Located in Upper Egypt about six miles from the Nile River, the site of Abydos played a pivotal role in ancient Egyptian religious life.
The earliest kings of Egypt, including those from the first dynasty of Egypt’s history (3000-2890 B.C.), appear to have been buried at Abydos. Their tombs and funerary enclosures may have been a first step on an ancient architectural journey that would see the Great Pyramids constructed centuries later.
In later times, Abydos would become a cult center for Osiris, god of the underworld. A temple dedicated to him flourished at Abydos, and every year a great procession was held that would see an image of Osiris carried from his temple to a tomb the Egyptians believed to be his (it actually belonged to a first dynasty king named Djer), and back, to great fanfare.
“There’s a really neat reference on some of the Middle Kingdom (4,000 to 3,600 years ago) material to hearing the sound of jubilation,” archaeologist Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner told LiveScience in an interview on new discoveries at the site. Her team excavates in an area the ancient Egyptians called the “Terrace of the Great God,” which contains a series of private and royal chapels that were built lining this processional route.
Archaeologist Josef Wegner, in an article written in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt (Oxford University Press, 2001) estimates that Abydos covers about 5 square miles. He notes that while many discoveries have been made, much of the site is still unexplored. “The greater part of the site, however, remains concealed beneath the sand, a fact recognized in the Arabic name of the modern town: Arabah el-Madfunah (‘the buried Arabah’).”
About one mile (1.5 km) to the north of the royal tombs is an enigmatic series of mud brick enclosures dedicated to kings (and in one case a queen) believed buried at Abydos. Oriented northwest to southeast, each enclosure is surrounded by massive walls and contains a chapel.
O’Connor also notes that, like the tombs, the first dynasty enclosures were also provided with burials of people who may have been sacrificed. They too sometimes number in the hundreds.
The largest enclosure belongs to King Khasekhemwy of the second dynasty (it didn’t have sacrifices). O’Connor notes that the structure is about 438 feet (134 meters) by 255 feet (78 meters) with its walls originally rising 36 feet (11 meters) high with entranceways on all four sides. In modern times Khasekhemwy’s enclosure has been given the name “Shunet el-Zebib,” which means “raisin magazine” or “storehouse of raisins” (although that was not its original purpose).
When O’Connor’s team examined Khasekhemwy’s chapel, located within the enclosure, they found that the southwest portion contained a “labyrinthine complex of chambers” and there was a small room where “traces of incense burning and libations” were found.
Northeast of Khasekhemwy’s enclosure, at a junction between King Djer’s enclosure and the “western mastaba,” are a series of 12 “boat graves” each of which contain a full-size wooden boat that would have served a ritual purpose. O’Connor notes that some of them have an “irregularly shaped rock” that may have functioned as an anchor. The boats would have been deposited at the same time but it’s not known which king built them.
Boats played an important role in Egyptian religion and full-size examples have also been found at the Great Pyramids among other mortuary sites. “Verbal and visual imagery in Egyptian mortuary contexts often involves boats and ships, which in toto comprise a vast flotilla in which deities, long-dead kings and deceased Egyptians sail through eternity,” O’Connor writes. Read more about the tombs of Abydos, Egypt…
A tomb newly excavated at the ancient Abydos cemetery in Egypt would have boasted a pyramid 7 meters (23 feet) high at its entrance, archaeologists say.
The tomb, found at the site of Abydos, dates back around 3,300 years. Within one of its vaulted burial chambers, a team of archaeologists found a finely crafted sandstone sarcophagus, painted red, which was created for a scribe named Horemheb. The sarcophagus has images of several Egyptian gods on it and hieroglyphic inscriptions recording spells from the Book of the Dead that helped one enter the afterlife.
There is no mummy in the sarcophagus, and the tomb was ransacked at least twice in antiquity. Human remains survived the ransacking, however. Archaeologists found disarticulated skeletal remains from three to four men, 10 to 12 women and at least two children in the tomb.
The chambers that the archaeologists uncovered would have originally resided beneath the surface, leaving only the steep-sided pyramid visible.
“Originally, all you probably would have seen would have been the pyramid and maybe a little wall around the structure just to enclose everything,” said Kevin Cahail, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, who led excavations at the tomb.
The pyramid itself “probably would have had a small mortuary chapel inside of it that may have held a statue or a stela giving the names and titles of the individuals buried underneath,” Cahail told Live Science. Today, all that remains of the pyramid are the thick walls of the tomb entranceway that would have formed the base of the pyramid. The other parts of the pyramid either haven’t survived or have not yet been found. Read more about the latest discovery at Abydos…
By Owen Jarus, Live Science Contributor
Here is a very interesting lecture about the fieldwork at South Abydos, Egypt, presented by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology: