A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Excavations at Abydos reveal an elaborate funerary complex linking a deceased Middle Kingdom pharaoh to the god Osiris.
Abydos' most famous standing monument is the magnificent painted temple of Seti I (ca. 1306-1290 B.C.). South of it, the cliffs run eastward to within half a mile of the Nile floodplain, then turn abruptly southward creating a half-mile wide area of flat desert between the cliffs and the floodplain that is called South Abydos. Where they turn, the cliffs form a prominent projection that looms behind the Seti temple and cannot fail to draw the attention of anyone approaching Abydos from the Nile. It was here that Senwosret III (ca. 1878-1841 B.C.), a Dynasty XII pharaoh of Egypt's Middle Kingdom (Dynasties XI-XIII, ca. 2040-1640 B.C.) built a funerary complex, a "seat of eternity," designed to link himself in death with Osiris, lord of Abydos. When Senwosret III came to the throne, the power of the monarchy had lessened and regional governors were unchecked by a strong central authority. He reined in the governors and, having addressed the internal situation, campaigned to the south, securing the Nubian frontier.
Senwosret III's funerary complex was first identified between 1899 and 1902 by the Egypt Exploration Fund's David Randall-MacIver, Arthur Weigall, and Charles T. Currelly. They investigated a royal burial complex centered on a vast subterranean tomb, more than 600 feet in length, within a T-shaped mud-brick enclosure directly below the prominent projection of the cliffs, and an associated temple at the edge of the Nile floodplain. Their descriptions of the tomb and temple suggested the core elements of an extensive complex, but provided little substantive information about the site and its role in ancient Abydos, so I initiated excavations there in 1994. True to its name, "the buried Arabah" has exceeded all expectations I had when beginning work in the area. In addition to work on the temple and tomb of Senwosret III, we have discovered an extensive, well-preserved town that housed a community involved in maintaining the deceased king's mortuary cult. The combination of elements--royal tomb, temple, and town--provides a rare opportunity to use archaeology to look at multiple facets of religious and social life in ancient Egypt.
Josef Wegner is assistant professor of Egyptology in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Pennsylvania, and assistant curator of the Egyptian Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.