Kingdom official Weni the Elder, who identifies himself as a prominent player on the stage of his times. One way to assess Weni’s claim to fame is to consider all known physical evidence for this individual-archaeological setting and artifacts-alongside the idealized narrative of his funerary inscription, a process that we began for Weni during the 1999 excavation season (Spring 2000 Newsletter; online here). This process allows us to contemplate such an individual within a larger physical landscape and to relate his material assemblage to more global themes, such as politics, society, magic, and the construction of personal identity.

Tangentially, to what degree can circumstantial passages in literary texts truly inform us of actual political events, despite the bias inherent in these ideologically purposeful media? One excerpt concerns a royal misdeed:

. . . Egypt will fight in the necropolis, destroying tomb-chambers in a destruction of deeds. I did the like, and the like happened, as is done to someone who goes against God in this way. . . . Look, a vile deed happened in my time; the nome of Thinis was destroyed. (trans. R. Parkinson, The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, 1940-1640 BC, Oxford 1997)

These allusions to a sacrilegious event during the reign of a First Intermediate Period king-often interpreted as the destruction of the Abydos cemeteries-occur in the “Teaching for King Merikare.” This Middle Kingdom text explores ideological themes of order versus chaos, and the king’s role within that conflict, using the “vile deed” as a metaphor for chaos and an example of the human fallibility of the king. But where would we look for real, physical evidence of such an occurrence? If unruly troops did desecrate the necropolis at Abydos, their efforts would most logically focus on two particular areas. The most prominent manifestations of authority at the site were the Early Dynastic royal burials near the cliffs; it has already been suggested by their excavator that the intense burning documented there might date to the civil unrest of the First Intermediate Period (2260-2040 BC). A second target might be the Middle Cemetery closer to the floodplain, home to the graves of important 5th and 6th Dynasty officials (c. 2407-2260 BC)—including that of the Governor of Upper Egypt Weni the Elder, who possessed the largest private monument in the low desert mortuary landscape.

The 2001 season of the Abydos Middle Cemetery Project had very limited goals, given its brevity (two months): to excavate and record the grave chambers of Weni the Elder and the overseer of priests Nekhty, whose door lintels we exposed in 1999; and to investigate an area south of Weni’s mastaba that we thought might include debris from his burial chamber. The season’s results also yielded, however, a surprising intersection of the two main issues raised above: the archaeology of events and the archaeology of people.

The 2001 Season

This year’s crew included myself as director; my U-M colleague Marjorie Fisher as epigrapher; U-M graduate students Geoff Compton, Belgin Elbs, and Drew Wilburn, and undergraduate student Jason Sprague; Arizona State and Johns Hopkins graduate students Korri Turner and J. J. Shirley; photographers Yarko Kobylecky and Bob Fletcher; Reis Ibrahim Mohammed Ali and archaeological specialists from the village of Quft; a large crew of individuals from the villages at Abydos; and the wonderful staff working in the dig house, headed up by house manager Ahmet Rageb. Mohammed Ali Abu el-Yazid graciously acted as inspector for the project; we are grateful also to Dr. Yahia el-Misri and Mr. Ahmed el-Khattib for their support. Kelsey conservator Brook Bowman provided invaluable advice; and finally, many thanks are due to Sharon Herbert, Terry Wilfong, and the staff of the Kelsey Museum.

Safety on site required special attention this year, given the depth of operations in both the Weni and Nekhty mudbrick grave shafts (12 and 9 meters underground, respectively), and stability issues for the Weni grave in particular. Benefiting from Rackham funds granted specifically for safety equipment, we acquired helmets, climbing harnesses, and particulate masks for everyone working underground, industrial strength pulleys and ropes to facilitate moving sand and debris to the surface, and two extremely strong 14-meter aluminum ladders. We were able to put in place a massive square steel construction around the top of the Weni shaft, which supported a brace for the 14-meter ladder and another spanner for the pulley, plus a solid wooden platform from which we negotiated ladder and pulley. We installed a similar arrangement over the Nekhty shaft, and in both contexts we adhered to a daily regime of casting pebbles and shining flashlights into both grave chambers before entering, to flush out any undesirable visitors (= snakes, especially of the horned viper category!). Once these various matters were resolved, the season’s work progressed rapidly, thanks to a phenomenally hard-working crew.

Nekhty and the Archaeology of People: Whose Grave?

In 1999, we excavated the Nekhty grave shaft down to the lintel surmounting the door of the burial chamber, inscribed for a Prince, Count, and Overseer of priests Nekhty. Excavation this year revealed that the lintel surmounted an entrance whose lowest blocking stones were still in place, covered in thickly applied plaster. Inside the doorway was a low antechamber of roughly finished limestone blocks, only a meter and a half tall, followed by another, more finely inscribed and painted lintel, bearing the titles Sole Companion and Lector Priest but with no name visible. From the doorway, it was possible to see the lid end of the limestone coffin, inscribed for Nekhty.

But then the plot thickened: excavation revealed that a secondary “floor” was put in at a height that obscured the lowest 60 centimeters of walls that were completely decorated with offering scenes and inscriptions. About the same time, we noticed that the bands of incised inscription around the top of the chamber were beautifully carved up to the grave owner’s name, which was only painted over plaster. We observed that, furthermore, the blue paint in which Nekhty’s name (and in some cases the title Overseer of Priests) occurred was not present in the rest of the decorative scheme. A closer look revealed that, in fact, Nekhty had plastered over the inscribed name of the original owner of the grave: Idi, a lector priest, royal treasurer, nomarch and governor of Upper Egypt, and that the secondary floor was laid intentionally to cover numerous repetitions of that original name, which occurred at the bottom of the menu list on the east wall. Taking a second look at the painted interior lintel, we realized that the rough blocks of the antechamber had been put in place in order to conceal the names and titles at the edges of the lintel. Finally, we noted that the lid of the coffin was five centimeters shorter than its base: Nekhty carved away an earlier inscription in order to place his own at the northern end of the coffin.

Clearly, this expensive grave was originally built for Idi and then either taken over by or given to Nekhty. This identity shift was accomplished by the substitution of Nekhty’s name for Idi’s or simply concealment of the latter’s name. Did Idi hand over his exceedingly well-built funerary monument willingly, or was he unseated in a provincial coup, with his grave co-opted as part of that political event? One theory about the end of the Old Kingdom is that overseers of priests (one of Nekhty’s titles) took over the responsibilities of nomarchs (one of Idi’s titles), so there is a possibility that the usurpation occurred as a result of the appropriation of power during the First Intermediate Period. Again, a line from the “Teaching for King Merikare” seems eerily pertinent: ”Destroy not the monuments of another; Build not your tomb chamber from ruins.” Until further study, this remains only one hypothesis, but it is an intriguing one.

Identity, Memory, and the Archaeology of Events: Weni the Elder

But what of Weni the Elder? We rediscovered and began excavating his monumental mastaba grave north of the Nekhty/Idi grave in 1999, finding the original emplacement of his objects now in the Cairo Museum, a false door still in situ with his name and titles (as well as a few new ones), and a statue inscribed for him. By the end of the season we had exposed the lintel of his burial chamber, 10 meters down in the grave shaft. But, as with the Nekhty/Idi grave, we halted excavations due to lack of time and safety constraints. During that season we also noted an area south of Weni’s mastaba that seemed to include deposits of the same clean sand encountered within the mastaba and artifacts of the kind usually associated with burial deposits, such as fine red ware bowl sherds. These data suggested to us that debris from Mariette’s earlier excavations in the burial chamber itself might lie here.

Material recovered from that area during the recent season seems to confirm our suspicion, as a total of more than 120 linen-wrapped balls of natron emerged, along with a quantity of linen, two baskets’ worth of fine Medum bowl sherds, six limestone canopic jar lids, and a packet that may contain entrails. From this fill we also excavated numerous fragments of granite, limestone, and calcite, from bowls or architectural elements. Mariette’s men seem to have brought some of the materials from Weni’s burial chamber up to the surface for processing, leaving behind the least desirable items. It is unfortunately probable that Weni himself was demolished in the search for valuables (a fate most likely shared by Nekhty). Bearing out the exceedingly complicated use history of the Middle Cemetery, beneath this deposit lay another substantial mastaba chapel, to which we will return in a future season.

This year we completed the excavation of the Weni grave shaft to a depth of 12 meters and also excavated its chamber. Surmounted by a barrel vault of mudbrick, the chamber is constructed entirely of massive limestone blocks. Measuring almost 7 meters north to south and 3 meters wide throughout, it is nearly twice as large as Nekhty’s chamber, and the enormous limestone sarcophagus rests in a pit sunk into the rear of the chamber. As in the Nekhty grave, the burial chamber was originally carved and painted in a combination of raised relief and incised text. At some point in the life history of this tomb, however, the majority of the surface was severely burned at a very high temperature.

That the fire was deliberately set is not to be doubted, given the thoroughness of the blackening and the visual evidence for some kind of oil having been applied to the wall surfaces. The top of the coffin was not included in this systematic burning, as only traces of soot remained on its surface; the target seems to have been the walls. At the time of the fire, the chamber had already been entered from the door, and the only significant preserved paint was protected by fill sloping in from the shaft. At some point, the chamber was entered through the ceiling from the barrel vault and subsequently sealed with rough stones, suggesting that attention was paid to resecuring the grave.

Despite the burning, the decorative scheme is discernible, including friezes of funerary objects, funerary invocations, and a “menu list,” each vertical line of which ends with Weni’s name. Notable throughout the chamber is that any potentially harmful hieroglyphs were deliberately left unfinished: Weni’s epithet smsw (the Elder) is depicted without legs or torso, while the horned viper of the consonant f is shown with a disabled head. This deliberate mutilation of hieroglyphs is a function of the apparent prohibition against the representation of human figures in 6th Dynasty grave chambers: Weni apparently felt that the epithet smsw was so integral to his identity that it required inclusion, but with magical precautions taken.

Why was Weni’s chamber burned so viciously? One working theory might identify the event as part of the “vile deed” of which the “Teaching for King Merikare” speaks: “destroying tomb chambers in a destruction of deeds.” The obvious intent completely to obscure the decoration of Weni’s chamber, the fact that this episode seems to have taken place early in the post-depositional history of the grave, and evidence from the 1999 season regarding the ancient bricking up of both Weni’s northern false door and eastern chapel on the surface-thus sealing off his public display of glorious deeds-make this theory an intriguing possibility, given that Weni’s grave was the most prominent private symbol of wealth and power in the Abydos low desert. The results of this short but extremely productive season therefore have yielded some tantalizing correspondences between textual and archaeological evidence in the late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period, which we hope to continue investigating in future seasons.

—Janet Richards

Project funding was provided by the Kelsey Museum, the National Geographic Society, the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, the Near Eastern Studies Department, the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, Terry Rakolta, and an anonymous donor.