Royal necropolis of Early Egypt
Abydos lies approximately 500 km south of Cairo in the province of Sohag, c. 10 km west of the train station Balyana (near the Nile). The cemetery is located at el-Araba, c. 1.5 km from the cultivated area in the Western Desert. The cemetery covers an area of c. 150 m x 600 m south of a wadi, which emerges from a steep mountain range in the west (fig. 1).
The prehistoric oldest part of the cemetery, Cemetery U situated atop a plateau, presumably belonged to a thus far unlocalized settlement at the end of the wadi near Kom es-Sultan. The advantageous position at the intersection of the Nile, which most probably ran further to the west in the 4th millennium, and a traffic route that led from the Red Sea through Wadi Qena to the oases in the Western Desert must have been a crucial factor for the town’s rise to an early centre of power.
The modern name Umm el-Qaab (Arabic for “Mother of Pots”) traces back to the large amounts of sherds of Late Period offering pots scattered in the piles of debris.
The necropolis was founded in the early Naqada period (c. 3700 BC), from Naqada IIc/d (c. 3400 BC) onwards it developed into an elite cemetery. In Dynasty 0 – 2 Umm el-Qaab became the burial place of the kings of Egypt (3050 – 2700 BC).
Because it was believed that Osiris, the god of the dead, was buried at Umm el-Qaab, Abydos evolved into one of the most important cult centres of ancient Egypt beginning in the Middle Kingdom (2000 BC).
First excavations by E. Amélineau from 1895 – 1899, re-excavation by W. F. Petrie 1899 – 1901, follow-up investigation by T. E. Peet 1911 – 1912. Re-examination and excavations by the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) since 1977.
The cemetery was first used in the early Naqada I period (c. 3700 BC). In early Naqada II a decrease in burials can be recorded, in Naqada IIc/d (since c. 3400 BC) it served as burial grounds for the elite. In Dynasty 0 – 2 Umm el-Qaab became the burial place of the kings of Egypt.
During a civil war in the First Intermediate Period (c. 2100 BC) most of the graves of the 1st Dynasty were set on fire and suffered severe damage.
First excavations in Umm el-Qaab already took place in ancient Egyptian times during the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000 BC) while searching for the tomb of Osiris, the god of the dead, who was believed to be one of the first kings of Egypt. It was therefore obvious to look for his tomb at the oldest royal cemetery.
During these excavations the tomb of king Djer was identified as the burial place of Osiris. There, as in most of the other tombs, some restoration measures took place. Abydos evolved into the main cult centre of Osiris, and thus to the “mecca” of ancient Egypt. Cult activities are attested until the 5th century AD (cf. Osiris in Abydos).
After the discovery by A. Mariette, the site was examined numerous times, first by E. Amélineau (1895 – 1898), then by W. M. F. Petrie (1899 – 1901) and partially by E. Naville and E. Peet (1909 – 1910).
W. Kaiser’s evaluation of the old excavation publications in the 1960s demonstrated that these reports were problematic, amongst other things in regard to whom the tombs were ascribed to and the understanding of their architecture, making re-examinations necessary. Therefore the German Archaeological Institute began new excavations in 1977.
So far 24 campaigns each lasting 3 – 5 months have been conducted; they have been supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG) since 1988.
Examination of the architectural development of the early graves of rulers and kings; ascription of the tombs and compiling an inventory. Clarification of the chronology and the sequence of kings. Creating a corpus of Predynastic - Early Dynastic pottery; as the pottery inventory can be assigned to a sequence of tombs or individual rulers, it can be used as basis for dating types of pottery at other locations.
Study of cult activities since the Middle Kingdom (see Project Osiris in Abydos).
Like no other group of monuments, the graves of the early rulers and kings reflect in their architecture and funerary equipment the particular developmental stage of society and the religious beliefs; at the same time they are an important source for the chronology of Predynastic and Early Dynastic times.
One main objective is to understand the development of the architecture from simple pit graves to early monumental architecture and the pyramids. The developmental stages and the comparison of the different tombs reveal the ideas behind the king’s role and the continuation of life in the netherworld.
The second focal point is to compile the preserved inventory as completely as possible so that the original funerary equipment can be reconstructed. It is especially important to analyse the pottery and establish a pottery corpus, which can also be used as basis for dating at other locations, as well as to interpret the extensive epigraphic material: seal impressions, labels and potmarks/pot inscriptions, stelae, etc. as source for the chronology, the development of writing and the administrative structures.
All of the tombs/graves are re-excavated, recorded in detail, and restored if necessary. The area around the graves and the un-recorded sections of the necropolis are cleared from piles of debris so that any graves, deposits and signs of cult activity that have been overlooked can be detected. The fill of the graves and the piles of debris are sieved to salvage bits and pieces of the funerary equipment.
To establish comprehensive overviews of inventories, the finds from the early excavations, which are distributed throughout numerous museums, are recorded and documented.
Since only (oftentimes unreliable or incomplete) mass plans were compiled during early excavations, all of the graves are re-excavated, cleaned, and recorded in detail/brick-by-brick. When recording the structures, it is important to pay attention to indications of various construction phases, which frequently give clues relevant to their interpretation.
Apparently the older excavations only cleared the tombs, no examination of the surroundings took place. Therefore, especially at the predynastic cemetery U, numerous graves and in the later tombs individual chambers were overlooked.
Because of the early activities of tomb robbers and the excavations during the Middle Kingdom, thousands of objects were removed from the chambers and scattered around the tomb and further away. The majority of the funerary goods is thus to be found in the up to 5 m high piles of debris, the sieving of which is a most arduous but necessary task. Mapping the distribution of the finds, especially the inscribed pieces and pottery, helps assign individual find groups.
Parallel to the excavations in Umm el-Qaab, the finds form the early excavations, which have been distributed throughout the world, are recorded in a database; with the help of drawings and photographs, the fragments are compared with the new finds to see if there are any matching joins.
Since 1977, the predynastic cemetery U with c. 650 graves, the graves of the last predynastic rulers in cemetery B, as well as the royal tomb complexes of Aha, Athotis I, Dewen, Semerkhet, Qa’a, Peribsen, and Khasekhemwy have been examined. Furthermore, sondages were dug at the tomb of Wadj. Currently, the tomb of king Djer is being excavated, which, since the Middle Kingdom, was believed to be the tomb of the god of the dead Osiris.
Essential clues linked to the chronology and sequence of kings of the Egyptian Predynastic and Early Dynastic phase have been gained, as well as a new understanding about the architecture of the royal tombs and a more complete picture of the original funerary equipment.
The necropolis comprises three areas (fig. 2):
Cemetery U with c. 650 graves dating to the Predynastic phase (Naqada I – III, c. 3700 – 3050 BC)
Cemetery B with the graves of the last Predynastic rulers (Irj-Hor, ‘Ka’, Narmer) as well as the tomb complex of king Aha, founder of the 1st Dynasty, and the unfinished tomb of his ephemeral successor Athotis I (c. 3050 – 2950 BC)
Seven large tomb complexes of kings Djer, Wadj/Djet, Dewen, Adjib, Semerkhet, Qa’a and queen Meret-Neith from the 1st Dynasty and the tombs of the last two rulers of the 2nd Dynasty Peribsen and Khasekhemwy (c. 2950 – 2700 BC).
So far cemeteries U and B as well as the tomb complexes of Dewen, Semerkhet, Qa’a, Peribsen, and Khasekhemwy have been completely re-examined. Sondages were dug at the tomb of Wadj/Djet. Currently the tomb of Djer is being excavated.
At the beginning of the re-investigations, work concentrated primarily on Petrie’s dubious assignment of the tombs at Cemetery B. Based on the construction and the inscribed finds, especially seal impressions, it was possible to prove that the double-chamber tombs B 1/2, B 7/9 and B 17/18 belonged to the last Predynastic rulers Irj-Hor, ‘Ka’ (reading uncertain) and Narmer, while the large chambers B 10/15/19 and B 13/14, as well as the subsidiary tombs B 16, can be ascribed to Aha, the first king of the 1st Dynasty.
Furthermore an unknown tomb chamber was discovered (B 40); this and a tomb divided into four chambers (B 50) can presumably be assigned to Athotis I, the ephemeral successor of Aha.
Extending work on to the neighbouring predynastic cemetery U, which was in use since Naqada I, showed that the royal necropolis had a tradition dating far back. Amélineau emptied in only five days (!) approximately 150 tombs, Peet another 32. There was no site plan and only little information about the graves.
The cemetery comprises c. 650 graves; it was first used in the early Naqada I period when the graves were simple round or oval pits, usually poorly provided with offerings (fig. 3). Some larger graves were lined with wood and mats and contained richer offerings such as up to 20 clay vessels, weapons and jewellery. In the early Naqada II period there is a decline in burials, and c. 50 years later there seems to be no evidence at all.
In the late Naqada II period (from c. 3400 BC) the cemetery is used again, now with predominantly large graves that were lined and carefully covered with beams, mats and a mud coating. The rest of the apparently rich offerings, amongst other things also ivory objects (fig. 4), indicate that they all belonged to members of the upper class. For the first time seal impressions appear, which attest to a well developed administrative structure.
In Naqada III (almost) all of the graves have a mud-brick lining, some are divided into several chambers, are richly furnished and seem all to have belonged to rulers. Amongst the finds from these elite graves, especially from tomb U-j (fig. 5), which is divided into 12 chambers and can be assigned to a predynastic king called Scorpion I (c. 3200 BC), there are the oldest known, phonetically readable pieces of evidence of hieroglyphic script (on seals, pottery and small labels) (fig. 6). They give completely new evidence for the development of the ancient Egyptian’s advanced civilization and, at the same time, enable the reconstruction of the predynastic sequence of rulers (Dynasty 0) under whom the gradual unification of Upper and Lower Egypt took place.
While the last tombs of Dynasty 0 and the first construction phase of the tomb of Aha (B 13/14) are still in the tradition of the predynastic period, the tomb complex of Aha, which was built in three stages and comprises three large chambers with over 1.50 m thick brick walls (fig. 7) and, for the first time, subsidiary burials for servants, takes a qualitative step towards monumental architecture; thus the new position of the king ruling over a unified Egypt becomes apparent.
From Djer onwards, the tomb complexes of the kings of the 1st Dynasty, which are set into the desert floor and lined with mud-brick, comprise a large central chamber for the burial of the king and up to 200 subsidiary burials lined in rows containing offerings, the remains of servants and also animals (hunting dogs, lions) (fig. 8). The chambers were covered with wooden beams and layers of mats and bricks. The king’s chamber was superimposed by a sand tumulus, a symbolic primeval mound, which emerged from the primeval waters during the creation of the world. From this building element, which guaranteed the continuation of life, the pyramid developed later on. In the graves there were also ‘false’ exits, orientated towards the opening of a wadi in the mountains west of the tombs: the entrance to the netherworld, which the resurrected king was supposed to enter.
In the tomb complexes of the 2nd Dynasty there are no subsidiary burials; ramps with stone lining in the southwest of the burial pit led to the opening of the wadi and attest to the continuation of the idea of resurrection. In the tomb of Khasekhmwy (fig. 9) the burial chamber was lined with limestone for the first time.
Around the tombs and in the high piles of debris it is still possible to find a surprising number of pieces of the original funerary equipment. In addition to a large amount of sherds from thousands of clay and stone vessels, there are seals with impressions, inscribed labels with very interesting historical and administrative accounts (fig. 10), pieces of ivory from furniture (fig. 11), tools, weapons, toys, jewellery, etc. The biggest part of these offerings was probably scattered about or deposited by early tomb robbers and in the Middle Kingdom (c. 1950 BC), during the search for the tomb of Osiris when the large chambers were emptied and offering places for Osiris were installed.
Important finds for establishing the chronology are seal impressions of the necropolis seals of Dewen (fig. 12) and Qa’a with lists of the kings buried in Umm el-Qaab, seal impressions of the first king of the 2nd Dynasty Hetepsekhemwy from the tomb of Qa’a, the last king of the 1st Dynasty, which show that there was no break between the 1st and 2nd Dynasties, and seal impressions of Djoser from the tomb of Khasekhemwy, which indicate that Djoser was the successor of Khaskhemwy and the first ruler of the 3rd Dynasty.
Currently the tomb complex of Djer is being excavated (fig. 13) and the restoration of the tomb of Dewen completed (fig. 14). In addition, the documentation and analysis of the extensive finds (pottery, stone vessels, pot seals with impressions and other small finds) are being continued.
Supreme Council of Antiquities (Egypt) Pennsylvania-Yale Expedition to Abydos University of Pennsylvania-Yale Expedition to Abydos
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (since 1988)
Gesellschaft der Freunde des DAI (Theodor-Wiegand-Gesellschaft)
several private sponsors (for the excavation house and the depot)
Günter Dreyer, Umm el-Qaab I, Das prädynastische Königsgrab U-j und seine frühen Schriftzeugnisse, AV 86, Mainz 1998;
Ulrich Hartung, Umm el-Qaab II, Importkeramik aus dem Friedhof U in Abydos (Umm el-Qaab) und die Beziehungen Ägyptens zu Vorderasien im 4. Jahrtausend v. Chr., AV 92, Mainz 2001;
Vorberichte in den Mitteilungen des DAI Kairo (MDAIK), Bd. 35, 38, 49, 52, 54, 56, 59, 62;
Kurzbericht in: Archäologische Entdeckungen - Die Forschungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts im 20. Jahrhundert, Mainz 2001, S. 191ff.
Günter Dreyer, The Tombs of the First and Second Dynasties at Abydos and Saqqara in: Z. Hawass (Hg.) Pyramids - Treasures Mysteries and New Discoveries in Egypt (= The Treasures of the Pyramids, 2. erw. Auflage), Vercelli 2007, S. 76-93.
Günter Dreyer / Ulrich Hartung, Abydos der heiligste Ort Ägyptens, in: Dreyer, Günter / Polz, Daniel (Hg.) Begegnung mit der Vergangenheit. 100 Jahre in Ägypten. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Kairo 1907-2007, Mainz 2007, S. 184-217.