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Czech Excavations at South Abu Sir

Dr. Miraslav Barta, is currently an Associate Professor of Egyptology at Charles University in Prague, in the Czech Republic.

Dr. Barta opened his lecture with a comparison between Tutankhamun and Raneferef, both of whom were kings of Egypt who died at quite young ages; Tutankhamun at roughly 20 years of age near the end of the 18th Dynasty and Raneferef (also known as Neferefre) at perhaps 18 to 22 years of age, in approximately 2453 BC in the middle of Dynasty 5. Discoveries made in the tombs and mortuary complexes of both kings, shed new light on burial practices in both of their eras.

The three principle monument of the Old Kingdom, which survive today may be considered icons of the period: these are are , the mortuary complex of King Djoser, the first monumental man-made structure constructed completely of stone in the world; the Giza pyramid of Khufu and the Sphinx . Almost no cities attested to the Old Kingdom - Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom inclusive -, have survived. The electrification of Egypt which brought dams to the Nile, caused a significant rise of the underground water level table and thus destroyed these cities which were constructed principally of mud brick and therefore were vulnerable. Thus most of the information we have about this period in Egypt’s history comes from cemeteries.

In antiquity, Abu Sir and Saqqara were just one site, and are part of the large pyramid field which extends 60 miles along the west bank of the Nile, and contain the royal tombs of the Old Kingdom. In the 19th century they were “divided”, but in the centuries in which they were in use, they were “the” single cemetery of Old Kingdom Memphis. Egyptians from all levels of society were buried there. The cemeteries are within 3 miles of the city, considered a quite acceptable walk to one’s work site, if one is a tomb builder. They provide important information about the development of the Egyptian state and its society.

At South Abu Sir, excavations by the Dr. Barta and the Czech Institute have brought to light much new information about both the elite of the late Old Kingdom and religious and burial practices of the period. The cemetery at South Abu Sir located near Abu Sir Lake – now dry, but in ancient time a wet lake - is associated with the goddess Hekhet, whose symbol, the frog, was associated with rebirth and rejuvenation. The frogs of the area hibernated underground during the dry season, but once the rains began and the lake began to fill with water they “came back to life” and appeared as if reborn by magic from the dry lake bed. Thus crossing the lake became associated with rejuvenation. As would seem appropriate, the priests serving the Heket cult temple were buried beside Abusir Sir Lake.

The site was opened by Ludwig Borchardt at the beginning of the 20th century. He came trying to find papyri and not wanting to completely ignore what was then known as the Unfinished Pyramid, carried out some trial excavations in the rubble-filled ditch which ran from the north to the center of the monument. He dug a trench several meters deep but did not discover the expected entrance passage that should have led to the sarcophagus chamber (Verner, 2002, pg. 113). According to Dr. Barta, Borchardt was within roughly 20 centimeters of the entrance when he ceased digging. Professor Miroslav Verner re-excavated the area near the end of the 20th century and discovered the passage which Borchardt has come so close to but had not found.

During the Czech Institute’s most recent work at South Abusir Sir some most interesting and important finds have been made which have led to new and better understandings of mortuary practices that evolved during the Old Kingdom.

One important understanding that has been made apparent through excavation is that false doors, in fact, evolved from true doors. In the chapel of an elite tomb which has been excavated at South Abusir, it was discovered that the turning pivots for doors remain in situ in a tomb which still has its stone floor in place. One very graphic example Dr. Barta shared, photographed from above, clearly demonstrated that a single-leafed door led initially into the chapel chamber, then a double-leafed door opened just beyond it. Just beyond the double-leafed door was found a decorated wall on which the tomb owner was depicted receiving offerings. False doors reproduced these true doors by the end of the Old Kingdom.

 In the tomb of the High Priest of Bastet, Hetepi, from the late 3rd Dynasty, two unique systems of stairways connect to the burial chamber. During the 3rd Dynasty, new systems for protecting burial chambers were being developed. Steps were still used, but in combination with shafts.

Excavation of the South Abu Sir tombs has allowed reconstruction of the color schemes used by both elites and commoners. During the 3rd Dynasty, non-royals could use only four colors – white, black, red-brown, and yellow ochre. Royals, however, could use these four colors as well as green and blue, both of which were made from pigments which had to be imported from outside Egypt as neither are native to Egypt. Likely only the king could afford to send people out of Egypt to obtain them.

In 1995 the Czech excavations uncovered the family tomb complex of Qar, the king’s vizier vizier, and his sons. During this period, when the power of the throne was declining, it was important to keep high officials loyal, thus during the last 5th and the 6th Dynasties, powerful families in the provinces were brought into the fold by marrying daughters of the king. These families built large tomb complexes which were used by the entire family. Qar had four sons, all of whom are buried in the family complex. Each member had his or her own tomb shaft and burial chamber. It is rare to find depictions of humans in Old Kingdom burial chambers yet Qar’s tomb had at least three humans painted on the wall.

The tomb of Inti, one of Qar’s sons, contains a burial shaft 66 feet deep. The offering chapel has a door that opens directly into the deep shaft! Decorations at the door are traditional and contain honorific statements about the tomb owner as well as admonitions not to desecrate the tomb. The walls of the chapel are decorated with offering tables piled high with reed leaves which represent the marsh of reeds through which one enters the underworld. In this tomb is the remnant of an inscription attesting to the love of the tomb owner for and unidentified person, perhaps his wife. This is perhaps the oldest love poem known from ancient Egypt.

Dr. Barta believes that in some instances many burial chambers could have been robbed almost immediately after the burial took place. When excavating the deep tomb shaft of Inti’s tomb, double niches were found in the western wall of the shaft containing votive offerings, left in situ as the shaft was filled. Thus nobody had disturbed the fill since the burial took place. Yet when the burial chamber was reached the burial had been robbed. How could this be? Dr. Barta believes that by the time the funerary ceremonies were finished and the deceased had been placed with all his or her offerings to take into the afterlife, it was likely late in the day thus the filling of the deep shaft was left until the next day. Guards were likely posted overnight then the shaft was filled, placing the appropriate offerings at specified intervals in the fill on the following day. So – the robbing could only have occurred during the night immediately following the burial – probably by the guards. In the case of one burial, the robber’s copper tools and an unfinished hole in the sarcophagus were found, but the robbers apparently had been interrupted as the burial was in tact.

The burial of Qar’s oldest son, dubbed Qar Junior, contained the largest single find of imported Syrian amphora ever unearthed in Egypt, many which were still sealed. Also more than five pounds of bronze and copper implements were lying beside the amphora. . Before the 6th Dynasty, during the 4th Dynasty period especially, Syrian artifacts are associated with males and royalty only. After the 6th Dynasty, non-royals possessed them as well. During the 6th Dynasty many families were growing in power and status, thus including expensive artifacts in a burial was appropriate to their elevated position in society. Copper implements were symbols of such elevated status. Dr. Barta noted that 800 pounds of copper tools were required just to carve Khufu’s sarcophagus. So far known Egyptian copper mines in Egypt were probably not capable of sustaining the need did not produce sufficient copper to meet Egypt’s need for such vast amounts of the metal. However, he advised that Dr. Tom Levy of the UCSD has discovered huge copper deposits at Wadi Feynan, in Jordan, a site dating to the third millennium. B.C., which represent the largest found copper smelting areas found in the Middle East known from the period. in the lower Sinai, an area inhabited by Bedouins during ancient times. He believes that it was Bedouin traders who provide Egypt with copper.

Within one tomb a banquet scene from 4,200 years ago was discovered. 12 limestone food containers and a row of copper libation vessel plus other groups of valuable copper and alabaster artifacts were placed neatly on the floor of the chamber. The food containers held five types of meat and five types of fowl, and unlike most such containers, there were bones still present in the containers, so the precise contents could be determined.

Flotation results produced – beetles! More than 10 different species where found in the soil from the tomb shafts and some were found in the resin associated with the burials, having become stuck there while the resin was hot. Because we know that these particular beetles only live in very salty desert conditions, their presence supports knowledge that the climate was deteriorating by 2300BC. The climatic decline contributed to the demise of the Old Kingdom. However, the general depredation of the state as local families became more and more powerful and siphoned more and more from the government likely tolled the death knell.

Dr. Barta noted that the more one can know ahead of starting excavation the better one can plan the dig. To assist in this information gathering, the Czech institute contracted for a repositioning of the Quickbird satellite so that it was possible to get very high resolution satellite images of the entire Abu Sir, Saqqara and Dahshur pyramid fields. As a result it was possible to relocate tombs that had disappeared and to located paths which led from the lake to the tomb.

In closing, he noted that pyramid building peaked in the 4th Dynasty. After that the number and size declined. A major reason was that there were no other good base stone outcrops on which to build. Though mortuary temples stayed fairly consistent through the reign of Pepyi II, the number and size of the temple store rooms increased markedly. Officiates were becoming part of the offering reversion cycle. By the 6th Dynasty it is known that during the Feast of Sokar which lasted for 10 days, 12 bulls per day were slaughtered in the small mortuary temple of Raneferef every day of the festival. Multiply that number by all of the temples celebrating the Feast, and the burden to the government soon became insupportable.