University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Dig at Abydos Yields Important Discoveries About Egypt's First Dynasty

25 MARCH 2004, PHILADELPHIA, PA—The practice of sacrificial burials at First Dynasty (ca. 2950-2775 BC) royal tombs and enclosures has been suggested by Egyptologists since the late 19th century but never proved. However, archeologists working in the desert sands of Abydos, Egypt - more than eight miles from the river Nile - have uncovered strong evidence to suggest that the custom did exist. Moreover, recent excavations have also discovered two new mortuary enclosures - and the royal owner of one has been positively identified.

These new discoveries give us important and fresh information about the transition period in Egypt from prehistoric culture to early pharaonic civilization. The work is being conducted under the authority of Egypt's Minister of Culture Dr. Farouk Hosni, and the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass.

Excavations running from 2001 to 2003, guided in part by magnetic surveys of buried structures, located the two new enclosures. This discovery then led to the uncovering of the archaeological evidence of sacrificial burials within the subsidiary graves surrounding one of them. The team of archaeologists, from the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, and Yale University, worked under permit from Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

Dr. David O'Connor, Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology, Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, has since 1967 co-directed, with Dr. William Kelly Simpson of Yale University, the NYU-Pennsylvania-Yale Expedition to Abydos. Additionally, Dr. O'Connor is curator emeritus of the Egyptian Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum. Under the Expedition's aegis, Dr. O'Connor is also Director of the Abydos Early Dynastic Project with Matthew Adams, Research Scholar at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and Research Associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, as Associate Director.

Dr. O'Connor notes: "The royal mortuary enclosures of the First and Second Dynasty kings, who were buried in separate tombs about a mile south of the enclosures at Abydos, are amongst the most puzzling features of Egyptian archaeology. Scholars still argue about their functions and meaning, but our excavations since 1986 have revealed much surprising new evidence about them. Our recent discovery of the earliest enclosure yet known, dating to king Aha, which means literally "the Fighter," at the very beginning of the First Dynasty (ca. 2950 B.C.), has told us more about these monuments than was ever known previously, and has yielded especially important information about the practice of human sacrifice in early Egypt. This rare custom is attested only for the First Dynasty (ca. 2950-2775 B.C.) and is dramatic proof of the great increase in the prestige and power of both kings and elite that occurred at this time."


Egypt's earliest historic kings, dating from the First Dynasty (ca. 2950-2775 B.C.), are buried at Abydos. Their tombs, originally excavated by Flinders Petrie in the 1890s, are located a mile to the south of a cluster of mud-brick monumental enclosures, large open ritual spaces surrounded by mud-brick walls, that are much more mysterious in nature and are presently being investigated by the team of archaeologists from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, the University of Pennsylvania Museum and Yale University. While earlier excavators showed that mortuary chapels for the royal cult were included in these monumental enclosures as early as the Second Dynasty, the NYU-Pennsylvania-Yale team has revealed that such mortuary chapels begin much earlier, in fact with the very first king of the First Dynasty.

In 2000, the team announced that it had made an important new discovery about these strange features. In particular, a totally unexpected fleet of 14 full-scale buried boats was found beside one of the enclosures, boats that had been dedicated to the afterlife needs of one of these early kings.

Excavations between 2001 and 2003, guided in part by magnetic surveys of buried structures, have located two new enclosures, the owner of one of which has been positively identified, and uncovered important new information from an already known one. In addition, the archaeologists have strong evidence pointing to sacrificial burials in two sites.

Mortuary Enclosure and Chapel of King Aha Identified

Of the two new enclosures that were discovered, the smaller is of great significance and has been positively identified as belonging to Aha, first king of the First Dynasty (ca. 2950 B.C.), and successor, perhaps son, to the famous king Narmer. The latter's ceremonial palette (oversized decorated stones for grinding cosmetics, dedicated in early temples) may record the first national unification of Egypt. Aha's enclosure is the earliest yet found and is only the second monument of this king discovered over the last 100 years since his tomb was discovered by Petrie a mile to the south. Egypt's earliest civilization under Aha's rule experienced a quantum leap; royal structures became much larger and more complex than before, and writing was more frequently used. This discovery therefore has great cultural importance.

Since Aha's enclosure is relatively small, the archeologists were able to excavate it almost entirely. The result is the first full picture of what one of these enclosures and its chapel was like; indeed, it was the template for all subsequent royal enclosures that followed.

Matthew Adams, project Associate Director, notes that "Aha's enclosure is especially significant because after it had been used for cult activities for a short period, the enclosure and its chapel were ritually prepared for a kind of burial of their own. About one foot of clean sand and gravel were deposited throughout the enclosure, and then the high enclosure walls and the chapel were demolished. The ritual space these features had defined was thus transferred fully into the afterlife, where it was eternally available for the use of the dead king. What the rituals involved can only be guessed at; mortuary offerings were part of them, but re-enactments of important royal ceremonies may have been included."

Importantly, this is the first time that definite evidence for the early demolition of a royal enclosure has been recovered, but archaeologists believe the same process was probably applied to all subsequent First Dynasty enclosures at Abydos.

Sacrificial Burials

The second significant finding surrounding Aha's enclosure is the evidence of sacrificial burial. The practice of sacrificial burials at First Dynasty royal tombs and enclosures has been long suspected, since various data indicated it was likely. However, these recent discoveries are by far the strongest archaeological evidence yet found of the practice.

Aha's enclosure had six subsidiary graves around it, the first discovered at Abydos since the 1920s, and five of these were excavated. Painstaking excavation of the  subsidiary graves at Aha's enclosure provided the first definite archaeological evidence that such subsidiary burials involved the sacrifice of their occupants, probably at the time of the king's funeral. Killed all at once at this time, these court officials, servants, and artisans were thus immediately conveyed into the afterlife, ready to meet the dead king's needs. Supporting the evidence is the re-excavation and subsequent findings from subsidiary graves attached to the enclosure of Aha's successor, king Djer, nearby.

The new evidence does not relate to the physical anthropology of the actual burials, but rather to the construction of the subsidiary graves as revealed by archaeology. The subsidiary graves of king Djer's enclosure were all contiguous with one another, and careful study of the remains and imprints of their wooden roofing showed it had been constructed as a continuous operation, at the same time for every grave. The burials had therefore all been made at the same time, a circumstance indicating the deaths of these individuals had also taken place all at once.

At Aha's enclosure the subsidiary graves were physically separate from each other. However, after the burial had been made, the wooden roof laid and the upper part of the grave filled in, a continuous mud plaster floor was laid down over all the graves. This floor was laid down very soon after the construction of the enclosure and hence indicates the burials were all made at the same time, and the individuals concerned experienced death at the same time. (Mummification at this period was too primitive to preserve bodies adequately over any length of time; thus the bodies could not have been preserved after naturally occurring death and subsequently placed in the graves all at once.)

The subsidiary graves had been plundered soon after receiving their burials, but many broken fragments of the rich array of grave goods survived. These included jar-sealings and artifacts bearing king Aha's name. Clear indications of the wealth lavished upon these high status individuals were the remains of strongly built wooden coffins and jewelry in imported materials such as lapis lazuli and ivory, in addition to carnelian.

Aha was also the first king to have subsidiary/sacrificial burials, which were present at both his tomb and his enclosure. The practice of human sacrifice, like the greatly increased size of the royal tomb and the apparent introduction of large cult enclosures, testifies to a dramatic increase in royal power at this time. The practice of sacrificial burial died out at the end of the First Dynasty, but is echoed later in the elite cemeteries surrounding royal pyramids, and the shabtis, or worker figures which, after about 1650 B.C., were provided to royal and other burials alike.

Yet-to-Be-Identified New Enclosure

Nearby, yet another First Dynasty enclosure was located and partly excavated. Its royal owner is not yet identified. It too had subsidiary graves, but the ones excavated so far were packed with donkeys, not humans! Just as one king had boats nearby for his afterlife transportation needs, another had donkeys for the same purpose.

These new discoveries have opened up major new perspectives on Egypt's earliest civilization, and have brought back into prominence an extremely early king, Aha, who led major changes and innovations in Egyptian culture that had an impact on future developments. Royal mortuary enclosures, together with the mound that probably stood above each royal tomb, formed the basis of the Step Pyramid complex of Djoser at Saqqara and the classic pyramids of later times.

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