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The large and multicomponent site of Abydos (ancient 3bdw) lies about 400 kilometers south of Cairo in upper Egypt, on the west bank of the Nile River. Located at the margin of desert and floodplain, Abydos was never a capital or seat of central government during the Dynastic era (3100–332 BC) but was always an important ceremonial site for both royal and private individuals. The site was ultimately identified as the burial place of the god Osiris, king of the underworld, and the primary entrance to that next world. As such, it was maintained as a coherent conceptual landscape for more than 3,000 years.
The primary burial ground for nonroyal individuals in the Old Kingdom was a part of the site called the "Middle Cemetery" by modern excavators. Previously investigated in the 1860s by the flamboyant first director of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, Auguste Mariette, the Middle Cemetery was known to have yielded inscriptions from the graves of important Sixth Dynasty officials (2407–2260 BC). Among these inscriptions discovered in the early years of Egyptian archaeology was the long and colorful autobiography of Weni the Elder. This life story, a well-known piece of ancient Egyptian literature, was most likely excavated from the monumental surface chapel of a tomb, called a mastaba (Arabic for "bench," describing the shape of these structures). A later series of British missions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries provided evidence that a substantial lower-order cemetery of far simpler graves bracketed the area from which these inscriptions came; however, because of the haphazard nature of Mariette's work, the development and significance of the elite component of the provincial cemetery, which he described as located on a "high hill," had never been well understood. No subsequent excavators worked in Mariette's portion of the Middle Cemetery until the Kelsey Museum applied for permission to resume excavations there in 1995.
The University of Michigan received permission from the Supreme Council of Antiquities (Ministry of Culture, Egypt) to investigate the entire Middle Cemetery at Abydos and began to work in this cemetery in cooperation with the Pennsylvania-Yale-Institute of Fine Arts/New York University Expedition, which was then excavating the ancient town in which Mariette's officials would have lived. Two initial seasons of topographic mapping and surface survey of ceramic, architectural, and artifactual remains resulted in the creation of a detailed contour map of the entire Middle Cemetery and confirmation that late Old Kingdom ceramic material and mudbrick construction did indeed dominate this area. Two full-scale seasons of excavation (1999 and 2001) and two further seasons of magnetic survey (2002 and 2004) later, the spatial organization of the cemetery began to emerge, along with new facts regarding the late Old Kingdom individual Weni the Elder, and the political agenda underlying the development of the Old Kingdom mortuary landscape at Abydos.
The University of Michigan work has demonstrated that use of the Middle Cemetery at Abydos had a definite starting point in the later Old Kingdom, most likely motivated by a political desire to promote the central government in the provinces. For several hundred years after the founding of the Early Dynastic royal cemetery near the cliffs, in about 3100 BC, no private burial was allowed anywhere else on the low desert plateau in North Abydos. The Michigan excavations have documented that this taboo was kept in place until sometime in the Fifth Dynasty, about 700 years later, when at least four monumental elite tombs for late Old Kingdom officials were built on the highest prominence of the plateau, flanked by an extensive pattern of tidy rows of subsidiary mastaba graves. Reflecting an idealized view of social relations, the graves of lower-order individuals were placed on an isolated ridge to the northeast, separated by space and topography from the occupants of the elite graves.
In 1999 the Michigan team excavated a broad expanse in the central part of the Middle Cemetery, exposing two large Old Kingdom elite tomb complexes, two subsidiary mastabas and their associated shafts, and a level of votive activity focused on these Old Kingdom structures but dating to the Middle Kingdom 500 years later. One of these tombs proved to be that of Weni the Elder, the governor of Upper Egypt. The tomb's superstructure consisted of a massive square structure nearly 30 meters long on each side and more than 15 meters tall. The team rediscovered the chapel from which Weni's famous biography originally came, as well as new inscriptions and statuary relating to his career; team members also excavated a series of graves situated around his monument, including both burials contemporary with his own and a small Saïte Period cemetery (ca. 685–525 BC) located around the top of his burial shaft.
In 2001 work focused on excavating the burial shafts and chambers for Weni's tomb and that of an overseer of priests, Nekhty, as well as expanding the horizontal exposure of the cemetery surface. The excavation of the chambers yielded unforeseen evidence about the fate of these tombs during the political disturbances of the First Intermediate Period: Weni's chamber was thoroughly burned, perhaps as a deliberate strike against the province by the central government; and it emerged that Nekhty's burial chamber had been usurped from an Old Kingdom official named Idi, possibly as part of the same upheaval.
Elsewhere, excavations in 2001 revealed a continuation of the pattern of rows of subsidiary mastabas radiating from these two elite monuments; and results from the two seasons of magnetic survey documented an extraordinarily vast landscape of numerous rows of such graves, as well as the existence of at least two further elite complexes. One of these is most likely that of Weni's father, the vizier Iuu, documented by Lepsius in the 19th century but subsequently "lost."
The Kelsey Museum plans to continue the long-term investigation of the archaeological remains and their relation to ancient Egyptian society and history in the Middle Cemetery at Abydos in the future. Goals for the project include a close examination not only of the monumental inscribed tombs of the elite but also of the non-elite graves sharing one of the largest provincial cemetery landscapes of the later third millennium BC.