At the beginning of August Yaser Mahmoud Hussein visited the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about his work on very early sites at Abydos. He is an Antiquities Inspector and archaeologist, and has been Field Director of the excavations at the Early Dynastic Cemetery at Abydos since 2008.
The site is to the south of the New Kingdom temples at Abydos – the ones of Seti I and Ramesses II that are what you go to see if you visit Abydos as a tourist. It’s very close to the modern village, and so the first purpose of Hussein’s team’s excavations was to find out if there was anything interesting there before it was built over. Even now that it’s known to be an archaeologically interesting site it’s still not safe from destruction as when the archaeologists are not actually working there the villagers walk across it the way they always have done. There are two parts to the site – in 2008 they discovered the cemetery with tombs dating to the Naqada II – Naqada III periods (the end of Naqada III is when Narmer unifies Egypt, so this period is also often called Dynasty 0). They have been excavating there since, and more recently (in 2013, I think he said) they have discovered adjacent to the cemetery evidence of a settlement dating to the same era.
In the cemetery there are around 40 tombs dating to this early period of Egyptian civilisation. Hussein showed us pictures of several of them that they have excavated and talked us through some of the features. Most of the tombs have been disturbed over the millennia since they were originally used, and so there aren’t many with grave goods or bodies. However one tomb still had the remains of a coffin containing the remains of a child of around 6-13 years of age, and there were also pots and pieces of jewellery in that tomb! Despite their age and the amount of disturbance a surprising amount of the structure of the tombs has survived. Some still have roofs, and he showed us a photo of one that still has the remains of wooden timbers that would’ve held up the mud & reed ceiling. Some of the tombs were quite large & complex – for instance one was 8m x 8m and had many side chambers inside, which is very unusual during this period. The mud superstructure remains on the outside of some of the tombs, and on one of those there are distinct finger marks in the corners. They look intentional, rather than being an artifact of the building process, and so Hussein thinks that they must mean something. However, he doesn’t yet know what that might be. Also interesting is that there are very early mastaba tombs at the site, and he thinks that they are older than those found at Saqqara. Perhaps the concept of the mastaba tomb was invented here, and later spread to Saqqara.
They are only just starting to work on the neighbouring settlement. He said they started by doing a walking survey of the area, looking for pottery and other artifacts on the surface to see if there was anything of potential interest. And they found a lot of pottery dating to the same era as the cemetery, and so were pretty sure that this was where the settlement was. They’ve also found stone tools, and he’s currently trying to find an expert to join the team to properly analyse these. This initial survey also told them about the topography of the site – one interesting feature is a big depression in the site which is clearly not natural, but they don’t yet know what it is. More recently they have started to excavate some test squares, and Hussein showed us several photos of this process. They have have parts of the reed walls which were used as fences – not just mud with impressions of the reeds but also actual pieces of reed! The have also found post holes outside this reed wall, and a feature inside (but they don’t know what that is yet). As well as structures they’ve found artifacts including pieces of pottery bowls, flint tools, and a weaving tool.
All the evidence that Hussein and his team have uncovered points to this being a settlement (with associated cemetery) for workers working on royal projects. Hussein believes the larger tombs in the cemetery are those of low level elite officials – not the sort of high officials buried at Saqqara. Although Hussein didn’t explicitly make the comparison, I’m imagining it was something like the later town for the pyramid builders at Giza or the even later town at Deir el Medina.
Hussein finished his talk by showing us pictures of his team and telling us a bit about his goals for the team. In terms of archaeologists he’s hoping to recruit a broader range of specialists, so that they can cover all of the necessary work. And he’s also involving the local villagers in the project – providing immediate jobs for them, and also training them in archaeological skills which will let them get further work with other projects. As well as helping the local economy & improving people’s lives it also helps them to respect the worth of the site more.
This talk was an interesting snapshot of the very early stages of investigation of a site which demonstrates how there always seems to be something new to learn about any place in Egypt – even one as well known as Abydos.