New Discoveries from the Dra Abu'l-Naga Cemetery at Thebes

Dr. Daniel Polz, Assistant Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA, and Director of Excavations at Dra Abu'l-Naga, a part of the Theban necropolis on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor in Upper Egypt, treated ARCE members and guests to a review of his excavation experiences and finds at February's lecture.

Dr. Polz began his work at Dra Abu'l-Naga in 1991. The part of the necropolis in which his concession lies was in use for over a thousand years, from the Middle Kingdom through the 2nd Intermediate Period and until the end of the New Kingdom. The site covers 50 acres and Dr. Polz estimates that it contains more than 10,000 tombs and many more burials, based on surveys made at the beginning of the excavation. It probably served as the main cemetery for middle and lower class Thebans of the period. The first day of actual excavation of the site occurred on 17 January 1991, in a small area which showed no sign of tombs and appeared completely undisturbed.

During the first season's work, a pit was revealed below which was a vertical shaft, filled with sand, burned brick and mortar. Partial clearance of the shaft revealed decorated wooden 26th Dynasty coffins which were complete, though crushed by the pressure of the fill in the shaft. The shaft itself was of much earlier construction so the late period burial had clearly reused an existing tomb. As excavation proceeded, layers of sand were found to have preserved, undisturbed, pottery of New Kingdom origin. Though the shaft had been reused, the original tomb had not been. At the bottom of the shaft were the remains of 18th Dynasty burial goods including pottery jars, small pottery vessels and parts of canopic jars.

In another tomb the team found four exquisite canopic jar stoppers made of baked clay, formed like human heads, each separately modeled and painted. Impressions left by coffins and canopic chests were often all that remained of the actual burials. Non-organics such as stone objects, jewelry and human bones were present as well. Among the most interesting and intriguing finds were a small vessel made in Cyprus, which Dr. Polz suggested might have held opium, and a small carved limestone sphinx. Only one other such sphinx, found in context, is known from a private tomb. A particularly significant find were two large vessels completely filled with pottery sherds. When the sherds were reconstructed they proved to be complete bowls such as were used during the funerary procession. One jar also contained a hammer stone. The bowls were clearly broken deliberately and the sherds carefully placed in the jars for inclusion with the burial goods. It has long been known from tomb paintings that the smashing of bowls was part of the funerary procession, but this find was the first to provide real evidence for the ritual.

Additionally, the remnants of a substantial funerary chapel built of mud brick were revealed by the excavation. It was of the standard design: entrance pylons, an open court with the shaft to the tomb in the middle, and a small offering chapel used for cultic purposes opposite the entrance. The remains of plastered floors and pedestals behind which the funerary stela would have stood were found intact. When the remaining fragments of a stela were reassembled, it fit perfectly into the slot behind the pedestal next to the wall. This was the first time the actual placement for a New Kingdom funerary stela has been found intact.

Information about royal burials at Dra Abu'l-Naga is scarce, being limited to coffins for 17th Dynasty kings Intef VI and VII, and a queen of the late 17th Dynasty, all found between 1822 and 1865. Dr. Polz theorized that if there were royal burials at Dra Abu'l-Naga there should be some sort of architectural remains. Sir Gardiner Wilkinson had made a notation during his last expedition in Egypt that the Intef coffins were found "all the way up the hill", and included a small sketch of a tomb. A survey in 1993 revealed a tiny entrance to a rock cut tomb, which when cleared proved to have a broad, high entrance passage which opened into a square chamber with 4 rock-cut pillars, containing a huge shaft in the center. The shaft was filled with mud brick, pottery and animal carcasses (21 dogs and 1 donkey). The hapless creatures had clearly fallen down the shaft and been unable to get out. At the bottom of the shaft was a long passage filled with huge boulders at the end of which was found a coffin-shaped, rock-cut, recess in the floor which was plastered but totally devoid of any inscription or decoration. Every aspect of the tomb is unusual and unique and does not fit either New Kingdom private or royal tomb standards. Initially, Dr. Polz postulated that it may have been prepared for one of the last of the 17th Dynasty's royal burials. Outside, in front of the tomb, the area was cleared to the bedrock. Just above the bed-rock were found a vast number of sandstone fragments from some sort of sandstone structure which had occupied the spot. Hathor is depicted on the capitols of col-umns found among the fragments, something which is relatively rare in Egyptian architecture. Inscriptions revealed the name of Ramses-nakht, High Priest of Amun during the reigns of Ramses IV through Ramses IX. He is known to have been one of the most powerful and influential officials of the New Kingdom. Another fragment provided the title "Sem Priest of the Temple of Millions of Years", attributed to a son of Ramses-nakht, whose name has been lost. No mortuary temples are known for any of the 20th Dynasty Ramses, but they must have existed if a son of Ramses-nakht was a Sem priest at one of them!

By the end of the 1997 excavation season enough of the structure had been uncovered to draft a tentative reconstruction. Clearly the tomb was already there when the structure was built, and not carved by Ramses-nakht. Among the ostraca found during excavation is a sketch drawing of the columned court of the structure. Dr. Polz postulated that it was made as a preliminary sketch by the architect. Ramses-nakht is known to have been an Overseer of Works, so it is possible that he was the ancient draftsman of this sketch.

During the 1994 rains at Luxor, Dr. Polz told his audience, "holes" opened up all over the necropolis, and one such hole opened in the necropolis at Dra Abu'l-Naga as well. At the request of the Supreme Council for Antiquities Dr. Polz's team investigated. The hole turned out to be a rock-cut shaft which led to a second tomb (via a break-through, perhaps made by tomb robbers). The second tomb was full nearly to the ceiling with debris, but there were no signs of its having been recently disturbed. Initial surveys were done by crawling across the debris and a basic ground plan was prepared for what turned out to be a saff tomb. The original entrance to the tomb was located during the 1996 season and work continued during 1997. The transverse corridor of the tomb was in very fragile condition, so work was concentrated on the main corridor and secondary shafts and chambers. Twelfth Dynasty pottery was plentiful, among which was a large, Middle Kingdom offering plate. A stela fragment which had probably spilled into the saff tomb from the common shaft tomb as a result of the breakthrough, revealed the name of Ninu, who bore the title "Citizen". An unusual, decorated magic wand of a new type, made of hippo ivory, was one of the most interesting and rewarding finds.

Dr. Polz will return to excavate at Dra Abu'l-Naga later this year.

  • Nancy Corbin
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